The nation’s highest-ranking elected Republican official made waves late Wednesday evening when he was asked by a reporter to defend his party’s ongoing blockade of voting rights legislation, which advocates believe is essential to protecting marginalized communities in this year’s midterm elections. When questioned on non-white voters’ concerns about their ability to participate in this year’s elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) dismissed the issue, saying that Black people vote “in just as high a percentage as Americans.” The stunning video, which went viral on social media, was barely mentioned on cable news the following day, as networks squandered an opportunity to call out McConnell’s Freudian slip.
On January 19, Democratic-led efforts to pass important voting rights legislation were stalled once again by a Republican filibuster in the United States Senate.
Despite having 50 Democratic votes in favor of the legislation – as well as the tie-breaking support of Vice President Kamala Harris – the bill failed to advance to the floor after all 50 Republican members sustained a filibuster against it. (A later effort to change Senate rules to prevent a filibuster of voting rights legislation was also defeated, with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) joining the Republican obstruction.)
After shutting down the voting rights effort, McConnell was asked by a reporter for his message to “voters of color who are concerned that without the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, they’re not going to be able to vote in the midterms.” McConnell responded, “Well, the concern is misplaced because, if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
The comment was immediately picked up on social media by prominent users, incumbent elected officials, and political candidates. The Congressional Black Caucus responded on Twitter, life-long civil rights activist Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) responded as well, and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA) condemned the remark in a formal letter to McConnell.
The flippant remark from McConnell – and the outrage it generated – drew press coverage from Axios, Business Insider, CNN.com, The Guardian, HuffPost, MSNBC.com, The Nation, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. The story also got picked up locally by CBS affiliate WLKY.com and by the Louisville-based Courier-Journal newspaper. (McConnell lashed out at his critics during a Friday gaggle with Kentucky-based reporters.)
Despite the depth of coverage online, McConnell’s statement registered as barely a blip on cable news the following day. According to a Media Matters analysis of cable news programming from January 20 through noon on January 21, McConnell’s slip-of-the-tongue was mentioned in passing just twice; once on CNN and once on MSNBC, with zero coverage from Fox News.
The first mention of the story came on CNN’s The Lead, with host Jake Tapper discussing the remark with former Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Mia Love (R-UT) in the middle of a broader discussion of the stymied voting rights debate in Congress. The discussion of McConnell lasted just 1 minute 55 seconds.
The next mention of the story came on MSNBC’s The ReidOut, with host Joy Reid and guests Juanita Tolliver and Stuart Stevens discussing the remark in the context of the Republican Party’s increasing marginalization of non-white constituents. The portion of their panel discussion focused on McConnell’s comments lasted just 2 minutes 30 seconds.
McConnell appeared for a live interview on the January 20 edition of Fox News' Special Report, but his offensive comment from the night before was left unmentioned.
Clearly, given the gravity of the legislation and the amount of media attention focused on the vote and its aftermath, McConnell’s statement was a news story worthy of more than just a few minutes of passing coverage.
McConnell’s office was forced to clarify his remark to CNN, stating that he misspoke and meant to say “other Americans” rather than just “Americans” and had not intentionally excluded Black people from the American identity. His office did not clarify that his statement was also factually incorrect.. As The New York Times pointed out in their fact-check of McConnell, “Black American voter turnout is not 'just as high' as overall voter turnout,” and the disparity between Black and white voter participation is particularly stark. According to the Times, while it is true that most Americans have no trouble voting, millions of Americans face impediments to obtaining and casting a ballot.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for the term “McConnell” within close proximity of any of the terms “African-American,” or “Black” or any variation of the term “vote” from January 20 through noon January 21, 2022.
We timed the segments about McConnell’s African-American voter comments, which we defined as instances when the comments were the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the comments. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the comments with one another.