Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix

How the media covered Michelle Obama's 'house that was built by slaves' line

By Callum Borchers

July 26, 2016 at 1:21 PM

The best single-tweet summary of Michelle Obama's address to the Democratic National Convention might be this one, courtesy of the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum.

Many viewers' memories of the "glass ceiling" portion of the speech will indeed be reduced to "something" because, well, it's a phrase they've heard too many times to count in this election. But waking up each day in "a house that was built by slaves" — that's a line that hasn't shown up nearly as often.

Related: [Transcript: Read Michelle Obama’s full speech from the 2016 DNC]

It certainly caught the attention of the press — both on Monday and when the first lady tested it out last month during a commencement speech at City College of New York. On the two occasions when Obama has described the White House in this way, her words have played very differently across the media spectrum.

On CNN Monday, liberal commentator Van Jones said the remark reflected "a deep kind of patriotism." LifeZette, the news site founded by conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, offered the opposite assessment in June, decrying "the growing list of unpatriotic sentiments she has uttered since she first began campaigning for her husband during the 2008 presidential election."

After the convention speech, Vox's Zach Beauchamp wrote that "it was a beautiful moment, reminding America of its dark history and how far it has come." Alex Jones's Infowars site was less enthused about the progress: "How things change. Now the American people are slaves forced at gunpoint to pay for the extravagant lifestyle of the Obamas."

The Huffington Post described Obama's slavery reference as an "amazing one-liner." The Young Conservatives site said last month that it showed "the disdain she has for America."

There is even some disagreement about the facts underlying Obama's premise. Did slaves really build the White House? PolitiFact, citing the White House Historical Association, rated the first lady's statement "true" but noted that records show "the White House was not exclusively built by slaves; it was built by a combination of slaves, free blacks and whites."

Related: [The ugly truth about the White House and its history of slavery]

That was enough for conservative commentator Michelle Malkin to tweet that Obama "stretched the truth."

Malkin linked to an article in the conservative Independent Journal, which asserts that "the government paid the slaves who worked on the White House." But the supporting link directs readers to a 2009 PolitiFact article about construction of the Capitol building, not the White House; the PolitiFact piece mentions only one slave who was paid by the U.S. government. The Independent Journal story concedes that "many of the surviving records only indicate payments made to their masters" — and there is a very big difference between earning money for yourself and earning money for your owner.

NewsBusters, the conservative media watchdog, also found fault with Obama's characterization of the White House, noting that the presidential mansion has been renovated multiple times since the abolition of slavery.

It's worth noting that Obama tweaked the buildup to her White House description between June and Monday night. In her commencement address, Obama moved quickly from talking about immigration to "a house that was built by slaves" without much of a transition; at the DNC, she took more time to paint a broad arc of progress from slavery, to indentured servitude to segregation and, finally, to the presidency.

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.

It appeared that Obama, by adding context, wanted to make clearer that her primary goal was not to shame the country for a dark chapter but rather to celebrate the hard-fought changes that enabled African Americans to go from the White House's enslaved laborers to its residents.

Some in the media saw it that way, but others did not. The result is coverage that almost seems based on two different convention speeches.


Callum Borchers covered the intersection of politics and media. He left The Washington Post in June 2018. He joined The Post in 2015 from the Boston Globe, where his beats included national politics, technology and the business of sports. He is a former editor of Citizen's News in Naugatuck, Conn.

Post Recommends
Outbrain

The Fix

How the media covered Michelle Obama's 'house that was built by slaves' line

By Callum Borchers

July 26, 2016 at 1:21 PM

The best single-tweet summary of Michelle Obama's address to the Democratic National Convention might be this one, courtesy of the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum.

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Already a subscriber?