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Press promotes discord in coverage

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Voting Rights Act on June 25, Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid issued a statement calling the decision “extreme judicial activism” that was “wrongly decided and will unjustly threaten the right to vote for millions of Americans across this country.”

And that was one of the more temperate reactions.

Journalist Greg Palast’s piece ran under the headline “Ku Klux Kourt Kills King’s Dream Law, Replaces Voting Rights Act With Katherine Harris Acts.” A fellow named Jon Perr at Daily Kos ran a piece under the headline “John Roberts completes 30 year mission to kill Voting Rights Act.”

Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, the Associated Press, Legal Professional News at Findlaw, the Atlantic Monthly, New York magazine’s Andrew Koppelman and a lot of other folks who should know better said the court had “gutted” the Voting Rights Act.

All this anger was directed at a ruling that retained and upheld the Voting Rights Act.

All the court did was overturn a section of the law, 4b, that contains a coverage formula relying on 40-year-old census data and specifically references techniques like literacy tests that no longer exist. The court all but urged Congress to create a new formula based on new data to replace the stale formula: “Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

Moreover, in a 2009 voting rights case, the court had let Congress know it was headed in this direction, and yet no congressmember, including Sen. Reid, took action to head off the problem by creating a more up-to-date formula.

Yet the outcome of the Supreme Court case has been described in apocalyptic terms, as though the end of the Voting Rights Act was at hand. Extreme activism. A Klan kourt. A gutted law.

A quarter century or so ago activists, officeholders and policymakers started describing a growing tendency by journalism to favor portentous, conclusive language versus nuanced and restrained verbiage by public figures. At the time, it seemed like an irresponsible but innocuous trend. Today, though, it seems very much a part of everything else that has happened to the political system.

That extreme language tends to pit people and groups against each other before dialogue can even begin. It polarizes both players and issues when, in fact, they may be closer than the language suggests.

Compare the voting rights ruling with another Supreme Court decision that came down the same day. In the second case, the court ruled in a Native American custody case, sending the case back to a local court for reconsideration but also ruling that the U.S. Indian Child Welfare Act applies only when a parent’s “continued custody” of an American Indian child is in question, which was not the immediate issue because the biological tribal father did not seek custody of the child when she was born.

The case did not attract the same major news coverage, but where it did, it was handled differently, particularly in tribal media.

Unlike the voting rights decision, the “Baby Veronica” ruling is not likely to become a major congressional issue or be a source of contention in politics. As a result, the language was more moderate. Some tribal leaders were concerned, but they didn’t phrase their concerns as though good and evil were at stake.

There were a few accounts that framed the issues more dramatically, but they tended to be in white media. Interestingly, tribal newspapers also tended to de-emphasize the case, placing it inside rather than on the front page.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune, for instance, pointed out that the issues in the case were narrow and not likely to affect public policy. “The narrow decision focused on the standard to determine whether this particular father’s parental rights could be terminated,” the newspaper reported.

The coverage was nuanced.

They set a good example.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.