Mar 1 1999

‘Old Days’ Slow to Haunt Lott

Press missed tips on racist ties

Long-standing ties between Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens are finally, if hesitatingly, coming to light. But at a time when the politics of impeachment have produced a number of related scandals involving a variety of Congress members, mainstream media have been slow to recognize Lott’s involvement with the CCC as scandalous. In fact, the real scandal is how the mainstream media, until recently, have all but ignored Lott’s many connections with the racist right.

When Lott became Senate Majority Leader in 1996, Village Voice reporter Claire Saliba did what one might expect a number of reporters to do at a moment when a figure steps into one of the nation’s premier political leadership positions–she did a background check on the newly powerful politician. Familiar with the CCC through her work with Voice reporter James Ridgeway, Saliba documented some of Lott’s ties to the group, quoting CCC leader Gordon Lee Baum’s claim that “we support 95 percent of Trent Lott’s philosophy,” adding that the two “mesh on issues 95 percent of the time.”

But “Citizen Lott: Trent Lott’s Supporters Continue the Southern Tradition” (7/2/96) turned out to be the only article written on the occasion of Lott’s ascension about his CCC ties (according to a Nexis search). None of the major mainstream news outlets used their superior investigative resources to pursue or even acknowledge this story.

A New York Daily News article by Lars-Erik Nelson (1/29/97) did raise the issue of Lott’s questionable connections in early 1997. While finding little substance to charges that Lott was linked to the racist Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, Nelson noted that “the only hint of the bad old days comes when he praises and is warmly praised by the Council of Conservative Citizens, widely regarded as successor to the White Citizens Councils and the nation’s leading defender of the Confederate flag.”

Nelson’s piece was picked up by the Hotline, a daily news summary read by journalists and Washington insiders that touts itself as “an insightful briefing on the most significant political news and events from the past 24 hours.” Hotline wondered about Lott in its headline: “Will Old Days Come Back to Haunt Him?” But while Hotline readers were informed of Lott’s favorable attitudes toward the CCC, the news seemed to generate no mainstream media follow-up, no new investigative research, no coverage–nothing.

One local journalist did have the nerve to ask the obvious question, in the context of the election of the CCC-friendly Jack Cavanaugh as mayor of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Why,” asked Greensboro News and Record editorialist Ed Cone (11/20/97), “do Winston-Salem’s mayor-elect and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott hang out with racists?” When Cone attempted to get a response from Lott’s office on his ties to the CCC, his calls were never returned. “Those damn liberal media,” Cone wrote. “It’s getting so an elected official can’t give a naziesque salute to the Confederate battle flag without getting reamed in the press the next day.”

Actually, Lott didn’t have to worry about the story getting covered, much less being “reamed,” in the mainstream press: As far as most media were concerned, it remained almost wholly an untold story. For evidence of just how accepted Lott’s association with the CCC had become, and how brazen the CCC was in trumpeting its connection to Lott, see a Washington Times (7/6/98) article regarding “patriot” and “militia” groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Assuring the paper that the organization “has no intentions of overthrowing the U.S. government,” CCC spokesperson Mark Cerr told the Times: “Trent Lott is one of our members. He’s been a member for a long time.”

This claim provoked no public denial from Lott’s office–and no follow-up from the rest of the press.

Mikal Muharrar is the coordinator of FAIR’s Racism Desk. He contributes a regular column on racism in the media to Extra!