President Obama took an hour of prime time Wednesday to try explaining one of the most complex notions in government today -- why America needs to substantially change and expand its national health care system.
So why did the Today show -- by far TV's most-watched morning show -- spend its first segment this morning discussing what the president said about the arrest of a black scholar in Cambridge, Mass.?
The president, after admitting he didn't know all the facts in the case, said police "acted stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates, one of the country's best-known African-American scholars and a personal friend. Gates was arrested in his home after an officer arrived to investigate a mistaken burglary call and, apparently, didn't like the way the professor reacted during their conversation.
I'll get to what they said about Gates in a minute. But I found it astonishing that the show, which still claims to be an arm of NBC News, would put bloviating about race issues raised by an offhand answer late in a press conference above a debate about health care that affects all Americans. Today's rival, Good Morning America, seems to have made the same choice.
It reminded me of something President Obama said during an interview last Friday, where he noted that press coverage of his speech to the NAACP highlighted his talk about black people taking responsibility over his words about the government taking responsibility for its role in black America's issues.
The press seems to be playing a game of gotcha with Obama on issues of race, cherry-picking statements he makes that will make the biggest splash, regardless of what his actual speeches are focused on.
Back to Gates and the Today show. The discussion started with a recap of the professor's arrest (including an odd camera move where they emphasized a black officer standing near the handcuffed scholar), moving into an argument between black pundit Michael Eric Dyson and white pundit Michael Smerconish.
Both men's takes were predictable, with Dyson connecting the arrest to larger issues of race and Smerconish accepting the arresting officer's account of how the incident began.
But neither man noted a couple of important issues: Cambridge police have dropped charges against Gates, calling the arrest "regrettable and unfortunate." And police have not really explained why they felt the need to arrest a man they knew was not guilty of a crime, simply because he was yelling at them.
Of course, each side has their own story now. The police report says Gates instantly made race an issue after the officer identified himself and asked the professor to step outside his home. Gates told CNN the officer didn't immediately identify himself and seemed angry even after the professor provided his driver's license and Harvard identification, which insulted him.
It seems obvious to me there were two missteps here. Gates probably could have found a calmer way of expressing his displeasure with the police, and the officers overreacted by arresting a guy they knew wasn't a criminal and wasn't a threat to them, simply because they didn't like what he was saying and how he was saying it.
Now media outlets like the Today show have pulled the president into it, further obscuring the real issues at hand just to spark an exciting TV segment.
If you ask me, the Cambridge police aren't the only people involved who may have acted stupidly.
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