Nick Kessler

Connecting the dots

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Wednesday, January 29, 2003
"The real problem with Pickering isn't that he's a racist. (The strong support for him among black Mississippians offers pretty compelling evidence that he's not.)"

In this editorial supposedly stating their case against Charles Pickering’s confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, an assurance of “strong support for him among black Mississippians” is all it takes for the editors of The New Republic (TNR) to summarily dismiss claims that Pickering is hostile to the interests of African-Americans. But what have we actually heard from African-Americans in that state—the people whose “strong support” for Pickering is so “compelling” to TNR?

"Judge Pickering's elevation to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals would represent a major setback to the hard-fought struggle of African Americans and other racial and ethnic minority people in Mississippi — a state with a notorious record on civil rights." -- Eugene Bryant, President of the Mississippi NAACP

Clearly, the Mississippi NAACP does not support him. Other African-American groups in Mississippi, including the Magnolia Bar Association, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, also oppose Pickering.

But TNR simply declares that Pickering enjoys strong support within the Mississippi African-American community, without even mentioning the opposition of these prominent Mississippi African-American organizations. Their public statements have been widely reported in the press, and the professional journalists at TNR are certainly aware of them. Why, when characterizing the opinion of Mississippi’s African-Americans, has TNR chosen to pretend that these organizations do not exist?

The most likely explanation is that TNR’s editors enjoy bucking the conventional wisdom—they consider themselves a bunch of free thinkers who turn aside old assumptions. They like to prove themselves to be above partisanship, and are especially hostile to certain Democratic partisans (the better to avoid the “liberal bias” label from conservatives). So they don’t put much stock in such a group as the NAACP, which has received decades of badmouthing by Republicans. Even though the NAACP is a well-established group with broad African-American membership, it is also widely seen as a friend of Democrats, and TNR might therefore prefer not to cite the NAACP’s views when reporting what African-Americans think of Pickering. This happens to be the opinion aired publicly by one Mississippian about Pickering’s opponents in that state:

"The groups that are opposing him now are doing so for political reasons….”

That’s Jim Herring, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party.

While Herring is not only white but quite obviously a Republican partisan, it’s his position on Mississippi’s African-Americans that TNR appears to have adopted. TNR clearly believes that the outcry of several major African-American groups is no reason to question Pickering’s support among African-Americans, and the only obvious explanation is that they have dismissed these groups as “political.” However, TNR has no excuse for simply ignoring these organizations—even Herring at least acknowledged their existence and their opposition to Pickering, which TNR chose not to do. Further, partisan or not, these groups plainly cannot all be considered unrepresentative of African-American Mississippians. The members of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, for instance, are African-Americans who actually serve in the state legislature—they are certainly “representative” in every sense of the word. To TNR’s shame it simply pretends never to have heard of any of these groups or their opposition to Pickering, and deliberately misleads its readers about Mississippi’s African-American community. Indeed, TNR casts aside the facts to conclude that “black Mississippians” strongly support Pickering. But shoddy as this conclusion is, TNR sees fit to sell it as powerful evidence in support of Pickering. In fact, that’s the only evidence it offers before suddenly declaring Pickering untainted by any racism. It doesn’t look like TNR’s selective fact-finding and strange logic in this editorial stems from a mere policy of ignoring traditional African-American groups. Presumably, TNR had a larger goal all along—finding some excuse to buck the conventional wisdom on Pickering:

No, Pickering is not a racist.

TNR had to sweep a bunch of issues under the rug to make such a terse and unequivocal pronouncement. (I’ve limited my discussion to Pickering’s African-American support because it happens to be the only race-related matter mentioned in the editorial; examples from the rest of Pickering’s life and career, which Atrios and others have covered well, seem to be unworthy of TNR’s attention.) It looks like TNR was simply bent on announcing proudly that “the Left” is all wrong about Pickering and race, and it didn’t mind turning reality upside-down in the process.

The entire issue of race is a huge one to simply cede to Pickering, and the political philosophy of the man’s partisan boosters in the Mississippi Republican Party is a strange one for TNR to adopt. But even worse, in its entire piece about Pickering (again, one that claims to give the argument for opposing his confirmation), TNR never mentions what is possibly the single most damning piece of evidence against him—his apparent perjury during his initial confirmation hearings when nominated for the Mississippi District Court. In 1990, Pickering was asked if he had ever contacted the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a white supremacist organization devoted to fighting integration in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Pickering said no, and that answer was false. Sovereignty Commission records that have since been released to the public prove that he did indeed have contact with this organization. (See Joe Conason’s reporting in Salon.)

It looks like Pickering lied under oath, something that even Senate Republicans might have trouble explaining away if anyone were to challenge them on it. Yet TNR’s editors can’t even be bothered to bring up the issue. Why TNR decided to completely ignore this unethical and probably criminal behavior is incomprehensible.

While the TNR editors feign an interest in stopping Pickering’s confirmation, they back off from the charges that could actually derail it. TNR shrugs off opposition by African-Americans (distorting the facts in the process), and fails to even mention Pickering’s false statement under oath (paying no attention to the facts whatsoever). This typifies the baffling indifference shown by many journalists to the process and consequence of judicial confirmations. Even writers who claim not to want the federal judiciary dominated by right-wing ideologues often respond to conservative nominations with issueless reporting and weak commentary. TNR and others might truly think that they can effectively confront Republican nominees without tough accusations and concrete evidence. Or perhaps they simply dislike the political hardball that the judicial confirmation process has become, and fear that genuine engagement in the process would draw them in. Whatever the reason, even though TNR says it opposes Pickering it doesn’t look like the editors are really trying to keep him off the Fifth Circuit.


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