But if Seelye’s stories are case studies in how to cover the subject in a manner that seems appropriate, they also show just how hard that is to do. For one thing, fear for Obama’s safety was just one element of her stories, not their primary focus. In addition, her stories ran in an outlet that’s generally considered liberal-leaning rather than conservative-leaning. And the subjects who discussed their anxiety were black women rather than white men.
Change any one of these attributes, and the overall feel of the stories would probably change as well. Imagine, for example, how the same coverage would have been received if it had been reported on Fox News. Then compare Seelye’s coverage with the zealously conservative Washington Times’ January 7 story on Obama’s newly augmented Secret Service protection. That piece also dealt with something concrete — but given the Times’ right-wing pedigree, it left this reader wondering if the paper had an ulterior motive. So tangibility alone may not be enough.
What’s more, the media’s ability to answer the million-dollar question — i.e., whether people’s fears for Obama’s safety are affecting the presidential race — is already sharply circumscribed. In theory, the best way to do this would be to ask the widest possible range of people if such fears were influencing their thinking. But if sober, analytical discussion of the subject feels ethically dubious, plopping it into people’s heads in a random survey would seem downright dangerous. And with good reason: between its possible effect on the presidential race and the prospect, however unlikely, of helping bring about the scenario in question, it would be the most malignant push-poll imaginable.
Devoting an entire story to this subject may itself seem excessive. But the topic is already out there in the cultural ether, humming away faintly but continually. There’s at least one case of an editor balking at a defensible treatment of it: on January 19, the Washington Post didn’t run the comic strip Candorville, which suggested Obama should protect himself by tapping an illegal alien as his vice-presidential candidate. (About 70 other papers did print that day’s strip.) In contrast, some more dubious examples haven’t attracted the editorial scrutiny they should have, such as Huffington Post blogger Joseph Palermo’s January 4 item warning Obama might be targeted by surrogates of Halliburton, Blackwater, or some other company currently profiting from the Iraq War. Coverage of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s prediction that Obama would be assassinated if elected is another example.
Perhaps, barring some significant new development, it’s time for the press to consider a self-imposed moratorium on the subject. (This may sound hypocritical, given this column, but when you’re urging the media to drop any problematic theme — McCain’s authenticity, Clinton’s weepiness, etc. — it’s necessary to describe the theme in question.) After all, we know why people worry about Obama. We also know that steps have been taken to protect him — and that, after considering the risks, the candidate and his family have decided to proceed. For now, that’s probably enough.