Less than a quarter of mainstream print articles connected Tennessee House expulsions to Republicans' anti-democracy efforts nationwide
Despite explicit measures by state-level Republicans across the country to erode democratic institutions and norms, mainstream print media largely treated the expulsion of two Tennessee House representatives as an isolated event.
In coverage of the “Tennessee Three,” over 75% of mainstream print articles failed to mention that many Republican-led state legislatures are making similar attempts to curtail their opponents’ political power as part of a broader assault on democracy.
On March 30, three days after the Covenant School shooting, hundreds of protestors gathered at the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville to call for tighter gun restrictions. Three Democratic state legislators brought the protest to the House floor, leading chants through a bullhorn and disrupting legislative proceedings. Republicans then instituted individual resolutions to expel the legislators, dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” on the grounds that they engaged in “disruptive conduct.” On April 6, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled by a vote that split along party lines for Jones and split 69-26 for Pearson. Rep. Gloria Johnson avoided expulsion by a single vote. Jones and Pearson were reinstated days later by local lawmakers.
Expulsion is a particularly punitive action, as this is only the third time that legislators have only been removed from the Tennessee State Legislature since the Civil War. In a speech on the House floor shortly before the vote, Jones stated that “this is your attempt to expel the voices of the people from the people's house.” Democrats and civil liberty groups have widely criticized the decision, referring to it as “horrific” act that “distracts” from real issues. As Ronald Brownstein wrote in The Atlantic, the “expulsions went beyond making structural changes to diminish the power of big-city residents, to entirely erasing those voters’ decision on whom they wanted to represent them in the legislature.”
Both Jones and Pearson are Black, while Johnson (the one representative who was not expelled) is white. Though Tennessee House Republicans have denied that the expulsions were racially motivated, they have recently made several efforts to curtail Black political power, including voting to cut Nashville’s Metro Council in half and undermining proposals aimed at police reform.
Of 25 mainstream print articles that were published during the study period, only 6 (24%) mentioned that Republicans in state legislatures across the country are engaging in anti-democratic actions, or specifically referenced one of the efforts listed in the following section.
Though more than three-quarters of the articles examined did not adequately address the worrisome national trend, a few outlets properly outlined why the Tennessee expulsions are indicative of a larger problem:
- The New York Times wrote that “across the country, one-party control of state legislatures, compounded by hyperpartisan politics, widespread gerrymandering, an urban-rural divide and uncompetitive races, has made the dysfunction in Tennessee more the rule than the exception.”
- After speaking to free speech experts, The Washington Post wrote, “In Montana, Texas, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere, Republicans have moved in other ways to silence opposition in recent months, actions that might ultimately erode the country’s democratic ideals.”
- In an article outlining Republican attempts to thwart local power, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that “Republican state leaders in recent years have passed an array of measures that override local policies.”
State-level anti-democratic efforts
Unfortunately, Tennessee is not the only state engaged in blatant anti-democratic efforts. Republican-led state legislatures across the country are attacking both voters and the Democratic Party, including:
- Montana state lawmakers are attempting to temporarily change primary rules in order to thwart Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s reelection.
- A Florida Republican state representative pitched a bill to eliminate the Florida Democratic Party.
- Pennsylvania Republicans attempted to delay special elections for the State House that would likely be won by Democrats in order to ensure a Republican majority.
- Idaho, Texas, Ohio, and other states are passing anti-voting legislation that restricts the use of certain IDs, purges inactive voters from voter rolls, and limits ballot drop boxes among other actions.
- Florida, Missouri, and West Virginia have left ERIC, an important consortium that improves the accuracy of state voter rolls and helps unregistered Americans register to vote.
Mainstream media is largely ignoring these actions, painting the Tennessee expulsions as an one-off event that is not indicative of larger issues within the American political system.
Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for the terms “Justin” within two words of either of the terms “Jones” or “Pearson” or the term “Gloria” within two words of the term “Johnson” or any of the terms “Tennessee three,” “gun control,” “protest,” or “expulsion” or any variation of the term “expel” within the same headline or lead paragraphs as any of the terms “TN,” “Tenn.,” “Tennessee,” or “Nashville” from April 6, 2023, when the Tennessee legislature expelled two and nearly expelled a third Democratic representative, through April 14, 2023.
We included articles, which we defined as instances when the expulsions of Tennessee Democratic Representatives Justin Jones or Justin J. Pearson or the near-expulsion of Gloria Johnson were mentioned in the headline or lead paragraphs.
We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they mentioned any of the following Republican-led, anti-democratic legislative efforts in other states: Montana changing primary rules for a singular election in order to thwart Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s reelection; Florida Republican State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia pitching a bill to eliminate the Florida Democratic Party; Pennsylvania Republicans trying to delay special elections for the State House that would likely be won by Democrats in order to ensure a Republican majority; state legislatures passing legislation that restricts voting access; states leaving ERIC, an important consortium that improves the accuracy of state voter rolls and helps unregistered Americans register to vote.