How can the media cover a subject that nearly everyone’s thinking about, but is almost too abhorrent to discuss?
CYNICAL DISPLAY: On his Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor, Bill O’Reilly rather recklessly showed a clip of rapper 50 Cent predicting harm for Barack Obama should he continue his run for the presidency.
If you’re Bill O’Reilly, you have someone else bring it up, then smugly laugh it off. On a recent episode of The O’Reilly Factor, the Fox News host aired a video clip in which rap star 50 Cent endorsed Hillary Clinton — and then predicted that Barack Obama, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, could be violently harmed for his ambition. “I’m not sure America’s ready to have a black president,” said the rapper-cum-pundit. “I think they might kill him.” In response, O’Reilly pursed his lips, shook his head, clicked his tongue, and uttered two words — “Pinhead comment” — thereby dodging the nightmare scenario he’d just helped disseminate.
Contrast that with Harry Smith of CBS’s The Early Show, who broached the subject himself — awkwardly but insistently — during a January 29 interview with Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, who’d just endorsed Obama. “When you see that enthusiasm,” asked Smith, referring to Obama’s effect on his supporters, “and when you see the generational change that seems to be taking place before our eyes, does it make you at all fearful?” When Kennedy didn’t get the point — or chose to ignore it — Smith tried another approach: “I just — I think what I was trying to say is, sometimes agents of change end up being targets, as you well know, and that was why I was asking if you were at all fearful of that.” Kennedy deflected the question again, but Smith’s meaning was clear.
Hardly a model of journalistic grace, that. But Smith’s clumsiness — and even O’Reilly’s recklessness — might have stemmed from the painful delicacy of the topic. After all, even Obama’s wife, Michelle, who’s become her husband’s de facto spokesman on safety fears, frequently resorts to oblique language. “I think people want to protect us and themselves from disappointment and failure, from the possibility of being let down again — not by us, but by the world as it is,” she said this past month at the Trumpet Awards, which recognizes black achievement. “A world that we fear may not be ready for a decent man like Barack.”
And really, what’s the alternative? Suppose Harry Smith had cut to the chase: “Senator Kennedy, you’ve compared Obama to your brother John; other people say he reminds them of your brother Robert. Are you afraid what happened to them might happen to Obama, too?” It’s not clear whether that question would have been an improvement.
Whispers and whack jobs
Even discussing the possibility of someone harming Obama feels wrong for several reasons. First off, it’s a horrifying but purely hypothetical scenario that presupposes the absolute worst in human behavior. It’s also a very real risk that every presidential candidate knows comes with the territory. Four presidents (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and Kennedy) have been assassinated. And several more have been unsuccessfully targeted while in office, including Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (actually shot, but survived), Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.