INTERVIEW

Right's attack on "critical race theory" goes back decades — but media hasn't noticed

As Sergio Munoz of Media Matters explains, CRT panic is the latest chapter in a long assault on civil rights

By Chauncey DeVega

Published January 31, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. The term "critical race theory" defines a strand of thought that appeared in American law schools in the late 1970s and which looks at racism as a system, enabled by laws and institutions, rather than at the level of individual prejudices. But critics use it as a catch-all phrase that attacks teachers' efforts to confront dark episodes in American history, including slavery and segregation, as well as to tackle racist stereotypes. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. The term "critical race theory" defines a strand of thought that appeared in American law schools in the late 1970s and which looks at racism as a system, enabled by laws and institutions, rather than at the level of individual prejudices. But critics use it as a catch-all phrase that attacks teachers' efforts to confront dark episodes in American history, including slavery and segregation, as well as to tackle racist stereotypes. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Conservative media in the United States does not play the normal role of the Fourth Estate in a democracy, which is to inform the public so they can make reasoned and principled decisions about significant social and political questions. Today's right-wing media is effectively a dedicated propaganda and disinformation machine in service to the Republican Party and the "conservative" movement.

Its primary goal is to convince (white) people to support the Republican fascist movement, both by recruiting new members and securing the loyalties of those who are already members of the fascist cult. Another important task is to attack and demobilize liberals, progressives, Democrats and others deemed to be "the enemy." To accomplish these goals, the right-wing media and its larger echo chamber are tasked with replacing empirical reality with an alternate universe of lies, misinformation and other malignant fables.

The right-wing news media and its larger echo chamber are also a financially lucrative operation, generating profits used to help fund and expand the movement while also enriching its leaders, spokespeople and select operatives.

In a recent report for Salon, Kathryn Joyce offers this context:

Over the last few years, political scientists and media researchers have charged that right-wing media has evolved into a separate and unaccountable ecosystem that functions as a "propaganda feedback loop," providing its audience with news and opinions that reconfirm what they already believe, while simultaneously making them distrustful of any outside media source that might serve as a check on disinformation. In the 2018 book "Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation and Radicalization in American Politics," authors Hal Roberts, Robert Faris and Yochai Benkler describe this as "identity-confirming news" that attacks all potential sources of error correction as too biased to be worth considering. As journalist David Roberts has noted, that self-perpetuating cycle was pioneered in part by Rush Limbaugh in the early days of "Climategate," when the demagogic radio host told listeners that the U.S. was divided into two universes: One was a lie, controlled by "the four corners of deceit" (media, government, academia and science), and the other was "where we are," and "where reality reigns supreme." 

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Matthew Sheffield, former right-wing activist (and Salon reporter) and host of the Theory of Change podcast, offered these insights in a series of posts on Twitter just before Election Day 2020:

What I did not realize until I began expanding my work into creating actual media and reporting institutions such as the Washington Examiner (I was the founding online editor) was that U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism.

This became evident to me as I saw that conservative-dominated media outlets were MUCH more biased than outlets run by liberals. The latter had flaws that arose from a lack of diversities (note plural) but they operated mostly in good faith. That's not how the former operated.

I eventually realized that most people who run right-dominated media outlets see it as their DUTY to be unfair and to favor Republicans because doing so would somehow counteract perceived liberal bias….

Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms "the left." It doesn't even have to be a fact. Trump's numerous lies about any subject under the sun are thus justified because his deceptions point to a larger truth: that liberals are evil.

This assumption is behind all conservative media output. They never tell you what their actual motives are. Most center-left people don't realize just how radical many conservative elites are, largely because they don't wear it on their sleeves.

Despite decades of evidence, the professional centrists, hope peddlers, stenographers and other members of the mainstream American media refuse to accept these basic truths. It would cause a type of narcissistic injury to admit that their cherished norms about the inviolate importance of truth, facts, intellectual honesty, fair play, professionalism and "democratic institutions" and "norms" are not shared by conservatives (who are a large percentage of the American public).

Rather than pivoting to pro-democracy journalism and unapologetic truth-telling about America's democracy crisis, the professional centrists and other such types sell false hope and happy pills to an increasingly desperate public (specifically Democrats, and too many liberals and progressives).


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To discuss these issues and others, I recently interviewed Sergio Munoz, policy director for the watchdog and advocacy organization Media Matters for America. Munoz is an expert on progressive law and politics, who has worked with such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federal Rights Project and the National Council of La Raza. 

In our conversation, Munoz explained how the right-wing media propaganda machine has used the "critical race theory" moral panic as a weapon in a decades-old (or even centuries-old) struggle against multiracial democracy and the Black Freedom Struggle. He also discussed how the mainstream news media has failed in its coverage of the origins, motivations, goals and larger strategy of the white right's campaign against "critical race theory" and the teaching of real American history.

He offered his insights about why, even a year after Jan. 6, 2021, the mainstream news media continues to normalize Donald Trump and the Republicans' attacks on democracy by refusing to use appropriate language such as "fascism." At the end of this conversation, Munoz explained that while many in the media have consistently presented the attacks on CRT as something new, and perhaps a story of genuinely "concerned" parents, the real story is about racism, white supremacy and other destructive values and beliefs.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you making sense of America's escalating democracy crisis and this never-ending tumult of "revelations" and other supposedly shocking events?

There are some jaded cynical Beltway types who want to suggest that we have seen this before. In reality, we are in a uniquely dangerous moment. This is because of a confluence of many factors, some intentional and some unintentional.

Technology is a big part of it. Media Matters has had our eye on "fake news" since at least 2016, and the vectors for misinformation that certain online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter could become. I'd be the first to say that I don't think any of us really thought this could be as significant a problem for American society, and frankly American democracy, as it turned out to be.

Media Matters was set up as a watchdog for misinformation, and originally, we were tracking purveyors on radio and in print. We were monitoring Fox News when it became a significant problem. The misinformation problem has of course been around well before we were founded. But it's definitely happening at a far more significant degree now. Misinformation and these new technologies are exposing many of the weaknesses that were always present in American democracy.

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No holds are barred now. The guardrails are really not concrete enough to hold the country on track when we have certain actors in society who are completely willing to drive us off into the ditch of fascism.

As a professional observer of the American news media, how do you make sense of their failures in the Age of Trump — failures that continue even after a coup attempt and an emboldened neofascist party and right-wing movement that has blatantly attacked democracy?

False equivalency and "he said, she said" journalism has been a deep problem for the mainstream corporate media for a long time. Sometimes there are not two sides to a story in terms of reasonable dialogue. At present here in America, too many have invited to the table of public discourse ideas and ideologies and people that are anathema to civil public discourse and multiracial democracy.

We are literally expected now to sit at the table with white supremacist ideologues who don't even bothering to hide their beliefs through dog-whistles anymore, and to treat such ideas as something respectable. There are people who possess white supremacist beliefs while serving in positions of public trust. When the public sphere has been expanded to include such perspectives and people, it puts that tendency for the news media to go for false equivalents or "he said, she said" reporting in a whole new problematic light.

For example, there was a controversy with a school district that believed, to be in compliance with one these new anti-"critical race theory" laws, that children needed to be taught "both sides" of the Holocaust. It sounds ludicrous, but that is just one small, representative example of where we've arrived at by allowing normalization of so much bigotry and hatred and evil. It makes it very difficult to have civil society with literally uncivil actors.

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Why is there still a reluctance, if not outright refusal, to use correct language to describe Donald Trump, the Republicans and the larger white right? This is a neofascist movement. On occasion the mainstream news media will let such language slip out, but then it is quickly discarded. Or they will instead say "populist" or "authoritarian." How are these editorial decisions being made?

Part of the problem is that we as Americans have not been honest with ourselves about how easy it was to get to this moment where we elected a white supremacist president — or a white nationalist, depending on the day. We also unleashed a movement, in the form of the Republican Party, which has absolutely zero problems in indulging themselves in such values and behavior.

It's sociopathic. That is an objectively true description. And that description applies to one of the country's two main political parties. This speaks to your point about editorial decisions. Too many among the decision-makers for the mainstream news media are just as far behind as the rest of society. They were too late to open their eyes to what was going on and to take it seriously.

The anti-civil rights sentiments, the anti-democratic sentiments, the sentiments of hatred for multicultural society and multicultural democracy have been with us since before the founding of the country. This is not new. It is catastrophic to have the institutions of American democracy in the hands of fascists and white supremacists and white nationalists. We are going backward as a society.

Is there literally a directive from senior management and the owners of large American media companies that the news people are not to say "fascism"?

I think it's instinctual. We have done studies and campaigns to encourage the news media to use accurate language in the way you are describing. Eventually the message is clearly passed from the producers to the on-air personalities, or it's passed from the communications people to the specific writers. We do see a change where they provide necessary context but then they soon revert to old habits.

On a range of issues from voter fraud to immigration reform, for example, we will see some good change and positive behavior and then unfortunately it will trend backward. Every situation, I'm sure, is different: Sometimes it's a reporter, sometimes it's an editor. It's a combination of factors. But overall, as a collective entity I do believe that it is instinctive for the American corporate news media to go back to the path of least resistance, where you don't ruffle any feathers or burn any bridges. In addition, they don't want to burn any access points so they can just continue again with this "both sides" types of reporting.

Reporting on the right's attacks on "critical race theory" has been subpar. Basic questions are not being asked. Historical and other context is usually lacking. For example, who are these groups like the so-called Moms for Liberty?

The lack of context in the reporting, be it intentional or unintentional, works to conceal the truth about a decades-long movement. Right-wing media is a huge part of this movement. The National Review was against the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. America had its versions of Fox News well before the one that exists today.

The right-wing media has long been crucial to this campaign to overturn the gains of the civil rights movement. Part of how they accomplish their goals is by obscuring the context, or pretending it's about something else. The "parents' rights" angle that Moms for Liberty is using is an example of this. What's particularly interesting here is that this is the same terminology that was used decades ago when these forces were fighting against school integration. The goal was to make white parents afraid and uncomfortable about the safety of white kids in integrated schools.

RELATED: Evangelicals do battle with "critical race theory" in new online video course

When opposition to civil rights can be masked by rhetoric about "freedom" and "safety" and "choice," it becomes a type of common sense. They also know such rhetoric has worked in the past in the attack on civil rights.

In groups like Moms for Liberty, there are three different elements at work. You have a general opposition to COVID protocols such as wearing masks and quarantining. Out of the 60,000 supposed members in Moms for Liberty, I'm sure there's some folks whose primary concerns are on that issue. I'm also sure there are people who are involved in politics and realize that Moms for Liberty is a great way to build out an email list, for example. There's a long tradition of using groups like this for political mobilization purposes.

There are the other people in Moms for Liberty, who, as much as they might deny it, are part of that long tradition of opposing desegregation and civil rights. One of the things that struck us at Media Matters about Moms for Liberty wasn't the fact that they themselves were hiding these anti-civil rights sentiments, but that, unfortunately, some of the established mainstream media weren't digging into it. They were taking Moms for Liberty and its motivations and goals at face value. You didn't have to dig very far into the background of Moms for Liberty to realize that their opposition to "critical race theory" was based on an ugly strand of anti-civil rights thinking.

Where is the money coming from to fund these anti-CRT groups and activists? Again, this is a basic question that the mainstream media is not exploring. For those who care to investigate, the answer is not all that complicated or unexpected.

I don't know why certain media outlets did not do their homework in a few of these pieces. Maybe they didn't think it was relevant, or didn't have the time or resources. Moms for Liberty actually has recommended readings for people who are concerned about their issues. The readings were affiliated with the John Birch Society. That should not have been hard to dig into, either by finding the receipts, as we say ,or by just having a general knowledge of how this "critical race theory" campaign is just the latest manifestation of a decades-long right-wing anti-civil rights project.

As to the money and funding, over the years dark money groups have become better and better at two things. One is being really vague or outright hiding where the funding is coming from and where the funding is going, largely by delaying tax disclosures. At this point, we usually have to wait years before the relevant 990 forms are released. In terms of the groups that have to file tax disclosures, they either don't file them or they get delays and extensions. Therefore, the actual tax disclosures don't come out until years after the fact. We have absolutely no expectation of seeing the tax returns of some of these anti-CRT groups for years. And even when the information is finally released, they're professional enough to know how to make the description of the funds obscure enough that you can't be entirely sure what it was for, or they utilize one of the many dark money techniques where the information is completely blacked out.

Despite the fact that these groups know how to intentionally hide the funding, we can still make educated guesses. Right-wing foundations and think tanks and rich individual activist funders have been extremely honest about what their goals are.

Even if they try to hide it in the rhetoric of personal liberty and American exceptionalism and unencumbered capitalism, it is not that hard to find out that those terms are being used to justify undermining multicultural democracy and rolling back civil rights laws. They're not shy about it. In some respects, what you're seeing right now with CRT is the same campaign that was used against affirmative action years ago.

This CRT bogeyman moral panic is a perfect fit for the right-wing hate media. You almost could not have made up a better story.

We were tracking "critical race theory" with Tucker Carlson and some of the segments on his show last year when it first manifested. Certainly after Trump appropriated it during the campaign, the rest of the right-wing media machine started focusing on it because they believed it would have traction. Fox News tripled down on "critical race theory." Even though this seems like a recent phenomenon, the CRT smear campaign is not new. The right wing tried it against Barack Obama in 2012.

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Obama, when he was a Harvard Law student, was friendly with Derrick Bell, who was one of the founders of the real critical race theory framework. But the attacks didn't catch on at all. The right wing was trying to push it on Fox News with the same scary demonization of critical race theory we are seeing today. They were using almost exactly the same rhetoric as they're using now, it just didn't catch on.

If you look back even farther, in 2010, one of the reasons the right wanted to ban ethnic studies in Arizona was that they were allegedly teaching critical race theory. We can go back even farther to 1993 and Lani Guinier's nomination as assistant attorney general. Her writings on critical race theory were used to end her nomination.

When critical race theory stops working as a buzz phrase, they're going to switch to another one, because the campaign itself has been around for decades. They just change the terminology based on what worked. If this one stops working, if it stops getting eyeballs and mobilizing their base, the right-wing activists, politicians and other leaders will move on to a different issue. The American right is not going to stop this anti-civil rights campaign until they win.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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