I wasn’t in South Carolina long before the rush of national media arrived to cover the Democratic primary last Saturday. But even from the perspective of being there a day or two early, it was something to see the circus sweep into town. A small tent city went up opposite the statehouse in Columbia, so that TV correspondents could do their stand-ups. I overheard the teenaged girl working as a barista at the new Starbucks talking about how she planned to get up early so she could catch the Today show filming at dawn on Gervais Street. I saw the crowd at the filing center set up by the state’s Democratic Party spread out over an entire conference hall, speaking in Japanese, German, Italian, and French (to list only the languages I heard). It did seem like a traveling show, bristling with Blackberries and laptops.
Even at events (and this was due partly to Secret Service agents hovering around Clinton and Obama), the press was, literally, cordoned off and set apart from South Carolinians. At one Obama rally in Charleston, I saw reporters lean over the cordon to try to get reaction quotes. One friendly older couple—who had the good fortune, or misfortune, to be within leaning distance of the press—was interviewed by no less then six different reporters. At another event, we were stuck up in a balcony looking down at the crowd, as if we were watching a show in which the members of the audience, too, were actors.
All this left me wondering how good a job the national media are doing in capturing this primary election, in striking that precarious balance between the relevance of the race for the nation as a whole and what it meant to the people who were actually voting.
By the time I arrived in South Carolina a few narratives had come to define the contest. Race and gender were going to be the deciding factors here, we were told. Reporters scoured beauty parlors all over the state to figure out how black women would vote, since they were said to be facing an identity politics quandary: vote with their gender or with their race? African-American women, in fact, were seen as the critical undecideds who could swing the election toward Clinton or Obama. Besides the increasingly ugly sniping between the two camps—with particular attention paid to Bill Clinton’s anger and alleged misrepresentations—race was the conversation taking place on cable news and in the national papers.
I decided it would make sense to ask some local journalists whether they recognized the South Carolina they were seeing reflected in the national media, one that seemed still so racially divided.
Leroy Chapman, the political editor of The State, South Carolina’s largest paper, met with me in his newsroom as the exit polls were just coming in, showing a huge victory for Obama. He thought the stories he saw about black women were not nuanced enough, did not capture the real motivating factors behind their choice. “There was definitely some simplistic reporting about identity politics that really didn’t get into where the issues were,” he said. “The lines that were drawn had little to do with race. If you look at education, at income, at regional breakdowns, those told you a little bit more about how the choices were being made.”
Many of the local reporters I talked to thought there had been too much focus on identity politics, that it was irresistible for journalists to focus on race in a place as fraught with racial history as South Carolina; the reality, they said, isn’t so black and white, so to speak.
Just ten feet away from the Confederate flag that now flies in front, but not over, the statehouse, I sat with Anthony Palmer, an African-American resident of Columbia who blogs about politics in South Carolina. He, too, insisted that race mattered less than we were led to believe—a reality borne out by the election results, in which Obama won a sizeable percentage of white voters. Said Palmer:
I think the reason why the media focused on the race issue is because it’s good for ratings and it’s easy. It’s easy to trot out people like Jesse Jackson and Belafonte and Martin Luther King, III, and see what they have to say about this. Because that’s easy. Everybody is used to talking about black versus white. And Obama was trying really hard to not be that kind of candidate. He was trying to be the unity candidate who happens to be black. The media doesn’t know how to handle this type of candidate.