As Tennessee Republicans expelled two state House Democrats for joining in a protest calling for gun reform from the House floor, the national media turned its attention to the chamber.
The story was plastered across cable news and front pages alike, with reporters tweeting the moment each of the two was booted — the first expulsion based on partisan politics, instead of misconduct, since the Civil War era. One lawmaker, Rep. Gloria Johnson (D), who is white, barely survived her expulsion vote. The other two, Reps. Justin Jones (D) and Justin Pearson (D), who are Black, were expelled. The three joined a protest at the state Capitol last week after six people were shot and killed at a Nashville elementary school.
The Republican House supermajority used its dominance to push through the two men’s expulsion, despite Democratic opposition. The votes for the three lawmakers fell largely along party lines — even more so for the two who were expelled.
These Republicans brought a hammer down on their fellow lawmakers for peacefully protesting. In doing so, they undid the voters’ will and essentially nullified the results of a free and fair election because they couldn’t stomach the dissent. It was a shocking display of anti-democratic vengeance by a party that enjoys near-complete control over the state, that even used its dominance to dismember one of the last remaining Democratic strongholds last redistricting cycle to further entrench itself.
And yet, some mainstream outlets still struggled to resist both sides-ing the reality.
Take this Associated Press headline: “Amid polarization, minority party lawmakers face penalties.”
It’s hard to imagine a worse summation of current political dynamics. Based on the headline, you’d think it’d be a litany of Tennessee-esque vindictive actions taken by both parties. But look at the opening.
“Oklahoma Republicans removed the state’s only nonbinary legislator from House committees after the lawmaker provided refuge to a transgender rights activist,” it reads. “In Florida, two Democratic leaders were arrested for participating in a protest over abortion restrictions. And in Tennessee, three Democratic House members are facing expulsion for using a bullhorn in the House chamber to show support for demonstrators demanding gun control.”
Notice a pattern? In each example, Democrats are being punished for protesting, for publicly taking positions that Republicans oppose. And in the two examples where the punishments are political in nature, it’s Republicans who are doling them out.
These are not examples of “polarization.” They’re examples of a Republican party on an authoritarian, rightward-march, growing increasingly comfortable taking an iron fist to democratically elected lawmakers who express opinions they oppose.
The failings of the coverage range in severity.
Take this New York Times piece. The headline is informative: “Tennessee G.O.P. Punishes 2 Democrats by Throwing Them Out of House.”
But then you reach the sub-heading: “The unseating of the lawmakers threatened to further inflame partisan rancor in a state that is divided over issues like how to respond to a school shooting in Nashville.”
“Partisan rancor” is the evil being “threatened,” and not the reaction of a healthy democracy to years of chipping away at it.
Then you have the more minor, but frustrating, sins of omission.
This NPR headline — “Tennessee House votes to expel 2 of 3 Democratic members over gun protest” — and this Washington Post Twitter description of its article — “Over 100 state and federal Black lawmakers assembled in an emergency Zoom meeting Thursday evening to offer support to Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who were unseated from the Tennessee House” — omit critical information. Republicans in the Tennessee House voted to expel them. They were unseated by Republicans.
It all stems, consciously or not, from the idea that to pin the action on one party, rather than to avoid assigning accountability through the passive voice or by citing the chamber without clarifying its partisan lean, would reveal some kind of bias on the part of the reporter.
As soon as you step into the land of right-wing outlets, things get, predictably, worse.
The chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner writes: “Three Tennessee lawmakers occupy the state House floor, acting in tandem with protesters to bring House business to a halt. A week later, all hell breaks loose.”
The editor-in-chief at Crooked Media (and TPM alum) Brian Beutler responds: “This is perfect weaseldom. Active voice for the libs who nefariously ‘occupy’ their workplaces. Passive voice for his Bull Connor-wannabe allies, who lack all agency as ‘hell’ breaks loose and expels two black legislators.”
All of this brings us to our crescendo, the worst of the worst. Let us turn our gaze to that cathedral of journalism, that foundry of fact, Fox and Friends. This morning, host Ainsley Earhardt had this to say:
“Everyone agrees, though, you can’t be chaotic in a state building or a government building, the Capitol of the United States.”
Thank God everyone agrees, otherwise we might be under the threat of partisan rancor.
Many of these articles clarify and report on the dynamics well in their bodies, but it’s not enough. This was a clear-cut example of the growing danger of a Republican Party further emboldened, in a Trumpian style, to break norms and crack down on dissidents. Shrouding that peril in mealy-mouthed fretting about both parties being mean to each other is a disservice to readers and to citizens, and obfuscates the truth and clarity journalism is supposed to provide.