Why are so many big-shot TV political reporters spending so much time these days apologizing?
The latest mea culpa came last week, when MSNBC's Chris Matthews apologized for the channel's flashing a picture of Osama bin Laden while the anchor was reading a story about Barack Hussein Obama.
The brief mistake, corrected in a later rebroadcast of Matthews' show Hardball, had the unfortunate luck of echoing a myth about Obama: that the man — whose name is similar to both bin Laden and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — has some tie to Islamic extremism.
Time magazine senior political analyst Mark Halperin joined this small yet growing club earlier this month, when he apologized for saying former presidential candidate John Edwards considered Democratic front-runner Obama "kind of a p---y" on a satellite radio talk show.
Halperin's admission raised journalism questions: If he heard Edwards call Obama the
p-word, shouldn't he have reported it in Time? If Edwards said the word off the record, why did Halperin recount the exchange in public?
And if Edwards didn't use the phrase, 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 sort of covering?
But there is more to this mess than questionable journalism. Thanks to the increased diversity of this year's presidential candidates, the rules have changed for those who are reporting on this election.
And some TV reporters, especially those with high profiles, haven't realized it yet.
Already, Matthews and fellow MSNBC anchor David Shuster have had to apologize publicly for using language on their shows that was particularly insulting to women.
Matthews basically said Clinton's political career 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 super delegates.
The missing issue
Often, these reporters seem to suffer from self-inflicted foot-in-mouth disease. They've forgotten that they aren't bellied up to the bar with their fellow reporters after a deadline, but speaking to national audiences on professional broadcasts.
The presence of a biracial man and a woman as important presidential candidates is forcing these guys to rethink how they talk about politics. And some of them are failing miserably.
Another sign of this failure: How many media outlets talk about race — or don't. Beyond predictions and observations about how black and white people are voting, I haven't seen much talk about race in the TV coverage — which is surprising for a contest that could produce America's first biracial president.
Instead, the media and political insiders seem to be playing a game of hot potato — each side waiting for the other to talk about race issues in a way which gives them license to speak, too. One 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.
A sample: "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," Rendell was quoted as saying. "I believe, looking at the returns in my election, that had Lynn Swann (Rendell's Republican opponent in 2006) been the identical candidate that he was — well-spoken . . . 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 Rendell was comparing the candidacy of a black Republican ex-football star who had never held public office to a sitting Democratic senator who has already won a number of tough primary battles.
The governor's old school assumptions about Obama feel positively musty given the candidate's recent successes.
Think he can't get white votes? Then he'll win primaries in Idaho, North Dakota, Connecticut and Wisconsin. 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 waited to see whether he had a serious chance. Once he won Iowa, they were ready to risk disappointment).
A complex question
But 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?
The mostly white press corps, it seems, can't figure out how to ask the question without taking flak, so there's not a lot of discussion going on.
I have already written about the lack of diversity among some covering the election, taking particular flak from MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann, who felt I was unfairly overlooking all the female and black correspondents and guest pundits they use.
Fair enough. But anchors are the focus of political coverage, especially on cable. They direct the conversation, they highlight subjects or ignore them, ultimately serving 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 echoes MSNBC's general lineup, in which nearly every show hosted by a name anchor is a white male.
On CNN, the evening lineup is Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs, Larry King and Anderson Cooper, though NBC expatriate Campbell Brown has a new show coming. 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.
But if America eventually elects a President Obama or Clinton, all these folks will have to learn a new way of talking about a great many things.
The candidates aren't the only ones facing serious tests this election season.
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.