Do We Want Our Journalists To Get Emotional?

Related NPR Stories

For those reporters chronicling the race for the White House, it has been an exhausting ride. But an additional challenge confronted black television reporters as they attempted to convey — live — the history unfolding in front of them Tuesday.

Take NBC News correspondent Ron Allen. He was just about shaking his head in astonishment reporting from Chicago's Grant Field — home to an exuberant victory party — and he told MSNBC anchorman David Gregory he needed time to digest the first White House win by an African-American.

"President-elect Obama, Vice President-elect Biden — I can barely say the words," Allen said. "It's something that just, I'm finding very difficult to just accept and believe has actually happened."

Many mainstream journalists swear by the principle of dispassionate objectivity — although there has been some debate about that within the profession — and just about every anchorman and pundit of every race and hue called Obama's win Tuesday a historic moment, as it unquestionably was. It is, in a very real sense, the national repudiation of a violent history of legalized oppression, including slavery, segregation, lynchings and discrimination.

And yet, for some of these experienced news professionals, the development hit home even more powerfully. ABC News correspondent Steve Osunsami wrestled with his composure late Tuesday night, as he reported from the historically black campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

"I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly black, and my father used to tell us that there's no way this country would elect a black president," Osunsami told ABC News anchorman Charles Gibson. "Well, this evening, the country has proved my old man wrong, and we're the better for it."

Yet it's not a partisan stand — at least not from where they're standing. Republicans challenged the impartiality of longtime PBS anchorwoman Gwen Ifill as moderator of the vice presidential debate in October. She was writing a book about the emergence of a new generation of black political leaders — with Obama as a central figure. She, too, is black, but she took umbrage at the idea that her race or the subject of her book meant she wouldn't be fair to Republican Sarah Palin.

She said Republicans were nervous about the debate.

"If changing the subject from the stakes of the vice presidential debate meant talking about the moderator instead of talking about the candidate, they would do that," Ifill said on NBC's Meet the Press. "If we've learned something about this campaign, it's that every week it will be something else."

Not since Hurricane Katrina — and certainly not previously during this race — have we heard such raw emotion from journalists. CBS's Byron Pitts talked about calling his mother — a 76-year-old African-American woman born in the segregated American South.

"She was born at a time in this country when it would have been dangerous for her to look a white woman in the eye," Pitts said, a bit choked up. "I said, 'Momma, what do you think?' She said, 'Baby, I have four words for you: Glory hallelujah. Glory hallelujah."

Such personal testimony might not have been textbook, old-school journalism. But it accurately conveyed what will be written in the history books.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.