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.