Covering Race On The Campaign Trail

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Matt Bai, contributing writer for The New York Times, and Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More, talk about the challenges journalists face when they report on race and politics during the presidential campaign.

NEAL CONAN, host:

With an African-American running for president, discussions about race are necessarily included, along with debates about energy, the economy, and foreign policy. It's hard to pick up a magazine or listen to a news program that doesn't refer to politics and race. Broadcasters and writers face some challenges of their own. Blacks may wonder if they're cheerleading, or might be seen as cheerleading, or bending over backwards not to be cheerleading. Non-blacks may have to check themselves for bias, just as more than a few male journalists got called out covering Hillary Clinton.

Today we're going to ask - talk with reporters who've been covering racial politics, the politics of race, is Obama black enough, and other media headlines that focus around these issues. And we want to hear from reporters, and of course, from readers and listeners as well. Does a reporter's race make a difference to you? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

With us here at the Newseum, Matt Bai, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and author of "Post Race," which is going to be the cover story on the New York Times Magazine out this Sunday, and the author of "The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics," and that's newly out in paperback. Also with us, Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More. And Michel and Matt, nice to have you on the program today.

MICHEL MARTIN: Great to be here.

Mr. MATT BAI (Contributing Writer, New York Times Magazine; Author, "The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics"): Hey, Neal.

CONAN: And Matt, let me start with you. Can you separate race from a candidate that you're reporting?

Mr. BAI: Yes, I think on some level you can, sure, to the extent that we can separate race from anything in American conversation, right? I mean, I think the point here is, I don't know that we should always separate race. I mean, I think there are obviously - the substance of political campaign and of the policies proposed are, you know, the same without regard to race. But I don't think what we should aspire to do is have a campaign where we never talk about it, or have a campaign where we don't acknowledge there's a difference or that something's happening that is new in American politics.

You know, race is a hard thing for all American to talk about. It's hard in their daily lives. It's - you know, and it affects everything. It's the subtext of everything in America, economically, socially. It's a big part of our lives. And to the extent that this campaign furthers that conversation, to the extent that these two candidates grope their way towards some conversation about race that's beyond where we've been, I think that's good for the country, and I think we ought to talk about it.

CONAN: But Michel, race - racial issues, per se - aren't really figuring prominently in the campaign.

MARTIN: Disagree completely.

CONAN: How?

MARTIN: Disagree completely. I think the issue is not whether - first of all, I don't think you can separate race out, and I think it's naive to think that you can, and I think you're not really covering the story adequately if you try to. I think the frustration for people of color who've been watching this is that there's been a double standard, which is that white people are human beings and blacks are blacks.

And my contention is it's got to be one standard. Either everybody's a human and they're also a race, or nobody's anything. And I think the issue is that we haven't really figured that out, that there should be one standard. As to sort of the difficulty of covering this thing, I think that none of us has done as great a job as we could have. And I think part of it is we're so used to not talking about it when it's right in front of our faces. We're not talking about the obvious. You know, you used to cover the United Nations, so you're familiar with the concept of simultaneous translation.

Mr. BAI: Yes.

MARTIN: And I think that a lot of African-American reporters are engaging in simultaneous translation, which is that they're really spending a lot of time translating what they see in front of them, which they - you can talk about privately in their own language and at home, and then trying to figure out how to simultaneously translate this to a broader audience. And as a consequence, I think, there have been some lags. I think we've been slow to pick up on some obvious stories because we were either afraid to talk about it or we've taught ourselves not to talk about it. And I think that needs to stop.

CONAN: Are either of you ever concerned that by talking about it, you're injecting race into the story?

Mr. BAI: Ah, no, not - I mean, I think there have been examples of that. I've seen examples of that recently. I think there's, particularly among an older generation of Americans and an older generation of journalists and politicians, there is a tendency to see everything as either a racial attack or as a racial statement, right? There's a tendency, because I think the difference for them is much more pronounced than it is for younger Americans.

But I think, you know, race is a part of the - I think it's fair to read race into a lot of things happening in the campaign that're not extensively about race. And just as a quick example, I mean, I think Senator Obama's trip to Europe and some of the imagery that makes him seem very presidential, I think, is overtly intended to get people over the mental block of seeing an African-American man in the role of president, in the row with world leaders.

I think there is a very conscious - I don't know this for a fact, but my guess is there is a very conscious effort there to do something with him that you might not do with another candidate, because there is this barrier of mental imagery they have to get around for a lot of white American voters. And so, I think, you know, I think race does infiltrate pieces of this campaign in ways that are not, you know, immediately obvious.

MARTIN: I think we need to get away from the idea that there's some objective truth here, and that we in the media are the guardians of this objective truth. I think we need to accept the fact that there are multiple perspectives, and we need to teach ourselves to cover the kaleidoscope rather than the single lens. Look at the O. J. Simpson trial. Now, I hate to bring that up because it's such a painful experience for many of us who had to cover it. We're like, why, why, I'm covering this? Ew!

But on the one hand, that was a local story. Crime is a local story, right? On the other hand, it was a national obsession. Why? Because there were multiple perspectives of the same event. And I bet you, if you take a number of the events, there are going to be multiple perspectives. What I think we need to train ourselves to do is respect those multiple perspectives, just like men are having to learn to respect the fact that there are multiple perspectives around gender, and that they are not these old guardians of the truth. And that sometimes, there are multiple perspectives, and that, to me, is part of the reporting process.

CONAN: Are there multiple audiences?

MARTIN: Absolutely.

Mr. BAI: I find that dangerous. I do. I don't readily accept that. I understand that - I think there's a point there, but I think getting at some objective version of truth is what we are asked to do.

MARTIN: Well sure, when it comes to facts. But when it comes to perception, this whole issue around whether Obama is presumptuous or not, is there an objective truth about that? Some people hear presumptuous and they hear uppity, and uppity is a loaded phrase. Yes, there was an objective fact about whether or not either of these candidates took oil money or not and how much they took. There is an objective fact about one's voting record.

But when it comes to perceptions around language, and like this gesture - you can't see me doing this, the brush, the shoulder brush. Remember there were a lot of people when he - when Obama was being was being criticized - I don't remember for what - some Hillary supporters were offended by that. They were like, what are you doing? They interpreted that as sexist. Other people said, what, are you crazy? That's a hip-hop gesture. That's like, brush off the haters.

There's no - is there an objective truth about what that means? I think that our job is to report the multiple perspectives. And I also think we need more data, because I think we've gotten very lazy about injecting our assumptions about what something means without asking the people who we're serving. Ask.

Mr. BAI: I mean, if I may, I think this question about presumptuous and uppity is an excellent examples of sort of the division, the generational divide and the division, we're running in this campaign. If I asked members of your audience here, and all of - many of whom are younger, if I asked a lot of the younger members...

CONAN: Younger than me.

Mr. BAI: Well, and younger than me, which, you know, makes them real young. You know, if I asked a lot of young members of your audience if the word uppity even occurred to them or if it even had any meaning for them in the context of race, they would say no. For members of my generation, you know, for people my age, uppity is not a word we grew up with that has any sense. But I've heard that again and again, because, for a certain segment of Americans, right, to call a black man presumptuous or arrogant is immediately a racial statement. And for other Americans, it's not. And I think we just like...

MARTIN: It's like a story.

Mr. BAI: Right.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BAI: This is what Michel is saying in the sense that neither of those can be discounted. There are absolutely different realities for people who grew up in different circumstances and in different time.

CONAN: We're talking with Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine and NPR's own Michel Martin about covering race and about the, well, reporters' difficulties and challenges in this particular presidential campaign. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. David's on the line, David calling us from Little Rock, Arkansas.

DAVID (Caller): Hey. I just watched the enthusiasm of the people who attend Obama's speeches, and you know, they've got that rock-star, dazed look on their faces and in their eyes. And I think any reporter would have to be infected with some of that, and I don't know if there's any problem with that. But there's also just as much bias against him by, you know, white reporters, I would think, as there is (unintelligible) bias on the black reporters. You know, it's going to cut both ways. I don't think any really honest, you know, self-introspective reporter could see otherwise. You know, there is an objective-truth thing versus, you know, being star struck with this guy's charisma. Whether his black or white, I think there would be a lot of that.

CONAN: Hm, star struck. I don't see either of these two people next to me as being easily star struck.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I've covered every level of government. I've covered the county council, I've covered the state house. People are star struck there, too. You might not be - you know, this is a difference of degree. But anybody who's in public life has groupies. I mean, trust me on that. You could be - you main preoccupation could be figuring out how far from the floor the sink in the beauty shop should go, but you're going to have - people in public life attract that kind of quality. What's different here is the degree of it, yeah. But to me, that's a story. That's part of the story.

CONAN: And Matt Bai, it's fair to say that John McCain has certainly enjoyed a wonderful reputation with the media...

Mr. BAI: Sure.

CONAN: Not maybe lately, but certainly over the years.

Mr. BAI: I think that's an important point. I'm star struck by you, Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAI: Other than that, I get by on...

MARTIN: Me, too. For the record, we agree.

Mr. BAI: But getting over my nervousness at that, I - you know, it is ironic, right? Because McCain in 2000 was the star and one all the reporters seemed to want to be around and he got great coverage. And what's interesting about this is, you know, there's a cycle here, right? I mean, people always get great coverage and then they feel they're being treated poorly. You know, Obama got this great free ride for a long time, and then during the Reverend Wright controversy, it was suddenly, you know, the media won't let up.

And so, surely McCain feels that he's, you know, run into his worst nightmare. It's his own image reflected back. But in the end, I'm pretty - I feel pretty good about the way that our media environment, just over the last four years or eight years, has diversified. Now, there are so many different sources online and in news, and you know, it's become such a segment of mixed market. There are things about that I really don't like, but you know, at bottom, I think both these candidates are going to get scrutinized, and they're going to get their hearing, and I do think we're in a moment where Obama's has gotten quite a nice ride.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine, and NPR's Michel Martin, the host of Tell Me More. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Jody, Jody with us from Birmingham in Alabama.

JODY (Caller): Yes, thank you very much for taking my call. Interesting discussion. I guess my question - or comment is, I remember starting off in college as a journalism major before I switched to PR, public relations, and I remember being scrutinized for writing everything. Everything had to be perfect. Everything had to be researched. I remember getting a paper back from journalism and it was - you know, the comment on it was well-written, well-researched. I got a 70.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JODY: I got 30 points taken off because I misspelled someone's name, and...

CONAN: You should have tried radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JODY: Well, if NPR's hiring, sure. But I guess, my question is, if a reporter or an anchorperson is following same standards, their race should not matter. It's the questions, the validity of the questions that they're asking, and I'll listen off the air. Thank you very much.

CONAN: OK, Jody. Thanks for the call. I wonder - let me ask this. Personally, have you guys checked yourself? Michel, have you ever wondered if you're coming across sounding like an Obama cheerleader?

MARTIN: You know, with all due respect, Neal, I feel like I've spent my entire career checking myself in a way that many of my colleagues have not had to do.

CONAN: Mm-hm.

MARTIN: So, I think I've had quite a bit more practice at this than some of my colleagues have. And I think that a lot of my peers in the business feel the same way. I think the difference is that, as Matt pointed out, there's a lot more diversity in the business now, not as much as some of us would like, and some of our colleagues are now having to have the experience of analyzing their perceptions against that of their colleagues. I think the issues with some of these stories are invisible to us. Some of these, you know, biases are invisible, because you, and your gatekeeper, and everybody who is in that chain of custody that the caller was talking about, if you all are - have the same perceptions and the same life experience and the same world view, then that doesn't change a whole lot, you know?

CONAN: Matt, do you check yourself?

Mr. BAI: Ah, no, I don't - I'm not aware of doing that because, you know, I do think there is a, you know, again, a difference between - you know, I don't know if it's always generational, it's in different ways, but you know, we've spent - people who went to school at the time I went to school and come up through media organizations spent a lot of time talking about this over the years and may have, you know, some comfort level with that disparity.

I mean, I - you know, it's interesting to me, as my piece came out, just went online today, and in the piece, I talk about interviewing Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, and I talk about how he kind of made fun me gently for trying to, you know, cautiously talk about race. And he sort of poked fun at sort of the clumsy way I was going about the questioning. And I've gotten a lot of mail today, and it's interesting how much of the mail, you know, a large segment of it focused in on that very section of the piece from white readers who really were struck by that section.

And I think because there is, for white Americans, this experience, often, if you're around diverse audiences, if you have black friends, or if you come into contact with different racial groups on a daily basis, of trying to talk about this and failing, right, of not quite knowing how to bridge this divide, of feeling inept at talking about these issues. And so, you know, I think the reason that struck a chord with people is because that's what a lot of white journalists, I think, are going through, is trying to talk about this, write about this, and not make a mistake, right, and do it respectfully, and also do it perceptively, and it's very, very hard.

CONAN: And some for the first time, too.

Mr. BAI: Many for the first time.

MARTIN: Which it's such a good thing, in my opinion. I think that this exercise should - it would've been pleasant for a lot of us if this exercise had been going on all along. But you know, better late than never is my point of view. I'm thinking of a colleague of mine whom I interviewed last week for a panel at this UNITY Conference of Journalists of Color. His name was Ti-Hua Chang, and he's a reporter for a Fox affiliate in New York and New Jersey.

One of the things he said to me that he does as an exercise is when he's writing a piece that pertains to another ethnic group, a group other than his own, he substitutes his, and he says, how would I feel if this were being written about me? If he's doing a story about immigration and the issue is, say, Dominicans in the, you know, the Bronx or whatever, Upper Manhattan, he says he substitutes Chinese.

I think that's a useful exercise, and I think we should do more of that. For example, when, you know, there was an interesting issue in the media the other day that a reporter for one paper, a national paper, talked about - and I thought it was tongue-in-cheek - about whether Obama's skinniness put him at odds with the American people, who tend to be larger sized.

Mr. BAI: So, that was just weird all around.

MARTIN: It was weird all around, but substitute somebody else for that and see if that makes sense to you...

Mr. BAI: Yeah.

MARTIN: And if it does make sense to you, then, you know, maybe it's OK. And if it's not, then what are we working with here? What are we working with here?

CONAN: Well, maybe with fist-bumps and other...

MARTIN: Another example.

CONAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Another example. You know, a fist-bump to you, too, over there, Neal.

CONAN: OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: A hearty fist-bump to you, too, but I think that that's an example where sometimes these stories escape us because they're invisible to us. For me, as an African-American reporter, I was shocked that that became a story, because we do - my husband and I, we do that all the time when we say goodbye to the kids, bam. We call it (unintelligible)...

Mr. BAI: Well, so do I...

MARTIN: So, I just - I was amazed that that became a story. It was invisible to me.

Mr. BAI: But again, I think - see, I think it's very difficult to extricate race from generation when we talk about Obama, right? We actually - we forget. We talk so much about race that we forget he represents another kind of change, right, a generational shift. The fist-bump thing, I think, is a perfect example. I do that with my kid. That's not racial. That's largely generational. The thing about the hand over the heart at the baseball game, there's a big controversy online because he didn't hold his over his heart. Very few people my age put their hand over the heart when they hear the national anthem. There is different things going on here.

CONAN: Matt Bai, the author of "The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics," now out in paperback. His article, "Post Race," is the cover story in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. We'll put a link to your - to the online version on our webpage.

Mr. BAI: Thanks.

CONAN: So, just go to npr.org. And Michel Martin, the host of NPR's Tell Me More. Thank you both for joining us here at the Newseum today.

MARTIN: Thank you.

Mr. BAI: Any time. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

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