—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks
Right-wing political figures have often defended the content of Fox News and other right-leaning media. A common ploy is the insinuation that the “mainstream” news establishment is in fact biased in favor of liberal ideological framings of issues or that it is actually antiwhite. For example, Sarah Palin famously blamed the “leftist lamestream media” for allegedly pressuring Newt Gingrich to soften his critique of Republican congressman Paul Ryan (while in fact the disapproval came from Fox News), and Palin again insinuated charges of political targeting when she decried the media as attacking right-wing figures with their brand of unfair “gotcha journalism.” Rush Limbaugh also compared the mainstream press to a “drive by shooter except the microphones are guns.” Limbaugh further asserted that the anti-right, mainstream media attempts to “destroy people’s careers. Then they get in the convertible, head on down the road and do it all over again, while people like you and me are left to clean up the mess with the truth. So I call them the drive-by media.”
The Fox News audience is distinct. Numerous studies have found Fox viewers to be less informed about political and current events than viewers of most other broadcast news and cable networks. This could mean either that Fox News performs less effectively in educating viewers or that Fox News attracts less knowledgeable audiences. Other studies have found that individuals who like news with in-depth interviews tend to watch network news and CNN more than Fox, and that individuals who prefer news that aligns with their already-formed opinions are much more likely to watch Fox News (while no such relationship exists for the CNN or network audiences). More research indicates that ABC, CBS, and NBC all favored their own polling numbers and reported “positive” polls for Bill Clinton and “negative” polls for George W. Bush, while Fox appeared to favor exactly the reverse. This would seem to indicate that Fox is simply on the conservative side of media bias. However, while all media outlets have political leanings, Fox News is exceptional in that Fox was especially willing to cite external polling numbers of Clinton if they were damaging—a practice that other news outlets did not perform.
Fox News also appears to cater to ethnocentric assumptions. This discourse has grown with the election of Obama to the White House. In one study, researchers asked panelists where they obtained their televised news about national and international affairs. Roughly one-quarter of respondents indicated that they received their information from Fox News. At the time of the study, questions of Obama’s birth were being raised. When asked if they believed Obama was born in the United States, only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American born. The authors of the study, Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, wrote, “[T]he reinforcing and/or persuasive role of oppositional media outlets like Fox News and conservative talk radio could make it increasingly difficult to disabuse the sizable minority of individuals disposed to accepting invalid assertions designed to paint Obama as the ‘other.’” In the face of such evidence, many Fox apologists, commentators, and guests often defended the views of Birthers and Tea Party activists. While frequent Fox talking head Ann Coulter claimed that that no one on Fox ever mentioned “Birtherism,” research indicates that not only did Fox News mention it; they ramped up coverage of the Birthers leading up to the April 2011 release of the “long form” birth certificate. Moreover, at least 85 percent (forty-four out of fifty-two) of false claims about Obama’s birth went unchallenged on Fox News. Fox segments repeated that Obama never produced a birth certificate, that Obama’s grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and that Obama spent $2 million in legal funds blocking the release of his birth certificate.
As social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson make clear in “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Fox News realized in early 2009 that the Tea Party was a major conservative phenomenon in the making and “moved to become [its] cheerleader-in-chief.” Fox began speaking of major Tea Party events weeks in advance and they became more of an advertiser for the Tea Party than a source of news about them. This coverage glorified the future Tea Party events by creating buzz about the expected large crowds and the political and social effect of the rallies. Having just defected from CNN, Glenn Beck traveled to various cities to interview people days before Tea Party rallies even occurred. Skocpol and Williamson contend,
A week before the first annual April 15th Tea Party rallies in 2009, Fox News promotions kicked into an even higher gear. Glenn Beck told his viewers, “We’re getting ready for next week’s Tax Day tea parties. All across the country, people coming together to let the politicians know, OK, enough spending.” Sean Hannity was even more explicit: “And, of course, April 15th, our big show coming out of Atlanta. It’s Tax Day, our Tax Day tea party show. Don’t forget, we’re going to have ‘Joe the Plumber.’” At times, Fox anchors adopted an almost cajoling tone. On Sean Hannity’s show, viewers were told, “Anybody can come, it’s free,” while Beck fans were warned, “You don’t want to miss it.” . . . [D]uring the first weeks of the Tea Party, Fox News directly linked the network’s brand to these protests and allowed members of the “Fox Nation” to see the Tea Parties as a natural outgrowth of their identity as Fox News viewers.
Simply put, Fox did not simply cover Tea Party events as they transpired, but rather helped to create and sediment support for the fledging movement in its weakest stages.
With the alignment of Birther and Tea Party movements with GOP and other hard-right-wing candidates, Fox News is shown to have a significant effect on voting patterns. In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan find that
[t]owns with Fox News have a 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point higher Republican vote share in the 2000 Presidential elections, compared to the 1996 elections. A vote shift of this magnitude is likely to have been decisive in the 2000 elections. We also find an effect on vote share in Senate elections which Fox News does not cover, suggesting that the Fox News impact extends to general political beliefs. Finally, we find evidence that Fox News increased turnout to the polls.
Consistent with evidence of media effects on political beliefs and voting, this recent research indicates that exposure to Fox News may very well induce undecided viewers to vote for Republican candidates. Together, these findings demonstrate the unique character of Fox News, its power to influence voting patterns, and the makeup of its audience.
Fox News and associates constantly constructed the average white viewer as a hard-working American who is, at base, frightened by the unfair and racialized agenda of Obama. Characterizing the white viewer as an American under the assault of a dark and dangerous “other” implies a racial conflict in which the white viewer is an innocent bystander in the racial drama directed by the Obama administration.
For example, in July of 2008 Glenn Beck engaged in a pithy race-based fear-mongering remark on his Fox News show. He stated that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and that Obama “is, I believe, a racist.” After other journalists and activists asked him to specify, rationalize, or retract his remarks, Rupert Murdoch defended Beck’s comment. In a November 2009 interview with Australia’s Sky News, Murdoch said,
On the racist thing, that caused a grilling. But he [Obama] did make a very racist comment. Ahhh . . . about, you know, blacks and whites and so on, and which he said in his campaign he would be completely above. And um, that was something which perhaps shouldn’t have been said about the President, but if you actually assess what he was talking about, he was right.
Moreover, Sean Hannity joined Murdoch in defending Beck’s assertion that Obama is a “racist.” In discussing Beck’s comment, Hannity stated, “But wait a minute. Wait, hang on a second. When the president hangs out with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years, I’m—can one conclude that there are issues with the president, black liberation theology?”
Right-wing pundit Mark Levin went so far as to frame Obama as a cult-like figure whom whites should reasonably fear as heralding the opening stages of a fascist social order:
There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. Special Obama flags and an Obama presidential seal. A graphic with the portrayal of the globe and Obama’s name on it, which adorns everything from Obama’s plane to his street literature. Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama’s name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.
During an October 2008 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Michael Savage stated,
I fear that Obama will stir up a race war. You want to ask me what I fear? I think Obama will empower the racists in this country and stir up a race war in order to seize absolute power. I believe that’s what he will do. It will not be as overt as you may think, but it’ll be a subtle race war on every level imaginable.
As the show went on, Savage took an online caller, who stated,
I absolutely agree with you as far as the race war goes. I think the greatest thing that concerns me about Obama is his resentment toward this country. I feel that him and his wife feel that they have fought very hard against whites, and that everything that they have, they are entitled to versus being thankful and feeling privileged for living in this country, and what this country has provided in terms of opportunities.
To this Savage replied, “Correct. And affirmative action helped both of them, there’s no question about it.”
White viewers of Fox were constantly framed as people who should be frightened and apprehensive about issues pertaining to race. In February 2007 Glenn Beck stated that he doesn’t “have a lot of African-American friends [because] . . . I’m afraid that I would be in an open conversation, and I would say something that somebody would take wrong, and then it would be a nightmare.” In this same vein, Bill O’Reilly stated, “Instead of black and white Americans coming together, white Americans are terrified. They’re terrified. Now we can’t even say you’re articulate? We can’t even give you guys compliments because they may be taken as condescension?” In this way, Fox commentators played up racial fears and anxieties, while painting whites as victims of overly sensitive nonwhites, race-baiters, and political correctness.
Seizing upon this fear, Fox News and right-wing commentators anointed themselves as the real civil rights activists of today’s “anti-white” era. Glenn Beck stated that his Restoring Honor rally was to “reclaim the civil rights movement.” So also, in 2007, Michael Savage stated,
[B]asically, if you’re talking about a day like today, Martin Luther King Junior Day, and you’re gonna understand what civil rights has become, the con it’s become in this country. It’s a whole industry; it’s a racket. It’ s a racket that is used to exploit primarily heterosexual, Christian, white males’ birthright and steal from them what is their birthright and give it to people who didn’t qualify for it. Take a guess out of whose hide all of these rights are coming. They’re not coming out of women’s hides.
Are they? No, there’s only one group that’s targeted, and that group are white, heterosexual males. They are the new witches being hunted by the illiberal left using the guise of civil rights and fairness to women and whatnot.
By stoking racial fears and framing themselves as the true heirs of the Civil Rights Movement, conservative commentators can effectively advance a pro-white agenda that seeks to roll back some of the progressive gains toward equality of the past half-century while mystifying any such overt claim or color-conscious agenda.
These examples illustrate that the white-as-victim narrative both is widely shared and carries resonance across the right-wing media airwaves. Indeed, the story of white victimization is, in our supposedly “post-racial era,” a dominant feature of the media’s obsession with race. The right-wing media calls out to its viewers to identify as racialized white victims. And in competing for audience viewership, networks like Fox attract white viewership by telling them they deserve both social sympathy and a (white) badge of courage for the battle wounds they have received for simply being white. The white audience’s righteous indignation is constructed through a media narrative that tells them they should feel displeasure with the legal initiatives (for example, affirmative action) that are not redressing past discrimination but enacting it upon them in the present. This makes the political quite personal. Such right-wing media discourse reinterprets historical and current patterns into personal attacks in which a black bogey man (today incarnated in the personage of Obama) hates them only because they are white. Importantly, these media messages attempt a paradoxical recovery of white political domination through the discourse of personal white victimization.
Matthew W. Hughey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Gregory S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.
[Read a fuller version of this excerpt from The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama by Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks on Salon.com.]