The Story Behind the Obama Law School Speech Video

March 7, 2012

The web is abuzz today about video of a speech Barack Obama gave in 1990 (some reports have incorrectly identified the speech as occurring in 1991) at Harvard Law School defending the actions of Professor Derrick Bell. Bell, the law school’s first tenured black professor, had protested Harvard’s failure to offer tenure to women of color as law school professors. Online publisher Andrew Breitbart, who died last week, had said he possessed the speech and hinted that he would release it, arguing that it provided evidence that Obama has long held radical political beliefs.

Today, the website BuzzFeed published a clip of the speech along with an article explaining some past and current context for Obama’s remarks. The website claimed the clip was “not previously available online.” The editors at responded that the video on Buzzfeed had been “selectively edited” and said that they would release the full footage tonight on Fox News.

But there’s nothing new about the clip or Obama’s role in the controversy at Harvard Law School. In 2008, as a part of our quadrennial election special The Choice 2008,  FRONTLINE ran the same footage of the speech as a part of an exploration of Obama’s time at Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1991. It’s been online at our site and on YouTube since then. You can see that part of the film below.

FRONTLINE producers obtained the footage from the same source as BuzzFeed did this week: the archives of WGBH, Boston’s PBS station. The footage was shot in 1990 by a team of local news producers for the WGBH Ten O’Clock News. FRONTLINE is produced at WGBH and our producers were alerted to the footage in the station archives in 2008.

In light of today’s controversy, and editors’ claims that the footage had been edited, we pulled the full archived tape. It includes not just Obama’s speech, but other footage from the rally and portions of Derrick Bell’s speech. You can watch it in full below.

While BuzzFeed did not publish all of the available footage of the event — a manager here noted that they were paying for each second of footage — they did post the entirety of what was available of Obama’s speech. While other cameras could have shot additional material from the event, no other footage of the event exists at WGBH.

And while there does appear to be editing in the footage available, that was almost certainly done in 1990. The Ten O’Clock News practice was to store completed segments as aired along with any relevant additional footage that might be useful in the future.

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