When there’s a riot going on, what channel do you turn to? Watch MSNBC if you want information packaged in the language and symbols that echo the story you already know to be true. Watch CNN for the bland dilution of information into items of mild interest, always footnoted to the official story.
But, if this past week, you wanted to see the clash between the official story of white America and the actual lived experience of black Americans, you should have watched Fox News.
In prime time, as the protests turned to riots at the start of the week, the network’s on-the-ground reporter, Leland Vittert, gamely tried to find black Baltimore residents willing to testify to what the coiffed hosts back in New York alleged: That the looting and destruction in their city was somehow a greater tragedy than the systematic violence of the police against the populace.
Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity, their studio guests, bedazzled by fire and broken windows, sought validation that the riots were the story, and whatever moral high-ground that came with almost 400 years of oppression was lost when people start stealing liquor and throwing rocks. Surely, the producers thought, these neighborhood residents, those standing silently in the wake of the shouting and smashing—debris visible on camera, fires burning in the background—surely, they would attest to the inappropriateness of the uprising. These civilized black neighbors will stand in for the real victims—the white audience at home—and indict the criminals and thugs with borrowed righteousness.
Fox tipped their game plan for these person-on-the-street interviews early in the evening, when Vittert paused from his narration of a liquor store looting to note, “There’s a couple of gentlemen in suits, they might be worth us talking to.”
Because obviously, when you’re in the middle of a massive popular uprising, the people you want to talk to about why it’s happening are the ones wearing suits. (What can you expect from a network that teased one segment with, “Plus, Brit Hume is here to explain the protests we saw in Ferguson.”)
Instinctive as his response to chaos might have been (SUITS! THEY WILL RESTORE ORDER!), Vittert’s saviors of civility turned out to be subversives in mufti, black city officials on the ground doing their own form of reporting. One of the men was city councilman Nick Mosby—husband of newly minted folk hero and state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby—and his response visibly frustrated Vittert.
Vittert zeroed in on sentiment first: “Does it break your heart to see this happen?”
“Definitely,” Mosby replied, before taking advantage of the unclear antecedent: the “this” Mosby saw happening wasn’t stealing or arson but, “What it is, is young folks in this community with decades’ [worth] of anger and frustration for a system that has failed them.”
But, “Is this right?” Vittert demanded. A subtle eye-roll signaled that Mosby was already tired of blacks-plaining: “Is it right for people to loot? No. I think you just missed everything I tried to articulate to you.”
Mosby wound up walking away, mid-interview. Vittert’s tenacity though, in repeatedly corralling passers-by and asking the same stupid questions, is almost admirable—and their persistent rejection of the handed-down talking points was an unstoppable force meeting an immoveable object.
There was the middle-aged woman who seemed flabbergasted by the widely-cited statistic that the Baltimore’s police department is “majority minority.” She begins to explain, with earnest patience that whatever Vittert is talking about, it’s not true in her neighborhood, “They bring in whites from different counties… Westminister County—” Vittert interrupts again, “Like, a few months ago?” She is shocked: “This occurs on a regular basis…”
In another circumstance, another network, this piece of information might be considered a scoop: certainly, the idea that whatever the racial make-up of the police force, it’s still mostly white cops in black neighborhoods would explain a lot about what Fox finds apparently baffling and hypnotizing in the “majority minority” statistic. Which they seem to think means the real problem in police brutality against blacks is, as Vittert puts it, “it’s about how they act toward their own.”
Instead, Hannity cut to commercial.
But perhaps the most incredible moment was when Vittert found a resident in a hoodie and not a suit. Here, perhaps he thought, was a real, live “thug,” who interjected “yo, yo, yo!” into sentences and made most of his comments with a spooky middle-distant stare. He said his name was Keith Watson.
“Tell me why you’re angry,” Vittert began.
“I’m angry because of everything we go through,” Watson said, “You killed my man Freddie. … You really dragged my man who was already out. You’re shooting people out here for nothing. ... We got a mayor who don’t do shit about it.”
Vittert admonished, “We have to watch the language,” and then Watson translated it, Airplane-like, directly from “jive.” “We have a mayor who isn’t doing anything about it.”
“You’ve obviously had a run-in with the police?” Vittert ask-accused. Sure, Watson said. “They hit me with three bean bags.”
Back in the studio, Megyn Kelly was either incredulous or titillated: “Let’s see the injuries.”
And so, Watson lifted up his shirt to reveal three different bloody wounds, with Vittert’s disembodied and ghostly-white hand pointing helpfully into the frame.
“Oh, wow. There you go, Megyn.”
White America usually only sees its violence written so plainly on the bodies of black men in sports arenas. We only see the injuries as collateral damage, or as a single festering wound—that part of the city we don’t go to, the part of history we ignore. And Fox News usually is a core part of the apparatus that helps hide that violence—puts a sheet over the body, or dresses it up in mythology and legend. Fox News usually doesn’t show the physical toll of any of the various wars the America is engaged in, unless the injury can be used to justify continuing them.
But in that live shot from Baltimore, because of Freddie Gray, the unblinking eye was forced to see. The raw evidence of Keith Watson’s bloody torso was right there, itself prompted by the soul-sickening immediacy of Gray’s own injuries.
To be shot to death, in America today, is a tragically clinical media event. It is too common to inspire visceral reaction. It is too ingrained in a narrative of justified force—cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys—to summon immediate sympathy.
For white Americans, dying by gunshot means you must have been doing something wrong. (That almost 90 percent of adult white male firearm deaths are suicides complicates this comforting thought, so it has to be ignored.)
But a severed spine. A broken neck. The mere repetition of those words conjures queasy fidgeting, and there is no other way to describe what happened to Freddie Gray.
Late in the game, some tried to paste on the phrase “voluntary head injury,” a euphemism of such laughable ineptitude and clumsy deflection that I have to think it was done on purpose. I hope it was, because in a nation this polarized, only the total bankruptcy of one line of thought can bring people around to the alternative.
Our national conversation is too bifurcated to hope that the arguments and rationale of MSNBC and other progressives reach the ears of Fox Nation. Those viewers will not be swayed by appeals to reason—they have to see that their own reason has failed them.
I am probably overly optimistic to think that Fox News’ universe can stand only so many epistemological assaults. Last week was a logic-quake stronger than the one caused by Karl Rove’s temper tantrum on Election Night 2012. In the face of so many failures, we have to ask how sturdy that ideological framework really is.
After watching the brutal cognitive clash from the streets of Baltimore, I think it is possible that “We Report, You Decide” could go from Fox News’ slogan to its epitaph.