Reporters, Race and the Coverage of Michelle Obama

Obama didn't take questions from the media Monday at a meeting at the Upper Cardozo Health Center and hasn't given black reporters special access.
Obama didn't take questions from the media Monday at a meeting at the Upper Cardozo Health Center and hasn't given black reporters special access. (Reuters)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

While Michelle Obama was meeting with doctors and patients at the Upper Cardozo Health Center, nearly two dozen journalists stood behind a white rope in a small room upstairs, most finally growing so tired during the hour-long wait that they sat on the floor.

Finally the first lady emerged, read a short speech about releasing federal stimulus money for community health clinics -- including $2.5 million for the Northwest Washington center -- and greeted a handpicked audience with handshakes and hugs. Then she turned and left, and the press pool quietly filed out.

Rachel Swarns of the New York Times and The Washington Post's Robin Givhan were among those herded behind the rope Monday. They and the other main beat reporters -- Newsweek's Allison Samuels, Darlene Superville of the Associated Press and Politico's Nia-Malika Henderson -- have something in common: They are all African American women.

Perhaps this gives them a richer cultural understanding of Obama as a trailblazer. Indeed, most write with enthusiasm, in some cases even admiration, about the first lady as a long-awaited role model for black women.

"Without a doubt, I identify with her as a brown-skinned African American woman," Samuels says. "Now we have Michelle and see her as a mother, a lawyer, a wife, and she's doing it fabulously." Samuels got to interview Obama during the campaign and "we had a girlfriend-to-girlfriend moment. We did connect."

But if their bosses hoped these staffers would receive special access, some secret-handshake entry into the East Wing -- or even a casual wave at a health clinic -- they were mistaken, at least thus far. None of the beat writers has been granted an interview since the inauguration. Instead, they must piece together a mosaic from glimpses of Obama, who has a limited public schedule and a staff that fiercely guards her privacy and her image. (Other reporters, of varied ethnicities, dip in and out of writing about the first lady.)

Whether racial and gender identification produces a gauzier, more favorable portrayal of Obama is perhaps too early to judge. After all, no one raises questions when an Irish American male reporter covers a pol named Murphy. And with her carefully crafted focus on her children, affordable fashion and such reduced-fat apple pie issues as healthy eating, Obama has done little to warrant sharp criticism.

In May, Swarns wrote in the Times that "the divide between the White House and the impoverished black and immigrant neighborhoods in the nation's capital has often seemed insurmountable," but that Obama "has become something of a human bridge between the two worlds."

The day before the inauguration, Henderson wrote in Politico that "to fashionistas, she's Michelle O, the new Jackie. . . . Post-feminists see Michelle Obama as one of their own, the having-it-all Harvard-educated lawyer. . . . African American women say she'll upend age-old stereotypes of the angry black woman who can't find a good man, or keep him when she does."

Samuels opined in December, on behalf of her "sista friends," that "Michelle has the power to change the way African Americans see ourselves, our lives and our possibilities. . . . There are still woefully few examples of solid, stable black marriages."

And in The Post last month, Givhan likened Obama's cultural impact to that of Clair Huxtable, the mom on "The Cosby Show." The first lady, she wrote, "serves as a symbol of middle-class progress, feminist achievement, affirmative-action success and individual style. . . . And she has done all this on the world stage . . . while being black."

Well, yes, Obama is a black woman from the South Side of Chicago. It would be impossible for anyone to cover her without giving prominence to that fact. But are the beat reporters inadvertently invested in her success?

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