The Week In News: Obama Enters Trayvon Martin Discussion

On Friday, President Obama spoke from the White House press briefing room about how George Zimmerman's acquittal is being seen through the lens of the African-American experience. Host Jacki Lyden speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about how unusual that moment was for a sitting U.S. president.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

LYDEN: That was President Obama speaking at the White House Press Briefing Room yesterday. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us now, as he does most Saturdays. Hello there, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Jacki.

LYDEN: Jim, as you know, the president spoke very personally on this issue, not for the first time. Still, I wonder what your takeaway is.

FALLOWS: I thought it was quite startling, I'll say, to hear the president's remarks. This was really the first time I can recall of him speaking in office in the persona of a black American man, saying that he knew the situation of seeing women clutch their purses when he stepped into an elevator or hearing a car lock snap along the street when he passed cars.

If you look back and think of leaders of countries, presidents or other leaders, there are lots of them who, like the president, had the role of being first. Margaret Thatcher, for example, was the first woman to lead England as prime minister. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic to become elected president of the United States. And when these people are seeking office, it's natural they talk about their historic role. But once they win the office, the burden on them almost all the time is to speak for the country as a whole.

So this sounded different because it was so unusual of him saying not simply we as Americans need to talk about gun violence and gun laws, but also I as a black American understand how this seems to the African-American community. I'm glad he talked that way, but even the people who are very angry at him, as there are some, have to recognize this as a historic moment in the way he has addressed this topic.

LYDEN: Thanks for that reflection, Jim. Let's move on to Detroit, which, as you know, declared bankruptcy this week, the biggest municipality ever to have done so. That was quickly followed by a county judge calling for this filing to be withdrawn. Michigan's attorney general says the state is going to appeal. What do you make of this?

FALLOWS: I think there is a causal aspect of this story, which is worth mentioning, and also a future aspect. The causal aspect is simply that Detroit is dealing with legacies of all sorts. Almost two-thirds of the population that was there 50 years ago has left in the intervening years. The city's area is surprisingly large for the actual tax base. It has its physical area, as many people have pointed out, as like Boston and San Francisco and Manhattan all combined, which is expensive to have sewer lines and lights and all the rest. And the auto industry, which is actually looking up now, has largely moved beyond the actual borders of Detroit itself, large as the city is. So the auto industry's success is less tied to the city's prospects.

Looking forward, I think there are a number of people who say this could actually be difficult for many people in Detroit who are pensioners but good for the area, and sort of giving the chance to start over again and to remove tax and other burdens, which would have made it hard to draw new businesses there.

LYDEN: Yeah. Finally, Jim, Washington, D.C., has lost a legend. Helen Thomas, the reporter, passed away at the age of 92. And, as you know, for decades, she was the dean of the White House Press Briefing Room and also for female reporters. I remember going to see her as a young reporter, a real beacon. What are your thoughts about her passing?

FALLOWS: If you think about an era of journalism we now view as being in the recent past - that is the kind that focuses on White House press conferences and reporters having the president or the president's spokesman under pressure - Helen Thomas was, of course, central to that entire scene. Her toughness, her willingness to go into the follow-ups that often allowed her to break news, at the end of her career got her into some controversy because of her views on the Middle East.

But also for women in particular, she played a historic role. It was at her urging 50 years ago during the John F. Kennedy administration that the president said that he would not go to the White House Correspondents' Dinner unless it was open to women, and it was then. So I think that when we look back on the way that professions change because of the role of forceful individuals, Helen Thomas certainly has to be counted in that number when it comes to creating opportunities for women in journalism and changing the things that journalists in general could do.

LYDEN: Well, James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks as ever for being with us.

FALLOWS: Thank you, Jacki.

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