Because race remains such a sensitive issue in America, news media need to be especially careful, cautious and precise in reporting what a politician says about it and in putting his remarks in context. Shortly after Rand Paul won the Kentucky GOP senatorial primary, he indicated on MSNBC that he had concerns about some parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was referring to the provisions against discrimination by private companies. Among other things, he said this:
“I do defend and believe that the government should not be involved with institutional racism or discrimination or segregation in schools, busing, all those things. But had I been there, there would have been some discussion over one of the titles of the civil rights. And I think that’s a valid point, and still a valid discussion, because the thing is, is if we want to harbor in on private businesses and their policies, then you have to have the discussion about: do you want to abridge the First Amendment as well? Do you want to say that because people say abhorrent things — you know, we still have this. We’re having all this debate over hate speech and this and that. Can you have a newspaper and say abhorrent things? Can you march in a parade and believe in abhorrent things, you know?. . . “
Did that make him a racist, as some commentators said? Or did that make him a libertarian, like his father, opposed to what they see as too much government interference? Or was he simply naive to think that it is politically acceptable to criticize part of the historic legislation that has given hope for millions of Americans that the Federal government can step in to forbid discrimination and try to help alleviate the worst effects of racism? Whatever it says about him, Paul touched off a torrent of negative reactions. He had to cancel a scheduled appearance on Meet the Press, his campaign went into overdrive trying to explain his words, and Paul later said on CNN that he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. In this kind of inflamed environment, journalists can help by staying focused on just the facts and the proper context, quoting word for word what he actually said, explaining exactly what is in the Civil Rights Act, noting his past comments on it, and avoiding jumping to conclusions. Of course, it might be easier and simpler for journalists to summarize what he said and get quickly to the negative reactions, but that would run the risk that some readers would think he said something other than what he actually said. In fairness to him, and in the interests of fostering a calm, reasonable debate, journalists should do their job and give us all the facts, at the proper length, so that we can decide for ourselves what we think about Rand Paul.