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Day Three in NYC: Denis Leary and the Psychology of Race in Election Coverage

Denisleary2 Only in New York can you go from an academic discussion of race, media and the presidential election to kickin' it with Rescue Me's Tommy Gavin.

But that's the fun I'm going to be having today, as I cap my time in Gotham by visiting Denis Leary on the set of FX's deliciously profane firefighter drama Rescue Me to talk with about that show and HBO's ambitious take on the Florida-based fight over the 2000 presidential election, Recount.

Last night, I sat on a panel at Columbia University discussing the state of the media's work covering race and the election -- we had lots of criticisms, surprise! -- moderated by Ray Suarez of PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and featuring folks from the Poynter Institute, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (I KNOW, what was I doing there?)

I was particularly intrigued by the work of the Post's Shankar Vedantam, an academic-friendly reporter who has assembled a number of stories crunching behavioral studies to explain some of the dynamics in the current election.

Obamawright One reason why he thinks reaction to the Jeremiah Wright scandal varies so starkly between black people and white people is because minorities seems to measure racial progress by comparing current conditions to an ideal future, while white people measure racial progress by comparing the present to our racial past. So when Jeremiah Wright delivers fiery sermons about institutional racism, black people immediately think of how far we have to go while white people get offended, thinking of how far we have come.

He also cited another study in which white people were presented with a scenario -- you're about to be born and you are scheduled to be born white. If your color were somehow switched to black, how much money would you want in compensation? At first, respondents said about $5,000, greatly underestimating the challenges of being black in America. Once they are told the true cost -- that black people are 447 percent more likely to be imprisoned, 521 percent more likely to be murdered and start life generally with five times less the wealth of the average white person -- they usually demand more money.

And regarding gender, he cited a study in which the same description of an executive was handed to two groups of people -- tough but fair, rewards creativity, etc. -- but the only difference is one group gets a description on a CEO named James and the other group gets a description of a CEO named Andrea. You got it - when questioned, the subjects overwhelmingly named Andrea as less likable and James Obama20clinton20croppedas the boss they would prefer to work for, even though there was no difference in the descriptions except for the names.

His work suggests there are split-second, unconscious reactions to race and gender issues that are affecting how we react to these candidates. Exposing and discussing those tendencies -- and what they mean for real-life candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- is some of the most interesting work around on the campaign trail.

Wonder how Denis is going to react to some of this? 

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:46pm]


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