John Leo
Dishonest commentary often uses the passive voice. If nobody pays a lot of attention to your group or lobby, it's been "marginalized." People no longer drink too much. They are "afflicted with alcoholism and alcohol-related diseases." Passive, blame-shifting language is all around us now, a verbal smog.

A current example is last week's majority report on the Florida presidential vote by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Once respected, the commission long ago degenerated into a hard-left hit group that specializes in trashing Republicans -- Rudy Giuliani, Jeb Bush, George W. Bush. Its erratic and sarcastic chairwoman, Mary Frances Berry, friend of Hillary and donor to the Gore campaign, is devoted to the idea that the Republicans worked to suppress the black vote in Florida. But since her commission found no evidence of this -- journalists haven't either -- it settled for slippery passive language that implies what couldn't be proved.

In Florida, the commission charged, blacks were more likely than whites to "have their votes spoiled" and were therefore "disenfranchised." Spoiled by whom? The voters themselves. Over 890,000 Florida blacks went to the polls in November, up 65 percent over 1996. This unexpectedly huge turnout brought a large number of inexperienced voters to the polls. Many voters mismarked their ballots, thus "disenfranchising" themselves.

This sort of language comes up again and again, implying bias or conspiracy. Blacks were far more likely than others "to have their ballots rejected." "Protected groups may have had less of an opportunity to have their votes counted." Buried deep in the report is the acknowledgement that no conspiracy or evidence of intentional unfairness was found.

But Berry took the opportunity to call for a Justice Department investigation of whether minorities had been denied their voting rights. A nice touch. Berry investigates for six months, comes up with nothing, then calls for another investigation because something may yet be wrong.

The net effect of the report is to keep alive the legend of the suppressed black vote in Florida. Like the hoax about black church-burnings, this story is becoming an unshakable myth. It may have the staying power to poison race relations for a long time to come. One example of how this can play out: Last week an L.A. Times columnist wrote that "the power of the vote (was stolen) from one in five African-Americans, as certainly as if their ballots had been boxed up and trucked off to the Everglades." Zero evidence of disenfranchisement, but the vote was stolen anyway.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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