How the Media Can Improve Coverage of Political Racial Controversies

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Author: 
Nadra Kareem Nittle
January 18, 2012

While campaigning in Sioux City, Iowa, a few weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum unleashed the type of race-baiting tactic that GOP candidates have used, usually with success, for decades.

Santorum faced a predominantly white audience at a campaign stop in a state that is 91.3 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So how did the long-shot candidate troll for votes? He spoke disparagingly of African-Americans.

Santorum had been asked about the “foreign influence” in America and “how do we get off this crazy train?” For some reason, he invoked African-Americans in his response, saying, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”

The former U.S. senator isn’t the only Republican candidate to rely on wedge issues in the campaign.

A few days later, during a stump speech in Plymouth, N.H, former House Speaker Newt  Gingrich, said, “And so I’m prepared if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

Clearly, race-baiting and wedge issues will be injected into the presidential campaign as the nation’s first African-American president seeks a second term. Why do GOP candidates do that? Quite simply, flawed media coverage of race-baiting usually makes it a plus for the candidate throwing mud.

In the 1988 presidential campaign, Vice President George H.W. Bush linked “Willie Horton” to Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, portraying the Massachusetts governor as soft on crime. Since then, race-baiting has routinely boosted Republican candidates.

Horton, a black man serving a life sentence for murder, received a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison and then committed additional violent crimes. As Bush’s campaign manager, the late Lee Atwater, boasted, “By the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name.” The media picked up the GOP attack lines, and Dukakis was dismissed as being far too liberal to be president.

Today, the media report on race-baiting tactics but fail to put them in historical context by noting that Republicans often solidify and expand their white, conservative following by attacking people of color. As the Republican base becomes more blue-collar, low-income and less educated, race-baiting becomes a way to prey on fears of poor whites struggling in a down economy.

“The media have done a generally poor job of covering racial issues in American politics for decades,” says Joe R. Feagin, a Texas A&M University sociology professor and author of numerous books about race. “If anything it’s even worse today. I haven’t seen any stories on these racial remarks other than an extremely passing 10-second comment. Online it’s a little better, but for the most part, it’s not in depth, it’s not in historical context.”

The nature of the daily news cycle contributes to this trend, says Arturo R. García, managing editor of Racialicious.com, the race-oriented pop culture site. “It constantly needs to be fed,” he says. “It’s constantly generating content.” He likens media coverage of the Republican candidates to commentators analyzing an NFL game.

Today, mainstream media race to compete 24/7 with cable TV, radio talk shows, Internet news and bloggers. That results in fewer comprehensive stories and opportunities for candidates to make race-baiting comments with little consequence from mainstream media.

For instance, in Iowa, more than 80 percent of people on welfare are white, while nationally 38.8 percent are white, 37.2 percent black and 17.8 percent Latino. CBS should be lauded for citing these numbers and pushing Santorum to explain his remarks. But few other mainstream media did the same before the media circus was off to New Hampshire for more campaign frenzy.

Feagin maintains that lackluster coverage of racial issues also occurs because reporters are not well-versed in American history or race relations. He says ignorance prevents them from discussing the Republican Party’s shift to a largely white organization when staunch conservative Barry Goldwater became the GOP’s nominee in 1964 or linking racial stereotypes espoused by Gingrich and Santorum to similar comments by former presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Simply repeating black stereotypes spouted by Republican presidential candidates without proper historical context does more harm than good, says Aaron Morrison, a political writer for loop21.com, an African-American site.

“A lot of the news stories were like, ‘Look at what Newt Gingrich just said,’ but they didn’t explain why his words were shocking,” Morrison says. “It’s very easy to call someone a racist or say Newt Gingrich made a racist statement. The media needs to say, ‘Here’s why it’s baseless. Here’s why it’s racist.”

Morrison adds that journalists should research how these candidates have dealt with race in the past and whether race-baiting is a pattern in their careers.

Moreover, journalists can turn to sites such as mediamatters.org and thinkprogress.org that routinely investigate comments by public figures such as Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Rush Limbaugh. Paul, for example, denies writing anti-black statements found in newsletters bearing his name, but as recently as last year, according to media reports, he remarked that he would not have supported legislation to end racial discrimination.

Also, theroot.com has noted that Paul declined to support legislation to make the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a federal holiday. Such reporting provides the public with a more complete picture of what candidates think about ethnic groups and the public policies that impact them.

“I’m very encouraged and heartened by the work the predominantly African-American media has done,” says Jessie Daniels, a sociologist and associate professor at the CUNY School of Public Health who runs racismreview.com with Feagin. “It’s super important to allow us to understand that [the candidates] didn’t just misspeak in a sound bite. It wasn’t just a slip of the tongue but that they have this long history.”

Political commentator Curtis Pree, who has worked on political campaigns for Walter F. Mondale and Bill Clinton, says the instability of the current presidential race has proved challenging for many journalists.

“The media has done a decent job in covering the remarks,” he says. “The Republicans have had a candidate who’s been the flavor of the month each month. . . . As we move closer towards the nomination process, the media has a clear moral responsibility to make sure that these comments are scrutinized and the candidates are held responsible.”

Whether the mainstream media can provide comprehensive coverage of race-baiting certain to increase during the general election campaign involving President Barack Obama has provoked debate. Daniels, Morrison and García say the blogosphere and other alternative news sources must track the undercurrent of racism in U.S. politics.

“I think in the year to come it’s more incumbent on the blogosphere to provide that pushback,” García says. “It behooves our communities to keep pointing out in the media why [these candidates] pose such a problem and to keep pushing back against the bigger networks. We’ve got to do the heavy lifting because, for whatever reason, these outlets and these candidates think they don’t need our money, they don’t need our votes.”

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