Conservative media's Charlotte Allen recently wrote an extensive cover piece for The Weekly Standard that relies on discredited right-wing activists Hans von Spakovsky and J. Christian Adams to attack the Department of Justice's renewed focus on properly enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But while conservative media typically advances these sources and their debunked myths, it is disturbing that mainstream coverage of the Supreme Court case of Shelby County v. Holder is relying on von Spakovsky and not disclosing his highly unreliable background.
Allen, responsible for a piece dubbed "The Stupidest Thing Anyone Has Written About Sandy Hook" by lamenting in National Review Online that no men or "huskier 12-year-old boys" were available to protect the "feminized" victims of the Newtown massacre, takes on the “politiciz[ed]” DOJ under President Obama in her story for the The Weekly Standard. In the article, Allen manages to repeat most of von Spakovsky's and Adams' stale misinformation of years past, ranging from the non-scandalous New Black Panther fiasco and non-existent Fast and Furious conspiracy, to DOJ's “belligerent stances” on enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Allen also successfully writes over 6,500 words on the alleged “politicizing” of DOJ without divulging von Spakovsky and Adams were poster children for such conduct when they worked for the DOJ under George W. Bush, disparages U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder because his “people” are not black enough to claim civil rights history, and finally undermines her main thesis by admitting that - under any presidency - DOJ follows the policy preferences of the White House.
Ultimately, however, that Allen uses the collected works of von Spakovsky and Adams is unsurprising. What is troublesome is that mainstream outlets are also publishing the opinions of von Spakovsky and Adams as the “conservative” perspectives on Shelby without disclosing their extremist background.
For example, in the past three months, mainstream outlets such as USA Today (and other Gannett publications), National Public Radio, and the increasingly popular legal website SCOTUSblog, have quoted or given space to von Spakovsky as the conservative voice on the challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. None of these outlets have mentioned the extensive reporting revealing von Spakovsky's right-wing activism for photo Voter IDs, which is a redundant and unnecessary form of voter suppression trumpeted as a “solution” to virtually non-existent in-person voter impersonation.
But it is precisely this type of documented racial discrimination that the Voting Rights Act provision under review in Shelby - Section 5 - effectively curbs. More significantly, as has been pointed out repeatedly, von Spakovsky's career at the Bush II DOJ was most remarkable for his well-known hostility to civil rights precedent. Before the most recent exposé of his unreliable past by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, legal expert Dahlia Lithwick thoroughly covered his biases against anti-discrimination law, and pointed to numerous reports on his controversial background, in Slate:
[Von Spakovsky] was one of the generals in a years-long campaign to use what we now know to be bogus claims of runaway “vote fraud” in America to suppress minority votes. Von Spakovsky was one of the people who helped melt down and then reshape the Justice Department into an instrument aimed at diminishing voter participation for partisan ends.
I won't belabor these claims here, as few of them are even disputed. Von Spakovsky's preferred method of defending himself--his recent forgetfulness notwithstanding--appears to involve scrubbing his fingerprints off the Web, fudging questions of authorship on an article that indicates his biases. But even a brief poke at his résumé shows a man who has dedicated his professional career to a single objective: turning a partisan myth about voters who cast multiple ballots under fake names (always for Democrats!) into a national snipe hunt for vote fraud.
Richard Hasen has sketched the outlines of the vote-fraud crusaders efforts here for Slate. Adam Lambert has done yeoman's work reporting on von Spakovsky here. The curious among you can check out this 2004 article by Jeffrey Toobin that highlighted a change of direction in DoJ's Voting Section and flagged von Spakovsky's early involvement with the Voting Integrity Project, where, among other things, he spoke out in defense of an effort to keep the Green Party off the Georgia ballot in 2000.
Among his numerous accomplishments at the Voting Section at DoJ, von Spakovsky can take credit for approving the Tom DeLay-sponsored midcensus redistricting in Texas--part of which was later deemed by the Supreme Court to have violated the Voting Rights Act. (To do so, von Spakovsky overrode a 73-page memo written by seven voting-rights experts finding that the DeLay scheme violated the Voting Rights Act by reducing minority voting strength in Texas.) Von Spakovsky similarly pushed for approval of Georgia's restrictive voter-ID law, again over the four-to-one objection of staff lawyers who (in a 51-page memo this time) felt the new law would disenfranchise black voters. State and federal courts later found that statute unconstitutional.
More than almost anyone else--perhaps even including Alberto Gonzales--Hans von Spakovsky represents a Justice Department turned on its head for partisan purposes.
At the very least, all media should disclose von Spakovsky's obvious and long-standing bias and dishonesty on the very topic he is asked to weigh in on, particularly if outlets beyond the right-wing rely on his opinions. Yet the question remains why this extreme ideologue is approached by media at all if more reputable opponents of the Voting Rights Act are available. And if von Spakovsky is an example of the type of conservative willing to argue publicly for gutting a seminal law designed to protect the right to vote from racial discrimination, maybe reporters should disclose that too.
By including the discredited von Spakovsky and Adams in the dialogue - without disclosing their well-documented pasts as dubious evaluators of long-standing bipartisan civil rights law - shifts media coverage of Shelby to the far right and is not balanced reporting. What's good enough for Charlotte Allen shouldn't be good enough for USA Today and SCOTUSblog.