When President Obama offered his most detailed remarks yet on the Trayvon Martin shooting Friday, he spoke of the unique concerns of African-Americans about the case based on a long history of discrimination that he had at times experienced himself. He called for a nonviolent response to the verdict, for calm introspection on all sides, and for a renewed dedication to reducing gun violence in general.
What some Fox News hosts and guests heard was a president bent on inflaming racial tensions, eager to distract from “black-on-black” violence, and needlessly imposing more hardship on George Zimmerman’s family. Fox radio host Todd Starnes immediately denounced Obama as the “race-baiter-in-chief” on Facebook. On Twitter, Starnes accused the president of encouraging riots and suggested he was directing violence against Zimmerman.
But if you’d watched coverage of the Zimmerman verdict this past week in the conservative press you already knew exactly what was coming.
On its face, there’s no clear “conservative” angle to the Martin case. But given the passion it generated in progressive circles and Obama’s personal interest in the case, many commentators on the right couldn’t help but grow invested in the outcome.
By the time Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict was announced, there were already a long slate of popular talking points ready to go, some aimed at undermining Martin’s image, others at sympathizing with Zimmerman, and even more aimed at criticizing—or inventing—meddling in the case by the Obama administration. The president’s decision to weigh in at length on Friday all but guarantees another round of discussion and debate, but the script was already written a long time ago.
As we approach one week after the trial ended, here’s what the coverage has looked like on the right.
‘I was right about the hoodie, wasn’t I?’
The most inflammatory reactions came from the usual shock jocks already inclined to race baiting. Ann Coulter greeted the news on Twitter with “Hallelujah!” and Rush Limbaugh reveled in the opportunity to start dropping “n-bombs” on air while mocking Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s friend and a witness in the trial. There were also some on the right who warned against spiking the football: RedState’s Erick Erickson urged conservatives to bear in mind that a young unarmed teenager was dead regardless of how they felt about the verdict and called on social conservatives to join black churches in speaking out against gun violence.
A number of conservative media personalities suggested Martin invited trouble the night Zimmerman killed him because he was dressed like some sort of street criminal, reopening a topic that emerged in the initial aftermath of the shooting. Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera sparked a controversy in March of last year when he said Martin’s hoodie was “as much responsible” for the teen’s death as Zimmerman was because Rivera believed it was associated with law-breaking young black men. Rivera apologized at the time, but repeated his claim again while the jury deliberated the case.
“I was right about the hoodie, wasn’t I?” Rivera said on Fox and Friends the morning before the Zimmerman verdict. “I hate to brag, but I got criticized by every pundit in America when I said Trayvon Martin would be alive today but for the fact that he was wearing thug wear. He was wearing the hoodie. Turns out now that we look at George Zimmerman’s interviews with the police; he didn’t profile Trayvon Martin because he was black, he profiled him because he was wearing a hoodie.”
Televangelist Pat Robertson also took a blame-the-victim approach, arguing on the 700 Club that Zimmerman was right to tail the “fully-formed young African-American male” the night he was killed because other criminals had been seen “wearing these hoods.” This argument has popped up outside of conservative media as well, most recently in the Washington Post this week, courtesy of Richard Cohen. And then there was Republican rocker and National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, who declared in a column for conservative website Rare.us that Martin was a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe” who was responsible for his own “bad decisions.”
Zimmerman’s bad rap
But the most common perspective on the right was less a celebration of the verdict or a condemnation of Martin than it was a general sympathy for Zimmerman. Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed Martin, who was 17. But he who often came across as the true victim in the story. After Obama spoke on Friday, Fox reporter James Rossen noted that “the president had no equivalent words, or any kind of words, for the Zimmerman family and the ordeal that they too have been through as a result of this shooting and this tragedy.” One host seemed surprised when Zimmerman’s brother Robert praised Obama for his “very sincere” speech, pressing him on whether the president’s remarks were necessary or if they were too focused on race.
On Wednesday, The Daily Caller dispatched a high school intern to ask White House Press Secretary Jay Carney about death threats against the Zimmerman family and whether “the president [is] going to take any action for their security or are they on their own?” The question was a follow-up to similar reporting from the Daily Caller’s Neil Munro.
Conservative commentators were especially repulsed throughout the week by the suggestion that any attitudes by Zimmerman towards race, either conscious or unconscious, had anything to do with Martin’s death. Sean Hannity, who interviewed Zimmerman last year, made it a personal mission to absolve the accused of any racial taint associated with the case.
“Does this fit the profile of a person with racial animus?” he asked on a July 16 broadcast. Zimmerman “took a black woman to his prom. He mentored black children with the program, after the program concluded he also continued mentoring them, brought minority children into his home and then stood up for a black homeless man against the Sanford police. Does that fit the profile of a man that’s racist?”
Hannity and other Fox hosts focused a great deal of attention on Zimmerman’s race, objecting to portrayals of him as white. Zimmerman is of white and Hispanic descent. In an interview with Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman, Greta Van Susteren decided the accused was just Hispanic. People, she said, were “pitting this, you know, white against black or black against white, and really sort of the missing element in here it that your family is Hispanic.”
Riots, riots, riots
As for the public aftermath of the verdict, conservative commentators were especially interested in signs of violence or extremism. Scores of Fox News programs and conservative publications devoted major coverage to predicting incidents of civil unrest in the run-up to the verdict. Drudge Report and The Blaze kept a running tally of links to any story that fit the narrative that blacks automatically resort to violence.
Across the country, the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, but there were a small number of incidents that garnered heavy attention: in Oakland, a group of protesters reportedly burned an American flag and damaged some businesses and the LAPD made arrests after some protestors allegedly began to rob a store. But fears of terrifying citywide riots, like the Rodney King mess in Los Angeles in 1992, never came to pass.
In a segment with Mark Fuhrman (who has his own legal history when it comes to race) Hannity said he respects the right to protest but “it seems to me like it’s going to be a dangerous scenario for the cities where this is going to occur.”
The Oakland story in particular got so much attention—especially compared to the hundreds of peaceful protests around the country—that Bob Beckel, the liberal voice on Fox News’ The Five called his own network out.
“I hope we got every bit of rioting on B-roll here for our show,” he told his fellow co-hosts on July 16. “Because the overwhelming number of protests were non-violent, but of course we have to run all that stuff…Do we have one thing of the peaceful protests of which there were many”?
Van Susteren and Hannity also reported on a white jogger in Mississippi allegedly beaten by three black men in retaliation for the verdict and a Hispanic man in Baltimore who a witness said was beaten by black men shouting “This is for Trayvon.” In the latter case, the police later said there was no evidence the Zimmerman verdict was connected to the attack.
“[W]here’s the president?” Hannity asked. “Look what happened, the Baltimore Sun reporting that a number—a group of black youths beat a Hispanic man in Patterson Park Sunday. And what did they say? ‘This is for Trayvon.’”
‘There’s a bigger picture’
One theme underlying the coverage of the aftermath of the verdict was that the White House, protestors, and media were essentially indistinguishable.
A conspiracy theory spread rapidly through conservative media, led by Hannity, Limbaugh, and Lou Dobbs, that a unit of the Department of Justice had organized demonstrations in Florida against the shooting. It was false: the reports in question referred to the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, a 49-year old bureau that helps mediate conflicts in hotspots like Sanford, Fla., as a neutral go-between for local officials and community leaders.
At one point on The Five, Eric Bolling suggested Obama and msnbc host Al Sharpton (a popular target of conservative ire this week) were in cahoots as part of an apparent conspiracy to gin up unrest around the country.
“After the verdict [Obama] says, you know what, there are rules, we have laws, we have a system, accept the outcome,” Bolling said on July 16. “That’s what he says. But then he sends people out like Al Sharpton to say we lost the battle but we won’t lose the war.”
After center-left co-host Bob Beckel said it was “bull” to suggest Obama “sent these people out to do this,” Bolling dismissed him as naïve.
“I’m suggesting that there’s a bigger picture here and you’re foolish to think that there’s not,” Bolling said.
After Obama’s remarks on Friday, one Fox reporter asked commentator Alan Colmes: ”Al Sharpton is using the president to sort of gin up his outrage protests—do you worry now the president might be blamed for the outcome of these protests?” Not everyone made the same connection, though: Fox’s Chris Wallace said he couldn’t understand ”how you can read this as in any way stoking racial tensions.”
Another popular talking point: Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and black community leaders were hypocritically avoiding Chicago shootings between primarily black gang members in order to focus on violence committed by whites.
“If he was honest…he would address why there were hundreds of black men murdered in Chicago since the Trayvon case began and—what could be done about that,” The Five’s Greg Gutfeld said.
How deeply ingrained was this idea? One Fox guest, radio host Chris Plante, slammed Obama on-air Friday for ignoring Chicago, where “it’s practically a killing field.” This despite the fact that Obama addressed urban violence at length just an hour earlier, noting that Martin was “probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer.” In fact, he specifically addressed the type of criticism Plante raised.
“This isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence,” Obama said. “It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.”
The popularity of this point was already peculiar given that Obama explicitly cited Chicago violence in calling for new gun control laws, an effort opposed by virtually all of conservative media. He even invited the family of Hadiya Pendleton, a young girl from Chicago killed by a stray bullet, to his State of the Union speech. NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous has also cited Chicago in supporting the president’s efforts and gun violence has long been a top priority for its national and local offices alike.
Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed a quote to Alan Colmes that was actually a question directed to him. msnbc regrets the error.