Just the Story, Ma'am.

Last week I asked why reporters don't more often ask candidates, "What exactly are you talking about?" when they make sweeping claims about things like our freedoms being taken away. And last night, Rachel Maddow's program featured her doing just that when talking to some Joe Miller supporters out waving signs on an Alaska street corner. It's a pretty telling exchange:

Keep in mind that these are folks who are so mad about this particular issue, and so fervent in their defense of their Second Amendment rights, that they're out on a corner talking to people about it. One supporter says they're mad at Lisa Murkowski because she voted to confirm Attorney General Eric Holder. Maddow asks why they're against that, and they all chime in that Holder is "the most anti-gun Attorney General this country has ever had." Maddow politely asks a simple question: "What's he done against guns?" And the guy is stumped -- he can't come up with anything. Maddow turns to another sign-waver and ask her the same question. She replies, "I don't have all the facts but I know that he is anti-gun." Maddow presses gently to see if there's anything specific they're mad about, and then a new Miller supporter steps in to aver that what she's mad at Holder about is "the voter intimidation with the Black Panthers."

Now we're getting somewhere. You might be saying, "Wait -- those two crazy guys from the New Black Panther Party, who stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia with sticks on an Election Day in 2006 -- they're going to steal the election in Alaska?" But as Maddow explains, "This is the world that Fox News has created."

Those two Black Panther guys sure do get around. They're not just in Alaska, they're in Texas too -- not actually them, of course, but their specter. Now let's take a look at this article in today's New York Times, about this year's iteration of the biennial Republican efforts to suppress the votes of minorities and low-income people.

Houston Votes, whose registration drive has mostly focused on Latino neighborhoods, did find at least one paid canvasser submitting fraudulent applications, Mr. George said, and that person was immediately fired. He added that the groups' financing for voter registration work had dried up because of insinuations by the King Street Patriots that Houston Votes was tied to the New Black Panther Party.

"Houston Votes has nothing whatsoever to do with the Black Panthers," Mr. George said. "But you make a claim like that, and funding dries up, even if the claim isn't true."

Mr. George explained that during a meeting, the King Street Patriots had shown a picture of the Houston Votes office and stated its address before adding that this was the new location of the Black Panthers.

So how is it that the New Black Panther case -- this one tiny incident involving two guys, in which no actual voters who were intimidated could be identified, and which George W. Bush's Justice Department thought was a nothingburger -- has become so important? The simple story is that it has been featured on Fox News literally hundreds of times. Because if there's anything they understand, it's the power of storytelling, and a good story needs a villain. "Democrats are trying to steal the election" is an old story, one that is used to justify all manner of efforts to suppress minority votes. The New Black Panther guys put a face on that story -- a threatening, angry, black face. And when you've got that, whether there's any actual voter fraud going on doesn't really matter. Just like with the story "Eric Holder is coming to take your guns away," there don't have to be any facts. It's all about the story.

-- Paul Waldman

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