by Michael Maharrey
AP reporter John Miller provides a textbook example of sloppy, agenda driven â€œjournalismâ€ in a piece headlined GOP invokes 1700s doctrine in health care fight published on Jan. 26.
Miller cobbles together a report clearly reflecting his personal opinion on the subject, and while he would surely argue that the story holds completely to the facts, he links those facts together in a way that leads the reader to his forgone conclusion.
Perhaps Miller doesn’t know any better, but he also omits vital information, leaving the reader with an incomplete understanding of nullification. He can either plead ignorance, making him a lazy reporter, or he left those bits of information out on purpose, making him an agenda driven hack.
Either way, he earns low marks as a professional journalist.
Let’s look at some specifics.
Miller sets up his assumption in the language of his lede graph.
â€œRepublican lawmakers in nearly a dozen states are reaching into the dusty annals of American history to fight President Obama’s health care overhaul.â€
Note the wording â€“ dusty annals of American history. In other words, nullification isn’t really something to take seriously.Â It’s old. (He re-emphasizes that point when he mentions Jefferson â€œphilosophical guidanceâ€ 211 years ago.) Old means irrelevant and arcane. And if it’s old, irrelevant and arcane, you need not pay attention to it.
Miller frames the story with the loaded language in his opening graph and proceeds to hang it nicely inside.
He goes on to declare the notion of nullification unconstitutional. His source? â€œMost legal scholars…â€
Presumably, Miller interviewed or at least read the opinions of most legal scholars in this country.
Nowhere does he bother to cite any cogent opposing viewpoint. And it does exist. In fact, the logic is quite simple. He should be able to grasp it, even with all of the time spent talking to “most legal experts”. Quite simply, if Congress passes legislation reaching outside of its constitutionally prescribed delegated powers, it is not law at all, but an unconstitutional act – by definition illegal. The Constitution stands as the supreme law of the land, not the court. And unconstitutional acts cannot hold a place of supremacy over a state law.
Miller spends the next several graphs describing other radical â€œconservativeâ€ activities. They don’t have anything to do with nullification, but they fit the frame, so he throws them in.
I love some of the loaded language. “Anti-government angst running high.â€ â€œTea Party crowd.â€ â€œSecession.â€ Miller clearly intends to paint nullification the color of extremism â€“ right wing extremism to boot. He doesn’t come out and say it, of course. That would be non-objective. He lets the language serve as his brush.
Finally, he gets into the origins of nullification, lazily hanging the entire concept on the writing of Thomas Jefferson. I have to give him credit for basically explaining the Kentucky Resolutions correctly, all in one sentence. Well, except for the incorrect date. But why quibble? Anyway, after his cursory explanation of the principle’s origin, Miller simply sweeps the third president’s idea aside in one sentence.
â€œAnd his beliefs on nullification were nothing more than his opinions…â€
I suppose I could say the same about â€œmost legal scholarsâ€. Or supreme court justices for that matter.
But I digress.
At this point, Miller takes the opportunity to create a little â€œgotchaâ€ moment. He quotes Idaho Republican Sen. Monty Pearce saying Jefferson was at the constitutional convention.
â€œActually, Jefferson was far away, in France, as the framers met in 1787 in Philadelphia to replace the Articles of Confederation.â€
Good one John!
But perhaps Miller should have included the fact that James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution, wrote the Virginia Resolution the same year, mirroring Jefferson’s reasoning. And that Madison laid out the fundamental principle of state resistance to overreaching federal power in Federalist 46.
But then again, who cares? That was just Madison’s opinion.
Miller moves on to assert, â€œNullification has been invoked several times over the years â€” to no avail.â€
He mentions the tariff act that South Carolina fought in the 1830s. He points out that it â€œnearly provoked armed conflict.â€
Nearly, but it didn’t.
In fact, the feds backed down, and in a compromise, agreed to roll back the tariff over time. Sounds like at least a partial win for South Carolina. But that doesn’t fit the template.
And Miller fails to mention to modern cases of successful nullification. Numerous states refused to implement the Real ID act of 2005, rendering the act functionally void, and 15 states have defied federal law and implemented medicinal marijuana programs, without tanks rolling through the streets.
Finally, near the end of the story, Miller gets around to citing an intellectual source on nullification. But not before a little character assassination. Thomas Woods earned his undergrad degree in history from Harvard. He holds a masters and Ph.D. from Columbia University. But Miller doesn’t mention these credentials. He does mention that â€œas a college student in 1994, Woods helped found the League of the South, an Alabama group the Southern Poverty Law Center says has become a ‘neo-Confederate group’ seeking a second Southern secession.â€
In other words, Woods is a racist and what he has to say isn’t relevant, but here it is anyway. Never mind that the Southern Poverty Law Center doesn’t exactly count as an unbiased source of information. And never mind that Woods no longer has any association with the League of the South. (Yes, Miller did mention this fact as an afterthought. But really, why mention the association at all? What does it have to do with the story? Oops.Â Sorry. Asking too many questions.)
Interestingly, Miller fails to tell us anything about the organizational memberships, paper subjects or college hi-jinks of â€œmost legal scholarsâ€, Idaho Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, or David Gray Adler – all sources asserting nullification is an unconstitutional, archaic concept.
But I’m sure Miller thoroughly checked all of their backgrounds to make sure there was no ties to any progressive advocacy groups and no skeletons in their closets. No dirty laundry there for sure.
Miller makes a mockery of journalism with this story. Agree or disagree with the concept or wisdom of nullification, it has its roots in the founding philosophy of the nation and in the original understanding of the Constitution. It was invoked frequently in the first century of the Republic’s existence, by members of every political party, in the north and in the south. It stands on solid philosophical ground and has been successfully utilized in the last decade.
But Miller doesn’t bother to get into any of those complex nuances. Miller doesn’t bother to provide a balanced story explaining nullification. Miller doesn’t even bother to fact-check his work to make sure he gets something as basic as the date of the Kentucky Resolutions correct.
In short, he fails to do the basic job of a fair objective journalist.