NBC's Brian Williams: Supreme Court 'Drove a Stake Through the Heart' of Voting Rights Law

NBC and ABC journalists on Tuesday lamented a Supreme Court decision to strike down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional. But it was Nightly News anchor Brian Williams who offered the most hyperbolic summery. He opened the show by fretting, "As one reporter put it today, the U.S. Supreme Court has driven a stake through the heart of the most important civil rights law ever enacted, the Voting Rights Act." [See video below. MP3 audio here.]

Williams didn't explain who this "one reporter" was. (Perhaps he meant journalists at USA Today.) In a preview for the show, Williams sounded a similar theme, "The Supreme Court goes after the very heart of the most important civil rights law in U.S. history." The anchor focused on opposition to the ruling, noting, "...It fired up opponents from the president to the attorney general to civil rights groups."

Nightly News reporter Pete Williams offered a more balanced approach. He featured three voices decrying the Court's actions, but two in support.

Brian Williams's MSNBC colleague, Chris Hayes , attacked the Supreme Court for "plunging a "knife" into the "soft underbelly" of the Voting Rights Act.

On ABC's World News, Terry Moran called the decision an "end of an era." Earlier in the day on Tuesday, he hyperbolically (and inaccurately) claimed that "right now, there is no Voting Rights Act operative" in America. (In fact, the Court struck down section four of the law.)

In a follow-up report, Steve Osunsami focused on the state of America 50 years ago when the law was enacted. He offered a pessimistic view of the country in the wake of the law: "The families here who feel they lost tell us they feel far from Washington today and have little faith that Congress will rebuild the law."

The CBS Evening News delivered a similar theme. Anchor Scott Pelley wondered:

SCOTT PELLEY: A research department tells us in 1965, there were no African-American senators and no African-American Congressmen from the areas covered by the act, but today there is one Senator and 17 Congressmen. As Chief Justice Roberts said in his opinion, the country has changed, but a question asked by many today is, how much?

In contrast to ABC, however, reporter Mark Strassman featured two opposing voices. Leroy Clemens of the Mississippi NAACP attacked the Court's decision. Jim Prince, a local newspaper editor disagreed: "There's been incredible change, basic, drastic change. When is the federal government going to quit punishing us for the sins of our great, great, great grandfathers?"

A transcript of the June 25 Nightly News segment is below:

7:00 p.m. Eastern tease

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Struck Down. The Supreme Court goes after the very heart of the most important civil rights law in U.S. history. Tonight, we'll look at the fallout and the future. 

7:01

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. As one reporter put it today, the U.S. Supreme Court has driven a stake through the heart of the most important civil rights law ever enacted, the Voting Rights Act. It was created because of a history of discrimination in certain states. Today, the court said our country has changed since then. The court was divided over it, and while it doesn't end voting rights enforcement in this country, it fired up opponents from the president to the attorney general to civil rights groups, while it does allow Congress to bring it back if there's the political will. It's where we begin tonight with our justice correspondent Pete Williams at the court. Pete, good evening.

PETE WILLIAMS: Brian, good evening. The court's conservatives today followed through on a threat they made four years ago, to strike at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, unless Congress updated it. Congress did nothing, and today the court left that key part of the law all but dead. The ruling deals a crippling and potentially fatal blow to the law signed by President Johnson in 1965, a response to widespread efforts in the south to prevent blacks from voting.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: We're marching today to [unintelligible] to the nation.

PETE WILLIAMS: Civil rights veteran John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, watched as the law was signed.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Without the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there would be no Barack Obama as president of the United States of America. We've come too far, made too much progress, to go back.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This decision represents a serious setback for voting rights, and has the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country.

PETE WILLIAMS: In a five to four ruling, the court's conservatives said the areas covered by the Voting Rights Act have changed, but the law has not kept up. The act requires states with a history of voter discrimination to get permission from the federal government before changing how they conduct elections. The court left that part intact. But it struck down the map, the coverage formula of where that requirement applies – that's all of nine mostly southern states and parts of six others. Chief Justice John Roberts said the map is "based on decades-old data and eradicated practices." In five of the covered southern states, he said, African-Americans have a higher voter turnout percentage than whites. Opponents of the law, who helped Shelby County, Alabama challenge it, hailed the ruling.

SHELBY COUNTY ATTORNEY FRANK ELLIS: We’ve just elected a black president of the Shelby County Board of Education over a white incumbent. In a countywide election.

VRA OPPONENT EDWARD BLUM: African-Americans are an integral part of southern political life. And that's a good thing, and that's never going to change.

PETE WILLIAMS: But writing for the court's four dissenters, Justice Ginsberg said gutting the law that has helped end voter discrimination is "like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet." Civil rights groups vowed to rally the same kind of action from Congress they got 48 years ago.

SHERRILYN IFILL, NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATIONAL FUND: The reality is, the only way Congress will act is if we call, if we march, if we pressure, if we make clear that we do not intend to go backwards on voting.

PETE WILLIAMS: One state, Texas, responded immediately, saying it would start enforcing one of the nation's strictest voter ID laws, something the federal government tried to stop. And it may also redraw its congressional and legislative districts now that it's no longer covered by the key part of the Voting Rights Act. Tomorrow, the term ends with the final decisions, including on those two blockbuster cases on same-sex marriage, Brian.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org