Fox Demonizes 'Democrat Cities,' But Gun-Crazed Red States Are Far Scarier

Jesse Watters

Jesse Watters

Jesse Watters

In his 1933 inaugural address to the nation, newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt uttered the much-quoted: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

The nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. Americans were jobless, homeless, hungry. Fascism was rising in Europe. There’s a reason we call Americans of that era the greatest generation. They lived in dark days and darker lay ahead. Real hardship. Much to fear.

Fast forward 90 years. Crime is on the decline, Americans are wealthier than ever since the pandemic, unemployment is low. We are not at war. Bad things are happening abroad, and yes, we have apparently melted the North Pole, but the fact is, we’re not facing savage Islamists, or cowering under Israeli missiles, or fleeing Russian tanks and bombs. If you listen to the anti-vaxxers, the scariest thing we have to do right now is get vaccinated.

But - if you watch Fox News' fear-mongering coverage of America’s cities, or listen to right wing propaganda about criminals and terrorists coming up from Mexico, you might feel some of FDR’s “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” That sentiment is justified if you are living in a kibbutz near a nest of terrorists, or in a village on the eastern edge of Ukraine. That’s the level of unease about crime and sense of imminent peril the nation’s most-watched cable network spews into American cortexes night after night, about supposed crime waves in what it calls “Blue Cities.”

I’ve been thinking about the role and purpose of this kind of fear mongering since the pre-Twitter days when a few family members and friends in suburbia started forwarding chain emails warning women to always check the back seats of their cars in parking lots. There were no actual incidents, no stories in the news, just rumors that fiends were targeting women in mall parking lots. The email might have included a tip to carry a small weapon in the purse.

Years later, fear is our national preoccupation, the white noise of our days. You notice the wallpaper of panic if you leave for a while and come back. After a few months out of the U.S. I woke up in a small town hotel, jet-lagged, too early. When the sun rose, I wandered down to the lobby to investigate the breakfast offerings. Sipping weak, brewed coffee, dipping a plastic spoon into the cereal in my styrofoam bowl, my senses were blasted by a cacophony of unfamiliar sounds. What the watery coffee couldn’t do to jolt my adrenalin, the aural alarm emanating from the TV near the ceiling did. If you haven’t heard it for a while, the frantic pitch of cable talking heads, even just the uber-friendlies on Good Morning America, is shocking.

Anxiety has been the backdrop to American life for a long time. It wasn’t just the pandemic -- which if you didn’t die, we now know you statistically emerged from wealthier than before. We have a sense that safety is our birthright, when in fact, we all have an appointment with the Grim Reaper.

Pockets of the world are dangerous. The Middle East. Russia’s western border. We soak up distant horror to a degree unprecedented in human history, thanks to technology that enables us to witness distant violence in real time.

But if you watch Fox, which I have been doing lately for a project to come, you will have been thinking for a very long time that peril lurks next door. On Fox, the breathless anxiety of all cable news is turned up high, with incessant warnings about crime, especially in the (wink-wink) urban areas. “AMERICAS CRIME CRISIS”; “Liberal cities in crisis”; “Liberal cities go soft on crime”; and “Are Chicago and Philly worse than war zones?” read typical headlines on a Fox segment a few months ago. Hosts interviewed Amber Smith, a former combat pilot and author, about the difference between a war zone and inner city USA. Not much! Smith blamed “anti-police rhetoric’” the “squad”, and the “defund the police movement” for a rise of crime in US cities, and mayors and district attorneys of “liberal cities” who “refuse to prosecute criminals.”

The segments are short, the hosts pack in all the memes: George Soros, the bogeyman of police defunding, liberal judges and prosecutors, loose bail laws, and of course New York subways.

Researcher Juliet Jeske, publisher of Decoding Fox, belongs to a small tribe of valiant bullshit surfers who keep an eye on the network -- so you don’t have to. She watches hours of Fox every week, logging memes and topics. Fox produces “a tsunami of fear,” she says. Every night, she logs more segments that she files under the category “Democrat cities are hell.”

“They move it around: LA, Seattle, Chicago, it’s always a Democrat-led city,” she said. “Sometimes it’s all of California. The joke is that as much as they praise Florida, every city there has much higher crime rate than New York. They just push nonsense. It’s all about scaring people."

Crime in America was much higher in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but the visuals weren’t available in the pre-I-phone years. Today, crime is down, imagery is up. “Fox will get a clip, especially if a Black person is doing something bad on the subway, for example, and play it for three days like a national news story. They’ll have a host and a guest and on a third part of the screen, whatever crime video they have, running on a loop over and over and over.”

Fox will not tell its viewers that gun violence is far worse in Red States. Residents of any MAGA state should be afraid, but not of blue cities. Trump won every state in the top ten states for firearm mortality, except for one, New Mexico: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

One of the most violent and dangerous places to shop is the Dollar General, ubiquitous in small town and rural America. Between 2014 and 2021, more than 150 people were killed by guns at Dollar stores, another 329 injured, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, citing data from the Gun Violence Archive.

Fox won’t report that, nor inform viewers that right now, murders are historically down, in America. As David Lauter reported in the Los Angeles Times: Homicides in the U.S. dropped significantly in 2022 and have plummeted even faster this year, putting the country on track for one of the biggest declines in killing ever recorded, crime statistics show.

The fear mongers on Fox have already run up against this problem. In an inadvertently hilarious segment last month, an intrepid crime-seeking Fox reporter was interviewing people on the streets of Seattle. On deadline, unable to scare up frightened citizen, the reporter fed the network video of residents insisting they were not afraid. Host Jesse Watters, watching gobsmacked, adlibbed “They’re in denial,” above a chyron that read, “Blue City Residents Accept Crime, Drugs, Homelessness.”

Fear is a longtime pillar of the right-wing belief system. It is a necessary component of their political movement. It is an organizing principle for getting out the vote. Apparently there’s some science behind the strategy, because evidently conservatives have bigger amygdalae, the threat-perceiving part of the brain. A significant subpopulation of white Americans, arguably the most protected human beings on the planet, are convinced that peril lurks not just on TV in Gaza and Israel and Ukraine, but right down the street, or at the edges of the great cities. It’s why they vote for autocrats and why so many arm themselves to the teeth with legally and illegally acquired arsenals.

Next time you run into a Fox-watching friend all a-quiver, do them a favor: ask them to take a deep breath. And play them a little FDR.

Please consider subscribing to American Political Freakshow, from which this is reprinted with permission.

Nina Burleigh is a a journalist, author, documentary producer, and publisher ofAmerican Political Freakshow, a Substack on politics. Her journalism has been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Airmail, and New York. She is the author of seven books including most recently Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic and an adjunct professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.


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