“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