Avoiding Assassination

Why we’d rather not talk about it

I always start from a presumption that journalists should probe tough topics. But still, there’s something unseemly and vaguely creepy about using the front page of The New York Times to explore the nightmare idea of Barack Obama being assassinated. (The accompanying photo essay, all done up in silhouettes and shadows, is even darker.)

What, exactly, makes me uneasy about this?

It’s depressing to talk about something that would be so devastating; not only to Obama supporters, but to anyone who’d like to believe that we don’t live in that sort of country, a country that kills its politicians or its black leaders. (Or, at least, that we don’t live in that sort of country anymore.)

But just because an article’s topic makes us uncomfortable doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written. Often times it’s the exact opposite—unsettling articles badly need to be written.

Of course, there’s not much to report here. There’s one slim bare fact: Obama was given Secret Service protection earlier than any other candidate in history. (Hillary Clinton has had a detail since she’s a former first lady.) Other than that, it’s a ball of worries from observers and Obama supporters.

But the article’s author, Jeff Zeleny, didn’t create those fears out of whole cloth. They are, in the maddening locution of a journalist ascribing a thought to an anonymous other, “out there.”

Last week, Adam Reilly wrote a smart Boston Phoenix piece looking at how the press had so far handled the fears. In it, Obama-phile Andrew Sullivan says that he refuses to write about the subject “because it could possibly encourage some nutter.”

Somehow I doubt that a blogger for The Atlantic really has to worry about that. But he—and the rest of the press—does have to worry about making readers uncomfortable by puncturing an American dream: that there’s no longer reason to worry.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.