Media

The MSM Could Not Care Less About This Threat to Democracy

The media's failure to report on GOP efforts to suppress the vote is aiding and abetting a national disgrace.

The MSM Could Not Care Less About This [...]

North Carolina State University students wait in line to vote in the primaries at Pullen Community Center on March 15, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The North Carolina primaries is the state's first use of the voter ID law, which excludes student ID cards. Wake County was among the highest use of provisional ballots, where those voters had home addresses on or near campuses. The state's voter ID law is still being argued in federal court. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images )

Donald Trump has been cranky this week, and the mainstream media don’t seem terribly sympathetic. Apoplectic over the way rival Ted Cruz has managed to pluck delegates from state conventions in Colorado and Louisiana, Trump has called the Republican Party “crooked,” “corrupt,” “rigged” and “dirty.”

This is a scandal of gigantic proportions. The Republican Party has done a plethora of heinous things over the years to the poor and powerless, but to actively prevent people from voting may be their cruelest and most shameful achievement yet.”

GOP chairman Reince Preibus and the poobahs of the conservative media have fired back, saying that the rules governing delegate selection had been in place for months and that it is just too darn bad if Trump is aggrieved.

Note, the Trump bashers are not saying that the selection process is honorable or fair, only that Trump should have known better and engaged in the skullduggery himself.

Putting aside that by one assessment Trump actually has gotten more delegates than his vote total should have earned him, you can imagine how much more sympathetic the press would have been if, say, John Kasich had been the frontrunner and was losing delegates to Trump.

Anyway, Trump’s whining over the naked attempts to deny him the nomination underscores the media’s misplaced priorities when it comes to reporting the real tragedy of Republican voter abuse – one that has gotten some attention, especially and thankfully on this site, but nowhere near the amount it should in the MSM, given how important and reprehensible it is. I am talking about systematic efforts by the GOP to throw impediments in the way of minority voters, poor voters and young voters simply trying to cast their ballots.

This is a scandal of gigantic proportions. The Republican Party has done a plethora of heinous things over the years to the poor and powerless, but to actively prevent people from voting may be their cruelest and most shameful achievement yet.

In no way should this be a partisan issue. It strikes at the very heart of our democracy where, it should go without saying, every effort must be taken to make voting easier. And yet the media don’t seem to be particularly exercised about voter suppression. Why? I think it is because it doesn’t fit the template of scandal the media love to report.

Think about it. One of our two major political parties has long been dedicated to subverting the democratic process. You could almost say that voter suppression and manipulation is hard-wired into the modern Republican Party – from the early 1960s, when William Rehnquist, then an attorney and Republican activist and later Supreme Court chief justice, was accused of patrolling Arizona polling places and intimidating black and Latino voters; to the 2000 Supreme Court coup d’état awarding the election to George W. Bush by denying Florida voters their choice; to the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act in 2013 by invalidating the provision that required certain jurisdictions to get federal approval for new election laws.

And now, in the wake of that decision, we have a skein of voter suppression laws passed almost exclusively by Republican state legislatures and signed into law by Republican governors – laws that include cutting back early voting and reducing weekend and evening voting, requiring photo IDs and then making it difficult to obtain them, requiring proof of citizenship, and forcing voters to file dual registration for federal and state elections.

Just a few weeks ago, as reported by The Nation magazine’s Ari Berman, we had the insult of Maricopa County in Arizona reducing the number of polling places in Latino neighborhoods by a whopping 70 percent to make it more onerous for them to vote. Thank you, Supreme Court.

Republicans defend the practice, saying that these laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, which studies show is virtually non-existent. But let’s be honest. Republicans pass laws to make it more difficult for qualified minority, poor and young voters to cast ballots not because they want to protect the nation from fraud, but because they want to protect Republicans from the swelling numbers of potential Democratic voters.

But I’m not concerned here with the merits of the laws, or even with the disingenuousness behind their passage. This is about media negligence. The only reason that the Republicans can get away with a policy that is beyond unconscionable is that the MSM don’t really seem to care. More, Republicans count on the media not caring. They are like thieves in a corrupt comic book metropolis who know the police will always be looking the other way.

Part of it is that the crime – and it is a crime in a moral if not a legal sense – is right out in the open. The media love the clandestine. They love to reveal hidden misdeeds because it seems to empower them. GOP voter suppression isn’t surreptitious. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see it. For many reporters, like the GOP delegate selection procedures about which Trump is complaining, it’s just politics as usual, which only goes to show how cynical the media are – to our detriment. For them, killing democracy is just another political ploy.

Part of it, too, is that this isn’t an insurgency within the party, like Trump’s candidacy. It is the party’s standard operating procedure, and the MSM have a rule: You never call out one party unless you find something similar about which to call out the other party. That is the media symmetry about which I complain constantly and which gives the GOP a free pass since the media can’t take the chance of seeming to beat up on them. In a way, the MSM operate on what I would call the Jordan Principle, after basketball star Michael Jordan, who once said, when asked to endorse Democratic North Carolina senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt, a black man, against Jesse Helms, of all people, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Well, Republicans buy papers and watch TV, too. You dare not offend them.

Then there is the issue of who is being affected. I can guarantee you that if either party were to devise a method of intimidating white middle-class voters and imposing burdensome voting requirements on them, we would hear plenty about it in the MSM. In fact, if white middle-class voters were disenfranchised the way minority voters are, it would be a daily headline story. (Many of Trump’s voters, who he claims are being disenfranchised, are working class, and, though white, still are only faint blips on the MSM radar.)

Black and Latino voters don’t get those headlines because they matter much less to the MSM. The scandal of their waiting in line for hours to vote, as they did in Phoenix, barely registers in our major newspapers and TV news broadcasts. It is a form of media racism that is too little discussed: the racism of inattention.

Alas, even the good news segments pull their punches. A story reported by John Yang several weeks back on the PBS NewsHour, about a poor black couple trying to vote in Wisconsin, where the ID law is especially onerous, was moving (and infuriating), but it was both a rare foray into the human cost of the policy, and a circumspect one, unable to come right out and identify Gov. Scott Walker as the sinister criminal mastermind behind these folks’ disappointment.

But the biggest reason the media seem to have so little interest in what should be the biggest scandal out there may just be an aesthetic one: voter suppression doesn’t conform to the scandal narrative the media prefer. News reporting is defined as “stories” for a reason — that editors (and presumably readers) want strong narratives with good guys and bad guys, high stakes, identifiable victims and various plot twists in their news no less than in their entertainment (if there is a difference now between the two).

Essentially, they want movies. This is hardly furtive. Stories are nearly always prioritized over information. I can attest from personal experience that writers are asked by editors all the time to spice up story elements. Good stories get good play.

By that standard, voter suppression does not have the lineaments of a “good story,” much less a headline-grabbing one. It is too diffuse. Thousands of Republicans are responsible, not a handful of dirty tricksters, as in the Nixon days, and you can’t pin it on a single villain. It has official sanction from the Supreme Court and the Republican Party apparatus, so you can’t talk about renegades breaking the rules – always a good tale. Further, there is a disconnect from cause to effect because we will never be able to determine precisely how many voters are discouraged from casting ballots by Republican efforts. And finally, the victims, largely the poor, the black and Hispanic, and the young, are not the sorts of cohorts with whom the white upscale consumers to whom the MSM make their primary appeal will readily identify.

In short, if there are no Pulitzers to be won by reporting incessantly on it, neither are there readers or viewers to be won. Voter suppression is not a movie. It is wallpaper.

But if banks can be too big to fail, so can news stories. Voter suppression ought to be one of them. It can affect the outcome of elections. It undermines legitimacy. It further divides the country racially. And it is just plain indefensible. If the press can’t illuminate this ongoing, horrifying miscarriage of justice that is the very predicate for our democracy, what can they illuminate?

Oh, yes. Emails. I forgot.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, Time magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.