When providers of information and commentary publish a “correction”— or the euphemism “clarification” — conventional journalism protocols call for saying, “We regret the error.”
Well, here’s a clarification that does not regret an error, but reflects the need to make a disappointing revision.
The correction deals with my last Bleeding Heartland post, published on April 12.
That commentary questioned Senator Chuck Grassley’s comments on the controversial “voting reform” bill passed by the Georgia legislature and signed by Republican Governor Brian Kemp on March 25.
Many news organizations reported that the “reforms” included a provision banning family and friends from bringing food or water to people standing in line for hours to vote. The ban allowed no exceptions for would-be voters who were ill, infirm or elderly. The wording at issue: “nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector” waiting in line to vote.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University noted, “In one particularly cruel provision, (Georgia) SB 202 criminalizes the act of giving snacks or water to voters waiting in line at polling places.”
In contrast, the April 10 edition of Grassley’s newsletter (called “THE SCOOP”) said the law “does not prohibit voters from being able to get a drink of water while waiting in line as partisans have falsely claimed.”
The Bleeding Heartland headline and commentary said Grassley “misleads” his constituents.
It now seems it would have been more accurate to say Grassley lied to us. Emails of April 13 and April 17 asked the senator to correct his previous statements in THE SCOOP about the Georgia law. There was no response, and THE SCOOP issues of April 17 and 24 carried no correction.
Before getting into more specifics, here is some context for this post.
Some may say the difference between “misled” and “lied” is negligible. But philosopher Sissela Bok and others recognize a distinction. We can mislead people even with the best of intentions, because we have confidence in our veracity. A lie is a statement known to be false, made to others with the intention of deceiving them. And that is my take on Grassley’s spin about voting reform in Georgia.
When covering those in public office, reporters and editors often avoid such troubling words as liar, lie, or lying. Providing “both sides of a story” or reporting the full context is perceived to be a more objective approach. Trust your readers and viewers to make distinctions between fact and opinion, between wishful thinking and deception, between incomplete fast-breaking news and logical analysis and so on.
These editorial standards are so ingrained that Donald Trump was in the White House for more than a year before the press began to strongly imply, or flatly state, that the president often lied. His false statements were frequently modified as “previously discredited,” “refuted,” or “questionable.” Nevertheless, the running tally of lies attributed to Trump is stunning.
As Trump’s presidency came to an end, the Washington Post checked its scorecard and found, “Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims as president. Nearly half came in his final year.” Trump supporters may dismiss that analysis. But even if we knock off 75 percent, his lies numbered in double digits for each day of 2020!
True to the reticence of the press to use the words lies, liar, and lying, in the 880-word Washington Post story about Trump’s “false or misleading claims,” the word “lies” was used only once, and “lying” also once in this observation: “As a result of Trump’s constant lying through the presidential megaphone, more Americans are skeptical of genuine facts than ever before,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said.
Given the hysteria about the 2020 election being stolen from Trump, many Republican state lawmakers have claimed the election showed reform is needed, despite the fact that federal and state inquiries found Biden’s 7-million margin in the popular vote to be legitimate.
In a backlash to 2020’s historic voter turnout, and under the pretense of responding to baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, state lawmakers have introduced a startling number of bills to curb the vote. As of March 24, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states. That’s 108 more than the 253 restrictive bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month.
In that context, it’s reasonable to ask: why is Grassley sticking to the claim that the Georgia law doesn’t ban bringing food and water to voters waiting in line?
Perhaps Grassley and his communications staff are overly impressed by the fact that the law does not prohibit the Secretary of State “from making available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.”
Given the history of voting rights in the South, you don’t have to cite Sissela Bok or anyone else to see the hypocrisy in “making available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.”
Thousands of martyrs testify to that, among them:
• Maceo Snipes, a WW II veteran, killed for daring to be the only Black person in Taylor County to vote in the Georgia Democratic primary in 1946.
• Rev. George Lee, head of the Belzonia, Mississippi branch of the NAACP, killed in May 1955 in retaliation for his efforts to register African Americans to vote.
• Rev. James Reeb, an American Unitarian Universalist minister who was beaten to death in March 1965 for participating in the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama.
But, hey, the people they died for may be able to get “self-service water from an unattended receptacle,” thanks to the Georgia legislature.
And that should be motivation enough to call Grassley and the Iowa legislature to task for their takes on “voting reform.”
Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.
Top photos, from left: Maceo Snipes, Rev. George Lee, and Rev. James Reeb.