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Media Tackles Sensitive Race Issue in 2008 Election

May 7, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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This year, media analysts have viewed much of the 2008 primary season through the prism of race. A panel of experts discusses the way the media have covered the issue of race so far this election season.

GWEN IFILL: Now covering race in the race.

Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit discussion.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a very dramatic Democratic primary campaign, one of the most volatile subjects has been race: a black candidate, his appeal to the African-American vote, and his relationship with a controversial pastor; a white candidate appealing to blue-collar voters, particularly older white women.

Journalists have observed and shaped the way the story is told. We look now at how the media talk about race with Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida, and co- author of “The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on race and Ethnicity,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of a new book, “Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words,” and Gerald Seib, managing editor and executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal.

Media prefers controversy

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Keith Woods, I would like to start with you. It's a big subject, but to start with a simple overview question -- how have the media covered race in this campaign?

KEITH WOODS, dean of faculty, The Poynter Institute: Well, I think, first of all, you would have to say not very well, if you consider covering race to be going deep on a subject.

We have done a pretty good job, I guess, of covering racial controversy -- that is, covering the breaking stories as they have emerged. But what's gone on in America around race relations, what happens across the back fences and in the dining rooms of Americans, we pretty much have left that alone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gerald Seib, you're covering this day to day. Does it feel like new or difficult territory? How does it feel in your reporting?

GERALD SEIB, executive Washington editor, The Wall Street Journal: Well, look, it is a difficult area to cover. It's difficult territory.

But it shouldn't be avoided because it is a difficult territory. And I think one of the great things about a national election is that it's a way for the country to hold up a mirror to itself and say, where are we? What are we worried about? What are we really thinking about? How do we work as a country?

And we, as journalists, ought to chronicle that. And so we have tried to have a look at this not just as a political issue, but as a social issue. We have looked at race relations on campus in the context of a Clinton vs. Obama debate among college students, for example. We have looked at relations between working-class whites and working-class blacks.

Those are the issues that are being reflected in the presidential campaign, but I think the presidential campaign isn't the start any racial divides. It is a reflection of racial divides, if there are some, in the country. And that's what we ought to be looking at as journalists.

JEFFREY BROWN: But your response to Keith Woods on the question of going after controversy, as opposed to the larger context here?

GERALD SEIB: Well, that's my point, though. I think we need, as journalists -- and I'm not saying we always do a great job or that we even often do a great job, but we ought to be trying to get at the context in which political debates are held, not just this one, all of them, but particularly this one, not about the divides within the voting patterns alone, for example, but about the social forces that maybe produce those kinds of splits in the electorate.

Perceiving a monolithic black vote

JEFFREY BROWN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, what do you see as a starting point? Does the media take it on directly or try to avoid it? What do you see?

Oh, Kathleen, we're not -- I'm sorry. We're not hearing you right now.

OK. We're going to have to fix your microphone. Hold on a minute. We will get people to work on that.

Let me go back to Keith Woods while we're waiting.

Keith, what about the question that Jerry Seib just brought up? Is it the culture reacting and the culture at play, and the media is reflecting that, or is the media somehow driving this racial narrative?

KEITH WOODS: Well, I think, in some ways, both.

You know, when you look at a lot of the reporting coming out of the primaries in the Democratic race, and you see the number of times that we break things down by racial categories in determining how people voted, we are, in some ways, abetting what I would regard as a fairly narrow and superficial discussion about race.

And I think, particularly when you look at the way that we have talked about the demographic groups, the degrees to which we have divided up particularly black and white America in this -- in the conversation, we reveal, I think, in some ways, both the media's limitations in how it talks about it and the country's.

So, you see a full vocabulary for talking about white Americans in this debate, from blue-collar, a euphemism for white blue-collar workers. We talk about lunch-bucket Democrats. We talk about the soccer mom and the NASCAR dad, all of which are euphemisms in the national discourse for white Americans.

And then we talk about black people, as though they are all the same, with pretty much all the same views. And Latinos and Asians haven't fared much better. And we don't talk at all about Native Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, are you back with us? Can you hear me?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Director, Annenberg Public Policy Center: Yes, I can. Can you hear me?

JEFFREY BROWN: I can hear you, more importantly. Thanks. Thanks for indulging us and your patience here.

Well, Keith Woods just brought up something that I know is very important to you, this subject, the question of language, of the words that we use when we're trying to talk about race, as reporters, in this campaign. What do you see?

HALL JAMIESON: Well, the first decision is whether you talk about it at all. And, then, what frame do you use when you talk about it?

In last night's cable commentary about the outcome, you saw a frame that presupposed white vs. black as the operative assumption. And, in the process, we simplified what was going on.

In the earlier segment, someone mentioned -- I think it was David -- that Senator Obama is having trouble with moderate voters. Imagine a discussion last night that, instead of parsing based on racial lines, asked, what are the ideological divides? Or there is a division between younger and older. Or there is a division between male and female.

There is actually also a division between rural and urban. And there's a difference that is really remarkable, when you start to put those patterns together, even in the absence of race.

When the media focus on "the black vote," "the white vote," and then they start to particularize the white vote within that, they invite us to see race as a defining category of analysis. That simplifies, distorts, and heightens a concept that probably is best left not discussed in this broader, complex arena, because it's missing a whole lot of what's happening with this electorate.

A barrier-breaking election

JEFFREY BROWN: But, Kathleen, staying with you, is that happening because of a willfulness, or an ignorance, or what -- what drives the media in this case?

HALL JAMIESON: I don't know. But I know that this has been a year in which the media has had real trouble talking directly about race.

If you look at the words that are being used, you see words that are largely undefined. And, as a result, a lot of people are having to build in their own assumptions about what's meant.

So, for example, "If you ask, what is meant when people say that Senator Obama has a post-racial candidacy, or that the Reverend Wright controversy burst the post-racial bubble?" I don't know what that means. What does it mean when somebody says that someone is playing the gender card or the race card?

And those who think they know might want to go back and look at all the times that that is a positive concept and all the times that it's a negative concept and ask what those things have in common.

We have, as a result, words that are being used without being defined, and, as a result, context isn't being illuminated. We're simplifying. And another of those is "the race issue."

JEFFREY BROWN: Jerry Seib, where do you come down on this question of euphemism, code words, the use of demographic groups?

GERALD SEIB: Well, I think demographic groups are part of the political dialogue.

I mean, there was a lot of discussion in 1980, the first general election that I ever covered, about Ronald Reagan and the Catholic vote, for example. There was a lot of discussion in subsequent elections about a gender gap.

I think the reality is that, in this election, you had the first serious Mormon candidate to be president -- people wondered what the effect of that would be -- the first really serious female candidate to be president -- people wondered what that would effect -- what effect that would have -- and the first serious African-American candidate to be president.

So, there's been this sense of history that we have all tried to get our arms around, given the nature of the country right now and also the field that we were looking at.

But, on this subject, I think you have to say that a lot of the analysis in the last month or so does start with this -- the basic fact that Barack Obama has been getting 85 percent to 90 percent of the African-American vote, according to exit polls. That's a phenomenon that people are trying to come to terms with. And that's what journalists are trying to do.

But it's difficult, because I do agree that you tend to lapse into overgeneralizations when you try to analyze something as big as the subject we're talking about.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it possible -- because we have had people write to us about over-covering the issue, overplaying the differences, and by group.

GERALD SEIB: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

I think that's a danger when you get into any of these. I mean, there was probably an overemphasis on soccer moms four and eight years ago. I'm not sure that they were as big a force or as an easily -- as easily defined a force as journalists may have said they were.

On the flip side this year, I don't know -- it's hard to identify exactly what is a white working-class male. What does that mean? It's a term, but there's a lot of debate about what that term means as well.

Tempting to oversimplify candidates

JEFFREY BROWN: Keith Woods, come back on the sort of historical context that we have brought up now. Where are we in terms of our understanding of the language that we use and the way we talk about race, compared to past campaigns?

KEITH WOODS: I would say that we are probably feeling a lot freer to talk about something that we're no better at talking about.

And I think when you look at the -- such phrases as "soccer mom," "NASCAR dad," so many of the euphemisms that we have produced, to talk about people by race or class, we're still hiding behind something other than what we're actually saying.

And, journalistically, I think our responsibility is not to reflect the society on those things, but to reflect the values of journalism, which suggests precision over euphemism, for example, and accuracy vs. obfuscation.

And I think we have been guilty more of imprecision and obfuscation than we have of accuracy on this front. When you look at the conversation around those euphemisms, one of the consequences is that we have reduced people, in many ways, to those categories, and allowed the public, essentially, to draw what I would imagine will always be a race-based conclusion about the group we're talking about.

So, when we talk about the white working-class voter who does not vote for Barack Obama, guess what conclusion the other folks in this country are going to make about those voters? Now, we're going to conclude that they are bigots. If -- when we talk about black voters without distinguishing between one and the other, then we have a bunch of sheep running behind the black candidate because they're black, and they're not thinking, and they have no sophistication whatsoever.

That's what the media allows. In fact, that's what it abets when it talks about that race -- race that way. And the fact of the matter is that we, as a country, talk about it that way, too. Journalism has to be better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, you want to pick up on that? Are there some good examples that you see out there of addressing these things in the right way or a better way?

HALL JAMIESON: There was a thoughtful, extended program on MSNBC called "A Conversation on Race" that asked why it is so difficult for to us talk about race, and helped people, regardless of where they're situated, see from the point of view of people who come from a different history, a different context.

But there also is a problem underlying the media commentary and the reporters' use of telegraphy when they say that Senator Clinton is running to be the first woman president; Senator Obama is running to be the first African-American president. They're not running to be the first woman or first African-American president. They're running to be president. They would be the first woman president. They would be the first African-American president. He would be the first African-American president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jerry Seib, how much is this conversation is actually going on in newsrooms, in your newsrooms? Where do you -- how do you see it play out?

GERALD SEIB: Well, sure, you can't avoid the conversation. Yes, sure, you have to discuss it. It happens.

I think -- and it's a sensitive subject. I think anybody who writes about this subject knows it's a sensitive subject, knows that people look more closely when this particular sensitive topic is the subject of an article. And you get reaction from readers on another level.

I don't think that is a reason not to write about it. I think it's an understanding that people have that it ought to be dealt with in a particularly sensitive way. But, in newsroom conversations all across the country, I suspect this conversation has been going on for months and will for months to come. And then I suspect there will be some reevaluation of how we have handled this particular campaign on this particular topic.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, to be continued.