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Daniel Menaker

Daniel Menaker

Posted: November 2, 2008 11:49 PM

Racial, Racial


Last night on Hardball, Chris Matthews kept pressing former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell to say that a recent third-party ad that attempts to re-ignite the controversy about Barack Obama's connection to the reverend Jeremiah Wright was essentially racist. Blackwell, who is himself African American, didn't budge from his position, which was that Obama went to that church for a long time, that Wright definitely said the vituperative things he said, and that Senator Obama did not disavow his connection to Wright until after he began his Presidential campaign. Matthews kept asking (rhetorically), Shouldn't McCain stop these racist ads or at least condemn them? Blackwell said--quite reasonably, it seemed to me--"You should ask Senator McCain that question."

This finally got it through my thick head that the party playing the race card in this election most often, and with a real loud slap on the table, has been the media. There are those who will not vote for a black person because they are racist. They are who they are. They will admit to this evidently ineradicable bigotry or they won't. Then there are those who are wrestling with their racism and trying to vanquish it. It's like their appendixes -- useless but inside them anyway. Many are older Americans who were brought up with racism. They will admit to this vestigial prejudice or they won't. They will vote for Obama or they won't. Yes, in ads and mailings, the Republicans, or some shady, shadowy friends of theirs, are invoking race, stealthily or not so stealthily. This is racism, and this is important.

But race has been a factor in the public conversation about this election in significant measure because the media have kept hammering away at it, to some extent because they have had to fill the news cycle somehow and try to keep the drama coming. The Bradley Effect has spawned the Bradley Effect Effect -- tedium. "That one"! Oh my God! -- to hear some commentators, it was almost as bad as "Sambo." It's as if opinionators in print, on TV, and online were scientists hoping for a big natural explosion, and when it didn't happen, or not enough of it happened to feed the media kitty, they interfered with the experiment they were observing by enriching the uranium themselves.

These days more than ever before, events and their coverage always form a loop--the Heisenberg Journalism Loop, perhaps, in which reporters affect the stories they are trying to report objectively. Instant coverage of the hilarious and horribly-timed endorsement of John McCain by Dick Cheney made it possible for Barack Obama to get off some terrifically funny lines almost instantly in a speech in Cleveland, which in turn was carried in part by MSNBC. However inevitable this feedback loop is, it seems particularly sad if it creates a situation in which a serious problem that a nation is trying to come to terms with -- its history of racism -- is worsened by the media's pouring gasoline on its smoldering embers.