When a political dispute breaks out, should reporters simply “report the controversy,” or instead attempt to referee and resolve it? This is one of journalism’s never-ending debates, and it came to the forefront again over the weekend, as news organizations covered the fallout from Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s assertion, in 2008, that voters would embrace Barack Obama in part because he was a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
These remarks, made public in the new book Game Change, an account of the 2008 presidential campaign, set off a volley of apologies and accusations. Republicans compared the racially charged remarks with ones made in 2002 by then-Senator Trent Lott, and argued that, like Lott, Reid should be made to resign as Senate majority leader. Democrats pushed back, saying that Reid’s remarks were hardly analogous to Lott’s fond comments about Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist campaign for the White House. (Lott: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”)
The political press, of course, ate this up; seemingly every major outlet had an article Monday on Reid’s troubles. For the most part, the structure of these stories was similar: Republicans say this, Democrats say that, this is what’s likely to happen next. But there were real differences in the way different stories attempted (or didn’t attempt) to deal with the key question: whether Lott’s and Reid’s comments were actually equivalent. Those differences, in turn, have consequences for the media’s ability to write about race and politics. If you don’t draw distinctions between dissimilar events, you can’t make sense of those events.
At the far end of the “don’t attempt” pool is Deborah Solomon’s brief story in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. After presenting what Lott and Reid said, the story quotes GOP Chairman Michael Steele alleging the existence of a “double standard” that favors Democrats, follows that up with Reid’s apology, then moves on to other matters. There’s a little more, but not much, in a blog post co-written by Solomon covering the same material.
Stories elsewhere tried harder to engage the question. Chris Cillizza’s WaPo article quotes Democratic Party chairman Tim Kaine as saying Reid’s remarks “clearly were in the context of praising” Obama, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) saying the two episodes had a “totally different context.” Douglass K. Daniel’s AP story goes with a longer version of Jack Reed’s quote. But while both stories give space to other Democrats to vouch for Reid’s anti-racist bona fides, they don’t fully tease out the difference between the Lott and Reid remarks.
David Jackson’s USA Today story, meanwhile, doesn’t get around to the “double standard” issue until its conclusion, but when it does, it offers a clearer statement: “Kaine, who appeared with Steele on NBC’s Meet the Press, said Lott’s comments appeared to support segregation, while Reid was trying to praise Obama’s ability.” A similar take, at greater length, appears in The New York Times. The opening of Mark Leibovich’s article is archetypal “he-said, he-said” stuff, but toward the end, there’s this:
“They are not in the least bit comparable,” said Lani Guinier, the Harvard Law School professor whose nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993 was pummeled by conservative groups and eventually withdrawn by President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Lott’s remarks, Ms. Guinier said, seemed to be expressing nostalgia for the segregationist platform of Mr. Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign, while Mr. Reid comments seemed to be addressing “an unfortunate truth about the present.” That truth, she said, is that Mr. Obama would have had a more difficult time getting elected if his skin were darker and if he spoke in a dialect more identifiable as “black.”
While that’s a lot more clear and cogent than a vague reference to a “different context,” it’s still presented in the voice of a sometime political participant. Among mainstream reporters, Politico’s John Bresnahan was the only one to directly address the comparison. Bresnahan’s Sunday story opens with a lengthy recitation of the Republican line, then delivers this paragraph:
The comments — or at least the interpretations of them — were obviously different: While Lott’s words could be interpreted as a call for the continuation of racial segregation, Reid’s were not an argument for race-based policies but rather a characterization of racial attitudes among voters today.
This is correct. Reid’s use of the word “Negro” was tin-eared and offensive (not to mention, in the context of even a “deep background” interview, incredibly dumb). But unlike Lott, the idea he was expressing amounted to analysis, not a prescriptive political vision. What’s more, his analysis was accurate. As excellent pieces by Dave Weigel and Omar Wasow show, Reid’s thoughts about the nature of Obama’s appeal are backed up by research about how voters perceive black candidates; they are also, as Jeff Zeleny writes for the Times, consistent with things that Obama himself has said.
This is interesting stuff—at least as interesting, in the long run, as the latest mess Harry Reid has created for himself. But by conflating the two sets of remarks—or at least, by not taking a skeptical look at efforts to conflate them—much of the press effectively conspires to prevent itself from digging into this fertile ground. There is no way to explore the complicated way that race and politics interact, and to write intelligently about that intersection, if you are going to seriously entertain the prospect that Reid’s and Lott’s comments are equally offensive. In an ideal model of the press, journalists are stewards of public discourse, people who set public norms but also help the public talk about knotty subjects like race and racism. A failure to draw important distinctions doesn’t just shirk the responsibility implied by that model, it actively frustrates it.
The traditionalist’s objection is that it’s not up to reporters to make those determinations; it’s up to them to report the news. And not every news story, of course, is an exegesis on race and politics; some are just accounts of what people said.
There’s something to that. But even “reporting the news” consists of making endless little judgments. Here, for example, is another portion of the NYT story linked above:
Politically speaking, there is a fundamental difference between Mr. Reid’s travails and those of Mr. Lott. While Mr. Reid was instantly forgiven and strongly supported by Mr. Obama, Mr. Lott was not by the Bush administration (Mr. Lott essentially accused the Bush White House of abandoning him.)
Based on that passage, it’s fine for reporters to make interpretations and draw conclusions—on their own informed authority—about the political fallout from events. Why, then, shouldn’t they be able to bring the same critical approach to bear on events themselves? That’s what Bresnahan did in his Politico story—and it’s something we should expect from journalists more often.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.