Is race really catnip to the media?

President Obama says the media overplays the racism of the right. He's right to say that, and I'm right to disagree

Published September 22, 2009 10:22AM (EDT)

President Obama said all the right things when asked during the Sunday news-show Obamarama about the role of race in the organized and sometimes hysterical opposition to his policies. “The media loves to have a conversation about race,” Obama told NBC's David Gregory. "This is catnip to the media because it is a running thread in American history that’s very powerful. And it invokes some very strong emotions.” When asked on ABC whether he was frustrated that some supporters are pushing the race issue, Obama answered: "Look, I think that race is such a volatile issue in this society, always has been, that it becomes hard for people to separate out race being a sort of part of the backdrop of American society, versus race being a predominant factor in any given debate ... The overwhelming part of the American population, I think, is right now following this debate and they are trying to figure out, is this gonna help me. Is healthcare going to make me better off?"

Hours after Obama's remarks Salon posted a great piece by Darren Hutchinson: "What to talk about instead of talking about race," which argued, correctly, that "the media would rather debate whether right-wing Obama critics are racist than rebut their lies about his policies."

Now, I've written extensively about the role of race in extreme right-wing hysteria over Obama, and I think it's significant, and worth talking about. So who's right in this debate? I'd say all three of us.

Obama is certainly right to stay above the racial fray and focus on both valid and spurious opposition to his policies. He is our first African-American president at least partly because he found creative ways to duck or defuse issues of race and racism, and made white voters comfortable that he was not going to rely on guilt or racial grievance to get elected. He needs to continue that approach; it's working, despite the shrieking of the fringe.

Hutchinson is devastatingly right about the media's preference for bright shiny controversies, over the dull slog of explaining policy differences. Thus we have cable shows, even ones I love, featuring in-depth segments and debates over whether Obama faces racism, rather than over, say, whether the public option will bring down healthcare costs – and how opponents of the public option think they can do so without it.

I think the answer is covering both sets of issues, as we do at Salon. In just a few weeks, I learned a lot from Alex Koppelman's interview with public option evangelist Jacob Hacker, Mike Madden's profile of lonely Max Baucus, everything Robert Reich has written, and of course Hutchinson's piece on Monday. And yes, I've written a lot about the role of race in the attacks on Obama.

Certainly Hutchinson made a strong case for why Rep. Joe Wilson's purported racism matters less than his lies about government healthcare:

I am not even intrigued by Joe "You Lie" Wilson's racial mind-set. His prior work for Strom Thurmond and his reaction to the "unseemly" possibility that Thurmond had a "black" daughter indicate that Wilson is not the most advanced mind on issues of race and sex. But focusing on this obvious fact detracts from the content of Wilson's own "lies."

Wilson, for example, has rallied his conservative constituents against the inclusion of a public plan option in healthcare reform. Wilson makes typical Republican arguments regarding this issue, claiming that a public plan would interfere with doctor and patient relationships and reduce the level and quality of care. Wilson, however, has spoken quite fondly of TRICARE -- the government-run health system for military personnel, veterans and their families. Wilson and his children and their families are all on TRICARE. Wilson has said that TRICARE delivers "world class" medical care. Wilson has also noted that TRICARE receives high marks from participants.

TRICARE also establishes treatment options (just like private insurance) that define the contours of a doctor-patient relationship for patients who lack private insurance or the ability to self-pay. Wilson's contradictory positions on this subject are far more important than whether he hates Obama because he is black.

I'd say they're both important, but only one can be proven empirically, and that's Wilson's lying about government healthcare. So Hutchinson is right to focus on that.

I still believe, however, that we have to call out racism when we see it, and that the media's recent interest in the topic is a good thing, overall, not merely an example of its weakness for sensationalism. If race is now "catnip" for the media, I'd argue that's an improvement over the days when it was a hugely uncomfortable issue for pundits and reporters, routinely handled badly when handled at all.

To see debates on CNN or MSNBC about whether and how race plays a role in the way Obama's opponents demonize and dehumanize him – to see media understand that racial stereotyping and marginalization can occur even without the use of racial slurs or outright discrimination -- is a big step forward. Also: To have white pundits and politicians willing to decry racism, while black scholars and politicians downplay it, seems like racial progress in itself. It's a two-steps-forward, one-step-back march to social justice. I'd say this debate is part of getting there. 

By Joan Walsh

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