Eric Deggans is the media critic at the St. Petersburg Times, a position he has held since 2005.
When Obama first declared his presidential candidacy—back in February of 2007, approximately twenty months ago—the announcement provoked a flurry of analysis and debate and anxiety among the media. (Was the country ready for a black president? Was Obama too black? Was he not black enough?) While some questioned whether Obama’s mixed-race identity—and, in particular, his blackness—would prove prohibitive for his aspirations to lead a country that is still plainly conflicted when it comes to race, others celebrated the opportunity Obama’s candidacy provided—an excuse, really, and perhaps even a catalyst—to conduct a frank, open, and productive conversation about race in America.
And race, to be sure, has been a consistent concern on the campaign trail, in ways massive and minor, in ways both explicit (the speech on race Obama delivered in March) and implicit (Reverend Wright, “Barack Hussein Obama,” etc.). But that doesn’t mean we’ve had the conversation we need to have.
As 2008’s hard-faught and exceedingly lengthy presidential campaign comes to a close (fingers crossed, knock on wood) this evening, the shadow of race’s impact—on the campaign, on us—will linger. With that in mind, CJR’s Megan Garber spoke with Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, to discuss what we’ve learned about race, what we’ve missed, and where we go from here.
Megan Garber: What have we learned about race during the campaign? What’s been revealed that we didn’t know before?
Eric Deggans: What we learned, I think, historically, is that we still don’t know how to talk about race very well; we’ve been really clumsy in talking about and dealing with race. The campaign has taken all the weirdness we have in this country—about race, about gender, about class—and splashed it all onto the biggest billboard possible. Everybody’s tuned into this election, because everyone knows how important it is. And it’s just been surprising how much of this weirdness is still hanging around. I’ve been surprised to see how many journalists don’t know how to talk about these issues in a way that’s fair to everybody involved in the discussion. Every voter comes to the election with different lenses in place, and we have a hard time taking those lenses off and seeing the situation from another person’s point of view, no matter what it is. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of talking to each other about this stuff—understanding the perspective of people who have backgrounds difference from yourself, whoever you are.
I’ve also been surprised at the extent to which partisans on all sides are willing to indulge awful attitudes to get what they want. I’ve been surprised at the level of racial code words, and just-short-of-racism statements that very established political figures are willing to either say or condone. I’ve been surprised to see people like Sarah Palin, who’s criticized other people for pointing out sexism in media coverage, and who suddenly realized, “Hey, I’m the object of the same thing.” It reminds me very much of what I saw with Clarence Thomas, and Alan Keyes, and other conservative black people who insist that there is no problem with race in America—until they’re the subjects of racially coded messages. And all of the sudden, the scales fall from their eyes, and they’re upset because they’re being singled out because they’re black, and people are expecting them to act a certain way because they’re black. It was never a “problem” until then.
MG: If we’ve learned all that, what have we missed in covering race? Or, what haven’t we learned that we should have?
ED: I remember writing a blog post months ago—this was before Campbell Brown got her show, and before Rachel Maddow got hers—noting that prime time on cable channels was almost exclusively the province of middle-aged white guys. And I got emails and phone calls from people at some of these establishments dinging me because I didn’t say that they had pundits who were diverse, or that they had reporters out in the field who were diverse. And my only point to them was, you can tell what an outlet values by who anchors the broadcast. That’s the ultimate expression. And when I look at primary coverage, and I see wide swaths of it anchored and controlled and moderated and attenuated by a bunch of middle-aged white guys, and they’re talking about a field of candidates that includes a woman and a black guy…just: What?