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People stand in line outside of the Georgia State Capitol to pay respects to the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on July 29, 2020 in Atlanta. (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

People stand in line outside of the Georgia State Capitol to pay respects to the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on July 29, 2020 in Atlanta. (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Corporate Media Not Gonna Both-Sides Voter Suppression in Georgia, Are They?

Oh yes they are.

Georgia’s new voting law—one of the first in a crowded field of breathtakingly brazen state voting bills the GOP is pushing across the country—has made national headlines. As voting rights reporter Ari Berman (CounterSpin, 3/16/21) has explained, these bills are essentially “an effort to overturn the election by other means.” But despite Republicans’ obvious—often explicitly stated—goal of rigging future elections more successfully than they have in the past, many of those national media outlets can’t give up their commitment to both-sidesing the story, giving cover to the anti-democratic campaign.

In its initial report on Georgia’s new voter suppression law, the New York TimesNick Corasaniti (3/25/21) explained that Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp highlighted his history of

fighting for stronger voter identification laws, which Democrats have denounced as having an outsize impact on communities of color. Mr. Kemp said that protests against the bill were pure politics.

Who’s to say which side readers should believe? Don’t ask the Times. Corasaniti seemed incapable of sorting out truth from fiction, noting later that opponents of the bill called “for a boycott of major corporations in Georgia that they said had remained silent on the voting push, including Coca-Cola.” It’s not hard for a reporter to verify that claim; it’s their job, in fact.

The piece offered this context for understanding the GOP’s motivation:

Seeking to appease a conservative base that remains incensed about the results of the 2020 election, Republicans have already passed a similar law in Iowa, and are moving forward with efforts to restrict voting in states including Arizona, Florida and Texas.

It’s a neat little trick to shift blame—the party is simply being responsive to its constituents! Never mind that it was the party that drilled the lie of the stolen election into the heads of their base. As Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp (4/6/21) points out, laws like Georgia’s aren’t just premised on the lie of election fraud; they serve to ratify that lie.

In a later analysis, the New York Times‘ Nate Cohn (4/3/21) downplayed the impact of Georgia’s law on voting rights, arguing that both sides “misunderstand” the effect that making it harder to vote has on turnout. As voting rights expert Charlotte Hill quickly pointed out, Cohn’s argument is on very shaky ground for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it misses the disparate impact such restrictions can have on different groups—like minority or youth voters, who disproportionately vote Democratic.

To Cohn, those outraged over laws aimed at suppressing and manipulating the vote are as much to blame as the suppressors themselves for the lack of “bipartisan compromise” on such laws:

The perception that voting laws have existential stakes for democracy or the political viability of the two parties has made bipartisan compromise extremely difficult. The virtue of bipartisanship is often and understandably dismissed as naïve, but voting laws are a rare case where bipartisanship has value of its own. Democracy, after all, depends on the consent of the loser.

One might add that democracy depends on the right and ability of people to vote. The whole impetus for these bills, of course, is the lack of consent of the losers; telling the only party willing to play by the rules of democracy that it needs to “compromise” with the authoritarian party is a great way to further erode democracy, which makes that media mantra not just wrong but dangerous.

Even where reporters called it straight, Times headline writers still couldn’t always bring themselves to do so. In an analysis  (3/25/21) in which reporters wrote without equivocation that “the new barriers will have an outsize impact on Black voters, who make up roughly one-third of the state’s population and vote overwhelmingly Democratic,” the paper went with the sub-headline:

The state’s new Republican-crafted law is set to restrict voting access in ways that Democrats and voting rights groups say will have an outsize impact on Black voters.

Some headlines were even worse, giving no indication of the import of the law. (3/25/21), for instance, ran with this headline: “Kemp Signs Sweeping Elections Bill Passed by Georgia Legislature. Here’s What’s In It,” followed by the equally uninformative subhead: “The nearly 100-page bill overhauls multiple areas of election law in the state.”

In that piece, the issue was explained with perfect false balance:

Democrats and voting rights advocates have blasted the bill as a voter-suppression tactic and legislative “power grab” in response to former President Donald Trump and GOP allies peddling false conspiracy theories about a stolen, fraud-filled election for months. But Republicans contend the bill increases accessibility and is meant to streamline elections, provide uniformity and address a lack of confidence in Georgia’s elections “on all sides of the political spectrum,” a notion Democrats dispute.

Similarly, (3/26/21) reported: “Conservative groups hailed the legislation’s passage, while liberals voiced their concern. ”

Remarkably, in an over 1,000-word article describing what the headline termed an “election overhaul,” NPR (3/25/21) failed to bring up who will be impacted by the changes or how—let alone whether provisions that primarily target minority and low-income voters are legal. Reporter Stephen Fowler managed to cover one of the most egregious efforts to disenfranchise Black voters in recent history without using the words “Black” or “minority”—and using the word “rights” only to note that some previously-planned restrictions were removed because of opposition from “voting rights groups,” among others.

Indeed, while much of the coverage of Georgia’s law has quoted opponents comparing it to Jim Crow laws that ensured white supremacy after Reconstruction, very little of it made any reference to the Voting Rights Act (or white supremacy, for that matter). Though the Roberts Court gutted critical parts of the VRA in its Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013, the provision prohibiting discriminatory voting laws (Section 2) still stands. The current Court, now tilted even further to the right, is expected to rule on Section 2 shortly.

It’s a key point that has paved the way for the current GOP push—as well as the Democrats’ push for a new federal voting rights act—but only two of the above articles even mentioned it. One, Cohn’s piece, referenced it only to tout an unpublished grad student paper arguing that Shelby v. Holder didn’t reduce Black turnout.

And so, rather than making this a story about racist, anti-democratic attempts by the Republican party to disenfranchise Black and other minority voters as part of its ugly turn toward a white nationalist authoritarianism, too many journalists normalize those efforts with bloodless “he said, she said” accounts of “election overhauls.”

© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

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