How the media downplayed Jesse Helms' racism

David Broder attacked reporters for ignoring Helms' racist career in covering his retirement last week. So why was Broder mum on the topic when Helms was riding high?

Published August 31, 2001 5:56PM (EDT)

Washington Post columnist David Broder caused a splash in D.C.'s usually placid August press pool this week when he wrote that retiring Republican North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms was a "racist" in his Wednesday column.

The reason for the name-calling? Broder was irked at how Helms' retirement had been handled by the supposedly liberal mainstream press, with most major news outlets airbrushing Helms' distasteful race-baiting and segregationist past. Broder even singled out his own paper for its weak-kneed reporting, which gingerly touched on the topic of race in just two of the 54 paragraphs the paper ran on Helms last week. Instead, the Post and other media Big Feet were busy lionizing Helms as "one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades."

All well and good, wrote Broder, but more importantly, "What is unique about Helms -- and from my viewpoint, unforgivable -- is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans."

Tough talk indeed. And commendable at a time when there seems to be little serious self-examination among the D.C. press corps.

But Broder's call-out begs the obvious question: Why did he wait so long to tell the truth about Jesse Helms? And wouldn't it have been more effective, more dramatic, if Broder had stepped out front when Helms was the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, instead of a lame duck retiree?

Or in Washington, where access is key for journalists, is that not possible? Could it be that such candid discussion about a politician's ugly racism can begin only after a major player has left the stage?

It's clear from Broder's column this week he feels passionately about the topic. Yet a look back at his work over the years, via Lexis-Nexis, reveals that Broder mostly kept those feelings to himself. (Broder did not return phone calls seeking comment on his writing about Helms.)

True, 16 years ago he paired Black Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan with Helms as examples of "racist demagogues." But ever since then Broder has been mum about Helms' racism.

In his piece this week Broder made much of Helms' divisive campaigns in 1984, against Gov. Jim Hunt, and 1990, against Charlotte mayor Harvey Gant, when the conservative Republican played the race card with jaw-dropping audacity.

Yet Broder watched those same races like everyone else in the political media, and wrote nothing condemning Helms' race-baiting tactics. In 1987 he wrote a column about Hunt, revisiting his loss to Helms, but never detailed any of Helm's racist maneuvers. (There was a passing reference by Broder in '94 to Helms and how "No one in current politics has played the race card more flagrantly than he has in his campaigns.")

Since then, when Broder did write about Helms' work in the Senate, it was usually to poke him gently about inside-the-Beltway questions of process (a Broder specialty): trying to pass a "nonsensical amendment" having to do with art funding, his staunch opposition to the United Nations, and his leading role in defeating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Even when Helms for years held up President Clinton's nomination of Roger Gregory to be the first African-American judge to the 4th Circuit bench in Helms' North Carolina (a district that represents more minorities than any other in the country), Broder did not question Helms' racial motivation.

Broder was right about the press treating Helms' retirement announcement with kid gloves, overlooking some of the senator's hateful rhetoric over the years. But should Broder, the deserved dean of American political pundits, be surprised the media soft-pedaled the issue when high-profile commentators like himself refused to write about it forthrightly over the years?

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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