It’s an explosive story with ingredients that Fox News should be well familiar with: race, guns, and crime.
But as the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin makes national headlines, Fox’s coverage is becoming a story in its own right—from its slow start behind other networks to its attempt to shift the story onto the more comfortable turf of gun control.
Details of the case are tragic, and now widely known. On the night of Feb. 26, Martin was walking to the Sanford, Fla., home of his father’s girlfriend after a trip to a nearby convenience store. The boy was carrying a cellphone, an iced tea, and some candy. George Zimmerman, 28, had a gun. A member of the gated community’s “neighborhood watch”-like project, in the past Zimmerman had reportedly called police nearly 50 times to report what he thought was suspicious activity. On this rainy night, he followed Martin—against the advice of a police dispatcher—and, after a confrontation, shot and killed the boy. In the weeks since, with Martin’s family calling the incident a murder and Zimmerman claiming it was self-defense, he has not been arrested or charged with a crime.
Outrage over the shooting built steadily, fueled by social media, and then erupted over the weekend with extensive coverage on cable news channels and in national newspapers. Audio of several 911 calls were played and replayed, including one by Zimmerman describing his pursuit of Martin, and one with harrowing screams of “Help! Help! Help!” in the background—followed by the sound of a fatal gunshot. ABC News reported the incident on March 10; CNN did so on March 12.
By March 19, the story was officially national news—and so was Fox News’s relative absence. Think Progress ran a story under the headline “All Major News Outlets Cover Trayvon Martin Tragedy, Except Fox News,” which was tweeted more than 1,500 times and picked up by a wide array of blogs and news sites. A chart accompanying the item said that between Feb. 26 and March 19, CNN had devoted 41 segments to Trayvon Martin, with MSNBC airing 13 and Fox News one.
A Fox News spokesperson disputed those numbers on Tuesday afternoon, saying the network by then had aired roughly 15 segments on at least seven programs, including Happening Now, America’s Newsroom, Studio B, Fox Report, Fox & Friends, Fox & Friends First, and America Live. A correspondent, Steve Harrigan, is in Florida reporting on the story. The spokesperson declined to comment further on the network’s coverage.
The segments that Fox News did air quickly drew scrutiny. Monday afternoon, anchor Martha MacCallum introduced a piece that tied the release of the 911 calls to a general statement on the shooting by the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “The alleged gunman [is] claiming that it was self-defense,” said MacCallum, “and now anti-gun advocates say the 911 calls from some witnesses prove otherwise—and they’re using them as ammunition in a new attack on the National Rifle Association.”
Los Angeles correspondent Trace Gallagher described portions of the tapes, and then concluded: “Remember, Florida is also a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law state, which means that you can use guns or other deadly force as self-defense without backing out of a confrontation. Now, the National Rifle Association backed that law, and now the Brady Campaign, which is pushing for tougher gun laws, says, ‘That’s the National Rifle Association’s vision for America.’ It’s important to point out that gun sales in this country have never been higher, and the crime rate, says the FBI, is very low.”
For most of the segment, a chyron read, “ANTI-GUN ADVOCATES USE TEEN’S DEATH TO GO AFTER NRA.” Other reports have been more straightforward.
Media Matters, a liberal organization that regularly takes Fox News to task, criticized the network’s coverage. “That’s really telling,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, the group’s executive vice president and author of The Fox Effect. “They switch from this horrific clip—they’re playing the 911 tapes, they play the actual gunshot. And then they switch to a kind of political attack on gun-control advocates, which is ridiculous, in terms of the kinds of the emotions being used there.”
“You never know motivations. But Fox has a habit in the stories they pick: they did more than 90 segments on the New Black Panther story, but they certainly don’t dedicate that kind of coverage to Trayvon Martin,” Rabin-Havt said. “I can’t tell you why they pick the stories they pick, but it does say a lot about the network.”
Fox has been known for its aggressive coverage of stories relating to race, guns, and crime, but lately has tried to take the edge off such hot-button topics. In January 2011, after a gunman shot and nearly killed Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes told entrepreneur Russell Simmons in an interview that he wanted less heated rhetoric on his network. “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” Ailes said, according to a transcript. “You don’t have to do it with bombast. I hope the other side does that.”
With the Martin case set to escalate further—the FBI and the civil rights division of the Justice Department have announced investigations, and a Seminole County grand jury will convene next month to weigh charges—Fox News will face ongoing pressure to keep covering the story, and just as much scrutiny over the way it does so.