How Different Media View Racial Controversies

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Dori J. Maynard
July 24, 2009

No matter the medium, the subjects were the same. Jesse Jackson made some rather unwise remarks about Barack Obama and the New Yorker published a satirical depiction of the Obamas that many thought missed the mark.

The difference came when you looked at how those stories were covered on the web compared to the "traditional mainstream" media. In the end, that was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the controversies because it was illustrative of the pros and cons of both forms of media.

While some in the "mainstream" media struggled with how to characterize Jesse Jackson's off-camera and ill-advised remarks to a fellow panelist during a taping at the Fox News Channel, bloggers and members of listservs immediately began debating whether the remarks signaled, or should signal, a generational shift.

To its credit, The New York Times did tackle the issue of the shifting political landscape in the African American community. Yet, in a move that called into question the piece's credibility, the reporter chose not to quote any African American sources on the subject, opting instead to rely on the expertise of failed presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale's presidential campaign manager and a white professor from Emory University.

The last assured us that harsh words from Jesse Jackson would in no way cause the African American community to turn its back on Obama and then went on to recount an anecdote that left you wondering what it had to do with the Jackson-Obama flap. 
"He recalled being in a restaurant in Georgia that was giving away tickets to an Obama event recently; 50 people, most of them African-American, were still standing in line even though the tickets were all gone," The Times told us.

Over on the web, the response, if you knew where to look, gave much greater insight into what people in the African American community were actually thinking. " The 32-year-old blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this on his blog:

My Dad is gonna kill me. But here's Jesse -- on Fox News no less -- telling some other dude that he'd like to cut Obama's nuts out. Nice. I'm not even sure this hurts Obama in anyway. Even Jesse's own son condemned him. There is a certain strain of the civil-rights era that really just needs to have a Jack and Coke and call it a day. It's not that we aren't grateful. We so really are. But this is getting embarrassing...

Both accounts agree that Obama was not hurt by Jackson's remarks. However, it struck me that reading the mainstream media was sometimes like eavesdropping on a conversation strangers were having about you while reading the web was very much like having an important conversation that you are fairly certain no one else is bothering to listen to.

Neither provides the public with the entirety of the information it needs to understand what's at stake and to make informed decisions. And both remind you of how disengaged we can be from each other in this country.

It was that disconnect that the New Yorker got caught up in when it attempted to take on some of the erroneous ideas people have about the Obamas. The problem, as many pointed out, is that it's very difficult to satirize a community you don't have much contact with.

With newspaper and broadcast staffs still between 75 and 85 percent white and the country's population a little over 30 percent people of color, it's not a surprise that there is a disconnect between the journalists and those they cover. Nor is it a surprise that people of color are using the web to create a more robust and nuanced conversation. The trick is going to be in finding a way to bring our separate conversations together, no matter the medium.

 
  

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