For about 10 surprising minutes on Thursday afternoon, Geraldo Rivera was the most sensible man on television.
The Fox News Channel correspondent, last seen getting yelled at by Baltimoreans during the Freddie Gray riots, was reporting from Charleston, South Carolina, less than one day after a white man had shot and killed nine black people there in the historically significant Emanuel AME Church. The most important thing a television correspondent can do is to tell his audience what he’s seeing, and appearing on Fox’s The Five, his hair unkempt, an agitated Rivera did just that: “Those nine people, we can dance around it, but they’re dead because they’re black,” Rivera said. A minute later he returned to that theme: “This is a horrible, horrible crime committed by a racist sociopath.”
It seemed an inescapable conclusion. Alleged shooter Dylann Roof, in his Facebook profile photograph, wore a jacket featuring the flags of apartheid South Africa and racist Rhodesia. He allegedly told his victims that “you rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” His license plate was decorated with Confederate flags. “There is no mistaking the message he sought to project,” said Rivera on The Five. “There is no ambiguity about wearing the flag of racist South Africa, the flag of apartheid Rhodesia.”
Rivera’s frankness was notable because, up to that point, Fox News had spent its entire coverage of the shooting clinging to that ambiguity. I spent a full day Thursday watching Fox’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Charleston shootings, and the most striking thing about the network’s morning and afternoon broadcasts was how their hosts, reporters, and guests seemed to strain themselves not stating the obvious: that the shootings were acts of racist violence committed by an evident racist.
Journalists are trained to be circumspect, of course. But it’s worth noting that Fox was all too willing to say what the incident wasn’t. The Charleston massacre wasn’t an indication that state and federal gun laws should be significantly amended. Mass shootings weren’t a problem unique to America, and it was inappropriate “to bring guns into it and talk about how this is a unique American problem,” as Neil Cavuto put it. The massacre wasn’t a time for politics, and as such, President Obama and various Democratic presidential candidates were inappropriately politicizing the shootings. Instead, said Republican strategist and Fox News contributor Tony Sayegh, we should “talk more about healing our country and allowing the facts to come out before we try to interject our own personal political narratives into the conversation.”
When it came time to say what the racist massacre was, Fox pulled up short. “The motive in this seems obvious,” said anchor Jenna Lee during the 1 p.m. edition of Happening Now, and then she promptly refrained from stating the obvious: “We’re still waiting for the exact motive in this case, and although it’s being investigated as a hate crime, there are still some pieces we have to put together, and it’s only prudent that we do so.”
According to Fox, if the attack was anything, it was evil. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, appearing on Your World With Neil Cavuto, explained that “there’s evil in the world. What you’re seeing today, what we saw last night, that was evil. And law enforcement will figure out what his so-called motivations were. We shouldn’t try to pretend we’re going to understand his mind.”
The evil theme recurred as the massacre was characterized as something ungovernable and diabolical, as though it were the product of an ancient curse that could neither be controlled nor explained. Katie Pavlich, on Shepard Smith Reporting, announced that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a gun owner, and the reason was to protect himself from the evil that walks through the door sometimes. (“Very candid from Katie Pavlich,” noted guest host Harris Faulkner.) Jindal congratulated law enforcement for “capturing this monster—and there’s no other word for him—this monster so quickly.”
But there was another word for him: racist. When Geraldo Rivera finally said that word, it felt like Fox had been given permission to breathe. The rest of The Five was a remarkably frank hour of television compared to the euphemistic circumspection that had preceded it. “A lot of us point the finger at President Obama for not being able to say Muslim extremists when something bad happens and it’s a Muslim extremist doing it. He refuses to do it,” said co-host Eric Bolling. “For us not to be able to say this is racially motivated, this is racism, folks. It is. I’m sorry. We have to be able to call it. We have to be fair and balanced about that on both sides of that coin.” This felt remarkable on a network that has been criticized for its reluctance to acknowledge the extent that racism continues to exist in this country. For at least an hour on Fox News Thursday, race was, if not discussed, at least acknowledged.
And then, right near the end of the program, co-host Greg Gutfeld said something that made clear just how far Fox and the rest of the media still has to go. “I want to ask Geraldo, when we see acts of racism like this, there’s a tendency to say that this is representative of a racist society,” said Gutfeld. “I would posit that the revulsion, the national heavy revulsion towards this act represents feelings on race. Does that make sense?”
It didn’t. I’m willing to believe that Gutfeld’s remark was sincere, but the fact is that the panracial condemnation of mass murder in a church cannot be used as evidence that America is colorblind. It is evidence that America does not condone mass murders in churches.
The instinct to classify the Charleston shootings as an evil act committed by an insane individual isn’t entirely wrong. But leaving it there is a journalistic disservice. Framing the massacre as such removes it from any broader social context rather than acknowledging it as something that exists on the extreme end of a societal spectrum of disenfranchisement. Fox is willing to say that this was the act of a racist but is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, of the oppression that occasionally manifests itself as mass murder but more often appears as small indignities: opportunities denied, breaks not given, stories not told. The network seizes on any evidence of transracial cooperation to support the contention that racism isn’t a systemic problem and might not actually exist. But it does exist, of course, and blacks and whites joining to condemn the shootings in Charleston does not count as evidence to the contrary.
Later in the evening, Rivera appeared on The O’Reilly Factor and again spoke with disarming candor. “I believe that the unresolved race divide in this country is the biggest domestic issue we have,” Rivera told Bill O’Reilly. He’s right, and he deserves credit for being willing to say it. Tell your audience what you’re seeing. That’s what news outlets are supposed to do, but it’s also something that lots of them—not just Fox—seem to find difficult. So good for Rivera for telling the world what he saw. Seeing what’s there—understanding what racism actually is—is the next step.
Update, June 19, 2015: This article has been updated for clarity.