Jesse Helms: Racist Of The First order

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[On Media: Richard Prince's Journal-isms]


David S. Broder, the dean of Washington political reporters, said it in his Washington Post column when Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., announced his retirement in 2001. And now that Helms has died at age 86, history seems to be repeating itself.

"Those who believe that the 'liberal press' always has its knives sharpened for Republicans and conservatives must have been flummoxed by the coverage of Sen. Jesse Helms's announcement last week that he will not run for reelection next year in North Carolina. The reporting on his retirement was circumspect to the point of pussyfooting," Broder wrote on Aug. 29, 2001.

"On the day his decision became known, the New York Times described him as 'a conservative stalwart for nearly 30 years,' the Boston Globe as 'an unyielding icon of conservatives and an archenemy of liberals.' The Washington Post identified Helms as 'one of the most powerful conservatives on Capitol Hill for three decades.'

"Those were accurate de scri ptions. But they skirted the point. There are plenty of powerful conservatives in government. A few, such as Don Rumsfeld and Henry Hyde, have been around as long as Helms and have their own significant roles in 20th century political history. What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country — a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired."

The stories on Helms' July 4 demise, in both the freshly written obituaries and those that had been prepared in advance, likewise avoided the "R" word.

"Former U.S. Sen. Jesse A. Helms, the son of a Monroe police chief who rose to national prominence as one of the leading lions of the American right, died early this morning. He was 86," began the story by Rob Christensen in Helms' home-state Raleigh News & Observer.

The New York Times, in an obit bylined by Steven A. Holmes, who has since left the paper, began, "Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina Senator whose courtly manner and mossy drawl barely masked a hard-edged conservatism that opposed civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art, died early Friday. He was 86." The Web site headline was the tepid "Jesse Helms, Conservative Force in the Senate, Dies at 86."

The Associated Press, in a story by Whitney Woodward and David Epso, also resorted to euphemism: "Former Sen. Jesse Helms, who built a career along the fault lines of racial politics and battled liberals, Communists and the occasional fellow Republican during 30 conservative years in Congress, died on the Fourth of July."

The Washington Post's Web site obituary, written in advance by retired staff writer Bart Barnes, did quote Broder's column using the "R" word. But the lead of the story called Helms "one of America's leading crusaders against communism, liberalism, tax increases, abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action and court-ordered busing to desegregate schools."

The stories are reminiscent of the coverage of Helms' retirement. Then, the progressive media watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting wrote:

"News that North Carolina's Jesse Helms will retire from the Senate when his term is up in 2003 received polite coverage in mainstream media. USA Today (8/22/01) described Helms' views as 'unabashed and outspoken conservatism.' To the Washington Post (8/22/01), Helms is one of the Senate's 'most ardent champions of conservative causes . . . a man of bold colors and few pastels.' Curiously using the past tense, the Los Angeles Times observed, 'he personified the unvarnished, uncompromising, attack-dog brand of conservatism.' (8/22/01)

"Most of the coverage alluded to Helms' unrepentant racism and homophobia — though few called it that. Some outlets presented his bigotry as merely accusations from political foes: 'His opponents have accused him of using race to win elections.' (CBS Evening News, 8/21/01) Overall, most outlets painted Helms as a conservative whose career has merely been punctuated by controversial episodes, not as a demagogue whose career has been defined by the politics of hate and reaction."

FAIR's analysis went on to cite Broder as the exception. "Broder offered a few examples of Helms' bigotry. There are many," it said.

"As an aide to the 1950 Senate campaign of North Carolina Republican candidate Willis Smith, Helms reportedly helped create attack ads against Smith's opponent, including one which read: 'White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.' Another ad featured photographs Helms himself had doctored to illustrate the allegation that Graham's wife had danced with a black man. (The News and Observer, 8/26/01; The New Republic, 6/19/95; The Observer, 5/5/96; Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms, by Ernest B. Furgurson, Norton, 1986)

"Ancient history? No. Helms remains unapologetic to this day. Forty years after the Smith campaign, Helms would win election against black opponent Harvey Gantt with another ad playing to racist white fear — the so-called 'white hands' ad, in which a white man's hands crumple a rejected job application while a voiceover intones, 'You needed that job . . . but they had to give it to a minority.'"

Writing on the Chicago Tribune blog "The Swamp," Frank James, a black journalist, came closest to matching Broder in directly addressing Helms' stance on race: "He had, fairly or not, a reputation as one of the Senate's most retrograde members on race issues," James wrote.

"Helms was more complicated on racial issues than the caricature he became for many Americans. He actually had African Americans on his staff including James Meredith who integrated the University of Mississippi.

"But he was a master at racial politics. The Village Voice once reported that before Helms allowed a photo to be taken of him during an interview, he got up and removed a photo that included a black man from the wall behind him, explaining that some people in North Carolina might not understand."


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