The fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown hardly occurred in a vacuum. It hit television and Twitter just weeks after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, and amidst a public still stung from the protracted battle over the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Brown’s death and the subsequent protests rapidly revived a phalanx of imbecilic, racist, kneejerk reactions, some of which had just been shelved after George Zimmerman’s trial last summer. Conservative media wasted no time in making Brown’s death into grist for their mills.
1. To cover or not: While CNN and MSNBC had live, on-the-ground coverage when the protests metastasized Sunday night, Fox News trained its cameras on Mike Huckabee jamming with a country singer, followed by a rerun of Megyn Kelly interviewing Bill Ayers. By the time Fox noticed the protests, it revived of its oldest tricks: finding an African American leader to repeat its talking points back to it. Up this time were Kevin Jackson, who spouted Fox-approved rhetoric about the decay of black communities, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece.
That’s not to say the other networks did all that better. It took Morning Joe a while to cover the protests in Ferguson, but perhaps it was better off not bothering. When the Beltway-fretted program finally did get around to punditing, it aired an inexplicably brief clip of a radio reporter being threatened, before defending the police officers doing the threatening, even suggesting the cops were acting out of concern for the press’ safety. This could have been refuted by reporters on the scene, which MSNBC had. Alas.
2. Smearing Michael Brown: Conservative media has never met a young black man it couldn’t retroactively enlist into the shadowy urban gangs of its fevered imagination. Enter Pat Dollard and Jim “the Gateway Pundit” Hoft, both of whom posted photos of Brown “making gang signs” (which, in fact, was nothing more than Brown “doing things with his hands,” in Asawin Suebsaeng’s phrasing). Hoft allegedthat the signs were unique Blood codes, though the worst Brown does is give the middle finger. Dollard went further: “The red gear seals the deal on proof that Brown was a member of the notoriously violent Bloods street gang,” he noted.
Then came the toxicology report indicating Brown had marijuana in his system. And never count out Pat Robertson. The 700 Club host didn’t even need a toxicology report. “Now, was he high on some kind of drugs?” Robertson asked on his show. “That hasn’t come out yet… But the next thing we understand was he was walking down the middle of the street and obstructing traffic, which says to me he probably was high on something.” As Dollard put it, “He got everything he deserved.”
3. Smearing the protestors: It only takes one bad actor in a protest for the Fox News crowd to see anarchy in the street. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham said, “We know now that thugs are thugs,” and went on to blame the media for turning the protests into “a reality show.” “People who are going to take advantage of the situation are going to do that especially if they know that the media’s all there, right? Got the cameras on everyone. It’s become its own reality show. So, there’s going to be cameras trained on you. You’re going to be looting and you might get stopped but you probably won’t get stopped.”
Meanwhile, one of the right’s most portable complaints is why Obama/Sharpton/Jackson/et al. will not address “black-on-black crime.” There have been some great responses from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie that should (but won’t) squash this talking point for good, but in the meantime something interesting happened: the Rally for Michael Brown featured Al Sharpton and Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson doing the thing the right falsely claims black leaders never do: addressing the African American community about the shooting.
The result? It was as if the right didn’t hear a word of the speeches. In fact, the Fox legal analyst lambasted Ron Johnson’s impassioned speech, even accusing him of being “too close” to the community to police them: “He’s emotionally overcome by the moments and the nights he’s been subjected to. I think he’s become too close to the situation to be dispassionate and to be objective going forward.”
But the media wasn’t just vitriolic with regard to the protests. CNN international anchor Rosemary Church wondered why cops were tear-gassing protestors when they could just turn a water cannon on them. The look her cohost gave her communicated what every viewer was thinking: water cannons and African American protestors don’t exactly have a great history together.
4. Smearing Barack Obama: Fox News munchkin Todd Starnes hasn’t let a single event pass without using it to tar Obama, even if his current critique contradicts his previous one. Having spent the preceding few days sniping at Obama for not interrupting his vacation to address his various issues, Starnes pulled a sharp right last week and denounced Obama for interrupting his vacation to address Brown’s death.
“Obama sends ‘deep condolences’ to family of MO teen killed after allegedly attacking police officer,” Starnes tweeted. “No condolences for the cop.” For Starnes, this is part of a long line of Obama’s closet racism. “First Obama speaks out for the Harvard professor—then Trayvon—and now Michael Brown,” he tweeted. “I'm sensing a pattern.”
But it takes a true pro like Rush Limbaugh to ride Starnes’ crazy train to the end of the line, aka the Benghazi stop. “This is the Democrat Party, folks,” Limbaugh said on his show Tuesday. “The president of the United States is in charge of what's happened here. I think it is time for everybody to come to grips with a simple reality. I don't care what scandal you name —Benghazi, Fast and Furious, take your pick, IRS… This is about wiping out anybody who opposes Obama…All of this is Barack Obama. Every event, every detail, every occurrence is Obama. And the end result is the end and absence of any opposition. So that's what Ferguson's all about, like all the rest of this has been about."
And that’s how you get from the shooting death of an unarmed man to a widespread concerted conspiracy by the President of the United States without leaving your radio booth.