Following up on these posts, read this new Jim Sleeper post: “Where serious journalism begins. I was tickled recently to notice that election law expert Rick Hasen, tracking Brooklyn voter fraud cases from the 1970s and ’80s, resurrected my reporting on it from that time, in the Village Voice. Rick was able to do it thanks to my preserving those stories in pdfs right here, in my “Scoops and Revelations” section. As I explain briefly in the introduction to that section, I was able to break this important case and to embolden the wronged party to take it to court, because I’d been immersed in the community long enough, as a journalist, to have the context and the contacts necessary to catch sleights of hand at the Board of Elections that otherwise wouldn’t have been caught, let alone written about. This was my own introduction to journalism’s indispensability to a healthy public sphere. I say a bit more about this right here.
Here’s more from Sleeper on the topic, below the fold, showing how little of this scandal involved voter impersonation fraud. Here are seven instances in my own experience where a little historical memory and some informed judgment benefited me and the public.
1. Exposing Election Fraud in an Historic Black Congressional Race.
The first instance is the most conventional. It was the first time I understood how to break news. It came on a Saturday morning in 1982, when I walked into the Brooklyn Board of Elections as a Village Voice writer and found supporters of Brooklyn State Senator Vander Beatty ―checking‖ voter registration cards.
What they were really doing was forging signatures on the cards, which Beatty‘s lawyers would then submit to a judge as evidence of fraud in his suit to invalidate a congressional Democratic primary election for the retiring Rep. Shirley Chisholm‘s historic Bedford Stuyvesant seat, which Beatty had just lost to a far more worthy State Senate colleague, Major R. Owens. Beatty was going to submit his minions‘ Saturday morning forgeries as evidence that Owens had rigged the votes on Election Day.
I hadn‘t just stumbled upon those shenanigans at the Board of Elections. A political operative who knew people on both sides had called to tip me off. He didn‘t need to explain much on the phone: A Voice cover story of mine on Beatty‘s long record of corruption had been published before the primary and had played some role in Owens‘ victory. Yet if I hadn‘t rushed down to the Board that Saturday and known what I was seeing, Beatty would have won his suit in Brooklyn‘s compliant (indeed, complicit), machine-dominated judiciary. Black politics in Chisholm‘s district would have taken an emblematically disastrous turn. So a lot was at stake in the new Voice story the following Wednesday. ―Look at it this way said my tipster; ―[Beatty] is either going to jail or he‘s going to Congress
A classic povertycrat long indulged by a corrupt Democratic machine and a timid white liberal elite, Beatty had been endorsed in the primary by the New York Times. The party machine‘s hack judges did rule for him in the local and appellate courts, but, thanks partly to my reporting and the controversy that ensued, New York‘s highest court overturned the rulings. Owens, who said he felt as if he‘d been in Mississippi throughout the ordeal, went to Congress, served honorably, and retired in 2006. Beatty was convicted in federal court a few years later of corruption unrelated to his election scheme. In 1990, he was assassinated by a non-political rival. It‘s all in four stories linked here.
The experience of trying for months to alert others to Beatty‘s malfeasances taught me that even bona-fide scoops may not interest most news media if the news comes from the wrong side of the tracks and its larger implications aren‘t clear. Only after the Times’ Sydney Schanberg read the Voice report and alerted the rest of the world in his op-ed page column did the Times, the courts, and the Democratic Party show any inclination to do what all of them supposedly had been established to do in the first place.
I learned that a truth-teller has to persist against conventional wisdom and indifference. Sometimes only an advocacy journalist inflamed by commitment to an insurgent cause will keep at it long enough. Even a highly professional journalist may lack motivation and adequate resources unless he or she makes a strenuous effort to summon them.
I learned, too, that even persistence may fail if the writer hasn‘t enough historical memory and sound judgment to find the ―story‖ in the deluge of impressions. People will resist facing even an incontrovertible piece of evidence if its implications are counterintuitive and therefore ―make no sense‖. That‘s what happens when readers lack an interpretive story line that explains why the facts matter. For that, they have to trust the journalist to ―break‖ sound new ideas as well as news itself. In the Beatty case, selling the story meant shattering white indulgence of black corruption by persuading readers of the need for reformers like Owens.