Tags: Nebraska | Ernie Chambers | rants | racist | senator | filibuster | Legislature

Reporter: Why Does Nebraska Press Ignore Senator's Racist Rants?

By    |   Thursday, 05 Feb 2015 06:41 PM

Before I began covering the Nebraska state Legislature, I'd heard of Sen. Ernie Chambers. I knew he'd done some outrageous things, like suing God. I knew he was a firebrand.

But I didn't really understand the magnitude of that fire until I sat on the floor of the Legislature and watched him in action. Chambers routinely called Christians hypocrites, castigated Catholics, derided the Bible as a "Bibbel," and accused his colleagues of racism.

He called Bible stories "fairy tales," and said the Mafia had higher standards than the Catholic Church hierarchy because if their members were "raping children, they'd off them."

I'd never seen anything like it. I'd covered the Legislature in North Dakota, where bills moved smoothly from one house to the other, without filibusters or firebrands. But this? This was a whole different world.

We don't mention whether Chambers is a Republican or a Democrat because Nebraska has a nonpartisan Legislature, the only one in the United States.

Nebraska also has the only unicameral Legislature in the country — meaning there is just one chamber, not two. Residents of the state voted in 1934 to change their state constitution to allow this to happen, saving money and making the state work more efficiently. Its one-house system has just 49 senators.

Chambers had been around longer than most other senators combined. He knew the rules inside and out, and he used them to filibuster any bill that stuck in his craw, whether that be legislation allowing flashing lights on volunteer crime fighter vehicles or winner-take-all electoral votes.

Chambers could bring the Legislature to a screeching halt, at will. And he frequently did.

But just as puzzling to me was how the half-dozen reporters who always hang around the Legislature rarely reported his most incendiary rants. To me, they were often the most interesting thing in the Legislature.

But often, the reporters either didn't report his rants, or danced around the edges of his diatribes.

Although I don't solely cover the Legislature, I went against the grain and reported on some of his rants.

Like last week: Chambers started talking about racism during the first of what are sure to be many filibusters this session. Perhaps he was seething over three weeks of debate and calls for the resignation of Pat McPherson, a state education board member whose blog called President Barack Obama a "half-breed." (A story we broke, by the way.)

He made some references to McPherson — "that racist," he called him — and at various points during the filibuster, Chambers said "white people don't keep their word," that all white people are racist, and that white people "polluted" his blood.

He said the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were really about granting white men the right to do anything they wanted to — including sexually abuse black girls and women.

Normally, it would be front-page news if a state senator made such sweeping indictments on the floor of a Legislature. But not in Nebraska. As far as I know, not a single journalist at the capitol reported on Chambers' diatribe last week, although it was discussed on talk radio.

So I wrote a story recounting what Chambers said. Apparently, people were interested, because so far, the story has generated more than 4,000 Facebook likes and 197 comments.

On Tuesday, the filibuster ended with a compromise, and the Lincoln Journal Star wrote a front-page story summing up the debate over the bill, which increases marriage license fees. Much of the story focused on how some lawmakers said it wasn't a total waste to spend eight hours watching Chambers filibuster the bill, since it served as a good lesson in parliamentary procedure for the new lawmakers.

In the last few paragraphs, reporter Joanne Young wrote, "some outsiders focused on the negative statements that inevitably come out when Chambers spends hours trying to bring down a bill he doesn't like, that he thinks is bad for low-income people or his constituents."

"He talks about racism. He talks about bias, disrespect and his experiences with white people and white schools. He scolds. He touts the skills and stamina he has built over 40 years in the Legislature. That created some backlash this week on blogs and social media. He doesn't care. He doesn't read it."

Her story was a classic example of how the mainstream press downplays or flat-out does not report the most provocative things Chambers says. This, by the way, is the same newspaper that has been calling for the resignation of McPherson, the state education official.

Why would a newspaper not report a state senator saying such explosive things on the floor of the Legislature? You'd have to ask them, but I suspect they either idolize him or fear him. There's certainly a degree of adulation: Last year, for example, one of the capitol reporters for the Journal Star asked Chambers to officiate at his wedding. Chambers has been known to write poems for reporters, one of whom recently posted the prose on Twitter.

I guess that makes me the outsider. I believe reporters should report what happens, honestly. I do not believe reporters should cover up for lawmakers they like or admire. If refusing to engage in pack journalism and telling the truth about what's said on the floor of the Legislature makes me an "outsider," I don't want to be an insider.

Deena Winter is a reporter for NebraskaWatchdog.org. Contact her at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @DeenaNEWatchdog.

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Before I began covering the Nebraska state Legislature, I'd heard of Sen. Ernie Chambers. I knew he'd done some outrageous things, like suing God. I knew he was a firebrand.
Nebraska, Ernie Chambers, rants, racist, senator, filibuster, Legislature
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2015-41-05
Thursday, 05 Feb 2015 06:41 PM
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