Bipartisan agreement: Fox-hyped New Black Panthers case is a phony scandal

››› ››› ERIC SCHROECK

Numerous media and political figures, including Fox News contributors and Republicans, have dismissed the Fox-hyped phony scandal surrounding the New Black Panthers Party, with the Republican vice chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission even criticizing conservatives on the commission for trying to use the case "to topple the [Obama] administration." Despite this, Fox News has hyped the manufactured scandal more than 100 times since June 30.

Media and political figures dismiss phony scandal surrounding New Black Panthers case

Thernstrom: "This doesn't have to do with the Black Panthers; this has to do with their fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration." In a July 16 Politico article, Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican who serves as vice chair of the Civil Rights Commission and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, criticized the Republican-dominated Civil Rights Commission's investigation of the Justice Department's actions in the New Black Panthers case. Politico quoted Thernstrom as saying: "This doesn't have to do with the Black Panthers; this has to do with their fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration. ... My fellow conservatives on the commission had this wild notion they could bring [attorney general] Eric Holder down and really damage the president." From the Politico article:

A scholar whom President George W. Bush appointed as vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Abigail Thernstrom has a reputation as a tough conservative critic of affirmative action and politically correct positions on race.

But when it comes to the investigation that the Republican-dominated commission is now conducting into the Justice Department's handling of an alleged incident of voter intimidation involving the New Black Panther Party -- a controversy that has consumed conservative media in recent months -- Thernstrom has made a dramatic break from her usual allies.

"This doesn't have to do with the Black Panthers; this has to do with their fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration," said Thernstrom, who said members of the commission voiced their political aims "in the initial discussions" of the Panther case last year.

"My fellow conservatives on the commission had this wild notion they could bring Eric Holder down and really damage the president," Thernstrom said in an interview with POLITICO.

The criticism has focused attention not just on Thernstrom, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, but on the partisan nature of the Civil Rights Commission and on a story that, like the controversy over the anti-poverty group ACORN, has raged almost completely outside the mainstream media.

Thernstrom previously criticized the case as "very small potatoes." Thernstrom wrote a July 6 National Review Online blog post criticizing the "overheated rhetoric filled with insinuations and unsubstantiated charges" surrounding the case. Thernstrom further stated, "Forget about the New Black Panther Party case; it is very small potatoes." During an April 23 hearing, Thernstrom also said, "I do not think that this inquiry has served the interests of the Commission as being a bipartisan watchdog for important civil rights violations, and I do not believe it has served well the party to which I belong."

Fox News contributor Chavez dismisses hype: "There are more important issues." The Politico article further quoted Republican Linda Chavez, who was staff director of the Civil Rights Commission under President Reagan and is a Fox News contributor. In the article, Chavez stated: "There are more important issues to go after Attorney General Holder on even in terms of the voting rights section itself. ... Because it's 24-hour news and cable news and Fox News -- this is the kind of story, like the ACORN story, that's got pictures that you can run over and over again." From the Politico article:

Thernstrom, who had openly mocked the commission's hearing on the case, put her dissent in writing last week in National Review, where she said the incident was "racial theater of very minor importance" and "small potatoes."

And other conservatives have weighed in on her side.

"There are more important issues to go after Attorney General Holder on even in terms of the voting rights section itself," said Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, who was staff director of the Civil Rights Commission in the Reagan years and called the video "damning" but relatively minor.

"Because it's 24-hour news and cable news and Fox News -- this is the kind of story, like the ACORN story, that's got pictures that you can run over and over again," said Chavez, who noted that she's a Fox News contributor.

"When it comes to race, the right, like the left, can't resist getting hung up with trivia and sideshows," said Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of an influential book arguing that discrimination against blacks is no longer very meaningful. "How do the antics of these two Black Panthers make a difference?"

Politico notes further conservative criticism of hype surrounding phony New Black Panthers scandal. Politico reported:

A leading writer on the widely read HotAir marveled at Fox's eagerness to offer a platform to the New Black Panther Party's ranting chairman, Malik Shabazz, crediting it to the fact that the "outrageous outrage he provokes is good for ratings and partly because, as here, his demagoguery necessarily casts the host in the role of Spokesman for Decency."

And Doug Mataconis of the conservative blog Outside the Beltway called the flap "much ado about very, very little."

Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers blasts Fox for "doing the scary black man thing" in its coverage of the phony scandal. In a July 13 interview with Megyn Kelly on America Live, Powers stated: "You can actually put me in the same category of people who don't really give a darn, because I looked at the video -- the guy wasn't really intimidating people. They were walking past him and voting, so I don't really understand how he's being intimidating." Powers later accused Kelly of "doing the scary black man thing -- you know, the man standing outside is so horrible. You know, this guy was one person, there was an injunction against him, the injunction was enforced. The Civil Rights Division decided that there wasn't a case to pursue against anyone else. That's completely on the up and up. There's nothing wrong with that." Powers also stated of J. Christian Adams, who accused the Obama Justice Department of engaging in racially charged "corruption" in the New Black Panther Party case: "I think he's a conservative activist posing as a whistleblower." As Media Matters has noted, Adams is indeed a long-time GOP activist.

Fox News contributor Juan Williams: "I agree with Abigail Thernstrom ... that this is really small potatoes." In a July 14 interview with Fox News' Kelly -- who herself has discussed the phony scandal during at least 45 segments since June 30 -- Williams said: "The case is being overblown. I agree with Abigail Thernstrom ... that this is really small potatoes." Williams further stated: "When I look at the details of the case, what I see is that the Justice Department went after the person who was holding a stick; the other man in the picture who was dressed in military garment was in fact a certified poll watcher. And the other man, the charges against him were pursued, an injunction won that will prevent him from having a weapon and being anywhere near a polling place through 2012." Williams further noted that "in a similar case -- a voter intimidation case in Arizona -- where we saw people carrying guns, the Bush Civil Rights Division had decided not to file any kind of voter intimidation charge."

Civil Rights Commission member Michael Yaki calls investigation into the case "shallow, expensive, and partisan" and "reminiscent of ... a witch hunt." Michael Yaki, a Democratic member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, released a statement on July 7 criticizing the commission's "far-right majority" for scheduling Adams' testimony on the case at a time when commissioners critical of the manufactured controversy surrounding the case -- including Thernstrom -- could not attend. Yaki called the investigation into the case "shallow, expensive, and partisan" and "reminiscent of an inquisition, a star chamber, and a witch hunt."

LA Times: Justice Department critics "have yet to establish that a worthy case was dropped because of liberal ideological bias." In a July 8 editorial, the Los Angeles Times wrote: "A long-running dispute over the Justice Department's handling of a 2008 voter intimidation case has morphed into a partisan debate about whether the department is hostile to white voters whose rights are violated. So far the evidence is anecdotal and impressionistic." The Times further stated:

The department has denied that race plays any role in its decisions enforcing the Voting Rights Act, and its critics -- including conservatives on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission -- have yet to establish that a worthy case was dropped because of liberal ideological bias.

[...]

The Panthers' behavior was outrageous, even if no one was actually deterred from voting. But there is no evidence that the charges were dropped because of political pressure or lack of sympathy for white voters.

[...]

The department's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating the handling of the case. As part of that, it ought to determine whether Adams' accusations have any merit. So far, the case hasn't been made.

Newsweek: Phony scandal is "about staging an effective piece of political theater that hurts the Obama administration." In a July 14 Newsweek article, reporter David A. Graham wrote of the case: "As voter-intimidation exercises go, it wasn't much. ... But the incident was caught on camera, making it great fodder for cable news because political campaigns were actively scouting for voter-intimidation cases they could use against opponents. Still, it seemed like the sort of incident that happens at dozens of polling places every Election Day, then quietly recedes." Graham compared the New Black Panthers case to the manufactured ACORN scandal, writing: "Like the ACORN case, it's not about a real investigation; it's about staging an effective piece of political theater that hurts the Obama administration."

New Republic's Chait: "What you're starting to see from Fox News ... is the most widespread and mainstream right-wing effort to exploit racial fears against Obama." In a July 15 New Republic post, Jonathan Chait wrote of the case: "What you're starting to see from Fox News now, though, is the most widespread and mainstream right-wing effort to exploit racial fears against Obama." Chait further noted that "the merits of the case ... are extremely flimsy" and that "[e]ven if the conservative interpretation of this event were actually true, it's obviously a tiny matter. Nobody has produced a voter who even claims to have been intimidated." From Chait's post:

What you're starting to see from Fox News now, though, is the most widespread and mainstream right-wing effort to exploit racial fears against Obama. The putative issue is the claim that the Obama Justice Department is failing to prosecute a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party. If you're interested in the merits of the case, which are extremely flimsy, a good rundown can be found at Fourth Branch. Even if the conservative interpretation of this event were actually true, it's obviously a tiny matter. Nobody has produced a voter who even claims to have been intimidated -- the voters at the polling station were virtually all black anyway -- nor is there any credible claim of anything remotely approaching a systematic attempt to intimidate white voters at the polls.

Weigel rips Fox's "minstrelsy" obsession with NBPP case. In a July 14 Atlantic blog post, David Weigel wrote of Fox News' coverage of the case: "This isn't journalism. No one cares what the NBPP thinks about anything. This is minstrelsy, with a fringe moron set up like a bowling pin for Hannity to knock down. And that's the role the NBPP plays on Fox, frequently." Weigel further wrote that Fox News' recent reportage on the trumped-up controversy was "obviously not a search for justice or a muckraking effort to discover reverse racism in the DOJ," but rather resembled "a popular myth that went around Iowa in 1966, the year of the conservative backlash against the Great Society." Citing Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, Weigel continued:

The myth was that black gang members on motorcycles were going to head from Chicago to ransack Des Moines. Reading this in 2008, it sounded preposterous, the kind of thing that no one could believe in the country that was about to elect Barack Obama. But Kelly, under the guise of journalism, is working to create a rumor like this in 2010. Watch her broadcasts and you become convinced that the New Black Panthers are a powerful group that hate white people and operate under the protection of Eric Holder's DOJ.

Salon article calls case a "fake controversy" that "makes clear the ugliness of the right's Obama era political strategy." In a July 15 Salon.com article, Michael Barthel wrote that "[t]he latest fake controversy makes clear the ugliness of the right's Obama era political strategy":

The right, as you may have heard, is all worked up about the Justice Department dismissing voter intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party (whatever the hell that is). Because this was done under President Obama's watch, they claim, it must be racially motivated.

Of course, this is not true -- the Justice Department made the decision to drop the charges while Bush was still in office. But it doesn't matter: The right has managed, successfully, to imply that minorities are out to get white people -- without appearing to be outright racists. This is no isolated matter.

Former classmate to Adams: "Congratulations on lighting a fire for your cause." In a July 15 "Open Letter to J. Christian Adams, the Black Panthers' Nemesis & My Law School Classmate," which was posted on The Huffington Post, Democratic consultant Donnie Fowler wrote:

The other thing that I you and I can agree on is that you are a committed, partisan conservative who does not come to this "whistle blower" attack on President Obama with clean hands. As a founder of the Univ. of South Carolina Law School's Federalist Society (the most important legal group for conservative judicial activism) and as a committed supporter of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaigns, it makes complete sense that you have a bone to pick with the Democratic majority in Washington.

So, my friend, congratulations on lighting a fire for your cause in this hyper-partisan time and becoming the hero of the day for an aggrieved conservative movement.

Serwer: Adams' testimony "probably shouldn't be taken seriously." In a July 6 American Prospect blog post, Adam Serwer detailed Adams' history as a right-wing activist and stated that Adams' testimony "probably shouldn't be taken seriously." Serwer further wrote that conservatives are "mostly just interested in using this case to smear the Civil Rights Division for returning to its traditional purpose, safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans, not simply those who might vote Republican."

Page: Manufactured scandal being used "to vilify a black president." In his July 18 column, the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page wrote, "Although the [New Black Panthers] party's membership could probably squeeze into a small SUV, it has received a huge amount of publicity from conservative blogs and talk shows. All the better to frighten you with, dear voter." Page added, "Now the New Black Panthers are being used to vilify a black president as being soft on black racism. Coming soon, I am sure, to campaign attack ads near you."

Fox News has hyped phony New Black Panthers scandal more than 100 times

As Media Matters has noted, since Kelly's June 30 interview hyping Adams' unsubstantiated allegations through July 14, six Fox News shows have discussed the phony New Black Panthers scandal during a total of 95 segments -- a total that has since swelled to more than 100 segments. In all, these Fox shows have devoted more than eight hours of airtime to discussing the New Black Panthers.

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