Foreign Policy, Islam Rumors Headline Obama Forum
CHERYL CORLEY, host:
I'm Cheryl Corley and this is Tell Me More from NPR News in Chicago. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll talk about HIV/AIDS in the Latino community. The infection rate has increased so dramatically that health officials fear it's approaching crisis level.
But first, Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama is fresh from his tour of Europe and the Middle East. His return to the U.S. put him on another stage before a diverse audience. The Illinois senator spoke yesterday to the UNITY Convention of Journalists of Color, meeting here in his hometown of Chicago, and here's a bit of what he told the nearly 2,000 Asian American, Hispanic, African-American and Native-American journalists who came to hear him speak.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Presidential Presumptive Nominee, Illinois): The world is waiting for the United States to re-engage.
CORLEY: And here to tell us a little bit more about what Obama had to say are journalists who questioned him. Brian Bull, a member of the Native American Journalists Association, Dianne Solis of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Leonard Pitts Jr. of the National Association of Black Journalists. Welcome, everyone.
Mr. BRIAN BULL (Native American Journalists Association): Good to be here.
CORLEY: And Dianne, are you there? Well, let's start by saying that Obama's Republican rival, John McCain, was invited, but declined the event. And I just wanted to go around the table, Dianne, Brian, Leonard, was it a mistake for Senator McCain to not attend? Leonard, why don't we begin with you?
Mr. LEONARD PITTS JR. (National Association of Black Journalists): Well, I'm still not clear on, you know, what his specific reasons were for not attending. I'm told that he had scheduling conflicts, which is sort of a, you know, all-purpose reason for not, you know, doing something in the political arena. Some have interpreted that as him being, you know, unwilling to face an African-American audience. I don't interpret it that way because I know that he has faced African-American, and I should say, you know, other audiences of color in the past, but I do think that he missed an opportunity to explain himself and explain his policies and how they will impact communities of color to journalists of color. I think he missed a golden opportunity, and I wish he had been there.
CORLEY: Well, let's talk about Obama's appearance. This was a 30-minute press conference of sorts. The question and answer session began with a discussion about his weeklong trip abroad, and the second half of the forum allowed one member of each UNITY journalist organization to ask Obama a question, and that was all of you, and I'd like each of you to give me your impressions about his talk at the UNITY Convention. Leonard, let me start again with you.
Mr. PITTS: I'm feeling like Hillary Clinton here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
I thought that overall it was an impressive enough appearance. He seemed very feisty in rebutting the, you know, the accusations that have been made that he's sort of running for president of the world, as I think someone has put it. He was - he was, you know, very up and, you know, and on his toes in rebutting that, as I recall. I don't have the exact quote in front of me but I recall him saying something to the effect of he's not going to apologize for having done it. He had done the same thing that McCain and other candidates have done. He's not going to apologize for having done it better, so clearly he doesn't feel any, you know, second thoughts or any need to apologize for having done this tour of the Middle East and of Europe and of being, you know, pretty well received - received there.
CORLEY: And Brian, same question to you, just your impressions about his appearance.
Mr. BULL: First public appearance coming right on the heels of a very highly publicized, successful trip to the Middle East and Europe. The fact that he would make the time to talk to journalists of color right after such a long journey, and then also, of course, to have the, you know, the fact that McCain was absent there, I think he was able to really, you know, work the audience to see that he is making time for them, he's focused on world issues, he's focused on domestic issues, but he certainly is not averse to popping in and speaking to the audience.
Was this also in regards to the exact questions that we asked, Cheryl?
CORLEY: No, no, because I'm going to ask you about that in just a minute.
Mr. BULL: OK.
CORLEY: So why don't I switch over to Dianne now, who's joining us? Welcome.
Ms. DIANNE SOLIS (National Association of Hispanic Journalists): Hi.
CORLEY: Just tell me, Dianne, about your impression about Senator Obama's appearance at the convention.
Ms. SOLIS: I think he performed very well and articulated quite succinctly and cogently his accomplishments abroad and the need for - as he put it, the U.S. to project on the world stage a sense of humility and that the U.S. is listening to other people's interest. And then he brought it back home saying that today he would be talking to key economic advisors about a second economic stimulus package and how to deal with high-energy prices.
CORLEY: And that's what he's beginning on this week. But Brian, I want to talk - I want to play a little clip. I don't want to have you repeat your question, I want to play the clip that the question that you asked. Here we go.
(Soundbite from UNITY Conference)
Mr. BULL: Last February, the Australian prime minister apologized for the past treatment of its indigenous people. Last month, the Canadian prime minister also issued an apology for its treatment of its indigenous population. Would your administration issue an apology to Native-Americans for the atrocities they've endured for the past 500 years?
CORLEY: So questions to the senator that we normally don't hear on the campaign trail. I want to ask you, Brian, why you decided this was the question that you asked.
Mr. BULL: Well, just a little inside shoptalk here, Cheryl. Every one of the minority journalists' organizations was given one question to ask, and so this question was done in consultation, I am guessing, through a number of its members and the board, and was presented to me to review from, I believe, two or three other questions. And in the final day leading up to the event it was decided upon that this was perhaps the most provocative and broad of the questions that could appeal to the Native-American audience.
You know, it is, you know, a major part of American history that colonization, genocide, wars, disease, have been real elements of Native-American history, and then to see other prominent world leaders, again, such as Canada and Australia's prime ministers, reaching out to these affected communities to acknowledge this history, I think has been on the forefronts of many tribal leaders' minds, that they want to have an administration that is aware of that, sympathetic, and willing to make amends, even if just in the form of an apology.
And so when that question was presented, there were a number of people in the audience who cheered, and at other times I got the sense that there were people who were almost as astounded as Barack Obama because that is a question that he has not yet been asked, and I could see the wheels turning in his mind as he kind of reached and kind of tried to grasp what was the most constructive answer. His answer, in itself, was not very committal, but at the same time opened the door towards a constructive resolution. I think many...
CORLEY: So, he didn't actually say that - he didn't actually say that, you know, he would follow the steps of the prime ministers of Canada and Australia and issue an apology.
Mr. BULL: No, he simply said that he would consult with Native leaders and that the tribal communities are probably more focused upon pressing needs such as housing, education and health care.
CORLEY: And what did you think about that, that type of response from him?
Mr. BULL: Well, you know, it's interesting because he comes down from a long - weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe where he's shaking hands with heads of states, and you know, that word - the words "presumptuous" and "audacious" have been applied to that tour, that he's already acting like he's president.
So perhaps in some ways, to say that I'll get back to you on that, we're going to talk about that, just seemed like a kind of a contrast to what we've seen in the week leading up to that statement. On the other hand, I would think that Native-American leaders would anticipate and expect to be fully engaged in discussions before such an apology was declared. But I am going to be watching how this is going to play out in Indian country, to see if they feel he's deferring and playing it off or that he took the constructive path, which again, leads the door wide open.
I imagine that'll placate a lot of them for now, but if they do want that apology, they're going to be knocking on his door again if he becomes president.
CORLEY: All right. Well, Leonard, tell us what your question to Senator Obama was and how you chose your question?
Mr. PITTS: Well, the question that I asked was whether or not - given that the senator's been required or asked to deny the fact - to deny that he is Muslim, on any number of occasions. And the question that I asked him was one that I actually chose and presented to the UNITY, the organizers, and they approved the question that I asked, which was essentially this. In denying that you are Muslim, you seem - without challenging the implicit assumption that there's something wrong with being a Muslim, are you actually doing harm to the cause of Muslims? I also asked...
(Soundbite of cough)
Mr. PITTS: Excuse me. If he would be visiting any mosques on his campaign travels, as he has repeatedly visited synagogues and churches.
CORLEY: Let me stop you there because I want to play Senator Obama's response to your question. Here's what he had to say.
Senator OBAMA: This is a classic example of a no-win situation, right? So I have, repeatedly, on various occasions, said, I am not a Muslim, but this whole strategy of suggesting that I am is indicative of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have to fight against. So maybe you haven't seen those quotes, but they're out there and I've said them on more than one occasion. I just don't like the idea of somebody falsely identifying my religion. I suspect that you wouldn't appreciate that either.
CORLEY: And that, of course, Senator Barack Obama appearing at the UNITY convention. We're going to pause now, and when we come back we'll continue our discussion about Senator Obama's appearance with the three journalists who questioned him.
(Soundbite of music)
I'm Cheryl Corley. This is Tell Me More from NPR News in Chicago. Michel Martin is away. Just ahead, we'll examine a publication that brings race, culture and economics together. The executive editor of RiseUp is with us.
But right now we're going to continue with our conversation with the journalists who questioned Senator Barack Obama during his appearance at the UNITY Convention of Journalists of Color. They are Brian Bull, a member of the Native American Journalists Association; Dianne Solis, of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Leonard Pitts Jr. of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Well, Leonard, we ended our segment just a few moments ago with a clip from Barack Obama where he was talking about, you know, the occasions when he's denied being a Muslim, letting people know he is a Christian. It was your question to him. It sounded like you touched a nerve, so I was wondering what you thought of his response.
Mr. PITTS: I got the impression I that I touched a nerve as well, and I wasn't really pleased with his response. What I would like, just as a social critic and observer, what I would like to see Senator Obama do the next time he is asked, particularly in a high-profile situation as he was with Brian Williams of NBC News some months back, you know, are you, Senator, a Muslim? I would like him to turn the question around and say, what if I were? Is this not still America, and what does my choice of religion or the faith that I profess have to do with my ability to be president?
What concerns me is I think that a lot of us are sort of letting the parameters of this question be defined by the - by the extremist fringe, which has decided in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan that, you know, Muslim, in whatever permutation, including Muslims - American Muslims who've been in this country for decades and beyond, are the enemy. And I don't think that he or we can in any - can claim any moral high ground in allowing the question to be framed by those people. I simply reject that, and I wish that he would, forcefully.
CORLEY: Do you feel that - I know you're a journalist and not a person who helps with his campaign, but do you feel that his campaign folks have been telling him, you know, stay away from this, step back from this? Is that the impression that you get?
Mr. PITTS: That's definitely the impression that I get, particularly when you look at the case of the two Muslim women in headscarves who were in Muslim headgear, who were asked to leave a spot within camera view at an Obama rally. They were seated behind him and they were denied their seats. I think that's definitely the advice that he's getting. I'm not a political, you know, guru by any stretch of the imagination, but, you know, I will still have the audacity to offer this opinion.
I think that he should go to that mosque and say, you know, what's wrong with this? You know, why does this scare you? Because the thing that we seem to sometimes forget is that the reason that Barack Obama has become a quote, unquote, "rock star" in politics is because of his perceived unwillingness to play a game, quote, unquote, "as it has always been played."
Well, my contention is that with regard to the Muslim question, at least, he is playing the game pretty much to status quo. He's playing the game pretty much as any ordinary candidate would have played it, and I think that is - that is not in keeping with what we have been led to believe that he is and he is about.
CORLEY: Well, Dianne, I'd like to bring you into this conversation. We've been asking about the questions that each of you posed to Senator Barack Obama in yesterday's forum. And your question was about immigration. Tell us your question, and then we'll play a portion of Senator Obama's response.
Ms. SOLIS: OK. I asked him, percentage-wise, the U.S. has nearly as many immigrants as it did about a century ago, when nearly 15 percent of the population was foreign-born, and my question was, is immigration - should we have more immigration or less immigration, and where should people come from?
And he responded that...
CORLEY: Well, hold on. I'll play a little bit of it.
Ms. SOLIS: OK.
CORLEY: OK, here we go. Here's what he had to say.
Senator OBAMA: We are a nation of immigrants and we are a nation of loss. And the problem that I see is not the number of immigrants that are coming in because we actually are advantaged in the United States by the number of immigrants coming in. The problem is when we've got a legal immigration system running parallel with an illegal immigration system, and I have said that I am strongly in favor of a comprehensive immigration approach.
CORLEY: So, Dianne, same question to you that I've asked the other journalists. What did you make about - what did you make of this response?
Ms. SOLIS: I thought it was good, but it provoked many more questions. He did use it to address what he described as a need for fairness in immigration policies and noted that immigrants from Haiti are treated differently from immigrants from other, similarly situated countries. Many of us took that as a reference to Cuba, where people benefit from a wet-foot, dry-foot policy within U.S. immigration law.
And those who land in the U.S. on dry land and are Cuban get a chance to come in legally. Those who are caught at sea, presumably with wet-feet, are thrown back to Cuban. And Haitians risk their lives to come to the U.S. in similar ways. And in the seas off Florida, they face the same sort of dangers, yet they don't benefit from such policy. Nor do Mexicans or Central Americans.
CORLEY: Well, I've been asking each of you about your questions, and I was wondering how this particular question made it to your short list because you each only had one chance to get one question out.
Ms. SOLIS: We're in the middle of the biggest crackdown on illegal immigrants in decades, so it was pretty obvious to me and to members who were surveyed that the question should focus on immigration. And thus, we had a number of points we want to raise. Among them were whether or not the crackdown would continue, whether it would be cut back, whether it would be accelerated, because we all know that he supports comprehensive immigration reform.
Obviously, that would take some cajoling of Congress in the interim. What would happen? Would the crackdown continue? We also wanted a clearer statement on what he thinks about immigration in general and whether it's a net plus or a negative.
CORLEY: Well, if you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dianne Solis, Leonard Pitts Jr. and Brian Bull about Senator Barack Obama's address to the UNITY Convention of Journalists of Color, Saturday.
I want to talk about some of the behind-the-scene conversations that journalists were having prior to Senator Obama's forum, which was actually on Sunday. There were a panel of journalists from the various journalist groups fielding questions from journalists in the audience. And there was this question about whether or not journalists should give either standing ovations to presidential candidates, that there should be, you know, clapping if a candidate says something a journalist agrees with, and whether or not this should be behavior that should be discouraged because we are, of course, unbiased and objective, of course.
So I was wondering where all three of you stand on the issue. And Leonard, since I've been asking you first to go first all the time, let's begin with you.
Mr. PITTS: Well, as I told an AP reporter a couple of days ago, I think that objectivity is a little bit of a misnomer. Objectivity implies a complete lack - a complete absence of judgment, and the news is, by definition, involved with judgment. You know, the stories that we choose to cover, the play that we choose to give those stories, the way that we choose to frame those stories all speak to judgment. So I don't think objectivity is, you know, what we are looking for as journalists.
I think fairness is what we are seeking to have in our coverage, and in terms of the Obama situation, what you're dealing with something that is unprecedented. You're dealing with the - a modern day Jackie Robinson story. And I would dare say, you know, whatever few African-American's there were that were in the press in the media at the time that Jackie Robinson appeared, probably felt more than a small swelling of pride, you know, when he did what he did.
And so I think it's a little bit - it's a little bit unrealistic to not - or to expect that there's not going to be some added pride or some added sense of achievement when a Barack Obama does what he's doing on the world stage.
CORLEY: OK. All right, let me switch real quickly because we're running out of time. Dianne, what do you think, clap or no clap?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SOLIS: I think we shouldn't clap. I think we should conduct ourselves as professionally as possible. I did note that there were a number of people in the audience who did clap, but they were PR people from the corporations that came to UNITY to pitch and position their products and services. There were also people from Obama's campaign, and there were people from his family. The way I know this is because the chairs were marked for this corporation where I was sitting in front of those people, and, you know, I took a little survey. And before Obama came on and the show started there was another show with Joe Davidson of Washington Post and this issue came up.
CORLEY: And so? I'm just going to speed you along just really quickly because we're running out of time, but you're saying that the audience was not composed of all journalists, that there were other folks in the audience, as well, which might have...
Ms. SOLIS: That is what I'm saying, yes.
CORLEY: OK. Brian what do you think?
Mr. BULL: I think a lot of people were very sensitive to this because of the fact that the 2004 Unity Convention, there were several people in the audience who booed President Bush and gave John Carey a standing ovation. I think it's proper etiquette to simply applaud when a official or dignitary enters the room, but I think the threshold is crossed when you show up wearing Obama T-shirts, for instance, as a number of people were in the row behind me. One woman even stood up and did this crazy little cry, going, whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo, like that, you know...
CORLEY: Was she a journalist, do you know?
Mr. BULL: I have no idea.
Mr. BULL: I want to say that she may have been an exhibition booth person or someone. But, you know, the decorum was something that I think a lot of organizers were really concerned about because again, you have that charge that the bias - the media loves Obama, and the liberal bias comes into play, too.
CORLEY: Brain Bull of the Native American Journalists Association joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio. Dianne Solis of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists joined us from Dallas, Texas, and Leonard Pitts Jr. of the National Association of Black Journalists joined us by phone. Thank you all for so much for joining us today.
Mr. BULL: You're welcome.
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