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Jul. 2 2009 - 10:34 am | 49 views | 3 recommendations | 11 comments

Black women reporters cover Michelle Obama. So?

Michelle Obama at the Interior Department (White House)

Michelle Obama at the Interior Department (White House)

When a black woman reporter covers a black woman First Lady, is her coverage biased? That’s the question the media reporter Howard Kurtz asks in the Washington Post today. After listing the African American women reporters who cover Michelle Obama for outlets including the New York Times, Newseek and his own, he writes:

Perhaps this gives them a richer cultural understanding of Obama as a trailblazer. Indeed, most write with enthusiasm, in some cases even admiration, about the first lady as a long-awaited role model for black women.

Then he adds,

Whether racial and gender identification produces a gauzier, more favorable portrayal of Obama is perhaps too early to judge. After all, no one raises questions when an Irish American male reporter covers a pol named Murphy.

It’s fair for a media observer like Kurtz to point out the sudden presence of female faces of color among the press in the White House (although let’s be clear: these women cover Michelle and not his other half). What I don’t think is fair is the implication, careful and nuanced as it is, that their work ought to be specially inspected for bias. After quoting from the largely positive pieces written by four of the women, he asks,

…are the beat reporters inadvertently invested in her success?

Kurtz surely knows the minefield upon which he ventures. He steps delicately, interviewing his colleague Robin Givhan and others. He makes sure to list their qualifications (Ivy degrees, Pulitzers). He quotes their firm denials of any inclination toward lenience in their coverage, as well as their bosses’ wholehearted support.

Nevertheless, I fear Kurtz’s piece will stoke the suspicions of people already wary of the press and its supposed collusion with this Administration. What I fear even more is that these reporters’ work will be doubted because of their race and gender — doubts I bet each of them, with their long resumés, feel they ought to have overcome by now.

Make no mistake: these women are on the M.O. beat for a reason. But it might not be what you think. Media organizations are very, very keen to appear diverse. Their bosses assigned them the beat not necessarily or just to gain access — but also to put on display their media org’s own diversity, for the White House and the world to see.

Kurtz points to a few major stories written by white reporters to prove the White House, for its part, doesn’t buy into any bias by favoring black female reporters. He singles out TIME’s cover, “What Michelle Means,” by two senior — and white — writers. What he doesn’t explain is that TIME doesn’t have any black females among its senior staff. When I quit in December, I did so alongside the only two black female reporters on staff. Come to think of it, when they left, there were no black people left in edit. I bet you my last buyout check (which comes this week, thank you very much) that if TIME employed a top black woman writer, she’d have had at least a joint byline on that assignment.

These black female reporters covering Michelle Obama are doing their jobs. Yes, I believe they feel pride that their subject is also a black female; women of color have struggled too long not to rejoice in another’s achievement. But don’t tarnish their professionalism by prematurely alleging bias.


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  1. collapse expand

    In think a similar transformation took place in sports when Tiger Woods emerged as the most important golfer in the game. I doubt there were many African-American sportswriters covering golf before Woods, but some were hired after he rose to the top.

    I don’t think it had anything to do with appearances. I saw it as a tactical move. If Woods might have been more comfortable talking to an African-American reporter, then it made sense to have an African-American covering golf in the hope that he or she would develop a closer working relationship that could lead to more access and inside information.

  2. collapse expand

    Viv, I think your examples might have worked if there were no black sportswriters covering golf before Tiger Woods, and if there was some post-Tiger flood of black faces. Neither is the case.

    Also, it’s highly unlikely that Woods feels more comfortable talking with an African-American writer because he doesn’t identify himself that way. Like most people of mixed ancestries, he knows he’s more than a label. Here’s a quote from an interview he gave to Charles Barkley:
    ““I was raised in two different cultures,” he said one Sunday afternoon, sitting with me and Wilbon in Arizona. “I have my father, who is African American, and my mom, who is Asian, specifically Thai. I had to understand and appreciate more than just one way of looking at things because my dad’s view a lot of times was the polar opposite of my mom’s view because they were raised under two totally different cultural heritages. I was probably raised more in the Asian tradition because my father was working and my mom, who was at home more, was the disciplinarian…

    “Being black is just looked at differently. And in this country I’m looked at as being black. When I go to Thailand, I’m considered Thai. It’s very interesting. And when I go to Japan, I’m considered Asian. I don’t know why it is, but it just is…”

    But back to Howard Kurtz, and his patently ridiculous piece. I’d have more respect for Kurtz if he cut the article after the seventh graf, but he continued undermining his own argument throughout.

  3. collapse expand

    Mike, you are probably right. But are we not giving too much importance to the first lady as a black woman? I mean whether she is black white or Hispanic she is the first lady.

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    Lisa,

    I thought it was an odd choice for a story, to be sure. But I also thought some of the comments from the profiled reporters were equally strange. Or maybe naive? Sharing a “girlfriend” moment with the first lady? Is it possible that’s just part of Michelle Obama’s gift? I think most of the world seems to think they’ve got a connection with her. Who knows.

    Anyhow…it was one of those stories that left me saying…huh? Once I got through the graph about nobody having special access, and none of the coverage seeming questionable…was there a there there?

    In the course of my career, I’ve often been sent, as a woman, to interview a woman. Not that unusual actually. And it can make sense.

  5. collapse expand

    Anytime anyone says something like “I see no bias here but…” you can bet that their intention is to plant seeds of suspicion. For “white” people to suddenly become so sensitive to anyone else getting a shot, when it’s always been white people who owned all the guns, is suspicious in itself. It’s difficult and confusing for European Americans to realize the mantle of the all powerful and privileged has been trashed — and it shows. Geesh. Remember when it was “in” to show one’s sensitivity to racial discrimination on one’s sleeve? Not now that actual equality is looming on the horizon …

  6. collapse expand

    “Make no mistake: these women are on the M.O. beat for a reason…Media organizations are very, very keen to appear diverse. Their bosses assigned them …. to put on display their media org’s own diversity, for the White House and the world to see.”
    and…..
    “Kurtz …points to a few major stories written by singles out TIME’s cover, “What Michelle Means,” by two senior — and white — writers. What he doesn’t explain is that TIME doesn’t have any black females among its senior staff. … Come to think of it, when they left, there were no black people left in edit.

    Lisa, thanks so much for pointing this out. To me, the Obama presidency looks like the 2009 version of the ’60s riots – when the MSM send Negro employees (copy aides, cub reporters, even janitors) to cover the chaos. An entire generation of African Americans moved into journalism.
    According to Unity Journalists of color, the present situation is going to become more dire. Check out this observation from their website:

    “Blacks and Asians are losing jobs in America’s newsrooms at a faster rate than whites and other minorities, setting back progress made in decades of diversity initiatives.” (read more at http://www.unityjournalists.org/)

  7. collapse expand

    Interesting article, but I’m stumped on this line – what does it mean? Am I missing something here?

    “although let’s be clear: these women cover Michelle and not his other half).”

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    Read Wasabi Mama for your daily dose of sinus-clearing rant on parenting, work, media and entertainment. If you like a fresh nasal passage, please click below my photo to "follow me." For more on me, please visit www.lisacullen.com.

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