In VA, allegations of racism ignite a controversy

After national conservative media seize on a state senator’s words, local reporters pick up the story

VIRGINIA — The butterfly effect has been in effect here this week, as a Democratic state senator’s comments about racism in presidential politics on a Hampton Roads talk radio show led to a storm of condemnation from the right, drawing the attention of Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, the conservative blog world, and commentators like radio personality Laura Ingraham.

And while non-traditional news sources such as talk radio and the blogosphere are monitored but rarely reported on by most newsrooms, mainstream reporters start to take notice of some sort when a local story takes on national proportions. Here’s a look at the blowup and how some traditional media outlets have handled the controversy.

It started last Friday when Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), a campaign surrogate for President Obama, said that presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney is “speaking to a segment of the population who does not like to see people other than a white man in the White House or any other elected position.”

Lucas was appearing on a program hosted by John Fredericks, a veteran broadcast and print reporter and a conservative whose website says he strives to bring together “diverse views… on the most pressing regional, state and national issues of the day.” Fredericks had recently played host to Romney, and Lucas was on to provide balance, and to speculate about why the Romney campaign was gaining ground on Obama. (She also offered another, less politically charged explanation: people are on vacation for the summer, and so not paying attention to the Obama campaign’s messages.)

The media attention started the following Monday, when conservative websites seized on Lucas’s more controversial remarks—relaying them in sometimes mild-mannered, sometimes angry fashion. (It’s a good bet that O’Reilly, who featured Lucas’s remarks on his show Monday night, got it from a source like these.)

By Tuesday, the episode had broken through to the mainstream press, getting
written up on
The Washington Post’s “Virginia Politics” blog (which got the day of Lucas’s radio appearance wrong). The Post relayed a good chunk of Lucas’s comments, plus an outraged response from Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, but didn’t add much besides this bit of flavor:

A liberal firebrand, Lucas has never been one to hold her tongue. She stormed out of a committee meeting one day during this year’s General Assembly session, tossing papers as she left.

A day later, the editorial page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch weighed in, arguing that Lucas’s claim that opposition to Obama is rooted in race is “absurd,” and concluding that “for the vast majority, their opposition stems from their belief that he is of the wrong party—not the wrong color.” Editorials are what they are, but the Times-Dispatch had provided no news coverage of the statements; it’s unfortunate that readers had no previous points of reference from which to draw for this particular bit of opining.

Meanwhile, as time passes, the coverage has become more thoughtful and thorough. The best coverage I’ve seen came from the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the state’s largest newspaper. The paper’s Wednesday story (an updated version of an article that appeared online Tuesday) was even-handed: reporting on Lucas’s remarks in full, tracking the in-state and national response, noting that in addition to her controversial statements Lucas had called for a dialogue on race relations, and seeking follow-up. (Lucas did not respond to interview requests but did issue a statement saying, “the overwhelming majority of Virginians will make a choice in this election based, not on race or any other factor, but on what they believe is best for their families and their futures.”)

V-P political reporter Julian Walker also helped readers by including a few paragraphs of background information on how race shaped Obama’s first run for office and the early days of his presidency:

Race has been a subtext throughout Obama’s rise on the national stage, if for no other reason than that he’s the first American president of color.

But it’s been more than that, too.

Obama felt compelled to tackle the subject in a speech he delivered from Philadelphia in March 2008 as controversy swirled around his links to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, whose comments critical of American policies had become the subject of intense media scrutiny.

Another episode where race rose to the fore was the July 2009 arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black man, by a white police officer as Gates tried to gain entry to his Cambridge, Mass. home.

Obama initially criticized the arrest, but then backtracked from those remarks amid criticism, expressing hope the events surrounding it would be a “teachable moment.”

The president later invited Gates and the white officer, Sgt. James Crowley, to the White House for a “beer summit” to resolve lingering differences.

And on Thursday, the story came all the way back to Hampton Roads. The local paper, the Daily Press, turned in a late-but-solid story that ran through the basics and then called on the insights of a couple of scholars of race relations—who agreed that a dialogue on racial disparities was needed, but said presidential campaigns presented an uninviting context, and Lucas’s “off-the-cuff” comments hadn’t made it any easier.

Even the stronger stories, though, didn’t really grapple with one of the obvious questions about Lucas’s comments: Was she right?

There has in fact been some academic research into whether Obama’s race cost him votes in 2008. The results are inconclusive, but some researchers believe it may have. (On the other hand, Obama performed just about as well as academic models that don’t account for race predicted he would—so if those models are right, that suggests his race wasn’t much of a liability.)

Of course, Lucas didn’t only say that opposition to Obama was rooted in racism—she also said that Romney was appealing to racist sentiment. That’s a pretty strong accusation. But on the air, Lucas didn’t really offer any evidence for it. And, as a story in Thursday’s New York Times noted, despite the unrelentingly negative tone of this campaign, in which the candidates accuse each other of not being properly American, attacks that are clearly tied to Obama’s race—or Romney’s religion—have so far been in short supply.

Honing in on these points would have enhanced the coverage. Still, the better reporting on this episode was the kind of work that’s needed in this silly season, when comments from peripheral players are picked up, and played up, by partisan commentators and politicos.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.