The Media’s Tennessee Straw Man
Reading some news stories will leave you less informed than if you hadn’t. Politico Magazine ran such a piece last week, which began with this whopper, “Tennessee Republicans really went there. Despite the outcry, the GOP-controlled state legislature expelled two Democrats Thursday for engaging in a boisterous protest against gun violence.”
All the essential elements (for the narrative the writer wanted to establish) are present: the controversy is framed upon partisan lines, with the Democrats as the sympathetic underdogs, punished for exercising a constitutionally protected right to protest, and the big, bad Republicans abusing their power and siding with gun violence.
Except, that isn’t what happened. It isn’t even close.
Here is the context: when gun-control protestors flooded the Tennessee statehouse (including the guest balcony in the House) on March 30, Rep. Justin Jones (D), Rep. Justin Pearson (D), and Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) went to the well and began to speak without being recognized. The House Sergeant-at-Arms ordered them several times to stop speaking, but they refused to listen. The House immediately went into recess. They carried a bull horn and a sign reading “protect kids, not guns.” Using the bull horn, they began leading the balcony protestors in chants of “no justice, no peace,” and “shame, shame, shame.” As both parties retired into respective caucuses, Minority Leader Karen Camper (D) could be seen scolding the three members for their behavior. The House remained in recess for 52 minutes until the balconies were cleared and order restored.
On April 6, the Tennessee House voted 72-25 to expel Jones (the one using the megaphone) and 69-26 to expel Pearson. They also unsuccessfully voted 65-30 to expel Johnson (who hadn’t initially gone up with Jones and Pearson), one vote short of the supermajority threshold required. It had already stripped all three members of their committee assignments. The resolutions to unseat the members alleged that they “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.”
So, the legislature didn’t expel members for taking part in a protest. They expelled them for breaking House rules, disrupting the session, and dishonoring the institution of which they were members.
“What they did is they hijacked the House floor, which has never been done in our history,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R). “They pulled out a bullhorn. They weren’t recognized. They were ruled out of order, and they led a protest from the House floor with a bullhorn to those in the balcony. They shut down the proceedings of the House. We had to go into recess due to their actions.”
“They disregarded the Sergeant at Arms asking them to leave the well [on] multiple occasions and they really didn’t stop yelling in their bullhorn until I had to clear out the balcony,” Sexton continued. “Those actions that they did on the House floor deserve expulsion.”
But you wouldn’t get that information from most news reports. They only want to tell you that Republicans expelled members for protesting gun control. Here’s a quick compilation:
- The Associated Press: “Republicans banished Jones and fellow lawmaker Justin Pearson over their role in a gun-control protest on the House floor ….”
- The New York Times: “Expelled by their Republican colleagues for an act of protest, Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson … could not advocate for their constituents in Nashville and Memphis, take to the floor again to push for gun control legislation or even access the building after hours.”
- The Washington Post: “The Republican-led Tennessee House of Representatives voted Thursday to expel two Democratic lawmakers … after they … joined protesters demanding gun-control legislation at the state Capitol.”
- National Public Radio: “Tennessee’s Republican-led House voted Thursday to expel two of three Democratic lawmakers who recently led a raucous protest from the House floor calling for gun law reforms.”
- ABC News: “The three lawmakers … faced separate expulsion hearings Thursday for allegedly violating the chamber’s rules of decorum by participating in a gun control protest at the state Capitol last week.”
- CBS News: “Recently expelled former Tennessee Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson … were ousted last week from the Republican-led Tennessee House for joining a protest on the House floor demanding stricter gun control ….”
- MSNBC: “… the Republican-controlled Tennessee Legislature expelled state Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones simply for joining a gun violence protest on the House floor.”
- And, just for fun, Vox Media: “In a rare and shocking move, the Tennessee state legislature voted to expel Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both Black men, for protesting for gun control.”
Notice how frequently “Republicans,” “protest,” and “gun control” are repeated. This is how the mainstream media shapes a national narrative.
To accentuate the egregiousness of these examples, not every media outlet was willing to contort the facts so blatantly, even those with the same narrative in view. Newsweek said the legislators were expelled “for breaching decorum by speaking out of turn” — a muted take on the real reason. USA Today said they were expelled “for ‘disorderly behavior’ after they led protest chants from the floor of the chamber” — very descriptive. Even CNN cited the reasons directly from the expulsion resolutions, while NBC News said they were expelled “for their conduct during protests” — a meaningful distinction. But most of the mainstream media, chose to report their own narrative, rather than the facts as they found them.
Once the media established this basic, misleading narrative, they spun it in all sorts of different ways. Some reports suggested the Tennessee legislature was motivated by racism, since Jones and Pearson are black, but Johnson — who was not expelled — is white. But Johnson’s expulsion resolution failed only narrowly, earning only four votes less than Pearson’s, and there were other differentiating factors. Some have suggested it shows how much the Tennessee GOP loves guns, or how they want to suppress democracy, or how they want to push through their agenda at all costs, or how they want to disenfranchise black urbanites — not that there’s much evidence for any of those theories.
Jones himself suggested the effort was aimed at silencing his 78,000 constituents. “This is not about expelling us as individuals. This is your attempt to expel the voices of the people from the people’s house. It will not be successful. Your overreaction, your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know that your time is up.” House Speaker Sexton could reasonably respond that the three misbehaving delegates disrespected the other 7.5 million constituents of the chamber’s other 96 members. But since when has “democracy” been about the interests of the majority?
Sexton denied a motive to silence the rogue members. “They speak on bills more than anybody. They speak in committees more than anybody. They’ve had the same opportunities and they’re held to the same rules and standards as all other members in the House body, but what they did had nothing to do with the protests that went on inside or outside the chamber,” he said.
Instead, Sexton argued, “it was about their actions inside the chamber and what they did to disrupt the proceedings. … When they came off the House floor, they asked their caucus if they were going to be arrested. When you ask someone if you’re going to be arrested, then you know that you’ve done something very wrong.” This detail, uncovered in an exclusive interview with National Review, has not been reported in a single mainstream outlet.
In any event, Jones and Pearson’s constituents weren’t without a voting representative for long. Tennessee tasks local city councils with temporarily filling an empty legislative seat until an election can be held. The Nashville and Memphis Metropolitan Councils unanimously selected Jones and Pearson to refill their vacated seats on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.
The media also gave the impression that a state legislature removing a member’s voting rights as a disciplinary matter is so uncommon as to be nearly unheard of. This is not true. This year, at least one other state legislator has been expelled from the chamber, while another was suspended and censored. This week, in a bipartisan vote, the Arizona state legislature expelled a member for inviting a conspiracy theorist to make baseless claims at a committee hearing. In late January, the South Dakota Senate suspended one of its members while investigating sexual harassment allegations.
Jones and Pearson’s reappointment was always the likeliest outcome of expelling them, given the partisan anger pulsing through Tennessee’s Democratic minority at present. So, the House expelled the misbehaving members to satisfy its own injured honor, and then the local authorities reappointed them to re-enfranchise those who voted for them. The pre-disciplinary status quo of the Tennessee House is restored — at least partly. Unfortunately, the mainstream media’s slanted narrative has fomented such acrimony and mistrust that Tennessee might feel the ripple effects for years to come.
The real story here — if not the original Nashville shooting, where a woman who identified as transgender entered a Christian school and killed six people — is the media’s power to reshape a narrative through sheer brazenness. Rich Lowry summarized, “The Media Found Their Tennessee Victims — and Promoted Them to the Hilt.”
“As a temporary political matter, I suspect that progressives are winning this cycle,” admitted National Review’s Charlie Cooke. He added: “Via sheer force of will, the press has managed to turn the anti-democratic actions of two disruptive lawmakers into a heroic tale of bravery, protest, and integrity, and to do so on such a scale as to have rendered that judgment as the conventional wisdom. I expect that, for the rest of my life, I will be told about the time that Republicans in Tennessee expelled two lawmakers for disagreeing with them.”
But a lie doesn’t become true simply based on repetition, volume, popular opinion, or even the sincerity with which it is believed.
As servants of Christ, we ought to love and pursue the truth and so become like Christ. “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25). We must not embrace falsehood just because the media says it loudly and often — not even because everyone else believes it. We must hold to the truth — particularly the truth of God’s Word — even though we feel like the last person in the world to do so. The world may mock us. The world may even tell us that our belief in the truth is foolish, misguided, unscientific, or disproven.
Still, the Bible gives this verdict, “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Romans 3:4). We should stand on the side of truth, even if, humanly speaking, we stand alone.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.