Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mainstream Black Columnists and Barack Obama

Saul Friedman:

If race is not an issue in this presidential contest (and I believe it is and will be), then how come virtually every mainstream black columnist has been effusively and unabashedly supporting Sen. Barack Obama, and highly critical of and even caustic towards Sen. Hillary Clinton?

Columnists have every right to their views, even if they are one-sided. They are and should be free to give their points of view. But it’s the unanimity that bothers me, for journalism and columnists are supposed to provide a vigorous marketplace of ideas. They’re supposed to be suspicious of the conventional wisdom. And they’re supposed to do some critical reporting along with their commentary. Haven’t we learned anything from the conventional uncritical rush to war by our leading papers, and columnists?

I don’t know every black columnist working these days on papers through the country. And I’m not counting the right-wing black writers like Thomas Sowell, or Armstrong Williams. But I have read many of the mainstream columnists, who are among the finest writers in journalism. And they are almost as one in their praise of Obama and their ridicule of Clinton.

I would expect all these writers to rightly denounce making race an issue. But I wonder if their near unanimity has made an issue of race. The most prominent black columnists who have been wowed by Obama include Eugene Robinson and Colbert King of the Washington Post; Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald; Mary Maxwell, Chicago Sun-Times; Eugene Kane, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel; Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune; Les Payne, Katti Gray and Sheryl McCarthy, Newsday, and Cynthia Tucker, editor of the editorial page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which endorsed Obama.

Former NewsHour Media correspondent Terence Smith noted in his blog February 15, that Robinson had posed a two-part question in his Post column that day: “Are the news media being beastly to Hillary Clinton? Are political reporters and commentators…basically in the tank for Barack Obama?” Robinson’s answer was “no and no.” “My view,” said Smith, “yes and yes.”

He continued: “Hillary and her supporters have reason to complain about the tone of their press notices, if not the substance…A barely-suppressed glee often creeps into the commentary when Hillary loses another primary or caucus….By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior senator? Of course they have.”

What Smith did not mention, understandably, is that Robinson, who did not respond to my e-mail inquiry about black columnists and Obama, is one of the nation’s best and most influential black columnists, and a leader among Obama’s cheering section. Lately the Post’s Dana Milbank and media maven Howard Kurtz have recognized the unbalanced coverage and have seen it beginning to change, at least in the mainstream press.

Of course, many prominent white columnists, including liberals, have joined in the adulation of Obama and the nasty criticism of whatever Clinton says, how she looks, what she wears. Her most vigorous attackers have included the New York Time duo, Maureen Dowd, who compared Clinton to Dick Cheney, and Frank Rich, who said Sen. John McCain was “channeling” Clinton. But liberal white columnists have not been single-minded.

Newsday’s Sheryl McCarthy acknowledged that virtually every black columnist was supporting Obama, “I see nothing wrong with that,” she wrote me. “For about 140 years blacks have been voting for…white candidates…And now there is finally a viable black candidate who happens to be a very strong candidate. Why on earth wouldn’t they support him?….Aren’t black columnists people, citizens and voters? I can’t tell you why black columnists are largely supporting Obama.” She had supported John Edwards, she said, but switched to Obama because “he seemed to be part of a progressive groundswell and it seemed as if he could actually capture the nomination.”

Eugene Kane of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel acknowledged that he did not know of a single black columnist who wasn’t writing positively about Obama, but saw nothing wrong with that. Nor did he think he was supporting him. After he met Obama at a meeting of black journalists, Kane wrote months later, “Perhaps I did meet the first black president of the United States…last summer.” And the rest of the column was filled with effusive praise and not one critical word. He explained, “For me the excitement over Obama by some black columnists is more about his newsworthiness and less because black columnists are supporting him over someone else.”

There is one black columnist, Bill Maxwell, on the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times, who dissents from the effusive coverage of Obama by journalists black and white. And he warned in a March 1 column, “The halo above Barack Obama’s head is dangerous. It is causing a lot of trouble for a lot of people, forcing them into silence…

“Because of the halo effect, too many people are afraid to sincerely criticize Obama for fear of being attacked…Many Anglo Democrats who do not support Obama are keeping their heads down and mouths shut…Most of our acerbic political cartoonists who have no trouble portraying Clinton as a gargoyle have sheathed their rapiers for Obama.”

Maxwell, who has written favorably of Clinton, said, “The attacks against ordinary blacks who do not support the Haloed One are nasty enough, but they pale in comparison with the abuse being absorbed by…members of the Congressional Black Caucus,” including Rep. Charles Rangel, of New York, and Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, who was pressured to switch from Clinton to Obama.

If Obama is elected, Maxwell concluded, “We will be reluctant to challenge him, fearing that the albatross of racism…will come crashing down on us.”

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