TV Media's Willful Misunderstanding of Barack Obama's Race Speech

03/21/2008 02:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cable TV and its various punditocracies don't want a more perfect union. Television news, like all theater, captures its audience through dramatizing conflict. It thrives on discord. Resolution and unity are fifth act business; news shows run in a continuous loop between acts three and four. This generalization is unfair to The NewsHour on PBS and to the occasionally thoughtful and well-researched pieces elsewhere but it applies to the majority of the video coverage of Barack Obama's race remarks three days out. Within hours of Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia, commentators separately put forward the same narrative: Obama had done something historic. By the end of the day, coming down from the initial elation that almost everyone who heard the speech in its entirety experienced, pundits were skeptical, after all, that Obama had been able to call Americans to the better angels of their nature. These talking heads began to posit "the working class guy in Youngstown" as poster boy for everybody who hasn't been able to rise to the challenge of Obama's argument.

That guy in Youngstown (or Scranton or Greensboro) has become the media's other--a convenient distraction shifting commentators and news outlets away from having to face the fact that Barack Obama is calling them, as well, to the better angels of their nature. So far, TV news personalities are not meeting the challenge. The very first thing that the controversy over Barack Obama's association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright highlights is the failure of the national, and still largely white, media to interest themselves in the black church. Of course, many in media have known the spectrum of black churches, but they have allowed white America to dwell in a mythical and static past built on King-like spiritual uplift, even as black liberation theology and other forces were carrying African-American Christians down the river of history--just as everyone everywhere is carried by whatever forces down the course of time. Why would African-American churches remain the same, when nothing else does? The success of the Civil Rights Movement has given black Americans the freedom to express anger and resentments and to air beliefs that they had to bottle in the past; where they have chosen to exercise this freedom is Sunday morning. The Reverend Wright's remarks rose out of that process, which in turn has already given way to something different without which Barack Obama never could have traveled as far as he has. As Clarence Page of The Chicago-Tribune described that "something different" yesterday on MSNBC, "He [Obama] is not afflicted by P.T.S. D. Post-traumatic Slavery Disorder. My great-grandparents were born in slavery in Alabama. That gives you a lot of cultural baggage that Obama, whose father came from Kenya and his mom from Kansas, and grew up partly in South Asia, . . . doesn't have."

There are many reasons for this decades-long neglect of an important and ongoing story, and none of them reflect well on the fourth estate. It is reprehensible for media to understand something and not to report it, but that's been happening here. Black belief is one of the third rails of American politics and American reportage. Over the past few years, realizing that coverage of American religious life had languished, the media in general has been trying to catch up. Therefore, we've seen many stories on suburban mega-churches and recently, for example, on the ways Evangelicals have begun working on the problem of global warming. Journalists have covered the ongoing drama in the Episcopal Church over ordaining gay ministers as each new scene unfolds--and this is a particularly revealing comparison, for condemnation of homosexuality is endemic in the black church, and yet the national media has been the three monkeys on this story. Barack Obama speaks out frequently against this prejudice on the stump--and yet how many times has this been reported? (In answer to a question about gay rights, he admonished African-Americans in Beaumont, Texas, "I think that everybody in this country should be treated equally. Now I'm a Christian--I praise Jesus every Sunday--but I hear people saying things I don't think are very Christian." Half his audience applauded; half sat in silence.) As a 2004 Election observer, my husband and the other lawyers on his team were astonished at the African-Americans in their Cleveland precincts voting for Bush because they associated Kerry with gay marriage. The media has never examined the black vote in Ohio in depth. Turning a blind eye has also played a role in the current election. Just as religion is turning out to be a major theme of Election 2008, so the spent political capital and the moral corruption of some of the older generation of black clergy in America came together in a powerful way in the South Carolina Democratic Primary, and yet this element of the contest has only been glanced upon by journalists.

What could the media be doing now to make up the distance? They could be staging Act One and Act Two. Yesterday Clarence Page mentioned by-the-by that he knew black reporters in Chicago who went to Reverend Wright's Trinity Church. Why hasn't the TV media chased down those reporters? Why hasn't the media talked to other Trinity members? News interns could be getting hold of all Reverend Wright's sermons (most ministers keep written records) and putting the inflammatory YouTube clips in context. What is that context? What did Wright preach most often? That's the news Americans need the media to provide. When Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post interviewed Barack Obama right after the Philadelphia speech, Obama told Robinson that the questionable Wright rhetoric he had heard from the pew typically was rough language directed at fathers who didn't take responsibility. The fact that Robinson, who appears on MSNBC throughout any given day, has not been aggressive in putting this detail out there is also revealing, for in general African-Americans in TV media have not pushed hard against the misleading conclusions of their white peers on the story.

The media could be replaying Obama's speech in its entirety instead of just snippets. Despite the number of hits on YouTube (likely students who were asleep or in class Tuesday morning), few Americans have seen the speech--if the reaction to Barbara Walters's questioning of her View audience the day after is any indication. (And these were women who presumably didn't have to work on a weekday.) Instead, however, the speech coverage has grown increasingly reductive and polemic even as the TV media has indulged its obsession with it. Here, for example, is the devolution of Joe Scarborough, who has frequently said he likes Barack Obama, particularly because he doesn't demonize Republicans:

Monday morning on his MSNBC show Morning Joe , Joe Scarborough says, "Obama said all the right things [about Wright] on Friday [to Anderson Cooper]. That's the type of leader Americans want."

Tuesday afternoon, on David Gregory's Race for the White House only hours after Obama's "more perfect union" speech, Joe Scarborough comments, "Unlike a lot of people I've been hearing today, I'm not declaring him [Obama] the next President of the United States and throwing him a ticker tape parade." This is Scarborough's caveat to his general approval of the speech.

By Wednesday's Morning Joe, however, Scarborough is having second thoughts and playing the skeptic. "The commentariat say this [speech] will help him get elected." But Scarborough has decided that Obama "threw his grandmother under the bus" in the speech. And he's decided that "the guy in Youngstown" is not going to vote for Barack Obama. What he's basing this observation on is unclear, since he hasn't ventured from the studio to speak with any regular Joes in Ohio. Scarborough continues in the faux-confessional style that briefly afflicted several pundits in the immediate aftermath of Obama's speech. "As a guy who has been blessed in the most amazing ways by God and this country, I do not understand the point of view of that guy in Youngstown, Ohio because he has a life much tougher than mine and because I've been blessed and because I'm in Manhattan and I live on the waterfront in Florida--I can say thank God from the bottom of my heart--and I mean this, this is my experience--thank God Barack Obama made that speech because my children will grow up in a better country because of it." With the wryness that is often his saving grace, Scarborough adds, "I will grow up in a better country because of it."

Thursday's Morning Joe--two days after Obama's speech--begins with the now familiar photograph of Obama and Wright in younger days. Then Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson, the Uriah Heep of cable news, newly-unemployed and suddenly available for however long to Scarborough, who should know better, bat the race story back and forth for almost the entire show. Does anybody at MSNBC care that it's the anniversary of the Iraq War? That Barack Obama gave an Iraq speech Wednesday with another one coming up later in the day Thursday? That Wall Street has been corkscrewing in wild gyrations? No matter. Scarborough is eager to rant. "They don't give somebody a free pass for sitting in a pew for ten years listening to a pastor talk about the U-S-K-K-K-of-A, or saying we got what we deserved on September 11, or that the government invented AIDS, or that the government shipped drugs into inner cities--being black does not give anybody a free pass to say such sorts of things."

"That is exactly who we didn't think Obama was," Tucker Carlson says in a tone that suggests the opposite.

To be fair, I should mention that most of the cable TV pundits are now concluding that despite (or perhaps because of) Obama's nuanced explanation of his relationship with his pastor the Senator has not adequately addressed the situation. That they might do some actual reportage to flesh out that explanation and to try to comprehend it doesn't seem to occur to any of them. By Thursday, Joe Scarborough is reading Obama's decline in the new polls and letting that rather predictable development lead him by the nose. "I won't say it's a seismic shift in the polls," Scarborough says, "but Independents are bolting." He ends his discourse on the complexity of Obama's race remarks with the observation that "Idi Amin was a complex figure." Suddenly, rumination (however false) gives way to further rant and the hour gets more and more contentious, with Scarborough's weather newswoman, when Scarborough belatedly turns to her, snapping "Now I've just eight second to do it!"

Touching the subject of race, as the unwinding of Joe Scarborough's reaction to Obama's speech dramatizes, continues to be poison and goes to the heart of the reason the media has never been able to find the courage to look forthrightly at the black church. Someday perhaps "A More Perfect Union" will be a handhold for Americans. But that speech could be Barack Obama's contribution, in sum, to the nation. His bid for the Democratic nomination is now less sure. Not addressing every aspect of the friendship with Reverend Wright a year ago, when Obama dis-invited the pastor from giving the invocation in Springfield, turns out to have been a huge error on the part of the Obama Campaign. This decision (or lack thereof) is ironic and sad because Iowa, the first state in line to meet Obama, had the time to digest the Obama-Wright relationship and come to terms with it. Iowans, as we now know, were more than up to the more perfect union challenge. They could have laid the groundwork for larger acceptance. Instead that tactical mistake adds to the continuing questions about the Senator's judgment in friendship. If more white Christians and more black Christians had grown up visiting one another's churches, there would be more cross-cultural understanding that also could lay to rest the questions; for now, however, that more perfect union-at-large is yet to be.