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.