Friday, July 31, 2009

More Than a "Beer Summit"

Let’s Talk About Race

“Blah, blah, blah, blah,” said President Barack Obama for 55 minutes. What was being said were important answers to questions about the need for health care reform, but all the reporters and viewers seemed to hear was, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Then, the president took one more question. Forget the past 55 minutes. Even if he had not used the adverb “stupidly”, it still would have been the headline. Why? It was about race. Race is always better than “blah, blah, blah, blah” where the media is concerned. Commentators and reporters went nuts. Headline writers had a field day.

Further it was something new. The old saw says there are several things one shouldn’t watch while they are being made. Among them are laws and news. The health care debate is a process, not easily understood while watching and reporting. This confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley was already national news. The president admitted that he fanned the flames with his comments. The story grew legs.

The media, however, for the most part missed the point. The question posed the president probably would not have been asked to an Anglo president. If it had been asked to an Anglo president, it would have been brushed aside. Some say Obama should have done just that, but Obama does not run from the tough stuff. It was really remarkable that an African-American sitting president would weigh-in on what would seem to be a local issue involving a police officer who conducts classes on racial profiling and a scholarly professor who has researched and written extensively on the subject of being black in America. They may be the right people for what the president called a "Teachable Moment".

The media even coined the name of the afternoon meeting between the sergeant, the professor, the vice president, and the president, calling it the “Beer Summit” at the White House, something Obama attempted to dismiss. Once again, the media missed the point. No other president, except one who is African-American and also a former member of academe, would have set up such a gathering.

After the early evening meeting Thursday, July 30, 2009, the media set about to make something out of what beer was ordered by each one present, as if it somehow mattered. (Notably, Vice President Biden ordered a non-alcoholic beverage.) The Austin American-Statesman tease on the Friday front page asked, “With the suds, was there substance?” Good question. It comes closer to getting at the truth. The page A2 story taken from the New York Times, while short, reported the good news that there was “thoughtful conversation.”

Why is this Cambridge Mass./Beltway story worth discussing in Austin, Texas? The issue of race divides us here, just as it does in Cambridge and the rest of the country, and the media may be feeding the flames with less-than thoughtful, sound-bite reporting. And the viewers, readers, users of the media respond in kind.

American-Statesman readers took a dim view of Thursday’s “happy hour”. “Wow! Now this is something in which the president of the United States really needs to involve himself,” one reader wrote in the online comments. “My wife and I had a disagreement several days ago. Should the president invite us to the rose garden for a beer and reconciliation?” Another said, “Obama is the one who acted ‘stupidly’, and this is his way of sloughing it off on his friend in a media ploy. "Agree to disagree" is just another formidable way of saying the race card still gets played in [sic] Amerika.”

Who is playing the race card? I am afraid we all still do in one way or another. An African-American friend, a former news photographer, and a native Austinite worked the morning show at one of Austin’s TV stations. He’d ride his bicycle or walk to work in the early morning hours around 4 a.m. He would tell me wearily, “It happened again.” Even though he walked the same route every morning, police would stop and “ID” him every few months, asking him why he was out that time of the morning. One day, I felt compelled to day, “I’m sorry” because nobody else would.

Race is still a wedge, and there are those who would use it to divide us. Rush Limbaugh is on the air here on KLBJ-AM (Fox Radio). Tell me he does not fuel the furnace. The president with no apologies had the will to take on this all-too-familiar issue, talk about it public instead of whispers, and attempt to address it on the front page or as the lead story in national and local media.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports:

Based on what people have heard about the incident
in Cambridge, 27% of blame Gates, 25% fault the police officer, 13% volunteer both or neither, and 36% offer no opinion. However, more people disapprove (41%) than approve (29%) of the president’s handling of the situation. And by a margin
of about two-to-one, more whites disapprove (45%) than approve (22%).

Yet Obama is widely liked by the public on a more personal level, with close to three-quarters (74%) saying they like the kind of person he is and the way he leads his life. Asked why, among the most frequent responses offered are impressions that he is honest, has integrity, is a good father and is intelligent.

Looking through different lenses, racism may be a bigger issue in many ways than “blah, blah, blah, blah” (Health Care Reform). Both issues need serious, transparent attention. Much of the media wouldn’t/couldn’t focus on the most pervasive part of the story. It was not a “beer summit”, but it might be a new beginning.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

Race is the elephant in the room that no one wants to look at or deal with in anyway.
Shane Deitert

Anonymous said...

Yell "Fire Fire Fire" in a theatre and you will get arrested... but the media won't care.

Yell "Race discrimination" in America and the media comes flying in, focuses on the video, the 911 tapes and getting the usual suspects to comment... Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, etc. all chime in on how racism is alive and well in America.

...but why didn't anyone focus on what Gates said? Read the police report and particularly page 2 where Gates makes a particularly "stupid" mistake.

Page 2 is where Gates tossed the "race card" into the game...

It's common knowledge that you don't argue with a police officer... they arrive on scene and until they know what's going on... everybody is a suspect... and more particularly, someone who starts arguing. Forget about presumed innocence... the cops are trying to do a tough job of inserting themselves into the situation and establishing what happened, who is the victim and who is the potential aggressor.

Everybody loves jumping on the race bandwagon... it's the easy position to take... it's the lofty tower than makes us feel intellectual and above the crowd of uneducated, unwashed masses below.

I agree racism is a very real problem in America... but the media failed the public by using this as an example of it.

If it was racism, why isn't the cop on suspension, or being reviewed or anything... because even his african-american peers know this wasn't racism. It was some self-absorbed Harvard professor making a stupid decision in dealing with a PEACE officer. He was there to protect HIS property, he just needed to sit tight, be quiet, answer the right questions and wait for truth to prevail... something the media failed to do.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note: Readers locally and on MSNBC referred to the meeting on the lawn of the White House as a "stunt". I beg to differ. The media was allowed pictures only from 50-feet away where nothing could be heard. The video was shot from the shoulder--no tripods. It was a quick "photo op" with no time for set-up as staff prompted the media to "keep moving". It was a "photo op", but that doesn't make it a "stunt". It does make it transparent. Had the beers been shared in a private room, the media would have howled. Yes, by its nature, the media is cynical, but the media should also be fair.
MSNBC repeated David Letterman's comedy Top Ten things talked about at the meeting, making fun of it. That's fine. It was mediocre comedy. It was not news.
Nobody wants to address what that meeting was all about. The media at all levels still is missing the point.
Shane Deitert's comment, the first one, nails it. Jim

msidoric said...

Thank you, Jim, for having the fortitude to speak out.
There are four steps to achieving racial healing:

Tolerance - get past historical prejudice/hatred
Understanding - get to know people for who they are
Respect - develops as we see individuals not stereotypes
Cooperation - as we work together as brothers and sisters

That is our challenge as a country. Our president has initiated steps one, and perhaps, two. There is still much to be done.

Thanks Jim for bringing us light -- not heat -- on this vital issue.

Another anonymous reader said...

Amen to Anonymous. Stole the words right out of my mouth.

skyroots said...

I think I saw I self in tis one. Tis one brought up so many bad feelings of being black in a liberal city like Austin. I remember when, to avoid the police stops and questions, I choose to live one block away from KXAN on Pearl Street. But de Frat. Brothers & Sisters...didn't care for "niggers" livin' in their upper hood. I can remember one early morning as I was on my way to work, when a drunk white boy asked me what I was doing in this apt. complex at this time of the morning? I pulled out my keys, pointed over to KXAN, and said, "this key will open the door to where I work. Keep a good eye on me." The woman he was with that night, moved out of the apt. complex within in a month, but did months later showed up at KXAN for an internship, today I feel we both remember the incident, but neither one of us ever brought it up.

I was not there...
when what happened with Professor Gates & Officer Crowley met.

But if I were to take a educated black quess...up from de essence of Professor Gate's soul came one incident after another.

Ya know back in de day...I was one of de first blacks in Austin, to grow I dreadlocks, because the hope or effort was not to match the description when being pulled over or stopped by de police. Dat did little good either...still couldn't runaway from being black.

Yes there has been progress over de on one...but wat white America has yet realize...there is still a stronghold of institutional racism resonating in our homelands.

Sometimes I feel like dat dude OJ...set race relations back 10-15 years. I thought never in my African-American he iz in I dreamworld & I prayers for a better tomorrow.

McNabb...thank ya fo' yr/works...maybe one of these ol' days of de future, we will share a Red Stripe or Blue Moon beer together, but never ever a Bud Lite...I don't who de Prez. iz. And maybe, just maybe, we could help rewrite the Declaration and de Constitution in a "we are all one" kind of way. For all my relations, and we all one. We all all relatives...human beings.

Anonymous said...

When is this crooked Chicago long legged mac daddy of a president gonna stop campaigning and get to working? All he's done thus far is put us further in debt, raised our taxes, and had beers on the whitehouse lawn with his cronies.