Friday, October 9, 2009

Up From Slavery, Indeed

POTUS' and FLOTUS' Most Excellent Week Ever

I set out early this morning to post the top three reasons why the Oct. 8 front-page New York Times story on Michelle Obama's slave ancestors is a signal achievement in American journalism.

I get to it, below. First, a word about President Obama's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize:

Don't waste your brain power on the Inside-the-Beltway chatter that will ensue.

Here in Washington, D.C., the President's receiving a Nobel will be cast in the usual horse-race framework, i.e., the Peace Prize represents a redeeming "win" for the President, after his "humiliating loss" of the Chicago 2016 Olympics bid. The Republicans and their increasingly-unhinged constituents will ignore it, or attempt to use this honor in some twisted way to de-legitimize the President, and their enablers in cable talk-land will give them oxygen to feed that incendiary narrative.

But that story-line is not merely false, lazy, and destructive, it is also petty and mean-spirited.

President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize, according to the release from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, for his extraordinary efforts to make the world a safer, more equitable place for all.

As the Committee put it:

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.

To which we all should say, Amen. Don't give the anti-Obama lunatics any light. Don't fall into the game of "win" or "lose." Don't sleep on the historic significance of the President's Nobel Peace Prize: It means, among other important things, that the American Renaissance is nigh.


Speaking of historic significance, here are the top three reasons why yesterday's front page New York Times story on First Lady Michelle Obama's family history is a watershed in American journalism:

1) It demonstrates in clear, unadorned language and images how present the “peculiar institution”—slavery – remains within our body politic.

2) It belies the widespread if unspoken belief among top news editors and publishers (and the awards and fellowship committees that laud them) that white journalists are better equipped than black journos to deliver “serious” reports about race, and the history of racism in America. No, I am not hating on the authors of "The Race Beat," which received a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, or on Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, who recently received a MacArthur "genius" grant for his reporting on Civil Rights era racial crimes. I simply point out that black journalists at legacy media organizations rarely enjoy the same latitude -- and frankly the trust -- of white editors and publishers that would allow them to focus on such coverage.

3) It throws a big bucket of water over the prevailing, shockingly dumb idea that inexperienced, under-paid bloggers and “citizen journalists” can match well-paid, experienced, ethical journalists at producing accurate, well- written, exquisitely contextualized work that resonates beyond the 24 hour news cycle.

In my next post, I will unpack each of these. For now, big, big props to the Washington, D.C. Bureau of the Times: Yesterday's edition featured a trio of high-performing (if little known) Times reporters who happen to be African-American -- Rachel L.Swarns, co-author of the FLOTUS's slave ancestors story, and Ron Nixon and Ginger Thompson, who teamed up on a stunning (if somewhat less sexy) Page One story about the influence of lobbyists in the unfolding drama of the ousted Honduran president.

If you haven't heard of these three Timespeople before now, it may be because they tend to avoid the crap-tastic circus of political talk shows that insanely has come to define the worth of journalists in Washington, D.C. Yes, in the past 24 hours, Swarns has made select television appearances to talk about the First Lady's Roots story, including a hilarious turn on MSNBC's "Hardball, with Chris Matthews" last night. (I don't recall ever seeing Matthews so well-behaved: it was as if Swarns' understated, dignified style had miraculously dampened his mania for the duration of their talk.)

Still, habits die hard in these parts. And I suspect that bookers at these cable programs will get a rude awakening if they now think they can count on Swarns to be the go-to "black NYTimes DC Reporter Who Will Talk About Race." Ladies and gentlemen of the Inside-the-Beltway glitz-media classes, it is time to re-think more than just your Rolodexes.

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