History Made Easy

Should journalists be the ones to call Obama's campaign "historic"?

By now, you probably know that Barack Obama’s Presidential candidacy is an historic one. (Check out Megan Garber’s column from a couple weeks back for more on this.) But, hey, if you forget, all you have to do is pick up a local newspaper. Today’s Detroit Free Press, for instance: “Sen. Barack Obama brought his historic campaign to ground zero of the Rust Belt on Monday, asking 20,000 supporters at a raucous rally at Joe Louis Arena — where he was endorsed by Al Gore — to join him in his crusade of hope and faith.”

Whether for reasons of expediency or laziness, the press usually ends up defining Presidental candidates by one or two go-to adjectives. Once established, these adjectives end up framing much of the ensuing debate, often at the expense of more substantive conversation: Can George W. Bush both be compassionate and a conservative? Is John Kerry really a flip-flopper? When shorthand becomes longhand, a lot gets lost in the transcription.

Campaign Desk very much hopes that “historic” doesn’t become the default adjective used to describe Barack Obama and his Presidential campaign. (Or, if you like, his “crusade.”) By prefacing any mention of the Obama campaign with words like these, the press effectively turns Obama into a symbol instead of a candidate. The conversation becomes less about his policies and more about his place in history, the coverage becomes less about events and more about emotions, and, before you know it, everybody’s caught up in crusades of hope, faith, and other treacly clich├ęs.

The Obama campaign would like nothing more than for the media to preemptively enshrine Obama in the Hall of Presidents, to anoint him as the candidate with history on his side. After all, nobody wants to vote on the wrong side of history. But journalists need to resist the urge to emphasize the symbol instead of the man. Yes, Obama is notable for being the first black man to capture a major party’s Presidental nomination. It’s a key aspect of his campaign narrative, and the way voters are affected by it shouldn’t be ignored. (The Free Press hits that angle a bit lower in the story, quoting a local man who deemed the Obama rally “Detroit history, and… American history.”) But Barack Obama is, primarily, a political candidate, and Obama the candidate gets short shrift when newspapers get caught up in the narrative and emphasize his legacy instead of his political positions. Ultimately, the public gets shorted, too.

It’s better for everyone if Obama differentiates himself from his opponent by his policy positions, not by his campaign narrative. Journalists ought to stick to the issues, and leave the judgments of history to the historians.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.