A Complex Speech, Boiled Down to Simple Politics
Thursday, March 20, 2008
It was a 37-minute speech that ranged widely across the jagged landscape of race relations, with Barack Obama challenging the media to lift their level of discourse above the inflammatory rhetoric of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
On the nightly newscasts and in the morning papers, many journalists did try to grapple with the complexity of Obama's Tuesday address about the roots of racial tension. But when the story hit the Cuisinart of talk-show debate, it got whipped into a single question: Did Obama adequately distance himself from the radioactive reverend?
Not surprisingly, most liberals loved the speech and many conservatives -- though not all -- lambasted it.
"Folks, don't fall for this," Sean Hannity said on his radio show. "Most of America is not going to buy this flimsy excuse. . . . If you can't disown Reverend Wright, you're not qualified to be the president of the United States. I don't even think you're qualified to be senator."
"How do you possibly associate yourself in any way," Glenn Beck asked on his Headline News show, "with someone who believes the government invented the AIDS virus to kill African Americans?"
On the left side of the spectrum, radio commentator Ed Gordon called the speech "brilliant." CNN's Donna Brazile dubbed it "very courageous." Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, on "NBC Nightly News," pronounced it "a very important gift" for the country.
"He did not oversimplify," said MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. "He actually brought down his rhetorical tone a notch so that this would be something that brought light and not heat to a subject on which there is so much heat. . . . I actually think that the speech did call out to Americans' better angels."
By inviting journalists to join a nuanced conversation about race, the Illinois senator was poking at a sore spot. News organizations are skittish about racial subjects, preferring to wrap them around the flap of the day rather than deal with underlying anger and grievances.
As Obama put it, the media often "tackle race only as spectacle -- as we did in the O.J. trial -- or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina." They can abandon that model, he said, or "we can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel every day" and make the presidential campaign about whether "I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words."
Many mainstream journalists cast the speech in a positive light. A Boston Globe news story called it "a frank reflection on the problems of race in America that rejected the minister's words but also drew a broader personal and historical context in which to read them."
NBC's David Gregory and Newsweek's Howard Fineman each called the speech "gutsy." ABC's George Stephanopoulos said it was "sophisticated" and "eloquent." CBS's Jeff Greenfield described the address as "exemplary," saying: "Only an African American can talk this bluntly about race." Time's Jay Carney said it was "exceptional" and "breathtakingly unconventional." "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran, who interviewed Obama afterward, said the senator was trying "to talk honestly about race."
Most voters didn't watch the morning speech, which was carried live on the three cable news channels, although a YouTube version was viewed 1.2 million times in the first 24 hours. Still, television excerpts have been critical in framing the narrative. The most frequently replayed lines were these, which followed Obama's criticism of Wright's harshest rhetoric: "I could no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I could no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother . . . who once confessed her fear of black men who pass her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."