Getting It Wright

Why did the press need Obama to round out the reverend?

It was “an extraordinary moment of truth-telling,” a “masterpiece.” It was FDR-/Lincoln-/Kennedy-esque—a modern-day “Profile in Courage.” It was “brilliant, inspiring, intellectually supple” and “searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal” and “big, big, big” and “sweeping”—“a massive break with conventional political precedent” and “a speech we have all been waiting for for a generation.” It was “glorious.”

In many ways, it was. The speech Barack Obama delivered yesterday was a testament to the power of words—words in the service not merely of “empty rhetoric,” but in the service, to borrow a borrowed phrase, of the fierce urgency of now. It was part political apologia, to be sure—a matter of electoral expediency for a campaign plagued by nagging questions about its candidate’s true attitude toward the United States—but it was also, and more so, a frank treatment of even more pervasive questions about race in the U.S.

And in that, Obama’s speech seared as much as it soared. “There have been times when we wondered what Mr. Obama meant when he talked about rising above traditional divides,” The New York Times noted in today’s editorial. “This was not such a moment.”

There have been times when we wondered the same—but, like the Times, we weren’t wondering yesterday. And it wasn’t just the well-known Obamaphiles, the Chris Matthewses and Andrew Sullivans of the media world, who were impressed with Obama’s speech. It was Pat Buchanan. It was The Washington Post. (“He not only cleared the air over a particular controversy,” the paper notes, “he raised the discussion to a higher plane.”) Even Charles Murray (yes, that Charles Murray) was floored:

Has any other major American politician ever made a speech on race that comes even close to this one? As far as I’m concerned, it is just plain flat out brilliant—rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America.

So, you know, bloom, meet rose, and all that. Many in the media, assessing Obama’s speech yesterday, found reflections of a former president in the potential one: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” FDR declared in his first inaugural. “Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” The undercurrent of yesterday’s speech coverage echoed Roosevelt’s bold hope that, via the Obamic promise of reconciliation, “this is a day of national consecration.”

And yet. The glowing reactions to Obama’s speech—the declarations of the candidate’s transcendence, of his embodiment of change, of the convergence of his own story with our national identity—sag, somewhat, with the weight of their own irony. Because, while Obama’s words yesterday certainly had an element of “rising above,” they were, fundamentally, about digging deep: about moving from the rhetorical to the real, about shedding the lofty terms we normally use to discuss race with the hope that, in the shedding, we render that discussion urgently—perhaps even painfully—personal. In order to rise above the country’s legacy of racism, in other words, we need to stay grounded in that legacy, excavating and examining it. We need to transcend our very impulse for transcendence.

In that, the press portrayals of Obama’s speech don’t just miss Obama’s point; they largely defeat it. Which is made even more ironic by the fact that the speech itself points particularly at the press as a purveyor of stereotype:

Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism….

We can tackle race only as spectacle—as we did in the O.J. trial—or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina—or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words.

Howard Kurtz, in his analysis of Obama’s speech this morning, deemed this particular section of the speech “a not-so-subtle challenge to the news business.” But it’s much more than that. Obama’s words here aren’t just a challenge for the way we in the media should treat race in the future; they’re an indictment of the way we’ve treated race in the past. (And particularly in the past days and weeks and months.) Obama’s words implicate the press in the stagnation of our national discourse on race—and, as such, in our inability to overcome the entrenched racial divides that Obama unearthed in his speech with the spade of personal experience.

Take, for example, the ostensible reason for Obama’s oratory: his explanation/defense of his relationship with the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright. There’s much more to the former pastor, Obama noted in the speech, than is suggested by the YouTube clips that have been cycling on cable news channels for the past week:

He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth—by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Which raises the question: why hadn’t we learned that before? Why wasn’t the fuller picture of Wright—serviceman, intellectual, community organizer—part of the narrative that spread about him in the mass media? Why didn’t we in the press do a better job of fleshing out Wright as a full, complex person—with the mix of strengths and weaknesses that is in us all—rather than dismissing him as an empty amalgamation of incendiary sound bites? That more humanized picture of Wright wouldn’t have explained away his comments, but it would have, at least, started to explain them—and placed them in the proper human context. It would have rooted them in the complexity of the African-American experience, rather than letting them hover, disembodied, in the ether of the cable news cycle.

Indeed, when Obama noted, in his speech, that we’re more than the sum of our parts, he wasn’t just talking about the country. He was talking about its citizens. And he was talking, in large part, to the press—to the people charged with taking that country and those citizens out of the abstract, with humanizing them by telling their stories.

As CNN’s Roland Martin asked last night, “Are we going to keep running the same comments over and over, or are we going to get behind the story?”

The Wright portrayal makes a particularly baffling case, given that so much of the pastor’s media narrative developed and played out on the twenty-four-hour cable networks. When the quality of those networks’ coverage is panned, after all, the excuse offered in their defense is generally some iteration of, “Well, we have twenty-four hours of air to fill. Of course it’s not all going to be great journalism.” Which is fair enough. But it doesn’t explain Wright’s case, in which the problem with the pastor’s portrayal was its very brevity—its very filtering into the restrictive, often misleading vessel of the sound bite. The networks had all the time in the world—literally 24/7—to tell Wright’s story, to put his anger in context. But they didn’t.

In The Nation today, John Nichols explores this missing depth:

At the most basic level, Obama did what the media has failed to do. He presented Wright and Wright’s comments on U.S. domestic and foreign policies in context: the context of the African-American religious experience, the context of the candidate’s connection to the church and, above all, the context of this country’s unresolved experience of what Obama correctly refers to as ‘the original sin’ of the American experiment—human bondage—and its legacy. The speech was masterful in this regard.

Which, I think, is all too true. And, in that, all too sad a commentary. Did it really take Obama to do our jobs for us? Did it really take a politician to fulfill the duties of the press? Did it really take a newsmaker to step in and tell the newsgatherers how to frame their stories?

In this case, it seems, it did. Which brings us back to Kurtz and the “challenge” Obama has issued to us in the media. When Obama argues that “we the people” should strive to overcome the “original sin” of our nationhood, he means “we” as Americans, but he also means, I think—and even more urgently—“we the press.” We’re the ones who should be guiding the national conversation about race, who should be transforming the country, in that sense, into a more perfect union. The media have a pulpit, after all—a bully pulpit, some might call it, but a pulpit nonetheless—when it comes to guiding that conversation and shaping our future. We should be using it.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.