Lost amidst the coverage of the devastating tornado in Oklahoma last week was news that, in addition to spying on Associated Press reporters, the Justice Department also spied on Fox News Channel on-screen personality James Rosen, tracking his movements and phone calls, seizing his e-mails, and even accusing him of committing a crime in their affidavit. Coming on the heels of the AP scandal, this story likely would have exploded were it not for the tornado later in the day, and when it came out that Attorney General Eric Holder had personally signed off on the tracking of Rosen, even the Huffington Post said on its front page that Holder needed to go, a sentiment I wholeheartedly concur with.
I have always had very negative feelings towards Fox News; I honestly don’t like using the word “news” to describe them even when using their name, which is why I called Rosen an on-screen personality above and not a reporter. There is a definite “boy who cried wolf” quality to Fox News, where their constant stream of deceptions, half-truths and outright lies work to their advantage, because even among the most vocal of liberals you can’t discuss the latest outrage Fox News perpetrated against America (or the world or the truth) without people rolling their eyes because they’ve heard it all before. Worse yet, the rise of even fringier right-wing media outlets pretending to be news, like Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” and Alex Jones’ InfoWars, give Fox News a veneer of respectability simply because Fox News doesn’t go as deep into hare-brained conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks on anyone to the left of John Boehner as these new homes for radical right-wing outrage do on a daily basis. Nevertheless, just like I stood by conservatives when the IRS admitted that Tea Party groups had been targeted for extra scrutiny in their applications for non-profit status (although the honeymoon period there is about to wear off and we need to start discussing how absurd it is that political groups of any stripe can get tax-exempt status), I also stand by James Rosen in this case because, despite my feelings about him and his employer, he did not deserve this treatment from the Justice Department.
I can understand conservative outrage over what happened to James Rosen; I even share that outrage. Nonetheless, there are acceptable ways and unacceptable ways to express that outrage. I would like to think that I’m not in the minority when I say that I think encouraging Fox News viewers to punch Obama supporters in the face is unacceptable, but these days I can’t be sure about that. (For the record, I voted for Jill Stein for president last year and Ralph Nader in 2008, so I hope my face is safe.)
The temptation is to dismiss Tantaros’ comment as hyperbole, the kind of thing that’s too silly to be taken seriously. The problem I have with doing so is that the right-wing media machine has been so well-tuned the past fifteen years that I find it hard to believe that this was just a frustrated utterance on Tantaros’ part. Particularly during the Bush 43 years, the concurrent messaging of the Bush Administration and Fox News was so tight you could practically hear it hum in two-part harmony. More damning is the fact that it is now five days since Tantaros directed Fox News viewers to punch Obama supporters in the face, and even granting the long holiday weekend, this is something Fox should have addressed by now, either through a statement or by Tantaros herself. Until some kind of retraction, or even statement, is made by either Tantaros or Fox, I have no reason not to believe that they are serious in advocating widespread acts of violence against Obama supporters.
What gets under my skin about this whole situation is that, were the roles reversed, things would be drastically different. If, say, Ed Schultz or Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC had advocated punching Mitt Romney supporters in the face, right-wing media and elected officials would demand they be arrested and thrown in prison for terroristic threats, and probably demand the revocation of all of Comcast/NBC’s broadcast licences as well. As strong as my beliefs in the First Amendment are — they’re at the heart of why I’m so appalled by the Justice Department scandals — the First Amendment cannot be used to advocate violence against others because that kind of talk is such a egregious misuse of the power of free speech that no reasonable person can condone it. I don’t think Andrea Tantaros should be arrested, but the silence of both her individually, and Fox as a corporate entity, when a retraction is clearly called for, is deeply worrying.
If we do not join voices in condemning Tantaros’ statement, just as fair-minded liberals have joined conservatives’ outrage over the IRS and Justice Department scandals, then it risks becoming a new normal, advocating violence against people simply because they support a politician you don’t like. Given how the new super-fringe right-wing media outlets are thriving on going further and further over the edge in their rhetoric, if Fox News is the “punch Obama supporters in the face” network, what will these new outlets begin to advocate? How long will it take before some of the maladjusted listeners of these fringe outlets begin to act on these invitations to practice widespread violence?
We cannot allow the rhetoric of violence to infiltrate our political culture any more than it already has. (Remember Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle and her “Second Amendment remedies” threat?) I can only hope that Fox and Tantaros will take the initiative and apologize for Tantaros’ statement before it leads to people actually getting punched in the face — or worse.