Media Experts Discuss Race Conversation

Throughout the presidential campaign, the media have focused on how race has affected the contest between Sens. Obama and Clinton. But questions have arisen about whether the reporting reflects reality. A roundtable of reporters and media analysts discuss how the media have shaped the race conversation.

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I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, the magazine mavens on their May editions. And we talk we talked some about the business of staying in business. That's a little later.

But first, race and class in the Democratic presidential campaign. It's something that we've been talking about in various ways all year. First it was, is Senator Barack Obama black enough? And then it was, is Senator Hillary Clinton playing the race card? Then it was, can he win over working class whites? Then it was, has she blown it with blacks? In the wake of yesterday's primary results we wanted to ask, is the media getting it right on race?

Joining us to talk about this is Washington Post Associate Editor Kevin Merida, Callie Crossley, a commentator on WGBH's "Beat the Press," and NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. Welcome to you all.

Ms. CALLIE CROSSLEY (Commentator, WGBH): Hi.

Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Washington Post Associate Editor): Nice to be here.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey there.

MARTIN: Now, in the spirit of full disclosure I should tell you that I generally avoid media stories because we're so imprecise. Like, who are we talking about? Are we talking about FOX News, are we talking about CNN, are we talking about, you know, Glamour Magazine? You know, who are we talking about. But I do think, in this case, that certain narratives have emerged that we can talk about. And, Kevin, I'm going to start with you. You've written several articles about the issue of race in the political campaign. Do you think that the media has appropriately focused on race as a factor?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I think that we don't deal with race very well as a general subject in this country, and it's, you know, we don't know each other very well in this country. And I think that you see some of our inability to grasp with the nuance and complexities of it in the Jeremiah Wright affair and, in some ways, the whole bitterness comment. I think that racism - directly - has been kind of skirted around. It - we haven't tackled that directly and, you know, you're in Pennsylvania, for instance, and I've been reporting on northeastern Pennsylvania up in Scranton. Some of the things that were encountered by the Obama campaign were just, really direct racism.

MARTIN: Like what?

Mr. MERIDA: Signs getting burned, volunteers being called n-word lovers, phone banking people saying some very derogatory racist things, a mayor in a local county wrote in very disparagingly of Obama. This happened all the way through the election in canvassing. Undocumented workers were talked about in very, you know, racial terms. So, these are very direct things that you don't see much reporting on.

MARTIN: Callie, what about you?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Oh, absolutely. This has been a subject that we've been discussing off and on on the program that I'm on weekly and it always comes down to, I think, my pointing out some things that other people just don't see in some of the coverage. And I have to say that without a broad brush, that mainstream media has been setting the narrative, and that's the word that we've been using, on the campaign trail. If we look at journalists of color who are actually on the campaign trail, there are not huge numbers of them. In fact, there are small numbers of them. Now, gladly, I'm happy that there have been lots of analysts of color to discuss these issues after it becomes a narrative, but that's sort of like the second day story or maybe even the third day story. And so, what I've seen is there's been some misses in the writing of the original pieces, and it's left to the analysts to come back and say well, wait a minute. This means something different.

MARTIN: So, in essence, you and Kevin are arguing that race has been under-reported as an issue in this campaign, not over reported.

Ms. CROSSLEY: I think the way it's been reported is, right now, is - if you mention the word race then somebody has to be pointed at and be called a racist. That's not necessarily the way to discuss race. There are lots of issues across the board without having the center of the conversation be blah blah is a racist and here's why and that's the story. I don't think it advances anybody's understanding about where our differences are and, in fact, where our commonalities are.

MARTIN: David, what about you? What's your take on this?

FOLKENFLIK: What's my take on this? Well, I mean, as you said in your introduction, you know, to aggregate the media is a little tricky because there are so many different layers right now. But, you know, if you talk about the 24-hour-cable yak yak that goes on, I don't think there is a lot of constructive coverage, you know, it's reduced to these flashpoint symbolic things. Is the word bitter really, sort of, masking a very angry black man, you know, sort of, Jon Stewart mocked a night or two ago the notion of, you know, should his associations with his former pastor be enough to indict him that somehow the views bleed over.

You know, when you ask, has there been enough coverage, over coverage, under coverage, it's really the nature of coverage. When Kevin, a reporter who's worked at Red for years talks about these things in Scranton, I think he said it was Scranton, these incidents that sound like blatant episodes of racism, I sure as heck would like to see that in mainstream papers. I'd like to read more about it and learn more about it. See if that's common or not.

MARTIN: I think that Conservatives will make an argument, now, I don't want to, you know, speak for them, but that perhaps they might agree that the issue is under reported but in a way that favors Obama. For example, there was some discussion of why Jeremiah Wright, sorry, Pastor Jeremiah Wright's comments were not discussed earlier since there's such an interest in the biographies of these candidates.

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's a completely legitimate issue to look at. I think that, you know, so much of how candidates run these days is based on biography. Perhaps Senator Clinton less than Senators McCain and Obama, but you know, he's talked a lot, he's written two memoirs, he's talked a lot about his path, his journey, his background and he's, you know, pointed to, as I understand it, Minister Wright as a mentor and as a, you know, somebody who has really inspired him in many ways. It's completely legitimate to explore that.

It's not legitimate to hinge all discussion of race and of the person on that. You have to, I think it's careful, I mean, you know, the notion that somehow we're covering race carefully when, in fact, we're just using the word racism - did he play the race card? Did I have the race card played on me? Sort of this meta-discussion of who gets to be the aggrieved party. That doesn't seem to me that useful.

MARTIN: Speaking of race, Kevin, what is it that, for example, Senator Clinton has not been called upon to give a major address about race.

Mr. MERIDA: I think that's a great question. You know, she has, you know, sought to capitalize on some areas, some opportunities where they existed, such as when she went to the, you know, State of the Black Union event that Tavis Smiley hosts annually that Senator Obama decided to skip. But I think that she's become very, you know, sensitive to, you know, the idea that he has been capturing the vast majority of African-American votes.

If you listen to some of her messages before black audiences, they're not quite the same as in other audiences. She'll, you know, when it came to the bitter comments, you know, she was in suburban places and elsewhere in Pennsylvania, really hammering Obama on that. But when she got to black audiences it was, you know, this is a great historic race we're running, I'm proud to be next to Senator Obama. So, you listen, you have to listen to some of the ways that people campaign, which is natural. You know, she's very sensitive to the fact that, you know, if she is the nominee in the fall, she can't really afford to alienate someone who's getting eight and nine of every 10 black votes everywhere in the country.

MARTIN: On the other hand, Callie, if you listen to some of the feminist writers and some of the feminist blogs have complained about the fact that they feel that truly misogynistic language that is directed at Senator Clinton has not been fully explored. Like, for example, Robin Morgan wrote this piece called, you know, Enough With All That, where she talked about this - and I hope this doesn't offend anybody to point this out - there's a nut cracker being sold at the airports that is based on a figure of Senator Clinton and she, you know, and you can figure out what the metaphor is there. And her argument is that this would not be - you would not have a comparable - you would not have a Senator Obama shoe shine kit. That would be considered beyond the pale. But it's considered OK to say certain things about a woman and that there's a feeling on the part of some that those kinds of issues aren't being fully explored either. Callie, you have any thoughts about that?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, I think that - believe me, I've been raising them as well. I think that definitely there needs to be some calling out and there has been a little bit of it, particularly with mainstream folks and with the folks that David was calling the yakkers on cable, about when they have gone over the line. And there's been some going over the line. I think it's sometimes hard to separate out what was a genuine criticism and, really, what was sexist in nature. But there has been that and it's been stubborn and it's persistent. Now, having said that, I mean, there's also, when I look at the coverage, I look at how little was paid attention to of black women who, sort of, sit at the nexus between white women and race and a discussion about what does that mean, then, for that group of people. That's how, to me, an interesting legitimate story about race. A couple of pieces, but not really. And how black women were feeling very - made to feel badly if they chose Obama for reasons that they thought were important. So, I'm not denying that there has not been sexist stuff, but I think that there's been a lot of stuff that's inappropriate on the race side as well.

MARTIN: David, what do you think?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, there have been examples where I think there's - you know, it seems years ago, now, but if you think in advance of the South Carolina primary. I do remember some articles about that, that intersection of race and gender and the dilemma that some women, black women, felt in terms in thinking about casting their vote. Thinking about pride. Thinking about the examples that were being set for their daughters. There were some good stories there. You know there are actually some - once Senator Obama felt compelled to give his address in Pennsylvania about race, you know, some weeks ago. There was actually some very interesting and thoughtful and textured coverage and commentary at that time, prompted by the candidate himself in his own frustration and inability to sort of frame the discussion of race. Which, obviously is an element, a key element of his appeal and his pitch.

MARTIN: And that was considered a major triumph for him. I mean it was an hour of coverage across the cable networks. It was written about extensively in all venues for days afterwards.

FOLKENFLIK: I watched it on our newsroom here in our New York bureau and I turned to a colleague about 10 minutes in and I said, whether or not this is politically effective, this is a fascinating speech. He's addressing - he's making an argument and he's trying, on the whole, still a politician, but trying to convince people and to tap into their - a certain higher level of aspiration and of thought. And it was - it was a fascinating speech and it did inspire some textured coverage. You know, one other example, I'd give, you started to see a bit of coverage about Senator McCain and his own record on race. His initial opposition to, for example, the Martin Luther King holiday, when he was a relatively junior congressman. But the ways in which he turned against the governor of Arizona in the late 80s, who himself, proved himself to be a bigot and a racist. There have been some articles and some coverage that you think, well, this is interesting and it's not simply, hey there's a black in it so we are going to frame all issue of race about him and whether or not he's black enough, or too black, or whatever.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yeah, but I have to say, David, though there still hasn't been any coverage, to my - I mean, enough coverage about his association with Reverend Hagee and his own pastor, and what did that mean? Nothing to the extent that Obama was hit on the head with Reverend Wright. I understand...

MARTIN: But is that because of race, or is that because, perhaps Senator Obama has been more vocal about his race? Which opens the door - I mean, sorry - more vocal about his faith which opens the door to questions about just how he sees his faith and what role it plays in his life? Where as Senator McCain has not talked about it quite as much.

Ms. CROSSLEY: But I - you see, if we are going to talk about how we are going to look at whether or not some of the coverage is race tinged, then I think it was incumbent upon mainstream press to go back and look at the kinds of comments that Hagee was making and particularly in that context, and say OK, well now let's look - let's lay it all out here and let's talk about it. I just didn't think that was - I didn't think it was fair coverage. Let me put it that way.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm speaking with journalist Kevin Merida, David Folkenflik and Callie Crossley about race and class and the coverage of those two difficult issues in the Democratic presidential campaign. Kevin, is in fact, though - as a person who's covered, written about race quite extensively over the course of your career and supervised the coverage of others, when we talk about race, aren't we really talking about Senator Obama?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, yeah, I think it's always been, you know, the person of color had the burden of carrying the racial dialogue and well, I think there's a kind of marvel. I don't want to turn this conversation totally into the negative side of things, because here in northeastern side of Pennsylvania, for example, which is Hillary Clinton country and she walloped Obama here, as expected. You know one of the county commissioners here, who was one of the few people out for Obama, said he thought that just, this campaign alone, the fact that Senator Obama campaigned across Pennsylvania, had really taken race out of the closet and put it into living rooms of Pennsylvania. And that they were able to see somebody who obviously was very gifted in up close in diners and places, like they've never had to see. You know, presidential candidates of color, you know, this is just an unprecedented thing and to be in these small townships and places, they've never seen an African-American like him. And so I think, that is moving the dialogue forward. It's getting people to ponder questions about themselves and how they grew up and the kind of things that really are good the country.

MARTIN: You know campaigns are political exercises. They are sort of a - they are the way we - they are the way by which government happens, but they're all also cultural experiences. And I'm wondering, is partly what we are talking about here a cultural experience? Which may or may not have that much to do with the campaign at the end? Callie, what do you think?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Well, a cultural experience absolutely has something to do with the campaign because I think when you vote, you are really voting your gut, in the end. I mean you are looking at some of the hard facts, of course, but I've heard people talking about, over the last few days, what does my gut say to me? Is this person like me? Can I appreciate them? That's why when I hear a lot of the characterizations of Senator Obama as elitist, you know, I just wonder, hmm where is that going? Because, Kevin just said, they've never seen an African-American like that and some people have taken extrapolated that to the next point and said, well, I haven't seen him because he's not like me. He's an elitist. It's kind of interesting in this coverage. So I think, yes, cultural things make a huge difference. How you connect to somebody, you are connecting culturally and that's important.

MARTIN: David, do you think that this has been uncomfortable in a way, for our colleagues? Ourselves? As journalists? It's been exciting. It's certainly given us a lot to talk about, but do you think there's a part of it that's uncomfortable? That people are on pins and needles in a way that they normally are not, in covering a campaign?

Mr. FOLKENFLIK: Well, pins and needles and eggshells, I guess. If you think about the question of cultural experience, I'd say it's almost a cultural moment where I'm guessing, in presidential cycles four and eight years, in subsequent. You know, you won't see so much coverage of can a woman be a serious candidate? Can an African-American be a serious candidate? That sort of thing. There is a sense of walking on eggshells, particularly about race. It would have been about gender, had Senator Obama had not emerged as such a strong candidate. But, about the question - race is such a, you know, it's our original sin in this country. The treatment of African-Americans. You know, we haven't fully found ways and even a vocabulary to deal with that in popular discourse that isn't painful for many people participating and consuming that. It's - it is a tough, tough topic. I think at times this campaign has allowed it to be more seriously explored and at times it served as an excuse to do some, I think, rather shallow slapping, you know, around of the candidates and ideas.

MARTIN: OK, we'll have to leave it there. I guess to be continued, right?

Ms. CROSSLEY: Yes.

MARTIN: David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent and he joined us from our New York borough. Callie Crossley is a commentator for WGBH TV's "Beat the Press" and an occasional contributor to Tell Me More, I have to say. She joins us from member station, WBUR, and Kevin Merida is an Associate Editor for the Washington Post. And he joined us by phone, from Scranton, Pennsylvania. I thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. FOLKENFLIK: Thank you.

Ms. CROSSLEY: Thank you.

Mr. MERIDA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, the Magazine Mavens. Their take on spirituality.

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