One man’s political football is another man’s political football

Politico finally wades into the story about the Justice Department’s handling of the voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). It does so through a report that Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has “broken ranks” with her fellow conservatives on that body over their investigation of this issue.
As we have noted, Thernstrom thinks the issue is “small potatoes.” And she tells Politico’s Ben Smith that those who are promoting it hope to bring Eric Holder down and damage the President Obama.
Smith uses Thernstrom’s comments as a launching pad to criticize Fox News and other conservative media outlets. According to Smith, they have “turned the Justice Department’s handling of the case into the subject of the sort of intense, contained interest that’s becoming increasingly common in an age of polarized and ideological media.”
I agree that this story has been overblown by some conservative media outlets. But I also think it has been “underblown” by liberal outlets. Politico, for example, does not seem to have covered it all, despite the existence of substantiated (albeit disputed) allegations of wrongdoing by the Justice Department in the area of voting rights enforcement.
Only when Thernstrom’s critique of her fellow conservatives emerged did Politico have an inducement to write about the matter – the stock conservative vs. conservative angle that the liberal MSM loves. Indeed, Smith had to preface his report of Thernstrom’s comments by telling his readers what the matter was about. He correctly judged that readers of his publication and other liberal organs would have no idea what he was talking about unless he filled them in.
Smith’s effort to fill them in reflects his bias. He writes:

The facts of the case are relatively simple. Two men were captured on a video standing outside a polling place in a black Philadelphia neighborhood on Election Day in 2008. One of the men had a nightstick, if an unclear agenda — though a member of the black nationalist New Black Panther Party, he had earlier professed loathing for the Democratic “puppet” candidate, Barack Obama, who went on to overwhelmingly carry that precinct.
Three Republican poll monitors filed complaints of intimidation — itself a federal crime — but no voters attested to being turned away. The Justice Department, while Bush was still president, investigated the incident and later, after Obama took office, decided that “the facts and the law did not support pursuing” the claims against the party and against a second, unarmed man, Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.

Smith wants to plant the impression that this was a weak case because the Black Panther with the stick had called Obama a “puppet” and because no voters said they were turned away from the polls. The first point is ridiculous: does Smith want us to believe that the guy with the stick was there to make sure McCain voters were treated fairly?
The second point isn’t highly relevant either: federal law bans attempts to intimidate voters as well as actually intimidating them. In fact, as Smith indirectly acknowledges, the Obama Justice Department concluded that the facts and the law did support the Bush Justice Department’s claims against the guy with the stick. Clearly, then, his past insult to Obama and the absence of proof that voters were turned away are inconsequential.
The issue here is actually a pretty narrow one: whether the Justice Department should have dropped its case against the second New Black Panther Party member – he wore a uniform but had no weapon – and against the Party itself. I’m spending part of the weekend looking over relevant documents and cases, and probably will have more to say about this issue.
In the meantime, it’s my view that while some among the conservative media are over-playing this story, the liberal MSM is under-playing it and/or playing it misleadingly.

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