From May 5, 2008: The bread and butter of news reporting

On the John

The bread and butter of news reporting

Originally completed May 5, 2008

Is this really that big a deal?
Is this really that big a deal?

This whole Jeremiah Wright mess brings to mind my grandmother’s penchant for bread-and-butter. For those unfamiliar with this custom, it comes about when two people are separated by an obstacle on the street, like a tree or a light post, while walking hand-in-hand. After walking on opposite sides of the object, both parties say “bread and butter” in order to avoid the bad luck set about by their brief separation, which, Nana claimed, would result in a fight. Of course the joke was on us, because the fight always stemmed from Nana’s insistence that we say bread and butter. Her concern for the “bad luck” was the only thing that gave it power.

Which brings us back to Rev. Wright.

As I see it, news stories fall into three categories. Category One: stories that directly affect our world in a significant, tangible way. Category Two: stories that we find interesting, entertaining, or intriguing. And Category Three: stories that naturally fall into Category Two, but are presented as Category One. This happens all the time, the most recent example being this one with Rev. Wright.

A story about the personal viewpoints of one man has become a story about Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. This happens very simply: the news says that Rev. Wright’s opinions and comments will hurt Senator Obama’s bid to become President. But if the press did not spend so much time talking about these opinions and comments…

Say bread and butter! Say it!

What upsets me is that Wright’s comments are hardly even close to being this situation’s most interesting angle. The general response to Wright has been a query: “Why would he do this to Obama?” Listen to the reverend speak for even five minutes and it is immediately obvious that he is an intelligent man. Certainly he knows the effect his words will have. At its worst, he is purposefully attempting to sabotage Obama. At its best, he knows the effect and does not care.

But let’s flip that question: why would the press continue reporting this story in this front-page, top-of-the-hour, every-columnist-gets-to-take-his-shot manner? Their worst-case scenario is the same as Wright’s: sabotage. More likely though, they are lazy, disguising a surface story as something deeper, riding the wave of the most obvious angle because it sells, because it makes their jobs easy, because many of their consumers are just as lazy as they. Now that is a Category One story: the press and the people they serve are such intellectual sloths that they would allow a side-bar to derail a presidential campaign.

Another potential Category One angle is the race factor. As we all know, if you run for President, they will find something to use against you. In Reverend Wright, that ‘something’ arrived gift-wrapped. The attacks on Wright and Obama then are not necessarily acts of direct racism in which hate-mongers are stoking a story simply because of color. But they are evidence of existing racism, because this kind of story could not be used against McCain or Hilary Clinton with the same success. Voters who would use Wright against Obama do so because…why? Because Wright’s views will influence Obama while in office? And this is a problem because…uh…because we’ve kept fanaticism out of the White House for 219 years and counting, and let’s not start now?

You see what I’m getting at. This isn’t about the possibility that Barack Obama is attached to a fanatic. It is about the possibility that Barack Obama is attached to a black fanatic who is “anti-America.” If that weren’t the case, then John Hagee would be a constant front-page story. Admittedly, there is more focus on the Hagee-McCain relationship now as a counter-argument to the heat that Obama has taken, but the coverage is still nowhere near Wright-levels.

After 55 elections, America finally has its first truly competitive black presidential candidate. No matter when it happened, that is a benchmark that cannot be overlooked. And yet that candidate is still vulnerable to racial knockdowns. That is a Category One story. That is something that affects my world in a significant, tangible way.

Jeremiah Wright? Small potatoes. Just another in a long line of attention-grabbers, a man who sold out the years of good works from his life and his church for the opportunity to exploit a temporaily larger pulpit. Assuming the worst, he is an “anti-American” conspiracy theorist out to purposefully sabotage a Presidential bid for reasons unknown. But these days, who isn’t?

Copyright 2008, jm silverstein


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