Taking their cues from Trump and dropping any pretense of not being blatantly sexist and racist, the right-wing media immediately dove into a feeding trough of ugly rhetoric this week when Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. The conservative media machine set off allegorical bomb blasts around Harris, frantically trying to depict as radical and dangerous a mainstream U.S. senator from the largest state in the union.
"In style and policy, Harris epitomizes an authoritarian," the National Review gasped. The far-right Federalist warned panicked readers that Harris, a former prosecutor, represents a "radical threat to America." And Fox News' Sean Hannity announced the Biden-Harris ticket was "the most radical ticket of a political party in our lifetime by far."
With the Harris pick, and the front-row seat she'll occupy during the fall campaign, Fox News is officially bringing back the ugly race baiting that defined the channel during Barack Obama's presidency. That's when the network spent hundreds of hours questioning the president's birthplace, mocking his connection to Black culture, and one prominent host even calling America's first Black president a "racist," who flashed a “deep-seated hatred of white people."
Even with Obama's exit from the national stage, racism never left Fox News' programming stable. The network has been relentlessly bigoted in its Black Lives Matter coverage this year, warning viewers about BLM's "Marxist and LGBT" agenda. Fox News spent weeks embracing a "conspiratorial, propagandistic, and outright dishonest tone, ranging from an insistence that systemic racism isn’t real, to uncritical parroting of the Trump campaign’s attempt to induce panic over antifascist activists, to an embrace of Infowars’ conspiracy theories related to the death of George Floyd," according to Media Matters.
But in terms of partisan political coverage, Harris gives Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing media, a chance to bring back overt racism and apply it to an electoral news story — and misogyny. With Trump now the voice of the GOP, that racism and sexism is even more repugnant and unapologetic than it was during the Obama years. Culturally, Trump has signaled to his base that there are no rules, and unvarnished hate speech is welcomed.
That's what fueled this week's guttural roar over Harris. You can sense the joy and excitement Fox News pundits and right-wing radio hosts have when given to chance to wallow in racists and sexist tropes; to question Harris' "relentless pursuit of power" (because apparently men are never ambitious), her family lineage, and purposefully mangle her name. It's an orgy of pointed disrespect.
This is not the typical partisan media response that's generated when a VP pick is announced, and players on the other side of the aisle detail all the policy reasons why the new contender isn't worthy. This is unserious hate speech, the kind that Trump wallows in and wants the Republican Party to be synonymous with.
We've seen one Fox News guest claim that Harris shouldn't be considered "African-American" because she "is from the legacy of" slave owners. Laura Ingraham says Joe Biden prioritizing women of color for running mate was a racist violation of his moral obligations. Tucker Carlson insisted it was "illegal" for Biden to make women of color central in his choice. Former Fox News commentator Silk, of the Diamond and Silk talking duo, announced "Kamala is not even Black," and Rush Limbaugh passed along sleazy commentary about Harris's personal life.
The ugly eruptions come in the wake of the 2016 campaign coverage, which was hallmarked by runaway sexism. During that season, Hillary Clinton was on the receiving end of a brutal one-two punch — sexist attacks from the right-wing media, and sexist attacks echoed by the Beltway press.
During the primary season, Fox News' Geraldo Rivera suggested Clinton "scream[s]" because she "may be hard of hearing," the network claimed her campaign was nothing more than "bra burning," while other conservatives mocked her "grating" voice. At the same time, Washington Post editor Bob Woodward complained, "She shouts." Adding, "There is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating, and I think that just jumps off the television screen."
Recently, there have been some encouraging signs that the Beltway press might be getting serious about how it treats women on the national stage. Although virtually no members of the press have stepped forward to apologize for the 2016 media debacle, there does seem to be a raised awareness about abolishing long-running double standards that have been applied to women.
"Reporters, news executives and others in the news media should be on red alert," urged Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan. "It’s going to be a perilous tightrope walk to cover this inevitable ugliness without making it much, much worse. How do you examine without amplifying?"
For the right-wing media, the only goal this season is to amplify hate.