Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

"I Am Biracial, That's Right."

Send by email
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Updated February 12

Barack Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, left, and Hillary Clinton
spokesman Phil Singer at White House Correspondents Dinner last April.
Some are surprised to learn of Burton's racial background. (Credit: CNN)

Some Surprised by Background of Deputy Press Aide

When a list of members of the White House press office appeared to show that no African American professionals worked there, a press assistant fielded a call asking if that were indeed the case. She said yes, not realizing that one of her own bosses, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton, has a black father and white mother.

"I am biracial, that's right," Burton, 31, told Journal-isms on Tuesday. "Though I find it interesting that you ask only if I 'consider' myself biracial and not if I am."

Burton's ethnicity, a surprise to many who have worked with or covered him through the long Obama campaign and into the White House, has surfaced only sporadically as a subject in a meteoric career that includes service as communications director for the 2004 presidential campaign of Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., for that of John Kerry, also in 2004, as national press secretary for Sen. Barack Obama, and now as deputy White House press secretary. His race is usually ignored.

"I had NO idea and I used to see him everyday," one African American Obama campaign worker said. "I'm as good as any of us in 'detecting' the mixed among us and I had no clue. He looks totally white!"

The same White House press assistant assured a caller last week that Burton was not African American and said she was sure because she had known him for some time.

Burton's ethnicity became a subject of more than idle curiosity after Press Secretary Robert Gibbs released a list last week of the press-office staff, as this column reported then.

Even accounting for Burton, some were concerned. "I got an e-mail Tuesday listing all of the various press folks and contact information, and hardly any African-Americans or Hispanics were listed," commentator Roland Martin said on CNN. "Granted, the deputy press secretary is African-American and the director of broadcast media is Hispanic. That's not sufficient.

"Unfortunately, this shouldn't come as a shock, because the campaign press staff of then-Sen. Barack Obama was just as weak on diversity."

Martin repeated his position in his Creators Syndicate newspaper column.

He noted that staff members often rise to the key posts of press secretaries for entire departments and for the White House itself, and that Obama had articulated a commitment to diversity. White House staffers also decide which reporters are admitted to news conferences and which are called upon. Though there continues to be outreach to journalists of color in other venues - Obama gave an interview just this week to Black Enterprise magazine - it took six post-election news conferences before a black or Hispanic reporter had access to the microphone for questions.

It should be noted that the White House press office is not the only part of its communications team, and that aides assigned specifically to the "specialty media" - black and Latino news outlets, for example - are assigned to the "media relations" office.

Corey A. Ealons, who deals with African American media, told Journal-isms, "I continue to make the point that this is one operation with a wealth of diversity in its makeup" as it attempts to put forward Obama's message.

As deputy press secretary, Burton is one of the key shapers of that message. Some will remember him on the campaign trail doing battle with Fox News' Megyn Kelly after Fox played up comments that Obama had a "socialist" message, or perhaps when he announced that the Obamas had indeed left the Chicago church of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

According to a 2008 story by Tom Buckham in Burton's hometown Buffalo News, "Burton traces his political awakening to the times his father, Troy, who was active in the machinists union at the since-closed Pohlman Foundry Co. on the East Side, took him along to Buffalo School Board meetings.

"The two 'always talked about politics,' but attending those sessions 'took it from theoretical to actionable,' he said.

"The political bug bit in earnest after his time at the University of Minnesota, where he majored in English, Burton said. To earn money for school, he worked in community relations at Minneapolis headquarters of what is now Target Corp. . . .

"There, he came to the attention of Rep. Bill Luther, D-Minn., who hired him right after graduation.

"Burton arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1999 as one of the youngest press secretaries, if not the youngest, on Capitol Hill.

Troy Burton now lives in Niles, Ohio, and Bill Burton's Polish-American mother, Deborah Ballard, still lives in Buffalo.

In 2007, Burton married Laura Capps, who worked in the White House during Bill Clinton's presidency and was Kerry's press secretary in Iowa in 2003. Burton was her counterpart in the Gephardt campaign.

"It will be a long-distance marriage," the Times wrote then. "For how long? 'Until we move into the White House,' Mr. Burton said."

Fox Agrees Not to Identify Juan Williams with NPR

National Public Radio has asked Juan Williams, a commentator on Fox News Channel and an analyst on NPR, to request that Fox News Channel remove his NPR identification whenever he is on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," NPR ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard disclosed on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Fox agreed. "We were actually doing NPR a favor by even plugging them," a spokeswoman told Journal-isms, "but we have no problem dropping the mention on the chyron along with their exposure to millions of O'Reilly Factor viewers."

On the Bill O'Reilly show on Jan. 26, Williams said of the first lady, "She's got this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress thing going. If she starts talking . . . her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I'm the victim. If that stuff starts to coming out, people will go bananas and she'll go from being the new Jackie O. to being something of an albatross."

"To date, I've received 56 angry emails" about Williams' comments, Shepard wrote. "For comparison, this year so far, listeners sent 13 emails about Steve Inskeep, 8 about Mara Liasson and 6 about Cokie Roberts - other NPR personalities who I often get emails about."

She continued, "When I asked Williams about his comments, he initially called it a 'faux controversy.'

"But then he reviewed the tape and realized that 'the tone and tenor of my comments may have spurred a strong reaction to what I considered to be pure political analysis of the First Lady's use of her White House pulpit,' said Williams via email. 'I regret that in the fast-paced, argumentative format my tone and tenor seems to have led people to see me as attacking instead of explaining my informed point of view.'

"Williams tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox," Shepard said.

"His 'Stokely Carmichael' comment got the attention of NPR's top managers. They are in a bind because Williams is no longer a staff employee but an independent contractor. As a contract news analyst, NPR doesn't exercise control over what Williams says outside of NPR." [Added Feb. 12]

Don Terry Laid Off at Chicago Tribune After 8 Years

Don Terry, a writer for the Chicago Tribune magazine who came to the Tribune eight years ago from the New York Times, where he was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team, was laid off from the Tribune on Thursday, Terry confirmed to Journal-isms.

Terry said perhaps seven or eight others were also laid off, but Tribune spokeswoman Janet L. Dobbs said she could not discuss the developments.

"We don't comment on personnel matters," she said.

The financially troubled Tribune already lost a substantial number of journalists of color in August, when more than 40 newsroom employees were laid off.

Terry, 51, said he was asked Thursday morning to step into the office of Geoffrey Brown, associate managing editor for features, and given the news.

"I've been a journalist since 1980. It's all I know and all I want to do," Terry said.

As a magazine writer, Terry was honored for such pieces as "Hiding in Plain Sight," in which he and photographer Terrence James "followed the trail of an alleged mass killer from the dusty streets of Kigali, Rwanda, to tree-lined suburban Chicago," as his editor, Elizabeth Taylor, described it to readers in 2005, and "User Friendly" in 2003, about the Chicago Recovery Alliance, one of the largest needle-exchange programs in the country.

He was also based in his Chicago hometown for much of his 12¬?-year tenure at the Times.

At that paper, he was part of the "How Race Is Lived in America" team that won the Pulitzer in 2001 for national reporting. He wrote "Getting Under My Skin," a memoir of growing up biracial.

"After college, I went into journalism, hoping to do good in the world as my parents had tried to do," he wrote in the piece. "My first job was at The Chicago Defender, a small and struggling but historically significant black newspaper. I then went on to work for a number of larger papers in the Midwest before coming to The New York Times in 1988.

"In just about every one of these jobs, my reputation was built as much around my race as my journalism; I was the black man with a big mouth, ready to get loud at the slightest racial slight - the brother with a boulder on his shoulder. An editor at The Chicago Tribune, where I used to work, called me the most contentious young reporter he'd ever met."

He concluded the piece with this observation about his father: "On paper, at least, he tried to give me a gift that could not be fully realized in his life: the gift of family that transcends divisions of race." [Added Feb. 12]


Michael Fletcher's question to President Obama was the 10th of the news conference.

Reporter Catches Grief Over A-Rod Question to Obama

Michael Fletcher's question to President Obama about New York Yankees All-Star Alex Rodriguez's confession that he used steroids has earned the Washington Post reporter brickbats from some who thought the question unworthy of Monday night's news conference. Some fellow African Americans said they were disappointed that Fletcher wasn't "representing."

"Did the brotha have to be the first one to ask about A-Fraud?" asked a member of the Sports Task Force of the National Association of Black Journalists, almost as soon as the news conference was over.

"The question was inappropriate, considering the nature of this press briefing and made the reporter look bush-league," Joseph N. Boyce wrote in the Journal-isms comment section. "At a time when journalists of color are taking their rightful seats at the table of top-level coverage, this kind of amateurism doesn't help."

Fletcher's was the 10th question in a news conference Obama called to promote his economic stimulus plan.

"What's your reaction to Alex Rodriguez's admission that he used steroids as a member of the Texas Rangers?" he asked.

"Yeah, I think it's depressing news on top of what's been a flurry of depressing items, when it comes to Major League Baseball," Obama replied.

"And if you're a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it - it tarnishes an entire era, to some degree. And it's unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of ballplayers who played it straight.

"And you know, the thing I'm probably most concerned about the message that it sends to our kids.

"What I'm pleased about is, Major League Baseball seems to finally be taking this seriously, to recognize how big of a problem this is for the sport, and that our kids hopefully are watching and saying: You know what? There are no shortcuts; that when you try to take shortcuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career, and that your integrity's not worth it. That's the message I hope is communicated," the president replied.

"No one suggested it," Fletcher told Journal-isms the next afternoon, speaking of his query. "I actually decided to ask the question at the last minute, thinking that it was topical and that Obama had more than made his points on the economy at that point in the news conference. Almost went with a Cuba-policy question - and given the negative reaction (maybe 15 outraged emails) - maybe should have. But on the bright side, his answer on A-Rod has been all over the news, even if I'm being pilloried in the process."

If being deemed worthy of editorial-page comment is any measure, the A-Rod question measured up, as editorial pages from New York to Toronto to Dallas took up the subject, some quoting Obama's news-conference answer.

Media writer Howard Kurtz got four comments about Fletcher's question in his Washington Post online chat. "I didn't find it inane at all," Kurtz replied. "This wasn't some 'how 'bout them Yankees' question; it concerned the use of illegal substances by the biggest and richest star in baseball. And it came at a point when the president had already been asked a slew of economic questions."

Were Comments Meant for Reporter's Ears?

Hazel Trice EdneyA quote that members of the black press felt like "window dressing" at President Obama's news conference Monday night has become a case of she-said, he-said over the circumstances under which the quote was obtained.

"Yes, the quote is accurate. I said it," Hazel Trice Edney, editor of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, told Journal-isms on Tuesday after the "window dressing" quote appeared in the Washington Times.

"But the article is rogue. It gives the appearance that I gave an interview to the Washington Times reporter. I did not. The comment was made during a private conversation with my colleagues, also from the Black Press. I didn't know I was quoted by a reporter until the White House called me the next day to ask me about it. Therefore, the reporter either overheard me talking or eaves dropped on our conversation," she told Journal-isms.

"Notwithstanding, the truth is that what he wrote is exactly what I said, what we felt and what we in the Black Press expressed to each other. The economy has disparately affected people of color; more so Black people with double digit unemployment. My question would have pertained to what in the stimulus package would assure that a significant portion of those 90 percent of private sector funds would go to those people who are hit the hardest and hurting the most."

The Washington Times remembers the incident differently.

Editor John Solomon, asked for comment on Wednesday, said:

"We are glad that Joe Curl's column has been so well received. But we don't want to leave any misimpression that Joe was eavesdropping. Joe identified he was with the Washington Times, participated in the conversation and had his notebook out writing down quotes. One of the women present even remarked to the group he was taking notes. Joe also checked one of his quotes with one of the women in front of the group. It's hard to call this anything but reporting."

News Narrative Turns Bearish on Obama

"Two different stories combined to create one major media narrative last week—a new President off to a shaky start," Mark Jurkowitz wrote for the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"For the second week in a row the economic crisis was the dominant story in the news, filling 44% of the Feb. 2- Feb. 8 newshole in the weekly News Coverage Index produced by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"The only other subject to generate significant attention was a related one, the new Obama Administration at 17% (up from 7% a week earlier).

"But both stories contained themes depicted as negative for Obama—problems winning Republican votes on the stimulus package and no fewer than four Presidential nominees tainted by tax problems."

Michelle Obama Does Vogue's March Cover

Vogue's March issue"She is not merely the First Lady, in the breathless Vogue treatment of Michelle Obama," Mark Silva wrote Wednesday for the Chicago Tribune's blog, the Swamp.

"She is 'the leading lady . . .'

"She also is elegantly displayed in a wide-ranging wardrobe, with the March cover of the magazine and article featuring the photography of star photographer Annie Leibovitz, who caught up with the Obamas at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington.

"The cover photo features the first lady in a silk dress by Jason Wu. Inside, she is pictured in a more glamorous Narciso Rodriguez dress and a J.Crew wool cardigan."

Obama is only the second first lady to grace Vogue's cover. Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first.

Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, who wrote the story, was doing a round of media appearances to promote it, according to Diane Clehane, writing Wednesday on MediaBistro's Fishbowl NY. On NBC-TV's "Today" on Wednesday, Talley chatted with Meredith Vieira; he taped a segment for "NBC Nightly News," also on Wednesday morning, "and he was off to do a sit-down after lunch with Wolf Blitzer (and he's going back to CNN for a second appearance tomorrow)," she wrote.

L.A. Times Defends Identifying Rihanna as Accuser

Rihanna"'R&B star Rihanna is cooperating with investigators building a domestic violence case against her boyfriend, the singer Chris Brown, a police source said Monday,' is the opening line in a news story published Tuesday, but it was a story a day earlier that brought questions and, in a few cases, condemnation of The Times," Jamie Gold, reader representative at the Los Angeles Times, wrote Tuesday on her blog.

"The issue: Whether The Times should have published Rihanna's name as the accuser in that first-day news story.

". . . To the several individuals who have written, California Editor David Lauter has responded with the following note:

"'We handled this case the same way that we routinely handle dozens of crime stories each week: When we know the name of a crime victim, we generally report it. The name of the victim in a crime is part of the public record, and reporting it is part of our responsibility to tell the public what the police are doing and why. We don't make a special exception for celebrities. We do make an exception in sexual assault cases, where we generally withhold the names of victims because of the continuing stigma that sexual assault victims can face. In this case, our reporters knew, based on their reporting, that the crime involved was not a sexual assault, and so we reported it.'"

Worldwide, Fear and Intimidation Threaten Newsrooms

"In Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, journalists are becoming increasingly vulnerable to physical violence as a result of their work, says a U.S.-based media watchdog in a new report released Tuesday," Haider Rizvi wrote for the Inter-Press Service.

"'Today, the greatest threats to freedom of the press are more insidious than a generation ago because they are intended to induce a climate of fear and intimidation,' said Carl Bernstein, a well-known investigative reporter, at the launch of the report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"Bernstein told reporters that violence against journalists had 'become more and more routine, because it is the one effective way of stopping the press under the most horrible of circumstances.'

"Last year, at least 41 journalists were killed and more than 100 lived behind bars, according to the 341-page CPJ report, 'Attacks on the Press in 2008.'"

Niche Media Replacing Traditional D.C. Press Corps

"Read the headlines and it would be easy to conclude that as the new Obama Administration takes power, facing an array of domestic and international crises, it will be monitored by a substantially depleted Washington press corps," the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported on Wednesday.

"It isn't exactly so.

"The corps of journalists covering Washington D.C. at the dawn of the Obama Administration is not so much smaller as it is dramatically transformed. And that transformation will markedly alter what Americans know and not know about the new government, as well as who will know it and who will not.

"A careful accounting of the numbers, plus detailed interviews with journalists, lawmakers, press association executives and government officials, reveals that what we once thought of as the mainstream news media serving a general public has indeed shrunk — perhaps far more than many would imagine. A roll call of the numbers may shock.

"But as the mainstream media have shrunk, a new sector of niche media has grown in its place, offering more specialized and detailed information than the general media to smaller, elite audiences, often built around narrowly targeted financial, lobbying and political interests. Some of these niche outlets are financed by an economic model of high-priced subscriptions, others by image advertising from big companies like defense contractors, oil companies, and mobile phone alliances trying to influence policy makers.

"In addition, the contingent of foreign reporters in Washington has grown to nearly ten times the size it was a generation ago. And the picture they are sending abroad of the country is a far different one than the world received when the information came mainly via American based wire services and cable news."

FCC's Copps Says Minority Ownership a Priority

"Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps told reporters Wednesday it was time to do something about boosting minority ownership in broadcasting, saying he had already put in motion the process to provide legal justification and factual underpinnings for doing so," John Eggerton reported for Broadcasting & Cable.

"While he said the FCC remains focused on the digital transition, he also said that doesn't mean it would ignore important items."

"One of the big things I have been interested in is minority ownership of broadcast properties," Copps said. "The time to start moving on that is right now. But we have to make sure that as we go forward with new policies we have the legal underpinnings that we need to satisfy the courts and the factual documentation we need to have to verify our case and if we have to do additional studies, this is the time to do it. I am putting that into motion."

Wall Street Journal's "WSJ Cafe" Presents India.Arie

"I'm the culture editor for the Weekend Wall Street Journal," Christopher J. Farley explains to Journal-isms. "I edit stories on arts and entertainment (features and news stories, not the reviews). We do taped concerts with various music stars every few weeks. We call it the WSJ Cafe. I'm the host. It's a way to let readers see and hear the music and not just read about it. We'll be doing more in the future. In terms of performers of color, so far we've had India.Arie and Tom Morello, the guitarist for the bestselling rock band Rage Against the Machine."

Short Takes

  • "An Illinois college newspaper editor and his paper's former adviser have filed suit against members of the college administration in Illinois district court, demanding the adviser's reinstatement and an end to threats of censorship and budget cuts," the Student Press Law Center reported on Wednesday. "George Providence II, Chicago State University sophomore and editor of the Tempo, and former adviser Gerian Steven Moore allege that since the paper's reestablishment in March 2008, university officials have pressured Moore to censor Tempo's content and have chastised Providence for publishing pieces critical of CSU. Tensions came to a head last fall following a controversial Tempo story regarding potential misuse of university funds."
  • "An increasing number of people, including two of my journalism colleagues ‚Äî Rochelle Riley and Cynthia Tucker ‚Äî are proposing that we stop celebrating Black History Month," George E. Curry wrote Tuesday in his column for the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service. "I understand the point Rochelle Riley and Cynthia Tucker were trying to make: Our history books should be inclusive and tell the history of all Americans, including Blacks. But the books aren't inclusive and simply pretending they are does not contribute to our education nor justify ending Black History Month."
  • Karla Garrett HarshawKarla Garrett Harshaw, vice president of Community Development for Cox Ohio Newspapers and a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "will spend the rest of 2009 helping to raise awareness and funds for Wilberforce University" as an executive-on-loan, the Dayton Daily News reported on Wednesday. "I asked if I could do this, growing out of my involvement with the (Wilberforce) board," Harshaw said in the story. Wilberforce, with 850 students, is the nation's first private historically black college.
  • "The Freedom Forum is now accepting applications for this summer's American Indian Journalism Institute, an intense, two-week, all-expense paid, hup-two-three-four, comes-with-everything-but-the-drill-sergeant journalism boot camp," Annie Greenberg reported Tuesday for Reznet. "The AIJI is held annually at the University of South Dakota, and participants who successfully complete the program are eligible to earn three hours of college credit and possibly secure a 6-week internship once the program has ended. Application Deadline is March 1."
  • Janita Poe, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Tribune and St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, has started a community blog, "RaceThink: A Candid Blog on Race and Color." "The purpose of this blog is simple: To provide a platform for an ongoing dialogue about race and color ‚Äî in America and around the world," it says. "The approach is simple, too: We post new topics once a week and then share our thoughts on them." Topics include "President Obama and The One-Drop Rule"; "Blacks and Gays: Why the Divide?"; "Baby Mamas, Baby Daddies, What to Do?" and "Michelle Obama's Brown Skin."
  • Writing about Sierra Leone, Reporters Without Borders said on Tuesday it was "shocked and appalled by the abduction and intimidation of four women journalists in the eastern city of Kenema on 6 February by members of a women's secret society that practices female genital mutilation (FGM). One of the journalists was forced to walk naked through the city's streets. The journalists had been conducting a series of interviews jointly with the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices in order to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, which was celebrated on 6 February for the 5th year running." Members of Bondo, a secret society that practices female genital mutilation, regarded their questions and comments as a sign of disrespect for their traditions, the press-freedom group said.
  • Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, held captive for nearly six months in Somalia, will likely not be released by their kidnappers unless a ransom is paid, according to Leonard Vincent, Africa desk chief of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported on Monday.
  • The International Federation of Journalists last week warned that a call by the United Nations Special Envoy in Somalia, Ahmed Ould Abdallh, to suspend news reporting from Somalia was an "ill-thought out and counter-productive" response to the media crisis in the country. "According to media reports, Mr. Abdallh said a 'one month truce' is needed in reporting on Somalia so that foreign news networks can ensure they check the accuracy of information coming out of Somalia. He fears that because there are few foreign journalists inside the country leading news organisations may become victims of media manipulation by political forces inside the country ‚Äî even on a scale that could compare with the tragic events of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda," the group said.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

Send tips, comments and concerns to Richard Prince.

To be notified of new columns, contact and tell us who you are.

About Richard Prince

View previous columns.



I found your blog from

I found your blog from another website's link and just added it to my reader. As for Mr. Burton--I have to question whether or not he is culturally black and if he understands the importance of having a culturally black person in the White House press shop. Since I have noticed his name quoted numerous times in press releases I think it is safe to assume that he has some part in shaping the projected agenda and his apparent lack of cultural awareness is shown when he responded to Journal-isms by stating that "I am biracial, that's right." Him posing the question of why you asked if he considers himself black was revealing and shows to people like me who are concerned with diversity in the Obama press shop that they have a long way to go.

Bill Burton's ethnicity

Not surprised that Bill Burton is bi-racial.  In fact I just saw him on CNN and there was something about his cheek bones which made me think that he could have some black ancestry.  That is why I googled his ethnicity and came upon this site.

Bill burton

It is very easy to see the racial features of Bill Burton's nose, mouth and hair that he has Black ancestry. It is the skeletal structure of his face that determines his background.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.