The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Critical race theory is the hottest topic on Fox News. And it’s only getting hotter.

The concept, which has been around for decades, has been mentioned nearly 2,000 times on the network this year

News Corp. headquarters, the home of Fox News, in Manhattan. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

If you watch Fox News, you’ve almost certainly heard a thing or two about critical race theory lately — though for viewers of other cable news networks, it may barely ring a bell.

Over the past few months, and particularly through June, hosts and anchors on Fox have ramped up the conversation about the theory, an academic legal framework for examining systemic and institutional racism that has become a hot-button issue for political conservatives.

The concept has been around for more than 40 years, according to EducationWeek, but it has become a major programming theme on Fox News only in recent months as parents, buoyed by conservative activists and groups, have vocally opposed the teaching of the theory — or something similar to it — in schools throughout the country. Republican-led state legislatures have voted to outlaw it.

The term “critical race theory” was mentioned just 132 times on Fox News shows in 2020. In 2021, it has been mentioned 1,860 times, according to a tally using the media monitoring service Critical Mention.

After being mentioned just 51 times in February, it was mentioned 139 times in March and 314 times in April. It really blew up in May, when it was mentioned 589 times on the network’s shows.

In June, the topic has been mentioned 737 times on Fox. On Tuesday, it was mentioned 48 times on shows across the network’s lineup.

What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools?

On Wednesday morning, for example, Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner pressed Caitlyn Jenner, a candidate for governor of California, on whether she opposes the teaching of the theory — without explaining what it is. “If I become governor, I will do everything to fight critical race theory from being taught to our children,” Jenner replied. “I am totally, 100 percent against that.”

Considering that the topic is of particular interest to political conservatives, it’s not surprising that Fox’s ideologically dissimilar competitors, CNN and the more left-leaning MSNBC, aren’t really touching it.

Still, the size of the coverage gap among networks is striking. In April, May and June, critical race theory was mentioned 1,640 times on Fox News. During that same period, the concept was mentioned just 250 times on CNN and 264 times on MSNBC.

Representatives for Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.

Charlie Sykes, a longtime conservative commentator and editor-at-large for the Bulwark, described coverage of critical race theory as a kind of “shark attack politics” relying on a limited set of local anecdotes to tantalize viewers.

“This resonates with an audience that doesn’t want to confront racism but also thinks that the left is nuts,” Sykes said in an interview. “You only need a handful of extreme comments on Fox News to create this picture out there that this is widespread. We do live in an age where anecdotes will always trump data.”

Prominent conservatives, including Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to Donald Trump, have seized on critical race theory as a campaign weapon. Sykes argued that political motive is “very much linked” with widespread coverage of the theory in conservative media. “I do expect that this is going to be effective,” he added.

On Tuesday, a Loudoun County, Va., school board meeting turned contentious, with one man arrested, after several speakers raised objections to the district’s policies on transgender rights and racial equity, with some equating the latter with critical race theory.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said that “critical race theory” has become a culture-war shorthand, akin to catchphrases such as “sharia law” and “the war on Christmas” that became grist for hours and hours of conservative media programming in past years.

Critical race theory is taught in few school curriculums, she noted, but “if you are on high alert to threats to your identity, then if it’s happening in any place, it’s worrisome to you” — making it an irresistible topic for many TV viewers, Jamieson said. “It works. It holds audiences. The goal is sustaining viewership.”

Republicans, spurred by an unlikely figure, see political promise in targeting critical race theory

In addition to derisive commentary about critical race theory from hosts, Fox News programs have been a key platform for activist parents who have used appearances on highly watched shows such as “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to spread their message and promote their organizations.

“Critical race theory would be aligned with the KKK and true white supremacy,” Quisha King, a mother of two children and a Florida co-chair of a group called Moms for Liberty, said during a June 11 appearance on Fox. “Wow,” fill-in host Tammy Bruce replied. (King, like some other individuals identified primarily as “concerned parents” during appearances on Fox, is also a Republican strategist.)

Elana Yaron Fishbein, founder of an organization that aims to prevent the “indoctrination and politicization” of schoolchildren, credited Carlson for having her on a September episode of his show and giving her a platform to spread her cause and promote her organization.

“He launched our movements,” she told NBC News this month. “He doesn’t know it, but he did.”

An early mention of the topic on Fox came in October 2019, when conservative host Jesse Watters hosted a segment on his Saturday-night show that focused on whether “math is racist.” The segment, based on a proposal by Seattle’s public school system to integrate ethnic studies into math, served as a good illustration of critical race theory’s potential as grist for programming that strikes a nerve with viewers.

“Critical race theory is a framework for understanding the world that helps us understand that this entire country is racist,” said Watters’s guest, sociologist Anne DeLessio-Parson.

“Wait, wait, wait. Can you just stop for one second?” Watters replied. “Are you saying that all White people in America are racist?”