Mainstream News Not Up to the Task of Debunking CRT Disinformation

By Dr. Katherine M. Bell

This piece is a part of our Spark Series Miseducating the Public: Anti-CRT Movement Rhetoric, Policy, and Impact

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

The far right’s attack on critical race theory confirms an abiding reality: liberal mainstream and news organizations in the United States are not equipped to grapple with the chaos of manufactured controversies.

Mainstream media organizations have struggled to characterize the contrived hysteria fomented as reprisal for anti-racist activism and as an effort to create a moral panic among white Americans. The many reasons for this include the long-entrenched norms and routines that govern news production, including the practice of objectivity. Even in a moment when most news outlets have begun reckoning with the fact of an authoritarian far right move to subvert democracy, they aren’t up to the task of countering subterfuge in real time. A case in point is the inability of news organizations to counter the disinformation around critical race theory.

Anti-CRT Opposition in News Media

The recent politicized demonization of critical race theory dates back to before the 2020 presidential election. Some accounts suggest that it was the 2019 publication in the New York Times of the 1619 Project conceived by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones that created a backlash of racial animus. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in summer of 2020 brought Black Lives Matter and other racial justice advocates to the streets despite the dangers of a global pandemic. And the 2020 federal election victory by Democrats became impetus for a surge of anti-CRT bile.

But the vitriol on the right was also calculated. Conservative activist Chrisopher Rufo who, through leaked government documents and FOIA requests, realized that many taxpayer-funded agencies were conducting anti-racist trainings that often cited scholars of CRT. He was looking for a catchphrase that would be more contemporary than “political correctness,” something the right could coalesce around. Critical race theory was “the perfect villain,” he said.

What at first may have seemed a lampoonish argument that critical race theory is “racist” and punishes people for being white made it to the right-wing mainstream on Fox News in summer 2020. The network made the disinformation campaign a cornerstone of its crusade to discredit anti-racist work. Fox News actively conflated CRT and activist movements such as Black Lives Matter. At the same time, then-president Donald Trump, an avid Fox watcher, launched the 1776 Commission aimed at discrediting CRT any anything perceived as “anti-American historical revisionism.”

Media Matters, a progressive non-profit that tracks misleading information in news, found that by July 2021 Fox had made more than 1,900 mentions of the term in the previous three and a half months. The network’s strategy has played a significant part in creating fear among white Americans and in impacting local elections, including school boards.

Numerous teachers, principals and other school officials have been targeted and fired for allegedly teaching CRT, though in most cases school boards struggle to define what specifically should be forbidden. Sometimes the firing offence is getting students to think about race and privilege, and Black educators have particularly been targeted. In other words, the authoritarian move on the right includes efforts to control the very structures of social order that CRT is concerned with — from courts to education.

In terms of media, right-wing networks, websites, and pundits jumped on the bandwagon to make critical race theory the fabricated cause célèbre of a larger project to reject racial justice and liberal democracy. The fundamental lies upon which the disinformation campaign is based include that CRT is taught in public schools and that it holds that all white people are racist.

While mainstream media have frequently pointed out the fallacies of the anti-CRT campaign, their efforts have been drowned out by the far-right clamor. This is partly because journalism’s agenda is by and large set by official actors, and because of an enduring devotion to an objectivity paradigm that tends to leave incendiary statements unanswered. With right-wing media flooding the zone, as Fox and others did, and with mainstream media tied to their own fixation on peppery sound bites and a fallacious “both sides” approach, conditions work in favor of the extremist gambit.

For example, Florida governor Ron DeSantis said critical race theory teaches kids to “hate their country and hate each other.” As such it is an imminent danger to the republic, according to white supremacist media organizations such as Fox. There is no equivalent cohort of political figures in liberal circles vociferously countering far-right politicians who have hitched their wagon to CRT as a culture-war issue. Thus, the pressure on critical race theory has continued to build.

Relying on Patriotic Myths to Oppose CRT

Patriotism is used as a cudgel as well. The conservative Manhattan Institute has deployed a historically vacuous national unity argument to oppose CRT. In that view, the country should move on and embrace its mythical status as the greatest country on Earth rather than feel guilty about its racist founding. As mentioned, Trump and others on the far right countered the 1619 project with the 1776 Project, a political action committee to promote a patriotic version of history in classrooms, one that rejects systemic inequality and instead promotes ahistorical exceptionalism.

Patriotism has always been a pitfall for mainstream liberal media in the U.S., a kind of litmus test news executives and journalists challenge at their peril. It serves us well to remember the media handling of other “shock doctrine” crises. For instance, newspapers slavishly reported the unhinged anti-communist ravings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and many lives were ruined. Journalists who questioned the Bush government’s propaganda story about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after the September 2001 attacks faced an avalanche of jingoistic rage. Thousands of people died in that war.

One of the architects of CRT, Kimberlé Crenshaw, has argued that talking about systemic racial inequality in the country’s past and present is actually the ultimate act of patriotism. Those who work with the legal philosophy that is CRT “believe in the 13th and the 14th and the 15th Amendment. We believe in the promises of equality, and we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality,” Crenshaw has said. Her effort to redefine what counts as patriotism is going against a historic tide of conservative propaganda and media compliance.

Media and the Chilling Effects of anti-CRT Disinformation

Cogent arguments such as Crenshaw’s are not the stuff of most mainstream coverage. Numerous media organizations have produced solid context and history about CRT and the manufactured controversy. But they have also, particularly on TV, let evidence-free arguments about “reverse” racism and the divisiveness of equity trainings stand. Coverage has fallen back on its rote he-said, she-said pattern of handling controversial issues. What passes for in-depth debate tends to be generalized talking points that journalists don’t challenge or probe.

The chilling effect of this new “conflict campaign” as UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access calls it, is palpable. Educators have been fired, as noted above. Radical right-wing fear-mongering, and an equally toxic anti-LGBTQ fervor, has brought widespread book banning, particularly in states such as Texas and Florida. Bans based on race, gender, and sexuality have been instituted in 30 other states as well in the period between July 2021 and July 2022, according to PEN America. Among the more than 1,600 titles banned in schools, PEN reports that 61 percent contain protagonists or prominent characters of color, or directly address issues of race and racism.

It certainly takes more than the mainstream media to discredit a disinformation campaign, particularly in the digital media era. But the institutional norms, culture, and routines of news don’t provide the framework to work against manufactured conflict. And news organizations, structured as they are in the North American context, find themselves in a bind. Those still aiming to provide a “both sides” paradigm for the audience at the expense of explanatory and contextualizing journalism are not equipped to provide truly anti-racist perspectives. Those that do provide such perspectives as part of regular coverage are seen to be part of the radical left.

There are no quick fixes for disinformation, which is what the orchestrated moral panic over CRT is. But this political firestorm demonstrates the urgent need for greater critical media literacy as a bulwark against conflict campaigns whose underlying impetus is white supremacy. It serves the public to understand the motives and practices of news media across the spectrum as a way to think more clearly about the torrent of information and ideas we face daily.

Dr. Katherine M. Bell is a former career journalist whose research focuses on news and popular culture, as sites for understanding race, gender, and sexual orientation in North America.



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