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How the Establishment Press Got Rand Paul Wrong | THE JEENYUS CORNER

Most journalists failed to anticipate his role in the Senate, focusing instead on a distracting controversy about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Most journalists failed to anticipate his role in the Senate, focusing instead on a distracting controversy about the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

THE JEENYUS CORNER

By Conor Friedersdorf

When Rand Paul emerged on the national scene in 2010, staffers at places like The Cato Institute and Reason backed him more enthusiastically than any other U.S. Senate candidate. Like all Tea Party-affiliated pols, Paul favored smaller government, tax cuts, and free-market reforms. Unlike Marco Rubio or Christine O’Donnell, the Kentucky Republican was expected by right-leaning libertarians to oppose the bipartisan excesses of the post-9/11 era. As Radley Balko argued that spring, Paul would be better on civil liberties than President Obama and most Senate Democrats. Few non-libertarians believed him, as evidenced by the skeptical replies of progressive writers Adam Serwer and Jamelle Bouie, savvy civil libertarians in their own right.

Three years later, it is beyond dispute: Paul is a leading opponent of civil-liberties abrogations, executive-power excesses, and militarism. Safe to say, after last week’s filibuster, that his stands on those issues are the most visible and consequential that he has taken in the Senate. Even prior to that 13-hour spectacle, Paul mounted high-profile, sometimes lonely efforts to reform the Patriot Act; formally end the president’s authorization to wage war in Iraq; reform drug laws; prevent indefinite detention; extend Fourth Amendment protections to electronic communications; require warrants for drone surveillance; reform overzealous TSA screening procedures; and stop an anti-piracy bill that would have onerously infringed on free expression online.

He’s also opposed calls to wage war in Libya, Syria, and Iran.

In light of this record, the establishment press ought to reflect upon the fact that its 2010 coverage utterly failed to anticipate the most important consequences of electing Paul to the Senate. Go back, as I just did, and read every story The New York Times published about him. Its coverage was representative: The paper paid little attention to his anti-war, pro-civil liberties, pro-checks-and-balances proclivities, though those issues were certain to loom large between 2010 and 2016; it paid some attention to the political import of a possible victory by a Tea Party Republican; and it focused intensely on Paul’s position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that passed when he was two years old and certainly won’t be revisited in the foreseeable future. (Another landmark law from that era, the Voting Rights Act, does face a serious challenge in the Supreme Court right now.)

Revisiting this coverage is important because it helps to clarify the flaws in the way that many journalists cover libertarianism generally — even if you think, as I do, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was extremely important legislation that ought to be celebrated by all Americans for the good it did; and that, if better executed, covering Paul’s position on the subject would have been legitimate. Unfortunately, the actual coverage unfolded in a way that left the audience ill-informed.

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