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Black Reporters on the Beat of Michelle Obama
Does Race Play a Role in Coverage?

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?

"We all bring the full depth of our experiences to the facts we emphasize, the questions we ask, the stories that get us excited," says Givhan, who was a year behind Obama at Princeton, although their paths did not cross. "But in the end, news is news."

Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer, moved here from New York last month to cover the beat, which she describes as "really rich because there is that element of race that has not been there before." At the same time, she says, "no one noted all the white chicks covering Laura Bush."

Henderson says her task is "finding something new and different to say" for a political publication. She challenged the notion that her race influences her coverage of the first lady any more than it would for a white journalist, but notes that her degrees include a bachelor's from Duke in African American studies and a master's from Yale in American studies. "I'm sure I bring that knowledge just from my education," she says.

Swarns says that chronicling the first lady "just says a lot about how the country has changed," but she finds the beat challenging because "we don't have a lot of access to her." She says she tries to steer clear of any personal identification.

"There are types of experiences as an African American woman that we may have shared," says Swarns, a 14-year Times veteran and former Johannesburg bureau chief. "I can think of many reporters, including some at my own paper, who aren't black who have done and would do a great job of covering her. It's one of those eternal questions that newspapers have been asking for a long time. It certainly helps to have a reporter of color writing about various things."

Editors take such factors into account. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham, noting that Samuels has written a book about black athletes, rappers and movie stars, says: "She has an affinity, a remarkable ability to get powerful African Americans to talk in an open way. You always look for people who have the perspective and life experience and journalistic cannon that will bring the most to the story."

Such developments can foster a mixture of tokenism and opportunity. When Jesse Jackson made his first White House run in 1984, a number of black political reporters got their first crack at a presidential campaign. The assignment was a sideshow -- Jackson had no serious chance of winning -- but also boosted the careers of his chroniclers.

These days, the White House press corps remains predominantly white, although several black correspondents have joined the beat since the president's election. Callie Crossley, an African American commentator based at Harvard University, says it is hardly surprising that black women would jump at the chance to cover Michelle Obama.

"There's a great amount of pride at seeing a professional black woman in the spotlight," she says. "But I don't think they're going to cut her any slack if she screws up."

White House officials are well aware that the reporters feel an affinity with Obama but say that does not influence their media strategy. Determined to tie the first lady's appearances to substantive issues, they have not made her available for interviews with this group out of concern that personal questions -- about her daughters, her dog, her much-discussed arms -- might become the story. But they say the beat writers, as well as CBS's Katie Couric, will each get a sit-down by the fall.

"Our goal is to focus on the messages she wants to convey about the goals she has chosen: health and nutrition, military families, work-life balance and national service," says Camille Johnston, Obama's communications director. "For a beat reporter who covers a first lady who works one to two days a week, the schedule limits the number of stories they file. That makes it an all-the-more-difficult beat for them to cover."

Nuggets of news are carefully parceled out. When the White House wanted to make a splash with the family's new vegetable garden, Obama granted an exclusive interview to veteran Times food writer Marian Burros, who is white. When the first lady wanted to call attention to the problems of military families, she spoke to ABC's Robin Roberts, an African American, during a visit to Fort Bragg, N.C.

Others are left scrambling for crumbs. Why weren't the reporters allowed to watch Obama discussing teen pregnancy and childhood obesity at Upper Cardozo on Monday? Such sessions, says spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld, are "more for her to be able to ask questions and not for public consumption."

Of course, many softer angles have emerged in the half-dozen magazine interviews Obama has done with the likes of People, Vogue, Essence and Oprah's O magazine -- not exactly risky venues. The puffy Vogue piece ("With her long, lean, athletic frame, she moves as if she could have danced with Alvin Ailey in another life") was written by editor-at-large André Leon Talley, an African American and Obama campaign volunteer who describes himself as a "passionate supporter."

In Time's May cover story, "The Meaning of Michelle," two white correspondents asked, among other things, about her relationship with her husband, her daughters, her juggling of work and family, and whether she is "a new kind of role model." The first lady replied that "Michelle and Barack aren't new; there are thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas all over this nation."

The race and gender of the East Wing reporters "hasn't come up in any way, shape or form," Johnston says. But when Samuels says the first lady, unlike such celebrities as Beyoncé and Halle Berry, is "a very dark brown" whose beauty should be "celebrated," it's hard to imagine a white journalist making that observation.

Still, Samuels doesn't rule out criticism -- if the first lady disappoints her. "As time goes on, if I think she could be speaking out more about AIDS in the African community, it's going to be fair for me to talk about that," Samuels says.

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