October 20, 2016
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Ethnic Media Unites Over Black Panther Controversy


It's not every day that commentators Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Juan Williams of Fox News and NPR, Errol Louis of the New York Daily News, Roland Martin of CNN and TV One, and the editorial pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are in agreement.

And that such agreement stands in contrast to the views expressed by Fox News Channel and its commentators Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, and by Armstrong Williams, the Washington Times, the National Review and others in the conservative blogosphere.

Such is the case in the controversy over whether a fringe group called the New Black Panther Party is the beneficiary of racial solidarity from President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. as the group allegedly sought to escape responsibility for supposedly intimidating black voters in Philadelphia nearly two years ago.

The first group of commentators says the allegation is absurd at best, and at the very least, blown out of proportion. The latter group says the charges are valid and demand more media attention.

The second group is winning.

Attention in the mainstream media, which in conventional wisdom was all but consigned to irrelevancy with the age of the Internet, is again a coveted prize, seemingly to be won by any means necessary.

Who gets to decide what is news? Who gets to drive the agenda?

On Sunday, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander noted that the Post had written only one story late in the game on the controversy. "Why the silence from The Post on Black Panther Party story?" the headline on his column asked.

"The Post should never base coverage decisions on ideology, nor should it feel obligated to order stories simply because of blogosphere chatter from the right or the left," he wrote.

"But in this case, coverage is justified because it's a controversy that screams for clarity that The Post should provide. If Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his department are not colorblind in enforcing civil rights laws, they should be nailed. If the Commission on Civil Rights' investigation is purely partisan, that should be revealed. If Adams is pursuing a right-wing agenda, he should be exposed," he said in a reference to Justice Department "whistleblower" J. Christian Adams.

"National Editor Kevin Merida, who termed the controversy 'significant,' said he wished The Post had written about it sooner. The delay was a result of limited staffing and a heavy volume of other news on the Justice Department beat, he said." Merida is a graduate of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Monday on "Tapped," the group blog of the progressive American Prospect, Paul Waldman asked a different set of questions:

"Just how significant is the Black Panther case? How does it compare to other voting-rights cases? Is this really the Greatest Crime Against Democracy in History, as Fox News would have us believe, or is it about conservatives' 'fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the administration,' asAbigail Thernstrom, the American Enterprise Institute scholar and conservative member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has said?

"If it's so important, why are there no actual voters who say their rights were compromised? Why did even George W. Bush's Justice Department basically think this case was a nothingburger? Should that fact that this is the first time in memory that conservative activists and media have expressed concern about the possibility of someone being prevented from voting (they're nearly always concerned about people, particularly minorities, voting when they allegedly don't have the right to) make reporters skeptical about the case?

"What role does race play in the aggressiveness with which Fox and other conservative outlets are pushing this story? Do journalists have an obligation to cover something for no reason other than that activists and ideological media are making noise about it? Shouldn't there be some criterion of newsworthiness that is met, beyond the fact that it's being discussed on 'Fox and Friends'? Don't reporters have a responsibility to assess the fundamental substantive questions before they give publicity to a plainly drummed-up issue?"

Stay tuned. The gatekeeping function of the mainstream media still has more value than detractors have led us to believe. And that means the decisions about who get to be the gatekeepers are as important as ever.

The Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education | 663 Thirteenth St., Suite 200, Oakland, CA 94612 | (510) 891-9202 


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