Black women reporters cover Michelle Obama. So?
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.