The ‘F’ Word and the Media
Just before Thanksgiving break, former President Donald Trump told Fox News that he had met Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse at Mar-a-Lago, where the two smiled for a photo that was custom built for right-wing social media.
The message behind the encounter is brutally simple: The ostensible leader of the U.S. Republican Party endorses deadly violence against any and all enemies — in this case, anyone exercising their First Amendment right to protest police brutality against Black people.
With this meeting, the Republican Party’s embrace of political violence came into full view. And it’s a story that some in traditional media have finally started to tell.
“One of the nation’s two major political parties appears increasingly tolerant of at least some persistent level of violence in American discourse, or at least willing to turn a blind eye to it,” wrote the Associated Press’ Jill Colvin in November.
“Faced with this alarming trend, a responsible political party would damp down its incendiary rhetoric and urge its supporters to moderate their zeal,” Max Boot wrote in The Washington Post. “That is not what Republicans are doing.”
With the evidence too hard to downplay or ignore, journalists are now dispensing with the tired practice of reporting down the political middle on a story that’s about the evils of just one party.
It took a lot to get many in the media to this point: the right’s “lionization” of Rittenhouse; its refusal to condemn Rep. Paul Gosar for promoting an animated video that depicts him murdering Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s call for supporters to be “armed and dangerous” as we head into the midterm-election season.
All this has happened against the backdrop of a party leadership’s abandonment of its pledge to honor the peaceful transition of political leadership — codified in the U.S. Constitution — in favor of an illegal power grab.
It’s called fascism
The GOP’s tolerance of political violence didn’t begin on Jan. 6. It’s a byproduct of a larger, longer and more worrisome trend: A sizable chunk of people in the United States are turning away from democracy toward something sinister. A survey by the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats found that one in 10 adults in the United States — or about 21 million people — agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.”
This is where we are today. None of the 20th-century fascist movements in the United States came so far as to undermine our democratic institutions and laws and replace them with a political system that privileges white power and authoritarianism.
The GOP’s full-throated embrace of autocracy is on display in statehouses across the country, where legislatures are passing laws that make it easier to get away with killing racial-justice protesters. According to a PEN America report from earlier this year, Republican lawmakers have proposed at least 100 “anti-riot” bills in 33 states, with more on the drawing board. This includes legislation that would grant criminal immunity to people who crash their cars into so-called “rioters” blocking roadways.
It’s going to get worse in 2022. As political discourse grows more gruesome in the run up to the midterms, the threat of political violence will only increase.
A media reckoning
The Republican Party, which threw in its lot with outspoken extremists like Trump, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, is almost entirely at fault for this. But many writers tracking these worrying developments have reasonably placed the blame for 21st-century fascism at the doorsteps of some usual suspects in conservative U.S. media.
“[A] true reckoning requires more than just observing this trend. It also requires reflecting on the instrumental nature of propaganda like that coming from [Tucker] Carlson,” writes Greg Sargent of The Washington Post. “Much of the discussion treats the possibility of violence as a mere incidental byproduct of that propaganda, depicting it merely as conspiracy-theorizing-for-profit getting out of control.”
Fox News regularly engages in the types of othering that shaped the 20th-century fascism that led to World War II. Fascism relies on creating scapegoats; Tucker Carlson’s primetime commentary routinely paints a target for his millions of devoted viewers on the heads of immigrants, Black and Brown people, “globalists” and the “liberal elite.”
Other right-wing media are just as bad. One America News Network and Newsmax have spread disinformation to undermine free and fair elections and the government response to the greatest health threat of the past century.
Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative conglomerate that owns and operates hundreds of local-television stations, has repeatedly aired falsehoods about critical race theory and stoked fears that it’s overtaking the curricula of local schools.
Fascism thrives in an environment where facts are disregarded and dismissed in favor of myths. In fascist states, language becomes a vehicle for emotion rather than reason, a way to spread fear, amplify prejudices and seek revenge against hated groups. “Attempting to counter such rhetoric with reason is akin to using a pamphlet against a pistol,” writes Professor Jason Stanley, whose 2018 book How Fascism Works describes how division and othering set the stage for political violence and authoritarianism.
But how have centrist or moderate media responded to the GOP’s embrace of violence?
There’s no middle path
Eric Boehlert of Press Run frequently points to how outlets like CNN, The New York Times, Politico and The Washington Post have sought to normalize the violent extremism that has infiltrated Republican politics.
“Despite the GOP’s nearly universal support [for Rep. Paul Gosar and his murderous video], Politico insisted the episode highlighted the ‘fringe’ side of the party, while the Beltway media outlet Punch Bowl reduced the threatening, unnerving Gosar chapter to Democrats and Republicans just not trusting each other,” Boehlert wrote.
“Both-sides journalism” is frequently criticized by Boehlert and other media scolds who blame this crutch of 20th-century reporting for mainstream media’s failure to call the right’s embrace of political violence and white power precisely what it is: fascism.
“I don’t think ‘moderate’ has any independent political meaning,” NYU Professor Jay Rosen told author Nicole Hemmer. “Instead, like ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism, it tries to locate a midpoint between extremes, and then it associates that midpoint with a sort of unadorned truth.”
Journalism that strikes a balance between democracy and fascism should never be the goal. Rosen told Hemmer that reporters got a glimpse of the perils of such false equivalency in the runup to and aftermath of the 2020 vote. “For a moment there, their own need to protect American democracy was front and center,” he said.
“This sort of wholesale treatment of this [Stop the Steal] movement as illegitimate, not founded in truth, was a pretty mainstream position. And to me, that was a breakthrough moment where journalists said … we could really lose this democracy if Trump succeeds in his campaign to throw out the results.”
But this moment of clarity didn’t last into the Biden administration’s first year. Many reporters have fallen back on old habits: playing political stories as both-sided, or failing to see the larger context, including the alarming similarities to right-wing movements in the 20th century.
Repairing broken media
Both national and local news outlets must recognize that the future of our democracy is under as much threat today as it was on the afternoon of Jan. 6.
There are threats to our fundamental civic rights that reporters must make urgent to their readers. The media waited too long to start reporting on the politicized redistricting process and still aren’t paying enough attention to the adoption of voter-suppression laws aimed at undermining the voting rights of people of color.
We can’t afford the media to fail to notice or report on the increasing threat of political violence that is being targeted at the 2022 midterm elections.
Beyond that we need to acknowledge a broken media culture, undergirded by structures of media ownership that have withheld control of news outlets from the Black and Brown communities that are primary targets of fascism.
Decades of federal policies have resulted in inequitable access to media-ownership opportunities. According to Federal Communications Commission data, Black people owned only 18 full-power TV stations as of 2019 — or just over 1 percent of all stations. Meanwhile, media corporations have aggressively and successfully lobbied to further consolidate their power over the sector, with no regard for the impacts on people of color, who make up an estimated 43 percent of the U.S. population.
Building a pro-democracy media means we first must acknowledge the history of white supremacy that’s baked into U.S. media policies. Only then will we be able to begin to repair the damages done and foster a media system that serves as a bulwark against 21st-century fascism.
Yes, Republicans are the problem, but so is a dysfunctional media that tend to normalize the party’s endorsements of political violence. There’s no future for a multiracial democracy without a serious redress of the white-power structures that dictate U.S. media ownership, and that seep into newsroom coverage.
Calling 21st-century fascism by its name is an essential condition to defeating it. Journalists and their bosses have an important role to play. They need to stop considering right-wing extremism as just another point of view, and work toward a more just and inclusive media system.
Timothy Karr is a senior director for Free Press, a nonprofit organization that fights for a more democratic, open and inclusive media system.