Guns, Race, and Fox News' Pathological Denial

06/22/2015 11:09 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Like frantic shoppers running down a last-minute list, Fox News talkers last week desperately tried to cobble together an inventory of reasons why racist gunman Dylann Roof may not have been primarily motivated by racism.

As the conservative media anxiously and collectively searched for political cover, Fox News hosts and guests offered up an array of illogical explanations: Maybe the Charleston, S.C. church killing was an attack on Christians. Maybe it was an attack on South Carolina. Maybe political correctness was to blame. Or "diversity." Maybe pastors should be armed. (In any case, Fox Newsers agreed, President Obama was being very, very "divisive" regarding the matter.)

On and on, the alternative explanations were offered up in the face of overwhelming evidence that Roof allegedly had set out to kill as many black people as possible because he wanted to start a "race war." Period. And the way Roof allegedly chose to do that was to open fire, and then reload, in the basement of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, killing the pastor and eight parishioners.

Like so many Americans, Fox News has been reeling in the wake of the massacre, except reeling in a different way. While Americans recoiled from the raw hate behind the gun rampage, Fox News wrestled with bouts of pathological denial.

Indeed, for Fox News and much of the conservative media, the horrific killings in South Carolina represented a political challenge because the act of mass murder revolved around two topics Fox News has long insisted don't really afflict America, or don't require pressing action: Racism and gun violence. That denial has made it nearly impossible for Fox to address the shooting in any coherent way.

For years, Fox News and conservatives have routinely tried to underplay gun violence and even horrific bouts of mass murders -- like the Sandy Hook school massacre -- insisting the issue represents a "distraction" or a "red herring" touted by liberals to shift the nation's attention away from truly pressing problems, like the national debt.

But the "distraction" spin is absurd. As Chuck Todd noted on Meet The Press, "50 Americans since 9/11 have been killed in terrorist attacks. We're up to nearly 400,000 people since 9/11 have been killed by firearms."

Meanwhile, if current projections hold, for the first time modern American history more people will die in 2015 from gun violence than from automobile accidents. Roughly 20,000 Americans kill themselves each year using firearms. And as Bloomberg News reported, the financial cost of U.S. gun violence in terms of lost work, medical care, insurance, court costs and pain and suffering amounted to nearly $175 billion in 2010.

Despite the avalanche of data, Fox News has led the charge to dismiss the importance of addressing gun safety, and has been especially ruthless in attacking advocates trying to pass new legislation. That hardened political opposition helps explain why the cable channel has been desperately searching for ways to explain away the shocking South Carolina mass murder.

Fox and conservatives have been even more adamant over the years in insisting that Democrats, liberals and minorities over-hype the issue of racism. For instance, on his blog, Peter Ferrara of the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank, reported in 2013 that "racist attitudes" no longer "have any power or influence in American society." Indeed, The Wall Street Journal editorial page last week casually announced that institutionalized racism no longer exists.

Racism, like climate change, is denied as part of the larger conservative political reality.

Like Prohibition and the Wild West, racism apparently represents a distant chapter in America's past and is now filed under "archaeology," as Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin dismissively put it last year while attacking Obama for addressing the issue at all. (Rubin claimed Americans are "held prisoners forever in a past that most Americans have never personally experienced.")

Why the rising chorus of racism deniers under Obama? It fits a larger, right-wing political agenda. "Some on the right are deeply invested in the idea that anti-black racism is no longer much of a problem in the United States, and certainly not a problem on the scale of false accusations of racism," wrote Michelle Goldberg at the Daily Beast.

Added Zack Beauchamp at Vox last week: "basically, the fact that America's got a Democratic, black president means Republicans have grown more skeptical that structural racism is a huge, enduring problem." The result? "It's very difficult for Republicans to talk about racism as a serious, enduring problem without alienating a real part of the base."

The same, of course, goes for Fox News and not wanting to alienate its loyal viewership base. And so in recent years we've heard Bill O'Reilly announce, "We are not a racist nation. [...] Fair-minded Americans should be deeply offended, deeply offended that their country is being smeared with the bigotry brush." Steve Doocy declared, "I don't know that Barack Obama could have been elected president if he was living in a racist nation."

And there was this from Fox's Eric Bolling [emphasis added]:

It's getting tiring. We have a black president, we have black senators, we have black heads of captains of business, companies. We have black entertainment channels. Where -- is there racism? I don't think there's racism. The only people perpetuating racism are people like this gentleman from the NAACP, are the Al Sharptons of the world. Let's move on. Let's move on.

Let's move on? Tell that to the people of Charleston.

Crossposted at Media Matters for America

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