Fox and the Panthers


The right-wing media equates Obama with radicalism. Again.


By Joel Mathis 
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Jun. 2, 2009

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Photo by Kris Chau

Barack Obama is no black-power radical. Sure, the GOP and its army of pundits spent 2008 trying to fit the then-nominee with a dashiki and a bomb-making kit, but the portrait never stuck because it was manifestly untrue. It doesn’t matter: Fox News and the conservative media are still trying to peddle the “scary black guy” story.


That’s the lesson I take, anyway, from last week’s orgy of conservative anger about the dismissal of a voter intimidation lawsuit against Philadelphia’s New Black Panther Party and two of its members. The incident was relatively minor—in fact, there’s never been any evidence that a single West Philly voter stayed away from the polls because of the Panthers. Still, conservative pundits used the news to suggest Obama was somehow in thrall to the Panthers.


“If it’s true, it reflects very poorly on the president and his administration,” Bill O’Reilly said on his show Friday night. But it’s not true. The real story is that Fox News blew a mundane incident out of proportion in order to embarrass the president and score political points.


Yes, the two men who posted themselves outside a Fairmount Avenue 
polling place on Election Day 2008 did look a little scary. The pair wore matching black berets and combat boots, a paramilitary uniform indicating their membership in the Panthers. One—King Samir Shabazz, a former PW cover subject—brandished a billy club, adding to the air of menace. They argued with a Penn student who filmed the encounter for YouTube, suggesting they might be intimidating presidential election voters.


The two Panthers had already been escorted from the polls by police by the time Fox’s Rick Leventhal arrived. But Leventhal found a third Panther; the two spent five minutes arguing on live national television. It was only as the argument concluded that Leventhal conceded an important point: Despite Fox News’ breathless coverage, there was no evidence anybody at Fairmount Avenue had actually been kept from voting. A Republican poll watcher confirmed that assessment to philly.com the same day.

“I want to make very clear, we don’t know that any voters were denied entrance to this polling facility,” Leventhal said as he wrapped up his report. “We don’t know that anyone was intimidated to the point that they decided not to vote here, but that was what some people were concerned might be happening with two Black Panthers, one of them holding a nightstick, out front.”


The damage had been done, however. Even as voting progressed, video of the encounter raced around YouTube; one user reposted Fox’s coverage under the headline, “BLACK PANTHERS MAKING PEOPLE VOTE FOR OBAMA.” The subtext was clear: America’s first African-American presidential nominee couldn’t win on his own merits—he needed the help of militant black radicals to steal the election.


Then the story went away, only to reemerge when the voter-intimidation charges against the Panthers were dropped.


“Why is the Obama Justice Department protecting (the) New Black Panthers?” asked blogger Michelle Malkin. The Washington Times warned the Obama administration was paving the way for racial violence in future elections. And on Friday night, O’Reilly interviewed Bartle Bull, a poll watcher who said Obama was deliberately doing a favor for his Panther supporters.


“It’s 100 percent politically motivated,” Bull said of the dropped charges.


“That’s something a Rush Limbaugh would say,” said O’Reilly. “How do you know that?”


“We’re making judgments,” Bull conceded. “We don’t 
know it.”


“If what you’re saying is true, it’s only become an issue if the media drives it,” O’Reilly told Bull. “That’s why you’re here.”


The hypocrisy was rich. Malkin, after all, is famous for defending the preemptive internment of Japanese-American civilians in prison camps during World War II. And O’Reilly is, well, O’Reilly: He was surprised when black people didn’t scream profanities at each other in New York restaurants. In each case, the commitment to racial and voting equality appears to be too newfound to be credible.


This week, the Justice Department pushed back against the tide of angry rhetoric. Spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler told PW the decision to drop charges came from career attorneys in the department, “following a thorough review that determined the facts and the law did not support pursuing the claims in this case.”


Too late. The damage, once again, has been done. The Justice Department either filed charges it couldn’t support or lazily withdrew charges it should’ve pursued. Philly’s New Black Panthers acted like knuckleheads on a national stage. But O’Reilly and his colleagues acted worse. They blew up a minor incident to paint the president as a racist and a radical. It’s not true, of course, but that hardly matters on Fox News. ■


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1. Anonymous said... on Jun 22, 2009 at 02:39PM

“i wonder if you would feel the same way, that this was a minor incident, if you re-read this story and replaced "black panthers" with "ku klux klan" trying to intimidate black voters from voting for obama?”

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2. David Walker said... on Sep 1, 2010 at 04:07AM

“Well, it's like this guy. The Panthers were in a Black neighborhood protecting the rights of Black voters triggered by word that Klansmen WOULD be attempting to suppress, the Black vote, there. Not an unheard of occurrence given the historical AND CONTEMPORARY instances of such, in past and recent elections. Your little KKK bait and switch are apples and oranges as whites don't emerge from a history of having their votes suppressed by Blacks. However the reverse is MOST certainly true. Stop behaving as if Blacks and whites emerge from identical circumstances.”

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