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Why the silence from The Post on Black Panther Party story?

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thursday's Post reported about a growing controversy over the Justice Department's decision to scale down a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party. The story succinctly summarized the issues but left many readers with a question: What took you so long?

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For months, readers have contacted the ombudsman wondering why The Post hasn't been covering the case. The calls increased recently after competitors such as the New York Times and the Associated Press wrote stories. Fox News and right-wing bloggers have been pumping the story. Liberal bloggers have countered, accusing them of trying to manufacture a scandal.

But The Post has been virtually silent.

The story has its origins on Election Day in 2008, when two members of the New Black Panther Party stood in front of a Philadelphia polling place. YouTube video of the men, now viewed nearly 1.5 million times, shows both wearing paramilitary clothing. One carried a nightstick.

Early last year, just before the Bush administration left office, the Justice Department filed a voter-intimidation lawsuit against the men, the New Black Panther Party and its chairman. But several months later, with the government poised to win by default because the defendants didn't contest the suit, the Obama Justice Department decided the case was over-charged and narrowed it to the man with the nightstick. It secured only a narrow injunction forbidding him from displaying a weapon within 100 feet of Philadelphia polling places through 2012.

Congressional Republicans pounced. For months they stalled the confirmation of Thomas E. Perez, President Obama's pick to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, while seeking answers to why the case had been downgraded over the objections of some of the department's career lawyers. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility launched an investigation, which is pending. The independent, eight-member Commission on Civil Rights also began what has become a yearlong probe with multiple public hearings; its report is due soon. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a prominent lawmaker in The Post's circulation area, has been a loud and leading critic of how the case was handled. His office has "aggressively" sought to interest The Post in coverage, a spokesman said.

The controversy was elevated last month when J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer who had helped develop the case, wrote in the Washington Times that his superiors' decision to reduce its scope was "motivated by a lawless hostility toward equal enforcement of the law." Some in the department believe "the law should not be used against black wrongdoers because of the long history of slavery and segregation," he wrote. Adams recently repeated these charges in public testimony before the commission.

The Post didn't cover it. Indeed, until Thursday's story, The Post had written no news stories about the controversy this year. In 2009, there were passing references to it in only three stories.

That's prompted many readers to accuse The Post of a double standard. Royal S. Dellinger of Olney said that if the controversy had involved Bush administration Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, "Lord, there'd have been editorials and stories, and it would go on for months."

To be sure, ideology and party politics are at play. Liberal bloggers have accused Adams of being a right-wing activist (he insisted to me Friday that his sole motivation is applying civil rights laws in a race-neutral way). Conservatives appointed during the Bush administration control a majority of the civil rights commission's board. And Fox News has used interviews with Adams to push the story. Sarah Palin has weighed in via Twitter, urging followers to watch Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's coverage because "her revelations leave Left steaming."

The Post should never base coverage decisions on ideology, nor should it feel obligated to order stories simply because of blogosphere chatter from the right or the left.

But in this case, coverage is justified because it's a controversy that screams for clarity that The Post should provide. If Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and his department are not colorblind in enforcing civil rights laws, they should be nailed. If the Commission on Civil Rights' investigation is purely partisan, that should be revealed. If Adams is pursuing a right-wing agenda, he should be exposed.

National Editor Kevin Merida, who termed the controversy "significant," said he wished The Post had written about it sooner. The delay was a result of limited staffing and a heavy volume of other news on the Justice Department beat, he said.

Better late than never. There's plenty left to explore.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


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