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Media Misses Real Story In Warren’s DNA Results

Elizabeth Warren
Like President Trump, or a Kennedy, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is news. A vocal critic of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh over the sexual harassment allegations made against him, Warren greets womens' rights activists in the Hart Senate Office Building as the Senate Judiciary Committee hears from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, his accuser, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The results of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test results are in and the news isn’t good.

On Twitter and on cable television, where political reality is shaped regardless of an issue’s connection to actual reality, conservatives say that the DNA results do not validate Warren's family history, they instead show that she isn't Native American enough. Others say it doesn’t matter if Warren has Cherokee ancestry because either way she still benefitted from affirmative action (fact check: she didn’t). D.C.-based political pundits are criticizing Warren for not waiting to publicize the results until after the midterm elections. But worst of all are the national political reporters who are giving oxygen to these toxic takes.

The fact that Warren needed to obtain a DNA test result to verify whether her family tree includes Native American ancestry is another example of the wretched state of our national politics. The only real news from the meticulous examination of Warren’s DNA is that we now know with certainty that the D.C. political press has learned nothing from the 2016 political coverage debacle and we can expect more of the same in 2020.

Let’s start with the obvious question: why did Warren, who is likely going to run for president, need to get a DNA test? Is it because the likely GOP nominee for 2020—Donald Trump—has given her the racist nickname Pocahontas and she needs ammunition to defuse it? No. Is it because Warren’s ancestry and how she’s talked about it over the years raises legitimate questions about her character? No. Is it because likely voters were clamoring for this information about Warren to put doubts about her to rest? No.

Warren needed to test her DNA because political reporters would not stop asking her about it. There have been hundreds of stories on the issue since 2012 when former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown first employed it as a racist smear. Stories spike any time Warren’s name comes up for national political office, such as when she was considered as a vice presidential candidate by the Clinton campaign, and whenever Trump brings it up, as he did in 2017 during a White House ceremony to honor Navajo veterans of World War II and last July during one of his non-campaign campaign rallies.

Last March, when Warren was the highest profile senator to oppose a banking deregulation bill and did a round of Sunday morning talk shows to make her case, Chuck Todd of Meet the Press asked her about her ancestry. After one of Trump’s non-campaign campaign rallies last July in which he taunted Warren with the “Pocahontas” slur and boasted that he would donate $1 million to a charity of Warren’s choice if she would take a DNA test, NBC correspondent Megan Kelly said Trump was “on to something” and agreed that Warren needed to take a DNA test to put questions about her ancestry to rest.

The idea that a DNA test could ever answer insincere questions about racial ancestry is as plausible as the notion that an FBI investigation would answer insincere questions about a former Secretary of State’s email practices.

Just look at how the Boston Globe reported the news of Warren’s DNA test results. We are told that the “The inherent imprecision of the six-page DNA analysis could provide fodder for Warren’s critics.”

Warren has plenty of critics across the political spectrum. But the only ones who bring up the issue of her ancestry are GOP right-wingers who tie it to racist claims about affirmative action and academic fraud. Two years into Trump, we really need honest appraisals from the press of how the game of politics is being played. This assessment, from Globe political reporter Annie Linskey, who covered Clinton in 2016 and seems be on the Warren political beat now, wasn’t it.

Warren’s ancestry doesn’t touch on any of the major issues facing our country today. But the ancestry of every single GOP politician running for office on Trump’s anti-immigration platform does. If the relevance of a politician’s ancestry really mattered in politics, then these candidates would be grilled about whether their forebears arrived in the country legally or not. But they aren’t asked these questions because the only people driving the ancestry narrative are GOP operatives and politicians who employ racism as a political weapon.

Yesterday, Twitter was ablaze with hot takes about Warren. Most of the journalists weighing in tied her move to the popular narrative that Democrats are disorganized and can’t get out of their own way. A good example is this, from Washington Post writer Ishaan Tharoor, who tweeted: “The Elizabeth Warren DNA gambit encapsulates in microcosm what the Dems have been prone to for so long: A credulous insistence that fact-checking can dispel talking points made in cynicism and bad faith.”

Twitter user @matt3476 (745 followers) had a response that sums up what’s really happening: “Democrats wouldn't have to do this at all if US had properly functioning media that didn't balance fact and fiction as equitable and valid points of argument.”

That’s the story.

Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a communications consultant, was formerly editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and news editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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