Worst of all, though, is the fear that pondering it publicly — as I am now — could contribute in any way to making it more likely to happen. “I don’t write about it because it could possibly encourage some nutter,” Andrew Sullivan, the Atlantic senior editor and Obama enthusiast, tells the Phoenix.
But giving the subject the silent treatment won’t go make it go away. The fact is that, for two distinct reasons — Obama’s race, and the perception that he’s an heir to the Kennedy legacy — a number of people are worried about his ability to stay out of harm’s way during and after the campaign. Sullivan says he hears these fears “all the time.” So does Shelby Steele, the Hoover Institution fellow and author of A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win (Free Press, 2007). “Many, many people have mentioned that to me,” he says, “usually in whispered terms, and quite nervously.”
So what’s the best way for the press to proceed? Gene Roberts, who covered the civil-rights movement for the New York Times and later guided the Philadelphia Inquirer to 17 Pulitzer Prizes, suggests a simple, common-sense test. “Reporting about it in a matter-of-fact manner, when there is something tangible to report, is valid journalism, I think,” says Roberts. “Saying more about it than the situation warrants, or stretching for a story where no real evidence other than hearsay and speculation exists, is not.”
The recent reportage by the Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye seems to pass the test. In October 2007, Seelye studied the competition between Obama and Hillary Clinton for the votes of black women in South Carolina. After more than three dozen interviews, Seelye was struck, among other things, by what she termed an “almost maternal concern” for Obama among this demographic. Some of her respondents noted that they were aware of the fact that Obama had been given Secret Service protection that past May, earlier than any other candidate in history save Hillary Clinton, who was already guarded as a former first lady. Seelye also found that some black women saw not voting for Obama as a way to protect him. “I fear that they just would kill him,” said one, “that he wouldn’t even have a chance.”
Revisiting the subject three months later in a second article, though, Seelye seemed to note a change. One woman said a comment Obama made during an appearance on Oprah — “I ain’t scared” — had reassured her. “I would love for him to be president, and I’m not scared,” she said. “I’m trying to focus on what’s good, what he’ll do good for us.”
Putting the subject in print “was horrible,” Seelye tells the Phoenix. “I thought about it quite a bit, and talked with my editors. It’s very incendiary — you don’t want to give people ideas or feed into anything. On the other hand, when people are volunteering that this is a concern of theirs, I think you have an obligation to report what they’re saying.”