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Mar. 10 2010 - 5:58 pm | 1,320 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Rather ‘Racism’ Incident Reveals Perils of Bad Media Criticism

An introduction is an unnecessary luxury in these times of austerity.

The other day, Dan Rather commented on our current president’s apparent failure to sell his health care plan with the following piece of folksy something-or-other:

… listen, he’s a nice person, he’s very articulate, this was going to be used against him but he couldn’t sell watermelons if it, you gave him the state troopers to flag down the traffic.

The reader may recall that our current president is black, or at least partly so, and that American blacks have long been alleged to have some unusual affinity for watermelons. If the reader is privy only to those two things to the exclusion of any other pertinent factor, the reader may very well conclude that Rather was engaging in some sort of racist slur against the president. Again, this requires that the reader only be privy to those two things to the exclusion of any other pertinent factor – something best accomplished by willful ignorance, and most likely pursued in order to score a political point.

Take the prominent conservative blogger Jammie Wearing Fool, for instance, who first wrote about the incident on Monday and in doing so made the following pseudo-observation:

Then again, Dan Rather doesn’t really have a job any more and the Democrats always look the other way when it comes to alleged racist comments of one of their own.

Setting aside the fact that Rather does indeed have a job (albeit one of such considerably lesser prominence than his old CBS post that I had to check into that just now), the idea that Democrats “always look the other way” regarding the alleged racist conduct of their fellows is nonsense, and obviously so to anyone who remembers the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, during which a great number of Democrats turned against Bill Clinton himself after the fellow made several comments deemed racist or racial or race-oriented or some such thing. This is not to say that there is not a great deal of disingenuous, both conscious and unconscious, to be found among Democrats (see the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, for instance). But the idea that members of that better-by-default institution are somehow more prone to dismiss the racism of their allies than are Republicans is, at the very least, not in evidence.

Set all that aside (or don’t; I’ve already written it anyway). Today, Jammie Wearing Fool follows up on the controversy on the occasion of Rather’s Huffington Post-based apology/clarification/self-defense/thingamajig, during which Rather makes the following case:

But anyone who knows me personally or knows my professional career would know that race was not on my mind. Reporting on the injustices of race was part of the reason I became a reporter. I grew up in segregated Texas on the same side of the tracks as the African American community. At the time, enlightened people called them Negros. Many people called them much worse. When I covered the Civil Rights movement, I saw sheer hatred in ways that still haunt and shock me. For doing my small part in reporting on the South in the 1960s, I was called a traitor to my roots and other names not fit for print. I was threatened with death by people who would have welcomed me to their church on Sunday on account of my white skin if they didn’t know what I was there to do. I do not take this issue lightly.

Jammie (whom I hope will allow me the informality) retorts thusly:

Wait a minute. If he grew up in segregated Texas, how is it possible he was on the “same side of the tracks” as the Negros?

Because “segregated” does not mean that no whites and blacks live in the same area of town, ever; rather (oooh pun!), it denotes some level of either legally-mandated or socially-enforced separation between two populations. Jammie has another Colombo moment prepared, though:

And how could he have “reported” on injustices before he became a reporter?

Rather does not write that he reported on such injustice before he became a reporter; this is what he wrote:

Reporting on the injustices of race was part of the reason I became a reporter.

Now, this is a poorly-written sentence and thus Jammie may be forgiven for misunderstanding it, at least initially, but he would have done well to reflect on its ambiguity before deciding that it definitely meant something that could not be true. What Rather is saying is that he wanted to become a reporter in order that he could report on such injustices. It is just as well that he became a reporter and not a straight-up writer, I suppose.

Finally, I shall note that (1) the practice of watermelons being sold on the side of the road is a longtime staple of Texan imagery, something I know as a Texan as well as someone with access to Google, that (2) the exceedingly Texan Rather has a well-known penchant for folksy imagery, that (3) the fellow has never given any indication of being a racist, that (4) this is true despite the fellow having spent some interminable amount of time in front of a television camera, thereby having provided him plenty of opportunity to make some other allegedly revealing remark, and that (5) insomuch as that this particular remark may be considered either benignly folksy in the manner of Rather or racist in a manner not associated with Rather, Occam’s Razor tasks us with assuming that it is the former, not the latter.

The traditional media needs policing, even overturning; it does not need to be given relative credibility by virtue of the failings of certain bloggers.


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    I'm the author of Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny; my second book, Hot, Fat & Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of America’s Chattering Class (Being a Partial Record of the Incompetence of Our Republic's Mainstream Pundits, Most of Whom Deserve to be Exiled or at Least Have Their Cars Vandalized), will be released in 2010. I'm a contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, Skeptic, and The Onion, and my work has appeared in dozens of other publications and outlets. I also serve as director of communications for Enlighten the Vote, a political action committee dedicated to the advancement of the Establishment Clause.

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