When Non-Stories Become Stories: A Media-Manufactured Controversy

If you’ve been losing faith in the American press—in the ability of even mainstream journalists to discern the relevant from the irrelevant and to report responsibly on the former—you’ll probably want to avoid op-ed columnist Joan Vennochi’s most recent piece in the Boston Globe. Commenting on recent statements made by Bernie Sanders regarding the disenfranchisement of those convicted of felonies, Vennochi’s punditry demonstrates that rumors of the decline of modern journalism are, unfortunately, not exaggerated.

Sanders, in defending the right of incarcerated people to vote, asserted the fundamental democratic principle that nobody should be disenfranchised in a free society. Such a defense of voting rights would seem hardly newsworthy, but Vennochi dedicated her entire column to it, insisting Sanders’s position represents “another lurch to the far left.” She says this not because the general principle on its face is truly objectionable—it certainly isn’t—but because Sanders stands behind it even when asked whether the Boston Marathon bomber should be allowed to cast a ballot.

With all the critical issues facing the country in this election cycle, the importance of whether one villain should be allowed to vote wouldn’t seem to rank very high. Yet as Vennochi surely knows, any story involving the marathon bomber has the potential of striking sensitive nerves, particularly when that story raises the disconcerting idea that even a confessed terrorist has rights. Thus, despite the relative unimportance of the marathon bomber’s voting rights in the grand scheme of contemporary policy debate, it isn’t difficult to see how the issue could be exploited by opportunists.

Count among those opportunists the journalists and politicians who thrive on these kind of manufactured controversies. By taking unpopular or even despicable characters and utilizing them in a context that is sure to upset many members of the public, the opportunists fan the flames of anger and fear by constructing and perpetuating alarmist narratives. Do you believe it? Sanders says the marathon bomber has the right to vote! Outrageous! This, in turn, gets the opportunists the attention they so cherish—page views, votes, donations, perhaps even speaking engagements and guest appearances on talk shows.

It is to be expected that cynical right-wing journalists and politicians would try to make an issue out of Sanders’s principled statement, but for Vennochi and the Globe to run with the story and even magnify it is beyond disappointing. We like to think that major metropolitan newspapers and their staff columnists represent a standard of journalism that rises above typical online pulp, but this instead demonstrates that they will gladly race to the bottom and nurture society’s anti-intellectual impulses when it’s profitable to do so.

It’s worth pointing out that nobody truly believes that the potential loss of voting rights is a deterrent to crime. In the entire history of bad guys plotting diabolical deeds, it’s doubtful that even one would-be criminal has ever been deterred due to concerns about not being able to vote in the next election if caught. A more worthless policy in pursuit of criminal justice would be hard to concoct.

But more importantly, the denial of universal voting rights must be considered on the backdrop of a failed, broken criminal justice system that has long been defined by racism and injustice. The United States imprisons its citizens at rates far exceeding the rest of the free world, and those rates are especially astronomical among people of color. Felony disenfranchisement has long been a weapon of Jim Crow, new and old, so it’s par for the course that modern-day racists would seize upon Sanders’s stated position. That the supposedly liberal Globe would jump on the bandwagon is tragic.

Vennochi laces her criticism of Sanders with language suggesting that the real problem with his position isn’t that it’s wrong, but that it will allow the GOP to frame him as too liberal should he become the Democratic nominee. Comparisons are made to failed nominees George McGovern and Michael Dukakis, whose defeats Vennochi implies resulted from their simply being perceived as too liberal and out of touch.

Besides being grossly simplistic, this analysis reeks of elitism. Educated liberals will often candidly concede that they agree with high-minded principles such as those stated by Sanders. After all, the right to vote is the most fundamental right in a democracy, and little actual harm can arise from allowing incarcerated individuals to vote. Meanwhile, there is surely much potential danger in giving the government the power to deny voting rights to any of its citizens. But the problem, these supposed thought leaders will tell us, is that average voters are too dumb to understand the nuances of the issue. Average folks will instead be simply outraged at the idea of those behind bars, even murderers, casting a vote at the ballot box. We must therefore put principle aside, the astute public intellectuals tell us, while we pander to the masses by denying voting rights to the incarcerated. Someday, maybe, the public will be capable of understanding the issue better, but not yet.

Such thinking not only grossly underestimates the ability of the public to understand an issue that is not all that complex, it also doesn’t say much about the confidence of elite journalists in their own abilities. Rather than jumping on the right-wing bandwagon and magnifying the importance of an otherwise unimportant issue, journalists like Vennochi could just as easily use their platform to explain the issue in understandable terms.

They could remind the public, for example, that one terrorist casting a vote is far less dangerous than a government that has the power to disenfranchise its citizens. They could point out that disenfranchisement inevitably hurts marginalized communities far more than the rest of society. And let’s not pretend that disenfranchisement would ever be limited to only the worst-of-the-worst characters like the marathon bomber. In fact, huge demographic segments of some states, disproportionately minorities, have historically been denied the vote due to disenfranchisement laws targeting people convicted of felonies, during incarceration and after returning to the community. Any and all attempts to stir public emotions by focusing on the extreme example of the marathon bomber should be understood in this light.

Of course, as gatekeepers, journalists could just as easily ignore the Sanders comment altogether and write about other issues that are relevant. But that might cost them page views.