The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Race and Violence in our Cities’? A topic for the first presidential debate draws criticism.

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace consults his notes while serving as moderator of the presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas in October 2016. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The topics for the first presidential debate focus on issues that have dominated the news throughout 2020 — the economy, the coronavirus pandemic and the records of the two leading contenders.

But the framing of one of the debate topics has set off alarms and objections.

“Race and Violence in Our Cities” — the title of one of the segments announced by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News on Tuesday — seems to echo President Trump’s contentious characterization of the protests that have swept American cities this summer and gives a false sense of the issue, critics say.

Instead of alluding to the concerns about racial justice and police brutality that inspired the protests, liberal commentators and advocacy groups complained the phrasing suggests Trump’s framing of Black Lives Matter as an inherently violent movement.

“ ‘Race and violence in our cities’ as a topic is really leaning hard into the Trump narrative,” former Obama administration spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote on Twitter. The political arm of liberal Jewish group Bend the Arc called it “barely-coded language that reinforces anti-Black fear-mongering.”

“We should be talking about the threat of white nationalism — from right-wing militias to extremists in Congress & the White House,” the organization tweeted.

“‘Race and violence in our cities . . . ???’ Seriously??” tweeted MSNBC host Joy Reid. “Is this a debate or an episode of Fox & Friends?”

Wallace did not respond to a request for comment. The veteran newsman selected the topics that will occupy each 15-minute segment of the 90-minute debate on Tuesday from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The other topics are more generically named: “The Trump and Biden Records.” “The Supreme Court,” “Covid-19,” “The Economy,” and “The Integrity of the Election.”

Chris Wallace is uniquely qualified to interview Trump — and uniquely independent at Fox News

An in-depth look at how President Trump and Joe Biden have approached criminal justice and race issues throughout their public lives. (Video: The Washington Post)

All summer, cable networks have been scrutinized and second-guessed for their coverage of protests and rioting. Fox News critics contend that the network has been overly fixated on the relatively small number of rioters and ignored the largely peaceful protests against police violence, while other critics have accused CNN and MSNBC of downplaying or ignoring the violence that has occurred.

Trump has made “law and order” a campaign catchphrase and has repeatedly sought to tie looting and violence that occurred during organized protest marches to Joe Biden and Democrats. At the same time, Trump has tried to appeal to what he often refers to as “suburban” voters by claiming that they are at risk if he isn’t reelected. “If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters,’ ” he tweeted on Sept. 10.

Hence, “Race and Violence in Our Cities,” in the view of many liberal critics, suggests that the primary issue surrounding the protests this summer is violence — not justice, as its supporters say — and that it is explicitly race-based and urban-centered. It also shifts the focus away from the cause of the protests themselves: The use of deadly force by police against African Americans, and racial inequities in general.

In Kenosha, a Wisconsin city of 100,000 people, protests erupted after a White police officer shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake, who is Black, seven times in the back, paralyzing him. In response, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) called in the National Guard. Authorities later arrested and charged a White counterprotester, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, with homicide after the fatal shooting of two protesters.

In the aftermath, Trump continued to promote the dubious image of riot-torn cities and defended Rittenhouse, saying he acted in self-defense. “Far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist,” Trump said during his visit to the small city.

Biden, who also visited Kenosha and met with the Blake family, denounced rioting and looting as “not protesting” and signaled support for demands to end systemic racism in policing.

Recent surveys indicate starkly differing views about the protests, depending on respondents’ locations and party affiliations. A USA Today/Ipsos poll released Tuesday found that 64 percent of those surveyed believed cities were “under siege” by protesters and counterprotesters, with those living in rural areas more likely to hold this view than people living in cities. The view also split clearly along partisan lines; 83 percent of Republicans agreed, compared with 48 percent of Democrats.

The poll also found 61 percent of Americans agreed most protesters have been peaceful. In fact, about 93 percent of demonstrations linked to the Black Lives Matter movement between May 26 and Aug. 22 were peaceful, according to a report released earlier this month by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

The same report found that law enforcement officials intervened to stop or confront protesters in 10 percent of this summer’s demonstrations.