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When all else fails, Republicans turn to crime
As Republicans exploit the issue of crime, the press often struggles to put it in context
Crime used to be a lot worse in the United States. The homicide rate has dropped by nearly a third in the last three decades.
Feel safer? Probably not, because right-wing politicians demagogue the crime issue relentlessly. They seem determined to make people think the sky is falling and the answer is to put more people in jail, put more guns in Americans’ hands, and (of course) put more Republicans in office.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel wrote in a Fox News opinion piece: “Crime is skyrocketing across the country in Democrat-run cities, yet they won't give up their pro-crime policies.” Fox host Kayleigh McEnany claims there’s “a problem in blue states with crime because Democrats don't want to enforce the law.”
But when you look at the numbers, red states look worse than blue ones. The top three states for homicide rates are red (Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama), as are seven of the top 10 and 18 of the top 25.
Failed House speaker candidate Jim Jordan regularly highlights crime in “Democrat-run cities” such as Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia and New York City. But a Washington Post story in April shared statistics showing that New York City was safer than the largest city in Jordan’s congressional district, Mansfield, Ohio.
New York Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat whose rhetoric sometime sounds Republican, helped promote the big-city bloodbath myth last year by declaring that he had “never witnessed crime at this level.” The New York Times fact-checked Adams by noting that he was a transit cop in the early 1990s when the city’s murder rate was four times higher than it is now.
With the exception of Fox News – which is propaganda, not journalism – major news media are doing a fairly good job of citing statistics to put crime in context. But the violence covered on TV news night after night has an effect that statistics can’t undo. There’s also the fog of nostalgia – the idea “you could leave your front door unlocked” in the good old days and everything keeps getting worse. To many people, it simply feels like crime is getting worse, even when it’s not. Despite the dramatic long-term trend toward lower crime in 1993-2020, 20 of 24 Gallup surveys conducted during that time found that at least 60% of U.S. adults said crime was up.
Crime is notoriously difficult for news media to cover. Are crime increases trends or blips? News outlets always get more attention when they report that “crime is up” than when they report that “crime is back down again.” Bad news tends to stick with people. Then there’s TV’s attraction to the visual – which means standing outside murder scenes, interviewing distraught relatives and showing videos of street mayhem. That kind of coverage is far more compelling than a news anchor reciting statistics in a studio.
Right-wing disinformation outfits like Fox know this.
Before last year’s midterms, when Fox and the Republicans tried to make crime a major election issue, the Washington Post ran a graphic showing that the level of crime coverage was fairly flat over recent years on CNN and MSNBC but had surged on Fox since Joe Biden’s election. It’s no wonder that right-wing voters are increasingly consumed with fear. Gallup found that perceptions of local crime were fairly consistent whether you were a Republican, Democrat or independent until Biden took office. Then perceptions that crime was getting worse soared among Republicans – and only among Republicans.
The hell-in-a-handbasket crime rhetoric has an effect. Republicans especially like to use the issue against Black Democratic candidates, as they did successfully in Wisconsin in 2022 to narrowly defeat Mandela Barnes and win a new term for Sen. Ron Johnson despite Johnson’s Covid lies and his role in the fake-electors scheme.
The crime issue has power for people, and it should. The current levels of crime, while historically low, are not acceptable. Violent crime did indeed increase during the first couple years of the pandemic, though blaming Democrats for the rise didn’t hold water. A report by the Brennan Center found that “murders rose roughly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats. So-called red states actually saw some of the highest murder rates of all.”
And now crime seems to be easing up. Just last week, the FBI reported that murder and non-negligent manslaughter dropped 6.1% from 2021 to 2022. Aggravated assault was down 1.1%, and robbery fell 1.3%. But you’re probably less likely to hear about that than to hear about new crime spikes in a few cities. Even after the FBI figures came out, MAGA Rep. Elise Stefanik declared that “violent crime is skyrocketing across America.”
So what are news media to do?
Keep stating the facts, bringing context to crime stories. Shout the facts, shouting louder than the liars. Produce stories that lead with the notion that claims of rising crime are often totally false. And push back on politicians who dismiss the significance of the Republicans’ leading candidate being charged with 91 felonies while claiming that Democrats “want” crime.
No one wants crime except criminals. And those who vote for them.