Just in time for the slow news cycle before the run-up to the midterm elections, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney's charge that racial bias motivated the DOJ's decision to scale back a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense (NBPP) has FOX news and conservative bloggers in going for blood, liberal bloggers seeing conspiracies, and major mainstream news outlets and personalities falling over themselves to make up for not having pushed the story.
In early July, attorney J. Christian Adams, told a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter the government's actions in the NBPP case is part of a failure on the part of both the Obama and Bush Administrations to enforce voting laws in a "race-neutral" manner.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has been holding hearings for months, but so far, all that has emerged is evidence of a dispute between lawyers about the viability of the DOJ case.
First, some background. The New Black Panther Party is a black nationalist organization led by an attorney named Malik Zulu Shabazz that has been categorized as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The founders and former leaders of the original Black Panther Party explicitly reject them because of their racist message. On Nov. 4, 2008, the day that Barack Obama was elected president,two members of the NBPP stood outside of a polling place in Philadelphia dressed in black and wearing berets and boots. Witnesses said the men hurled insults at black and white voters and poll watchers. One of the men held a billy club:
In January, 2009, the Justice Department filed a complaint in the United States District Court in Philadelphia against the two men, Minister King Shamir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson, as well as Malik Zulu Shabazz and the NBPP as an organization. The complaint accused Shamir Shabazz and Jackson, the two men in the video, of intimidating voters and poll watchers, and further charged that Zulu Shabazz and the NBPP "managed, directed and endorsed the behavior, actions and statements" of the two men. Because the NBPP never responded to the complaint, the judge told the DOJ to enter a petition asking that a judgment be entered against the NBPP by default.
However, when that petition was entered May 15, 2009, it only targeted Shamir Shabazz. The subsequent judgment bars Shamir Shabbazz from bringing a weapon within 100 feet of a polling place.
Members of the Civil Rights Commission were shocked by the Justice Department decision to back away from a judgment it was about to win. Political scientist Carol Swain, who is affiliated with the Commission, published an August 2009 essay in the Huffington Post that said, "What should have been an open and shut case now has become more troubling ... "
Commission Vice Chair Abigail Thernstrom and Commissioner Ashley Taylor sent a letter to Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King demanding an explanation (.pdf)
"We are gravely concerned about the Civil Rights Division’s actions in this case and feel strongly that the dismissal of this case weakens the agency’s moral obligation to prevent voting rights violations, including acts of voter intimidation or vote suppression. We cannot understand the rationale for this case’s dismissal and fear that it will confuse the public on how the Department of Justice will respond to claims of voter intimidation or voter suppression in the future."
That explanation was contained in this May 13 document by DOJ lawyers explaining that many of the charges filed in the original suit might not withstand a judge's scrutiny or hold up in the event of a trial. The original complaint cited the Panthers' dress and stance as part of their intimidating behavior, but the DOJ attorneys worried that a court might deem that "expressive behavior" protected by the First Amendment. They said accusation that the Zulu Shabazz and the NBPP planned or condoned the behavior was undermined by reports that Zulu Shabbazz had criticized the behavior of Jackson and Samir Shabbazz and suspended the Philadelphia chapter. In his July 6 testimony before the Commission, Adams defended the legal argument behind the original complaint.
Vice Chair Thernstrom has now concluded that there's not much there, as far as this case is concerned. Writing for the National Review, Thernstrom argued:
"So far — after months of hearings, testimony and investigation — no one has produced actual evidence that any voters were too scared to cast their ballots. Too much overheated rhetoric filled with insinuations and unsubstantiated charges has been devoted to this case."
Nor, Thernstrom added, has anyone substantiated charges that the DOJ is being lax in enforcing voters' rights.
The Philadelphia Tribune, the city's African American newspaper, argued that the DOJ's decision was fair:
To be clear there is no way to justify the actions of the two men involved in this case. Voters should not go to the polls and see men dressed in paramilitary uniforms and brandishing weapons.
But there is no evidence that anyone’s right to vote was actually infringed upon. It is also misleading to inflate the profile of the New Black Panther Party, which has no connection to the original Black Panthers Party of the 1960s.
The Press Coverage
Despite this, the drumbeat of press coverage has been getting louder, and some of it has been downright irresponsible. The NBPP and the voter intimidation story has been a regular FOX news feature. However, Media Matters for America notes that in interviews with FOX, Adams said some of the charges he has made are based on hearsay, and he and FOX anchor Megyn Kelly have been deceptive in their characterization of the testimony before the Commission.
The Washington Times tried to link the NAACP with the Panthers by citing a claim in Adam's testimony that a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund contacted the Justice Department lawyers and tried to get them to drop the suit.
The first problem here is that the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund are separate organizations and have been for more than 50 years. Failure to make that distinction undermines the Times' credibility.
The second problem is that the attorney, Kristen Clarke, denied the charge under oath (.pdf) -- something that the Times should have noted.
The third problem is that the article relies on Adams' testimony about Clarke befor the Civil Rights Commission, which he says is based on hearsay,
The Washington Post and CBS News' Bob Schieffer are among those who've been attacked for not covering the story. As reported on CNN's press criticism show, Reliable Sources, Schieffer was attacked by FOX's Megyn Kelly for his failure to ask Attorney General Eric Holder about the case during Holder's recent appearance on Face the Nation. Schieffer's response was that he would have, had he known more about it. No one at Fox had even bothered to ask him for his side of the story.
In light of all of this, I particularly like Paul Waldman's list of the questions that journalists should be asking themselves about this story. Here's a sample:
"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?"
The Blogosphere's Reaction to the New Black Panthers Case
Digby informs readers about the connection between Adams and Bradley Schlozman, a former Justice Department official during the Bush administration who was criticized for hiring workers based on their political ideology in this July, 2008 report from the DOJ's Office of Inspector General.
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