There are occasions in the news coverage of campaigns where fevered imagination kicks in and calm, comparative reason takes a holiday. Here we go again, and this time it's Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic contender for the Senate in Tennessee who is getting the red carpet media treatment. Ford is an attractive black "rising Democratic star," whose only obstacle is Tennessee's inability to get beyond its sordid racist past.
The East Coast media recently parachuted into Tennessee to explore if the state was still so backward as to elect yet another Republican. On its front page, The Washington Post began a story with John Layne, aging white Republican, who came to a Ford rally because he has emphysema and worries about health care. "Oh, sure, there's some prejudice," Layne said. "I wouldn't want my daughter marrying one." But apparently, he'll vote for one if the government benefit checks are good.
From that assumption - scratch a Southerner, and there's still a bigot underneath, unless he votes for Democrats - the media have built fortresses of hot air on another assumption: Going back to the Nixon era, Republicans have gained office in the South not because of their record on national defense or abortion or taxes, but because every conservative victory is proof of Southern racism successfully exploited.
Harold Ford filmed a TV ad inside a church and further pushing the piety theme, regularly has proclaimed his love for Jesus Christ on the campaign trail. But Republicans saw hypocrisy - and an opportunity to exploit it. They ran a humorous ad mocking Ford for attending a Playboy magazine party in Florida at the Super Bowl last year. The ad ends with a woman posing as someone Ford met at the Super Bowl, saying "Harold, call me."
The liberal media hyperventilated, treating this ad as if it was the vilest racist piece of film since "Birth of a Nation" in 1915.
In the New York Times, media writer Alessandra Stanley scolded that the ad was a comedic regurgitation of how "Republican strategists in 1988 tried to stoke subliminal racist fears with the infamous Willie Horton ad." For the young, that's an ad that underlined that Gov. Michael Dukakis was soft on criminals because he let murderers out on weekend furloughs. Willie Horton was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing a gas station attendant 19 times and shoving him into a garbage can to die. On one weekend furlough, the convict raped a woman in Maryland.
But Horton was black, and therefore Dukakis's position on crime, like Ford's position on moral issues, was irrelevant. Those Republicans are racists, and that's all that matters.
(I continue to find the predictable "Willie Horton" racism line to be of particular personal interest and bemusement. For the record, it was your humble writer here who produced the very first Willie Horton ad. Also for the record: It was only when I was shown the final ad that I learned that Willie Horton was black. So much for racism.)
But back to our point. On ABC, Dean Reynolds clothed the Democratic line as the reaction of "many" observers: "To many, the message is clear, and in some parts of Tennessee, potentially incendiary." A professor explained: "He's talking about interracial sex, interracial relations." On NBC, Andrea Mitchell: "The NAACP said the ad, quote, 'plays to pre-existing prejudices about African-American men and white women.'"
Mitchell's point was the richest one of all. Because six years ago at this time in the election cycle, it was the NAACP that was rolling out the crotch-punching race-baiting ads. Their ad featured the daughter of James Byrd, a black man who died after being dragged behind a pickup truck by racists in Texas, saying that when then-Gov George W. Bush refused to sign a liberal "hate crimes" bill, "it was like my father was killed all over again." Andrea Mitchell and the other liberal networks ignored that outrage then. And now the NAACP are the referees of campaign race-baiting? That's just obscene. Predictable, but obscene.
In 1998, the Missouri Democratic Party ran this radio ad: "When you don't vote, you let another church explode. When you don't vote, you allow another cross to burn. When you don't vote, you let another assault wound a brother or sister. When you don't vote, you let the Republicans continue to cut school lunches and Head Start." And the network newscast coverage? Zero.
There is no rational "news judgment" in this contrast, of "Harold, call me" versus alleged Republican truck-draggers and cross-burners. There is no fairness, no balance. There is only the rational conclusion that the "news" media have decided once again that one party must be supported, and the other must be defeated.
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