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Media Circus

Different as Black and White

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 12/27/2000

On Dec. 11 I happened to be in Washington, D.C., and got to see a real live media circus up close. That, you'll remember, was the day before five U.S. Supreme Court justices threw the presidential election to George W. Bush. Broadcast vans with dishes raised surrounded the court's building on First Street N.E.; lights glared; clowns of all persuasions cruised the midway. The acrobats and contortionists, of course, were inside, bouncing all over the U.S. Constitution. It was the greatest show on earth.Now, after Bush's anointment, the prospect of his presidency is somewhat deliberately anti-climactic, as mainstream editors scurry to follow the lead of both major candidates, putting "partisan bitterness" behind us. It's time, they say, to move on--which is, after all, what circuses do.

Some of us, however, are still riveted by what has been cast by the national media as a sideshow: the likelihood of actual election fraud in Florida, particularly targeting African-American and Latino voters. Minorities are alleged to have been disproportionately disqualified from voting, denied assistance at polling places, wrongfully stricken from voter lists, subjected to hyper-strict readings of electoral regulations, and, in some cases, intimidated by state police. That's just the alleged conscious discrimination. Studies by The Washington Post and The Miami Herald concluded that technology exerted a strong bias too: Lower-income areas can't afford the most reliable voting machines.

Among local media, The Sun has done an OK job of covering these race-tinged inequities, chiefly in staff-written stories focused on the complaints of the NAACP and its president, hometown hero Kweisi Mfume. The placement of these stories, however, underrated their urgency. As the Baltimore Times' Jehuti El-Malik Amen-Ra noted in a Nov. 17 column on the previous Sunday's Sun, "Even [the movie] Charlie's Angels . . . made the front page. But reports about black Floridians who were denied the right to vote was [sic] buried on pg. 8."

Expressions of outrage in The Sun were largely limited to guest Op-Ed columnists, including the chameleonic Arianna Huffington, whose Dec. 10 essay scored both Al Gore and mainstream media for playing down evidence of racial disparities but attributed the problems more to technical malfunctions than to political manipulation. Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy struck a similar them; among guest columnists only Tonyaa Weathersbee of the Florida Times-Union focused on deliberate discrimination.

The Sun's own editorial voice, while critical of the post-election process, has been muted on the subject of possible malfeasance. Here's the paper's unsigned opinion on Dec. 14: "The court's 5-4 decision to bar a Florida recount lacked the compelling legal clarity and commanding tone one might have hoped for. Equally plausible, in our view, would have been a majority finding that not counting the votes of thousands of Floridians--some of them members of a historically disenfranchised group--denies them equal protection under the law." Later in the editorial: "It's time for partisans to put aside their bitterness." And in conclusion: ". . . Americans of goodwill have no option at this juncture except to wish [Bush] well in that task" of building consensus, etc. To borrow The Sun's own language, the editorial lacked the compelling journalistic clarity and commanding tone one might have hoped for.

Meanwhile, the daily's point man on racial issues, columnist Gregory Kane, dismissed complaints by Mfume and "Revvum" (Kane's dignified term) Jesse Jackson as "victimology." Rather than address, or attempt to discredit, specific charges of official discrimination in the Florida vote, Kane's Dec. 16 column switched to a tangentially related topic: a purported claim, attributed to unnamed "liberal ninnies," that the Supreme Court's ruling for Bush was "nearly as bad as the Dred Scott decision." Kane had little trouble whupping this straw man.

In their very different ways, both Kane and Sun editorialists simply skirt the issue. What if even half of the allegations are true? If there were, in fact, deliberate efforts by agents of the state of Florida (police, election judges, consultants) to reduce black voting power, it would be a major scandal, one that could cripple the Bush presidency. I'll grant that Jesse Jackson has, in recent years, squandered his moral capital on relatively trivial causes, to the detriment of his credibility in Florida. But I have no trouble at all believing that the Bush gang would resort to dirty tricks to win a close election. Remember the former CIA director-turned-vice president who claimed to be "out of the loop" during the Iran-Contra affair?

As one might expect, Baltimore's black-owned newspapers have given more weight to the Florida allegations. I've already cited the Baltimore Times' Amen-Ra, who expressed frustration with the "mainstream media" for ignoring the issue of race-based fraud and intimidation. In general, though, the Times has taken a cooler approach than the Afro-American--as if outraged, but not in the least surprised. "The thing that is most shocking about the voting-rights violations that took place in Florida is that they were so blatant," the Times' R.B. Jones wrote on Dec. 15. "It is as if the powers that be in the state knew the Democratic Party's reaction would be tepid at best."

The Afro took a more Jackson-esque tack, placing the issue front and center. Sample front-page headlines since Election Day: "Eyes on Florida: Initimidation, irregularities?," "Black voters stopped, threatened in Florida and across nation," "A war on the Black vote," "NAACP hearing uncovers Florida voting irregularities," "Minorities 'dissed' in Florida election."

Fascinating, however, is the rare use of the words "racist" or "racism" in local African-American journalists' discussion of alleged discriminatory practices. Instead, the writers seem to recognize that such electoral ploys could be merely political: If blacks were singled out, it's because they overwhelmingly supported Gore. Greg Kane, take note: This doesn't gibe with your theory of victimology. If anything, the electoral outcome seems to have energized and empowered black writers, who point out how much Gore owed to black support, decry the current rush to conciliate, and exhort their readers not to let the Democrats take their votes for granted next time.

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