The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voter suppression is a crucial story in America, but broadcast news mostly shrugs

Voters wait in line for up to two hours to early vote at the Cobb County West Park Government Center in Marietta, Ga. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

With the midterm elections a week away, and tensions building daily, a bipartisan rallying cry grows louder: People must get out and vote.

But how possible is that, exactly, for some Americans?

In North Dakota, thousands of Native American voters may be prevented from voting next week in a key Senate race because of an ugly technicality that amounts to targeted voter suppression.

In Georgia, hundreds of thousands of citizens were “purged” from the voting rolls in what election-law experts have called the worst disenfranchisement of voters in modern American history.

And in Kansas — where restrictive voting laws have been championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach — the majority-Hispanic residents of Dodge City can no longer vote in their community after its single polling place was closed.

Yes, voter suppression is alive and well in the United States.

But Americans who rely on the broadcast news networks for their information, and they still number in the millions every night, probably don’t know about it.

Obsessed with all things Trump — caravan invasion, anyone? — and occupied with breaking news about hurricanes and mass shootings, the networks have almost ignored voter suppression.

With the consequential midterm elections only a week away, the near silence is deafening.

“What is happening to voting rights is fundamental to how we function as a country,” says Robert Greenwald, an independent filmmaker who is trying to fill the gap with a video that explores the problem.

“There has been nowhere near enough media attention,” he told me.

Andrew Tyndall, who closely tracks network news for his well-respected Tyndall Report newsletter and website, has a plausible theory about why.

“The network news divisions have not worked out how to cover politics without following the agenda set by President Trump,” he told me by email. “That’s not to say their coverage is pro-Trump, since they will use his agenda to present him in both a positive and negative light. But it does mean that they find it difficult to present politics as being about anything except him.”

Since Labor Day, Tyndall told me last week, the three broadcast networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) together had done only a handful of stories — fewer than 10, all told — on threats to voting rights.

NBC News did a couple of pieces in early September on anxiety about the possible hacking of state election systems. CBS offered a mid-October story on the Georgia governor’s race, clouded by accusations of voter suppression involving Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the man in charge of overseeing elections, who is the Republican candidate for governor. And ABC News last week gave a nod to the voter purge in its piece on high early turnout in Georgia.

But among many hours over two months, those are mere minutes — and precious few.

Constant attention to Trump works for the broadcast networks, Tyndall said.

“They do not conceive that following his agenda is a problem: his larger-than-life persona, his incendiary sound bites, and the strength of viewers’ reactions to him (both pro and con) make him a perfect fit for television journalism as it is currently practiced,” he said.

By contrast, national newspapers have given voter suppression quite a bit of ink. The New Yorker magazine just published a substantial, big-look piece by Jelani Cobb. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did an enlightening examination of the North Dakota situation earlier this month. And ProPublica’s Electionland project does a stellar job of focusing on voting rights, in collaboration with others.

So it’s not that the information isn’t available, if you’re the kind of heavy news consumer who reads and views widely.

The problem is that the average American citizen may not read the New Yorker — but he or she is much more likely to watch the evening news.

As Pew Research put it recently, those tightly edited half hours are still “appointment viewing” for many millions of Americans.

And they still are regarded by many as relatively unbiased. In other words, they have important credibility.

Tyndall thinks there may be only one way they could begin to pay attention.

“If President Trump happened to revive the canard about voting fraud in his stump speeches . . . the networks would respond with coverage both of his claims and of the entire voting rights debate about ID laws, ballot access, racial targeting, suppression efforts and so on.”

That doesn’t strike me as something American patriots should be pining for. (To state what should be obvious: There’s very little evidence of significant voter fraud in the United States, despite all claims to the contrary.)

The broadcasts, even within their short time frames, manage to do plenty of soft feature stories with the Stars and Stripes waving — there’s the “Inspiring America” series on NBC News and the “Made in America” series on ABC.

Their feel-good appeal to national pride is intended as an antidote to all the depressing stuff at the top of the half-hour. And that’s fine: no harm done.

But the unfettered right to vote is much closer to the heart of the American ideal.

And, especially now, the growing threats to that right should be considered news of the most urgent order.

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