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The Real Problem with the New York Times Article on Racial Divide

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In analyzing the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, Times reporters Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee focused on the continuing racial discord that exists in America. Nagourney has since distanced himself from the bizarre headline, "Poll Finds Obama Candidacy Isn't Closing Divide on Race," acknowledging that it erroneously implies that Obama should have been able to improve racial relations in the few weeks since he has become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

Still, Nagourney stands by the article's overall theme, and admits to only a minor omission in one of the findings. He writes:

"This was a long and detailed poll that yielded a lot of interesting results. We could have chosen to focus on any number of themes; we decided to focus mainly on what we could learn from the poll about how blacks, whites and Hispanics view politics and society at the critical moment. The critique from the Obama campaign seems to be directed at findings from the poll that we did not address in much depth in the story, particularly the head to head matchups between the two candidates."

The problem with Nagourney's response is that his very first conclusion in the article is that "Obama's candidacy, while generating high levels of enthusiasm among black voters, is not seen by them as evidence of significant improvement in race relations." Yet, there is nothing in the poll that directly addresses this issue -- no question that asks respondents, black or white, to evaluate the significance of Obama's candidacy to race relations. This is a clear case of the reporters going beyond the data to assert what hasn't been measured.

The poll does ask respondents what they think the effect of Obama's election would have on race relations. And 47 percent of blacks said they thought race relations would get better, while only 7 percent said worse. Even whites were more likely to say race relations would improve (29 percent) rather than worsen (19 percent).

So, the opening salvo in the article could have been much different had it been based on the poll results, rather than speculation by the authors. They could have written, "Obama's candidacy is generating high levels of enthusiasm among black voters, with close to half saying that if he is elected, there would be significant improvement in race relations."

By going in the opposite direction, the Times' authors missed the big story of their poll. They focused on the differences between blacks and whites on their views of the state of race relations, which is certainly a legitimate angle. But it's already been well established that blacks and whites differ in this area. What is truly amazing at this point in U.S. history is that white voters -- part of the dominant race since the beginning of this country - now view a black candidate about as positively as a white candidate on most issues, and in some cases much more positively. There were several measures in the poll that illustrated this point.

Yes, it's clear that black voters are much more positive about Obama than they are about McCain, in part because race and party reinforce each other. But it's the views of whites that have shown such a major change, and in such a short period of time. According to the poll, just 18 months ago, only 60 percent of whites said they would vote for a black candidate for president. In the current poll, 91 percent say they would. Now that's a point worth noting. The fact that a black candidate is also leading a white candidate for president certainly deserves more than a throwaway line toward the end of the article.

No, Obama's candidacy hasn't closed the racial divide. But the poll suggests that his candidacy, particularly if successful, might well help to narrow that divide. That's the story the Times missed.