November 23, 2014

The Press In The United States Seems to Have Crossed the Rubicon – Just Look at Today’s Coverage of the Supreme Court’s Ruling on the Voting Right Act of 1965

Almost all of the news media is reporting that the Supreme Court gutted the voting rights act this morning.  That is both deceptive and factually incorrect.  The court has specifically avoided ruling on the constitutionality of the voting rights act, instead leaving it to the Congress to decide, most recently sidestepping the questions in the June 22, 2009 decision.  It did not address the question of whether or not the law itself is permissible.

The Supreme Court did not strike down the Voting Rights Act.  The Supreme Court struck down the current formula that is used to determine whether or not a specific part of the country has to get permission from the Federal Government before changing its voting procedures.  The system that the Justice Department had been using is based on out-of-date statistics and methodology that were supposed to only be in place for five years.  Instead, they kept being extended until they are now 40 years old, and had been renewed so that they weren’t set to expire until 2031.  It is absolutely insane that people would think it is a good idea to use data that is 66 years old to determine current policy, yet that is what had been put in place and would remain for another 18 years until the existing expiration was triggered; though history tells us it probably would have been extended yet one more time.

So here we are, in 2013, using data and methodology that is decades out of date to determine which states have problems with racism instead of updating the information to modern society.  That data is a older than I am.  My mother was in elementary school when it was put in place.  In fact, the median American citizen is only 35 years old, so this formula is now older than a majority of the people who live in the country!

As per the Justice Department’s website, the areas that had to cede sovereignty on voting laws were determined by state or political areas where “less than 50 percent of persons of voting age were registered to vote on November 1, 1964, or that less than 50 percent of persons of voting age voted in the presidential election of November 1964.”  That was so long ago that my grandmother couldn’t even vote, yet, as the 26th amendment to the Constitution that lowered the voting age to eighteen hadn’t yet been ratified.  They weren’t using a trailing provision or anything like that; it’s all still based off 1964 statistics – basic mathematics tells you that a majority of the people who voted in that election are dead.  In the 1970’s Congress updated the test to the 1968 election.  Then in 1975, it was updated again to reference the November 1972 election.  From then on, we just kept extending it but letting the formula fall out of date as years, then decades, passed.

Justice Department Voting Rights Act 1965

The Justice Department is no longer allowed to use data from the 1964 Presidential election to identify which areas it can impose restrictions on state and local sovereignty. Instead, Congress has to come up with a formula that is updated for 2013.  Image from Coolcaesar, under CCASA 3.0 Unported.

The Supreme Court did not say you couldn’t have a Voting Rights Act.  It did not say that, given the egregious history of racism, the Federal Government couldn’t take extraordinary measures to limit the sovereignty of the particular states and local jurisdictions that had engaged in a consistent pattern of constitutional violations against its minority citizens by requiring pre-clearance of any changes in voting laws.  No, it said that the data and methodology were now so arcaic that they were no longer justified and a new calculation had to be put in place, which Congress has the power to do.  It said that the formula had to be updated to 2013, not pull from elections that happened generations ago.

In fact, Congress could pass a new law that was identical in almost every respect as the old provision, but change the wording to read that there is a trailing test of, say, the past two or three Presidential election voter registration patterns that determine whether there is discrimination.

It’s pretty much a non-story in that all it should require is for the House and Senate to get together and change a few words, President Obama sign the law, and it gets very little newsprint.  The reason people are reacting this way is because nobody has faith that Congress will pass a bill that almost everyone agrees is necessary and has done a lot of good for countless people.  There is nothing controversial here – the Congress should order pizzas, get together, and pass it in a day.  That’s how basic this thing is.  It shouldn’t be political at all.

The way the media has portrayed this story demonstrates that they think the American people are stupid.  Most folks, if you sat them down and explained the difference between the Voting Rights Act and the formula they used, would be able to understand it in under two or three minutes.  It’s not that complicated.  “Hey, the Supremes said we can’t keep punishing certain counties and states for what they did in 1964, we can only punish them for recent crimes, so we need to change the date on the law so that it re-evaluates them every decade or so.”

See?  It’s not hard.

If I had unlimited funds, I’d start a newspaper that did nothing but report facts with absolute zero slant at all, even on issues I cared about deeply.  The sole guiding focus would be “Who, What, Where, When, Why” and require verification of multiple sources.  I can’t imagine it would be profitable, though, after the stupidity that passes for news these days – the front page of CNN has stories at this moment that include:

  • “T-shirt angers Taylor Swift fans”,
  • “77-year-old golfer to pose nude”,
  • “Epic battle: Dog vs. baby duck”, and
  • “Obama: I’m not that sexy.”  

If I had unchecked legal power for the day, I’d bring back media ownership restrictions because the merger and corporate consolidation of the news providers in the United States is, in my opinion, one of the greatest threats to our long-term felicity and security.  A fearless reporter at a family-owned paper a couple of generations ago could be protected by the owner’s willingness to pursue what he thought was right.  Now, no one wants to report on anything controversial in case it alienates people and causes advertising profits to dip, which, ironically, is causing the news to become worthless and accelerating the decline.

I’d do it to banks, too.  I think the consolidation of banking and media into a handful of giant enterprises has done tremendous damage to a lot of people that far exceed the benefits.

Edit: I don’t mean to sound down on the United States – things are still overwhelmingly good.  I just can’t stand that the media now caters to the lowest common denominator, much like the average public school district, and our Congress is so dysfunctional that it can’t even pass simple legislation.

  • Charles Reeves

    Indeed.

  • Jason Spacek

    So whatchu’ sayin’?

    • FratMan

      My guess is that Joshua cares less about whether someone takes a conservative or liberal position on an issue and cares more about the foundation that we are working from.

      Our ability to form opinions about the issues of our day is partially set by the headlines and top news stories that we see in the papers (err…websites) and television. I’m guessing Joshua is frustrated that major news outlets have gotten in the habit of editorializing in such a way that it distorts the facts they purport to represent, and he used today’s story about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as a microcosm of his dissatisfaction with news reporting in general.

      I’m guessing Joshua doesn’t really care whether we want a Voting Rights Act to be amended, continued, or repealed. Rather, the point is that we are being spoon-fed lines like “Voting Rights Act Repealed by Supreme Court” when the only thing the decision demanded was a reformulation of its archaic elements, yet it is being reported as if the Voting Rights Act itself was struck down.

      The spirit of his post is that we need to focus on the facts first, and build an opinion from there, instead of taking in opinions built on shaky foundations first. The great thing about reading Joshua’s blog is that all the skills he teaches us are transferable to other areas of our life. You can apply the spirit of this post the next time you see some stock market guru say “this stock only went up from $40 to $50 over the past ten years” without even factoring in the ten year’s worth of dividends that the company paid out. By getting in the habit of reading critically (and I do not say that with a negative connotation), we can at least do ourselves a service by developing a sense of when facts are incomplete or unduly slanted. At least, those are my impressions on all of this.

    • http://www.joshuakennon.com/ Joshua Kennon

      The subtext: We are all harmed when the press misreports, or deliberately slants, the news for the sake of generating more page views or outrage; a lesson we should have learned back with the Spanish American War but that sometimes seems to reassert itself.

      I think it’s on my radar because of the recent uprisings overseas, where CNN was reporting on cute zoo stories or whatever while the nation around it burned, only to cover it on the International version of the network. The same thing happened over the NSA revelations, which were as big a deal as the Pentagon Papers, yet only the Washington Post and a few other publications took it as seriously as it should have been.

      (For what it’s worth, even though it really isn’t relevant to the post, I am a fan of the Voting Rights Act. I think it is absolutely necessary, especially in certain areas, to ensure the constitutional rights of millions of Americans were no violated in the 1960’s. I also think that the current methodology is out of date and the refusal of Congress to correct it is ridiculous. Thus, the Supreme Court was probably right to strike down the formula calculation but I am nervous about the fact that Congress might somehow manage to screw up what should be a simple remedy and then you would have certain pockets of the country that might run into problems if a replacement formula isn’t passed into law in the next few months. None of this makes voter suppression legal, so there would still be remedies, but it might be too late after an election has already taken place. I do think that the day will come when it is no longer necessary. I can’t imagine, for example, it being useful in a place like California.)

      • http://ianhfrancis.blogspot.com/ Ian Francis

        I noticed a few weeks ago the divide between what is reported as news in the US and elsewhere after restarting listening to podcasts in the car. Even listening to NPR, who I feel generally does a better job at the news than CNN or Fox News or MSNBC, I miss out.

        The BBC World Service spends at least a small portion, if not quite a long time, reporting on Syria, seeing as everyone has sat idly by as that country has spiraled into chaos. I barely ever hear about it here anymore.

        Remember when Obama drew that line in the sand about taking action if chemical weapons were used? There is more and more evidence every day that sarin gas is being used regularly now, and we do nothing. Worse, the media barely mentions it.

        The news networks now think what is reported should be dictated by the people. (i.e. ratings) As much as I am a huge supporter of free markets, supply and demand, and the power of the people, this is one area where those educated in world events should be dictating the stories presented. The people as a whole do not know why they should care about some other country they have never been to where thousands of people are dying or being made homeless every day. (which in itself is a little scary in my opinion) The importance of world events needs to be explained and emphasized, else we end up with news about naked geriatric golfers.

      • Andrew

        Would you ever run for President?

  • scott

    Great article!, @fratman Apparently getting your mom to comment and say you should be writing articles on here didn’t have the desired affect, and so now you have rewrite every article, get your own blog! the cheerleader thing is getting annoying.

    • FratMan

      Wow.

  • Scott McCarthy

    I’ve always had mixed feeling about antitrust laws. I understand the economic theory about why and how monopolies are inefficient for society and all, but ultimately it’s always seemed like punishing people for being good at their job. If you’re a crappy CEO who can’t create organic growth and has mediocre market share, the government will let you take over whatever other companies you want; But if you take the helm at a crappy company, make it the segment leader, and see a competitor that’s operating unprofitably and inefficiently, the government will veto your tender offer.

  • archont

    In between the recent Michael Hastings spontaneous car suicide, the accidental bombing of Al-Jazeera offices, the accidental gunning down of camera crews and labelling of whistleblower journalists as spies, this particular occupation appears to have become a rather high-risk one.

  • FratMan

    “The state with the largest gap between white and black voter turnout is Massachusetts.”

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