06/22/2005 11:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mainstream News Media and the Right to Vote

Ten days ago, I was in Chicago, participating in a panel discussion about the need to add a Right to Vote amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The event was part of the annual convention of Reverend Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition/Push; among the other speakers on the panel were Howard Dean and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who has introduced such an amendment into congress and has been actively promoting it for several years. The amendment now has 55 congressional co-sponsors.

This is an important issue -- since the absence of a federal right to vote (no, it isn't in the bill of rights) has many ramifications that affect the conduct of elections and the political participation (or not) of American citizens. I could go on about that (and often do), but that's not the point of this blog.

The point here is that some significant news was made at that event in Chicago on June 12: Howard Dean, chair of the DNC, endorsed the right to vote amendment sponsored by Congressman Jackson. This is not a small development: Dean is a key political figure, and nothing is more fundamental to American political institutions than the right to vote.

One might have thought, thus, that Dean's public endorsement would get some attention in the press, particularly since numerous reporters were in attendance. But at the press conference that followed the event, reporters displayed little interest in (or knowledge of) the right to vote amendment -- although they had just spent two hours in a room where it was the sole subject of discussion. A room where hundreds of people, many of them African-American, seemed to enthusiastically welcome the prospect of an amendment that would guarantee their right to vote.

Instead, the reporters' questions focused obsessively on the comments that Dean had made a few days earlier disparaging some Republicans. What the press wanted to cover was not an important substantive issue but a spitting contest between political personalities: e.g. would Dean respond to criticism that vice president Cheney had voiced that morning? Even worse, they seemed more interested in promoting the spitting contest -- by asking questions designed to continue it -- than in sorting out an issue for their readers. Not a single question was asked about the meaning or significance of the amendment itself.

No doubt it's naive of me to complain about something so routine and predictable, but can't we do better than this? Can't we, in the era of Iraq, learn something from our mistakes?