Why Are So Many Big Time Political Reporters Apologizing?
Time magazine senior political analyst Mark Halperin joined a small, yet growing club this week, when he issued an apology for saying John Edwards considered Barack Obama "kind of a pussy" on a satellite radio talk show.
Part of Halperin's words are here: "In a live radio interview this week, I used a word I shouldn’t have. The fact that I was conveying other people’s words is no excuse for my lapse in judgment."
When I first heard about this exchange yesterday, I wondered about the journalism end of it. If Halperin heard Edwards call Obama the p-word, shouldn't he have reported it in Time? If Edwards said the word to him off the record, why did Halperin recount the exchange in public?
And if Edwards didn't use the p-word, why did Halperin tell the story to make it look as if he had -- putting the worst sort of profanity in the mouth of a guy he presumably is still covering?
But it struck me this morning, after reading the apology, that there is more going on here. The rules have changed a bit for political reporters, especially those with high profiles, and some players haven't realized it yet.
Already, MSNBC anchors Chris Matthews and David Shuster have had to apologize publicly for using language that was particularly insulting to women on their shows. Matthews basically said Clinton's career as an elected official came courtesy of sympathy generated by her husband's philandering and Shuster wondered if daughter Chelsea was being "pimped out" by her parents in making calls to celebrities and superdelegates.
In all three instances, you have people making boneheaded statements using inappropriate language. On one level, all these guys seemed to forget that they weren't bellied up to the bar with their fellow reporters after a deadline, but speaking to national audiences on professional broadcasts.
But beyond that, the presence of a black man and woman as important presidential candidates is forcing these guys to rethink how they talk about politics. And some of them are failing miserably.
Another big sign: How most media outlets talk about race. Beyond making predictions and observations about how black and white people are voting, I haven't seen much talk about race -- which is surprising for a contest which could produce America's first black president.
Instead, the media and political insiders seem to be playing a game of hot potato -- each side is waiting for the other to talk about race issues in a way which gives them license to speak, too. The most recent example of this odd dynamic was Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's comments to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial board talking down the possibility of the state's voters supporting Obama.
My pal and PG edit board member Tony Norman quotes Rendell saying: "You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate," he said bluntly. Our eyes only met briefly, perhaps because the governor wanted to spare the only black guy in the room from feeling self-conscious for backing an obvious loser. "I believe, looking at the returns in my election, that had Lynn Swann [2006 Republican gubernatorial candidate] been the identical candidate that he was --well-spoken [note: Mr. Rendell did not call the brother "articulate"], charismatic, good-looking -- but white instead of black, instead of winning by 22 points, I would have won by 17 or so."
Leave aside that he's comparing the candidacy of a black Republican football star who had never held public office to a sitting Democratic Senator who has already won a number of tough primary battles. Rendell later complained on Matthews' show Hardball that it was the media which was obsessed with race and that nothing he said would have helped Clinton, anyway.
Riiight. So far, Obama has avoided race talk by confounding assumptions. Think he can't get white votes? Then he'll win primaries in Idaho, North Dakota and Connecticut. Think he's not black enough? Then he'll win 80 percent of the black vote in South Carolina (frankly, I think a lot of black people just wanted to see whether he had a serious chance. Once he won Iowa, they were ready to line up).
But I do think that one question I asked in a story last year has barely been addressed -- How will black people feel if Obama doesn't champion black issues in ways they expect? And that's partially because the mostly-white press corps covering the campaigns can't figure out how to ask the question without getting criticized.
I took some criticism of my own after writing a blog post about the lack of diversity among those covering the election. Because I cited MSNBC, I heard from folks at NBC News including Keith Olbermann, who felt I was being unfair by not noting all the female and black correspondents and guest pundits they had on air.
Fair enough. But the anchors are the focus of most political coverage, especially on cable TV. They direct the conversation, they highlight subjects or ignore them, they choose the guests and set context and they ultimately serve as the voice of the channel.
On MSNBC, that list of election night anchors includes Olbermann, Matthews, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Joe Scarborough and Tim Russert. That seems to echo MSNBC's general lineup, in which every show hosted by a name anchor is a white male: Tucker Carlson, Dan Abrams, Matthews, Olbermann and Scarborough.
On CNN, the evening lineup is Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs, Larry King and Anderson Cooper, though NBC expatriot Campbell Brown has an 8 p.m. show coming at some point. On Fox the afternoon and evening anchor crew is Shepard Smith, Neil Cavuto, John Gibson, Brit Hume, Hannity and Colmes and Bill O'Reilly, with Greta Van Susteren adding a little gender diversity at least.
But if we do wind up welcoming a President Obama or Clinton, all these folks will have to learn a new way of talking about a great many things. I'm starting to think that the candidates aren't the only people facing some serious tests this election season.