Every general presidential election in American history has been contested by white males. In 2008, the odds greatly favor the first African American -- Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) -- to run for President. This has forced the media to discuss race and identity, and they have not done it well, and they've done a disservice to both remaining Democratic candidates.
The first fumble came early in the contest. Prior to the New Hampshire primary, two surrogates for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) brought up the issue of Obama's drug use. Most in the press knew of his drug use. Because this was not a new fact for them, they decided to spin the story as the Clinton's playing the race card.
This angle created controversy where none existed. Obama had admitted to drug use in an autobiography that discussed his own personal struggle with his identity, and it had nothing to do with his race. Voters have a right to decide whether or not they can trust a candidate based on the facts, not spin.
The race discussion accelerated heading into the South Carolina primary. The Democratic primary electorate is 45% African American, and many wondered how many would cross over and support Clinton. A watershed moment occurred prior to the primary. The Obama campaign issued a memo critical of a comment of Clinton and the struggle of Martin Luther King to enact the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Clinton said:
"I would point to the fact that that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done."
The Obama campaign claimed, and the media ran with the angle, that Clinton downplayed the importance of MLK and that it sent a signal to African Americans that Clinton didn't care about their efforts in the civil rights struggle.
Furthermore, many in the media too often crop quotes to make them more damaging. In the previous example on MLK, the quote about Kennedy was deleted.
Another example of snipping involved Obama. His infamous statement on rural voters being "bitter" and "clinging" to god, guns and anti-immigrant sentiment. In the full context, he attempted to give advice on how to win over skeptical voters in rural Pennsylvania, almost all of whom are white. Interestingly, the media never suggested Obama's comment was racist, even though it clearly reinforced biases about rural Americans.
Voters can and should double check the media on quotes. It's simple enough to Google a quote and find the entire reference in most cases. Just make sure the source is independent.
How should the media judge character issues vs. racist attacks? Patrick Eagan, professor of Politics at New York University, suggests a focus on intent:
"We have entered an unprecedented political season with the first viable African American candidate. When discussing racism, the media has to look at the intent of a political statement. If the statement intends to inflame prejudice, clearly the media has to be critical."
Eagan's suggestion offers the media a fair criteria. Judge each statement on its merit and decide if it "stokes people's fear," says Eagan.
This should be obvious, but the media often misses it.
African-Americans overwhelmingly supported Obama in South Carolina by more than a 9-to-1 margin, and he has maintained this monolithic support since. This should not come as a surprise. African-Americans have identified strongly with the Democratic party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and voting for Obama was an easy choice. As Eagan said: "Minority groups, like Asians and Latinos, on the bottom of the power structure normally vote to protect their group interest."
Not surprisingly, Clinton fared the best with white women and white seniors. These groups also tend to identify with Clinton, as African-Americans do with Obama. Clinton represents hope for many women, some of whom are old enough to remember that women only received the right to vote in 1920. Clinton was the first women ever to win a primary contest.
Her support, however, hasn't been limited to the obvious identity groups. In fact, her strongest support mostly comes from low-income Democrats according to
an analysis by
head pollster, Gary Langer. Income appears to be the determining factor across her sectors of supporters.
The media mostly fails to suggest alternatives to race, despite alternatives in plain sight. Voters beware of a lazy media!
Many Democrats vote based on party loyalty. The Clintons have retained credibility with many Democrats, despite the lashings Bill Clinton in particular has taken in the media. Some still see the Clintons as leaders in the party. This had been reinforced up until recently by Clinton's lead with superdelegates.
On the other hand, Obama's appeal has been based around his stated interest in overcoming the divide in politics. Nate Persily, professor of law and politics at Columbia University Law School, said: "His story in life is about trying to be a crossover politician, and he hoped to avoid the discussion of racial division."
This obsession of the media exacerbates the attention paid to missteps by the candidates. Because rather than focusing on issues, they can pounce on the old bloc-related canards. Examples include when Clinton cited an
article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me. There's a pattern emerging here." Or when Obama made the aforementioned, and oft-repeated bitter comment.
The media has done a disservice to the candidates and voters. In their rush to report on conflict, they have failed to report proper quotes and provide adequate sourcing. Elections are too important to get the short shrift from an impatient media.