Harvey Graff

Today’s largely incoherent and distorted clashes over teaching about race—teaching the inclusive, factual history of the United States as opposed to a largely fictionalized version—are unusual in instructive ways.

This year’s effective nondebate over the radically distorted and misrepresented critical race theory is a stunning indictment of contemporary American print and broadcast journalism. (On the nondebate over the Second Big Lie, see links to my essays below.) The failing crosses political and ideological lines; local and national coverage; and different media platforms.

Consider first the amount of airtime that the proclaimed clashes receive. This stems from the nationally organized, well-funded, right-wing activist disinformation campaign with its ceaseless promotion by right-wing media. It is led on air by Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity providing a pulpit for chief propagandist Christopher Rufo, a fake journalist, whose repetitive, self-admittedly dishonest voice is also promoted by USA Today (the recipient of unacknowledged contributions from the Heritage Foundation).

Rufo, right-wing hosts, legislators, school board disruptors, and sympathizers are regularly refuted, more quietly, by teachers, education groups, and scholars, many of whom fear reprisals. Both school and higher educational associations speak out increasingly loudly, raising issues of First Amendment rights in the face of censorship, rising concerns about the social and intellectual growth of the young, and the defense of academic integrity. More than 140 professional and scholarly organizations issued a strong, joint public statement.

Yet, the media and its journalists continue to muddle, misrepresent, confuse, and fail their audiences. In short, they mangle the nondebate over critical race theory, which I call the Second Big Lie. Taken together, the failings demonstrate 1) a failure to do even superficial research; 2) a broad shift from news reporting to “opinion” writing; 3) a too-easy acceptance of right-wing propaganda without confirmation; 3) a common tendency to embrace “false equivalences,” especially the assumption that if there are excesses on the right, there must be parallels on the left; and 4) a refusal to accept either or both the assistance or documented criticism of knowledgeable parties seeking to help.

Among the several dozen national and local reporters I have contacted, only a handful have acknowledged with “thank you.” Only two responded substantively, New York Times’ “The Daily” and Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr.

“The Daily’s” producer tells me that they are reconsidering some of their coverage. In October, Barr revised the viewshe expressed in June. He qualified his earlier exaggeration of the attention given by Fox in comparison to MSNBC, CNN, and others.

The lack of elementary fact-checking combines with the general acceptance of right-wing assertions. It occurred most damagingly in the long months before many (but not yet all) in the media recognized that critical race theory is not taught in K-12 education, and rarely in undergraduate or graduate schools outside of law schools where it is a regular subject.

An equally telling and consequential lapse is acceptance of the false allegations that debate was “raging” and “roaring” across the nation in many school boards and elsewhere. There is no debate, in large part because there are no real issues and nothing to debate about.

A simple search of the handful of tediously repeated incidents especially in California, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia reveals their rarity. A further comparisonof the “testimony” offered by “critics” of the curriculum demonstrates that in most cases the “protesting parents,” as I call them, are following the scripts offered in the online “handbooks” of Heritage PAC, 1776 Project, and Citizens for Renewing America for “disrupting” meetings. Never do they cite specific examples from their children’s classes. (Search the sites for clear evidence.)

The legitimate media’s failure to conduct basic fact-checking of the assertions of the propagandists has increased. It results from the continuing decline of traditional media under economic strains, the growth of social media, the acquisition of local papers by national chains who undervalue news reporting, and the corresponding (largely) unacknowledged shift from news reportingto unchecked and mostly unedited opinion writers. Despite its newsworthiness, national newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post publish many more opinion essays about “critical race theory” (the meaning of those three words varies wildly) from both regular writers and guests than news reports.

News reporters are not immune from elementary journalistic lapses. Washington Post reporters writing about school boards in Virginia; New York Times reporters covering private schools;and Columbus Dispatch reporters writing about Ohio all generalize well beyond the evidence of their limited interviews with a few unrepresentative parents or school employees. As a result, they amplify misconceptions, and feed grievances and fears. The examples are too many to cite; a simple search finds them.

Neither reporters nor opinion writers investigate claims about the validity of a “raging” or “roaring” debate; “protesting parents”; or an illogical and undocumented equivalence (“whataboutism”) among right- and left-wing opponents’ and proponents’ positions. (See my forthcoming essays, “How conservative opinion writers fail their readers” and “The triumph of the new ‘fake news’ in the legitimate press.”) One reporter responded to my suggestions about research and my providing documented information by telling me that “doing research would interfere with my objectivity.” What has happened to journalism education?

What might be excused as the limits of everyday reporters’ time to research their stories has dramatic consequences when the public is confronted with an unprecedented misrepresentation, distortion, and outright lying by right-wing activists, their propagandizing agents, and supporters. Some of these agents falsely claim historical grounding; others assert their basis in Christian faith and doctrine; and yet others propagate fabrications out of whole cloth. I do not expect responsible news reporters to research and write as historians or other scholars do.

Historians, however, know well that even recent and contemporary history is always a battleground. It never stands by itself. History—and news reporting—are inescapably part of the contest to control the present and promote alternative visions of the future.

Today is different from previous episodes. The battle over the Second Big Lie—the uneven and unequal contest between fact and truth on one hand, and fiction, fabrication, and lies, on the other—is unique to our historical moment.

Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar, The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. Searching for Literacywill be published this year. He writes and speaks widely on critical race theory and related issues. His essays on critical race theory have appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, Inside Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe,and Publishers Weekly. He presented a forum for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and speaks on NPR stations across the country.