The ‘A’ word

Is there one political story the press shouldn’t report?
February 15, 2008 5:07:43 PM

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.

Letter from Candorville: An African-American cartoonist reacts to being pulled by the Post. By Adam Reilly.
How can the media cover a subject that nearly everyone’s thinking about, but is almost too abhorrent to discuss?

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.

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.”

pages: 1 | 2

I am ashamed of my fellow journalist for continuing to skate around a subject because it makes people uncomfortable. He is a black man running for president who has been compared to JFK; it is irresponsible of the media not to talk about the crazy people who might try to kill him. Journalist are supposed to ask questions that make people uncomfortable.

POSTED BY maryrenee AT 02/14/08 3:33 PM
But by the same token, maryrenee, journalists are supposed to report and record, not influence. While you're right that a journalist's job is to ask tough questions, that's only the surface-level issue here. The deeper issue, at least for a journalist, is whether writing stories about the possibility of a violent response to Obama's candidacy is tantamount to planting inside someone's head the idea of committing said violence. It's a question of whether your actions as a reporter are influencing the actions of others; ostensibly, whether you're creating the story you're covering. That in mind, it seems to me that Mr. Roberts' response makes a lot of sense (as it should, coming down from Olympus and all). I probably wouldn't find it appropriate to assign writers to go out and just ask a bunch of people in the neighborhood if they were afraid Obama would be assassinated. But for the sake of argument, say there were a host of hypothetical white supremacist groups spouting rage on the Web and in mailings about Obama's candidacy, making threats (explicit or veiled) that there would be reprisals for his election, etc. In that event, I don't think there would be anything untoward about reporting on it. The primary difference, though, is that those "crazy people" are already out there saing those things, and you're reporting what they're saying -- you're not walking out to a group of random folks and introducing the topic out of the ether.

POSTED BY Devine AT 02/14/08 6:17 PM
Mr. Obama may want to think twice before agreeing to allow anyone with a murky history of craving and exercising power to be his vice-presidential running mate. It is not difficult to imagine a Machiavellian scenario where the leader is taken out by order of his second-in-command. The present and past are full of instances where individuals and families are alleged to have attained (or maintained) power by way of political assassination. Thus, there is no reason to believe it couldn't happen in 21st-century America. Translation: If Hillary Clinton is your vice-president, WATCH YOUR BACK!

POSTED BY GMHeller AT 02/22/08 7:26 PM

Login to add comments to this article


Register Now  |   Lost password

Best Music Poll 2008 Winners
BMP 2008 Party Info





Copyright © 2008 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group