It’s My Panther Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to

How Fox News Bum Rushes the Mainstream

Once again, Fox News has ambushed its ever-gullible competitors with an unlimited willingness to lie, distort, and sow fear and hatred among the American people. Every time you think they’ve done their worst, they find new ways to push the outer limits of journalistic ethics and civic responsibility.

Their latest feat? Cooking up a phony “controversy” about supposed racial favoritism at the Department of Justice, which, under Obama’s watch, has supposedly adopted a policy of not prosecuting African Americans. On election day in 2008, several members of the New Black Panther Party stood outside a polling place in a mostly African American neighborhood in Philadelphia; in a video that has been replayed endlessly on Fox, one Panther member waves a nightstick and shouts, “You’re about to be ruled by the black man, cracker!”

The Fox gang is outraged that this clear example of voter intimidation has gone unprosecuted. They ignore the fact that the case occurred under the Bush Department of Justice, which could have pursued the case but didn’t. No one has come forward to claim that they were intimidated or threatened by the Panthers. In fact, the Obama administration sought and won a default judgment against one of the men who stood outside the polling place. None of this, of course, matters.

Fox is busy whipping up hysterical fears in an audience that appears willing or even eager to believe that Barack Obama and Eric Holder have seized power in order to show favor to fellow African Americans, to the detriment of white Americans.

Why do so many people believe this? Because a Republican operative says he heard Julie Fernandes, a Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, say that the DOJ would not pursue any cases against African Americans. This claim has since been quoted and re-quoted on one conservative blog after another, to the point that it has become a matter of unquestioned fact that Fernandes said there was a no-prosecuting-black-people rule at the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

As in money laundering, the deception sheds its criminal quality with each remove from the original source. Nobody asks for any evidence of whether such a policy exists, or whether the person who first made this allegation is credible. It is cited and re-cited as incontrovertible evidence of the racial reign of terror currently existing in this country. There is just an endless font of outrage.

This, by itself, would be a tempest in the cable news teacup. Though Fox is by far the most watched network of its kind, the audience for cable news is small compared to the broader TV-viewing audience. (For instance, NBC’s Today show draws well over four times as many viewers as Fox’s morning program.) The average Katie Couric watcher or Huffington Post reader might never have known that the New Black Panther scandal was rocking the country and consuming massive amounts of airspace (more than eight hours of Fox News’ time on this one story since June 30th).

But the next step in Fox’s game plan is the really clever part. Just as Fox fooled its competitors at ABC and NBC into calling the 2000 election for George W. Bush, despite their own projections of a Gore victory, the network has become adept at hectoring other news organizations into treating its trumped-up storylines as legitimate news. It guilts other networks and newspapers into taking its stories seriously, crying about “liberal bias” if CBS does not treat the Tea Party as the most important political movement since the American Revolution itself.

You may recall that Fox News devoted days and weeks of airtime to covering the nascent Tea Party when it first emerged in early 2009, helping to organize its demonstrations by telling viewers of the times and dates of events, encouraging them to sign up online or call in to join the movement, and so forth. Fox News became like an infomercial for a movement that it played no small part in creating. And then its reporters feigned shock and outrage that other news organizations weren’t also giving the Tea Party its due – which is to say, nonstop coverage.

The same thing is happening now with Fox’s quest to uncover anti-white racism in the Obama administration. There was the claim that a new tax on tanning beds unfairly targeted white Americans, which goaded a few right-wing blogs on the fringe to jive themselves into a tizzy of self-pity. (The blog Occidental Dissent linked the tanning bed tax to “the actual ongoing anti-White genocide.” You would think that if you wanted to kill people, you’d be giving them incentives to hop into tanning beds, not out of them, but I digress.)

Just in the last few days, Fox and its allies in the conservative blogosphere have peddled a misleading video of a (now former) employee of the Department of Agriculture, in which Shirley Sherrod, an African American, says that she did not do all she could to help a white farmer avoid foreclosure. Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart cited the video as further evidence of anti-white bias in the Obama administration and ultimately won Sherrod’s resignation – despite failing to note that the incident happened twenty four years ago, before Sherrod worked for USDA, and that she went on to help the farmer and form a lasting friendship with his family, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Sherrod had told the story to a local NAACP chapter last year to explain her own coming-to-terms with racial bias long ago, but Fox was none too happy to try to destroy a woman’s career based on the thinnest evidence of persecution. The tactic’s genius lies in its ability not just to spread outrage, but in its power to force unsuspecting opponents into a corner. Without knowing much about the real story, the White House instantly demanded Sherrod’s resignation, and even the NAACP issued a hastily written statement saying it was “appalled” by Sherrod – a statement it quickly retracted as new details began to emerge.

The trick works just as well with the bogus allegations of racial bias at the Department of Justice. CBS’s Bob Schieffer has come under attack for not quizzing Eric Holder about the case – in other words, he should have carried out Fox’s hit for them, out of an obligation to his duty as a newsman. Now the Black Panther story is one news item; the kerfuffle over CBS’s blindness to pervasive black persecution of whites is another. Queue up another six hours of outraged coverage of the story about the story. And so on.

Why is this so troubling? Not just because Fox shows zero interest in letting viewers see the complexity of the events it covers. And not just because one news organization can use its small, homogeneous audience as a megaphone to amplify one political viewpoint over others. It is what these stories say about the people who watch and believe them that should give us pause.

Why is it that Barack Obama and Eric Holder are so easily portrayed as radical, aggressive racists? Why is it so easy for the people on camera and the people at home to sit there and hear Glenn Beck say the president of the United States has “a deep-seated hatred of white people”? Those of us who support Obama find it hard to understand how the guy who said, “There’s no white America, there’s no black America, there’s the United States of America!” – you know, the guy who made unity and reconciliation the theme of his campaign – can be so readily perceived a fire-breathing, favor-giving partisan to the black half of his heritage.

Fox is able to peddle this fearful and vindictive storyline because some Americans are more than ready to believe it. Like a puzzle piece that snaps right into place, it fits in with a long-running perception among some white Americans that people of color have been getting favors, free rides, and special treatment for decades – at least since the tumult of the civil rights era. It is a perverse world in which prisoners get comfier conditions than the average citizen, illegal immigrants are treated to unlimited public services at the expense of hard-working taxpayers, and convicted rapist Willie Horton gets a “free weekend prison pass” to commit outrageous violence once again. There are those who nod along with Limbaugh when he says Obama is the “affirmative action president,” as if his long list of achievements only came to him because of his race.

This is why some of us see racism in the Tea Party movement – not because its members oppose the president’s policies, or even because some activists take ugly signs with Nazi and Stalinist imagery to marches, but because prominent conservatives at Fox and elsewhere have been so eager to play on imaginary, cockamamie racial fears to advance their agenda. And basically scare the pants off the gullible among us.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) got a firsthand taste of this paranoia the other day at a town hall meeting, when an elderly white constituent demanded to know about the Black Panther case and racial bias at the DOJ. “I am extremely sure we do not have a policy in the Department of Justice of never prosecuting a black defendant,” a smiling Sherman said, hoping, perhaps, to brush off the question as ridiculous. Constituents in the audience instantly shout, “YES, YOU DO!” in response.

They are not having it – anymore than other constituents in other districts were willing to believe Democrats when they said the healthcare bill did not have any death panels or free healthcare for undocumented immigrants in it. It speaks to an iron assumption among some Americans that each race or ethnic group is going to screw over the others once it gets a shot at being in power.

But perhaps it also comes from a fundamental suspicion of anyone in power, felt by voters who have been lied to more than once before. (See Bush, George W; and Clinton, William J.) Why they don’t trust Brad Sherman is understandable enough. Why they believe Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity is much harder to grasp.

Alex Sayf Cummings