Obama's smooth call

Compton's race question masked the fact that Obama called on an Ebony reporter.

Published March 25, 2009 8:04PM (EDT)

Afterwards, plenty of attention was paid by analysts and pundits to the question about race posed by Ann Compton last night during Barack Obama's second formal press conference -- including our own Mike Madden in his superb recap of the event, and Alex's general reactions to the presser, below. That attention seems to have masked a more interesting racial twist: One of the handful of people Obama called upon was Ebony magazine reporter Kevin Chapell.

Not surprisingly, some big-paper reporters noticed that big-paper reporters got passed over in favor of those from outlets rarely called upon. Here's the Times' Jeff Zeleny live-blogging near the end (8:57 p.m. mark) of the Obama presser last night:

The president was calling on reporters from a list that was hidden from camera view on his podium. He did not select a correspondent from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, but rather sought to mix it up a bit, including calling on a reporter from Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper.

Maybe Zeleny didn't identify Chapell because he didn't know which outlet Chapell represents. He can be forgiven, for sure, since the president didn't mention Chapell's affiliation. I had to look it up after getting the White House transcript and googling Chapell's name. (Note that his surname is spelled differently from comedian Dave Chapelle's. Wouldn't it be fun if he were credentialed to attend a presser and be permitted to ask a question?)

Like Obama's calling on Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein at the first presser, the decision by either President Obama and/or his media team to call on a reporter from a black media outlet (as opposed to calling on black reporters from regular outlets) was a smooth move to signal in a very clear, yet casual way that media relations are changing in the new White House. As for Chapell's question, it was a bit of a softball, but at least it was on a subject that rarely gets asked about in prime-time pressers: poverty.

When I mentioned this development to my department colleague and co-author Tyson King-Meadows, his immediate reaction -- having just taught a Winter course on politics and comedy -- was to mention a 1977 bit that Richard Pryor did as part of his ephemeral television comedy series. Apparently, the skit was among those that raised eyebrows about the new show's content and, possibly and in part, led to its cancellation by NBC after just four episodes.

The skit, which the New Yorker's Rick Hertzberg recently linked to at his blog, is classic Pryor. Things are going well until President Pryor calls on . . . wait for it . . . a reporter from Ebony! From there, the whole presser devolves into hysterical chaos, but I won't spoil it for those who have never seen it.

And isn't it just like Pryor to be ahead of his time, even if only in satire? May he rest in peace.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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