What Today's Journalists Can Learn From MLK Coverage

Of course the current generation of voter identification laws aren't the same as police dogs ripping into young children on the streets of our cities or the state-sanctioned murder of those helping to register citizens to vote. But acknowledging the differences between now and then in terms of black voter registration, or smugly citing the progress America has made on civil rights in the past 50 years, doesn't help those American citizens who are being discriminated against today by state or local officials. If you are being hassled from voting because you are black or Hispanic does it really matter if it's being done more politely than it was in 1963?

Of course "things have changed in the South," to quote United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in Northwest Austin Municipal District v. Holder, the 2009 decision that paved the way for the Court to strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act this past June in Shelby County v. Holder. But we shouldn't allow the mist of self congratulation to trick us into missing what is before our very own eyes. When it comes to discrimination in voting laws things haven't changed so much in the South, or anywhere else for that matter, that we again ought to be characterizing the truth as "equidistant from right and wrong."

As if to hammer home the point, CBS News recently commissioned a poll on race relations in the United States. The results, released this morning, are telling. "Fifty years after the March on Washington," the pollsters say, "there is a wide divergence between the views of white and black Americans on the issue of racial discrimination. While sizeable majorities of both whites and blacks think there is at least some racial discrimination today, blacks are more apt to say it is widespread. Forty percent of blacks say there is a lot of discrimination against African-Americans today, compared to just 15 percent of whites who say that."

I've already written here at The Atlantic about how the New York Times-- the paper of Harrison Salisbury and Claude Sitton-- has succumbed again to false equivalence in its coverage of the nation's suppressive voter identification laws. Others have as well. Still others have focused upon the paper's position on "voter fraud." Indeed, when Times' editor Sam Sifton last year declared of the controversy over "voter fraud" that "it's not our job to litigate it in the paper. We need to state what each side says" he was in direct conflict with his own paper's grand tradition of not merely just stating "what the other side said" when it comes to voting rights.

I don't mean to pick only on the Times. Last month, The Wall Street Journal committed the same sin. "The fight over voting rights is intensely partisan," wrote Devlin Barrett. "Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to dilute and discourage voting by minority groups, who tend to favor Democrats. Republicans say they are trying to prevent voter fraud, particularly through the passage of more stringent voter-identification requirements." This may be journalism but it's hardly reporting-- it doesn't even hint at the truth of the matter, which is that the voter fraud argument has long been exposed as a myth. There is simply no equivalence.

The "truth" is that the fight over voting rights today is every bit as clear as was the fight over voting rights 50 years ago. The means of suppression are far more sophisticated, and far less easy a story to tell on television, and that means that reporting on the restrictive new laws must be both more nuanced and assertive. And the Supreme Court has given today's new suppression efforts a constitutional patina that must be better explained; as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, as it always is, just because the justices say something is constitutional doesn't make it right, or moral, or even necessarily defensible as a matter of fact or law.

The truth is that one party is trying to make it harder (or impossible) for American citizens to vote. And the other party is trying to stop the first party from making it harder (or impossible) for American citizens to vote. As we commemorate a moment of singularly clarity in our nation's history, when the American people moved decisively to right a wrong that had lasted for more than 100 years, we should be clear that racial discrimination in voting practices still exists today, in clever forms, implemented by officials who barely conceal their motives, and that we owe it both to our grandparents and to our grandchildren to expose it all for what it is. How long must we remain vigilant? Not long. Because no lie can live forever.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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