Obama, Hard Truths, and the Media

There’s an interesting contrast in coverage of President Barack Obama’s address to the NAACP in The New York Times and The Washington Post today, encapsulated in the headlines on their stories. From the Times: “Obama Tells Fellow Blacks: ‘No Excuses’ for Failure.” And from the Post: ‘Obama Speaks Of Blacks’ Struggle.” The stories follow suit: the Times focuses on the president’s discussion of responsibility, and of “putting away the Xbox.” The Post, meanwhile, opens with his remarks about persistent racial disparities in unemployment and access to health care.

Both stories are rooted in the text of Obama’s speech. But in its article, the Times is furthering a media narrative that has surrounded Obama since his early days on the campaign trail, and as recently as his trip to Ghana last weekend: his willingness to speak “hard truths” to sympathetic constituencies, and especially to African Americans.

It’s a narrative that Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his excellent blog at The Atlantic, has been hammering away at for some time. From his post after Obama’s Ghana speech:

I keep noticing that whenever Obama delivers these “tough talks” or messages of “tough love” the recipients, most of them to people of color, are generally cheering…

There are two problems here: One, I think the tone of the stories reflects a desire for white people to be off the hook. I don’t know that for fact, but I believe it. Two, I think the tone of these stories carry a strong notion of Obama civilizing, or righting, his dark kin. I think this dynamic is backwards.

Today, he posts a note from a reader, who takes the Times to task along similar lines (warning: strong language).

Unlike Coates and his reader, I can’t bring insight from personal experience to bear here. But they’ve got a perspective that readers of these stories—and the reporters writing them—should be aware of.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.