21 March 2008

The Obama Speech on Race: It’s A Tough, Demanding, High-Pressure Business But…

The news business is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation with tight deadlines and lots of demands on the reporters and editors involved in producing stories to get them out to audiences quickly. The pressure can indeed be enormous.

But is this ever an acceptable reason for journalism that skirts deeper issues?

Media critics have been raising that question after reviewing the coverage of this week’s speech on racial matters by Senator Barack Obama, a Democratic party Presidential candidate.

Political analysts said the speech was a necessity in order for Obama to defuse a controversy over inflammatory statements made by his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago. Video excerpts of Reverend Wright’s remarks were played repeatedly on US media outlets and appeared in VOA stories.

In his speech, Senator Obama condemned the Reverend’s remarks.

But overall, his speech attempted to go beyond what he characterized as these mere “distractions” and delve more deeply into the roots of racial tension in the United States.

Despite this, most stories, including VOA’s, focused principally on the Reverend Wright dimension, and not the broader issue of race relations.

Why? Was it deadline pressure? Was it that the Reverend Wright sound bites and video were just too compelling to set aside? Was the racial aspect of the story deemed less significant than the political campaign aspects? Shouldn’t there still be a closer, more penetrating look at the status of race relations in America by VOA and other news outlets?

Howard Kurtz, media critic at the Washington Post newspaper, wrote this week: “News organizations are skittish about racial subjects, preferring to wrap them around the flap of the day rather than deal with underlying anger and grievances.”

Megan Garber, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, said the press portrayals of Obama’s speech “don’t just miss Obama’s point; they largely defeat it.” She went on to write: “Obama’s words aren’t just a challenge for the way we in the media should treat race in the future; they’re an indictment of the way we’ve treated race in the past.”

Keith Woods, Dean at the Poynter Institute for journalists, acknowledged “there is an almost irresistible pull in journalism toward the simple.” He says editors should demand depth and breadth in their organization’s coverage of race. He adds: “You may not be able to close the chasm Obama conjures in his speech, but you can stop making it wider.”

(The Poynter Institute is, by the way, suggesting news organizations consider writing about “the black church experience” in the US and “the anger issue” among blacks and whites as ways of probing more deeply into the issues raised by Senator Obama. As an institution charged with telling America’s story to the world, these would be valuable topics for VOA to pursue.)
Since we are on the matter of campaign coverage, when another Presidential candidate, Republican Senator John McCain, made a foreign policy faux pas this week, many news organizations, including VOA, overlooked it --- at least initially.

The gaffe occurred as McCain was speaking to reporters in Amman while on a Mideast tour. He voiced concern about cooperation between al-Qaida and Iran. He said it was, quoting now, “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.”

A short time later, after another Senator tipped him to his error, McCain said: “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda.” As more than one political analyst noted, the error could undermine McCain’s argument that his foreign policy experience make him a better choice to become President.

The question here is why was there so much coverage of the Obama-Reverend Wright flap and so little of the McCain flub, which, for example, received but one mention in VOA stories?

What do you think? Send your comments to the VOA News Blog.

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