Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dean Lemann, Texas Monthly and the Whitening of American Journalism (Part 2)

            How the press handles presidents is a particularly fruitful area of study, a measure of how good a job journalists really do. If reporters can’t hit as big a target as the White House with all the exposure the occupants get, there’s not much hope for how well the press does covering tougher stories like the poor and dispossessed, minorities, science or anything more complicated than a very public personality who everybody wants to talk about.
            Sure—because everybody wants to talk and because of the chaff the White House drops to confuse reporters’ radar—there’s a lot of static in presidential coverage, a lot of noise, white and otherwise. But with the present administration after four years in office and a much-examined background, even coming from “nowhere” as the incumbent did, if we haven’t gotten a pretty good line on Barack Obama yet that’s pretty sad. And it is sad because by most accounts we haven’t.
            In the cases of both George W. Bush and President Obama, reporters have had reasons for treating their subject gently, at least early on. With W the hometown press was particularly obeisant: Texas Monthly editors pulled on the kneepads early and often in order to curry favor explicitly with Bush to help promote the magazine and its staff as experts on all things W. As documented in a penetrating study by University of Texas journalism researcher Susan Sivek benign neglect soon became active support. Bush was in turn in Texas Monthly’s pages explicitly separated from his “wimpy” father and from the Eastern establishment that suckled him—and promoted as presidential material. His property in Crawford was discussed at length in the magazine’s pages and finally dubbed a “ranch” a la LBJ, a necessary prerequisite to going to D.C., having some place to come back to—“the ranch” in a grand sense, even without cattle. W himself was labeled a “native Texan”—which at the Monthly is as good as it gets, especially important in Bush’s case since he was not actually born in the state. But when his poll numbers headed south, Sivek's study found, the magazine suddenly came to the conclusion Bush had “gone Washington,” in other words been corrupted by the hated East Coast establishment, no matter that most of the writers and editors making this judgment were from the East themselves, the magazine revoked Bush’s Texan status and then, indignity of indignities, ran a story—also carried in the New Yorker—that the people of Crawford where W posed cutting brush and riding his dirt bike with Lance Armstrong (which man now regrets that photo opportunity more?) didn’t really like his presence in their community after all. The same Monthly writers and editors who had elevated Bush took him down. Nothing had changed between the Rise and Fall really except, depending on who’s counting, the deaths of a couple of hundred thousand Iraqis and the discrediting of America’s reputation worldwide. The editors or columnists of the New Yorker, New York Times and Washington Post did something similar, supporting Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom until it became Iraqi Fuck-Up.
            On the other hand Barack Obama’s politics and Obama’s personal story or what we know of it are simply popular with a lot of writers—liberals and some conservatives as well. First black president has become an overused phrase but it’s still an amazing story especially for anyone whose middle name is Hussein and who was raising his hand to vote in the Illinois Senate less than a decade ago. How that story has been missed by reporters covering these two men has been the result of opposing errors. With Bush there was plenty of evidence when he was still in the governor’s mansion that liberals were right: the country was about to make a big mistake but it was in no one’s interest to listen to the warning. With Bush even during his time in the White House it seems there was actually less than meets the eye, W was heavy marketing and less substance and what substance there was became toxic, sort of like with Obama now. With Obama the general consensus has been though that there‘s more than meets the eye, these particular waters run very deep—but no one yet knows how deep nor what they contain. Nor may we ever. A particularly influential proponent of this theory is none other than Nicholas Lemann, the exiting dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism who called the president a "cipher" in a recent review of the most recent Obama biography. If President Obama is a cipher, Lemann—former executive editor of Texas Monthly by the way—should know because he’s been a major proponent of the skewing of coverage in this country that has left the stories of most minorities, even the presidential kind, in the hands of people who are not culturally-competent to do the job.
             The question Lemann asks and presumably answers in his piece is: “Why are we no closer to understanding Barack Obama?” There are two valid responses from my side of the table as a black journalist—one being that the wrong people are writing and two being that they are writing the wrong stories. Alternatively you might say that the wrong questions are being asked and the wrong people are asking them. Part and parcel of both approaches is that black people understand Barack Obama just fine—he’s not a mystery to us. The problem is we’re not the ones assigned to write about his administration.
            “Being black serves in part as an effective cover for something else that is as deeply, or perhaps more deeply, part of him,” Dean Lemann writes in his New Republic piece, “a fundamental guardedness and unknowability.” Unknowability, huh? Maybe for white people. The president has lived a life that was meant to be written about and if journalists are screwing that up it’s not because Obama is “unknowable” it’s because white writers still don’t understand African-American culture despite many claims to the contrary, Obama’s story has been co-opted, in short, by those least qualified to cover it. Oh well. It’s been a sort of Texas Monthly redux, like with W, coverage that benefits editors and writers but is far from helpful to the reader, a system that was actually patented at the Monthly back in the day and results in missing the mark a good deal of the time. If there’s any excuse to be made—any consolation to be found—it’s that only blacks, Hispanics and Asians are being misrepresented and the vast majority of them are not President of the United States. No harm, no foul. Obviously we can live with this kind of coverage because we have.
            In Lemann’s recent article in the New Republic he was critiquing David Maraniss’ Barack Obama: the Story, the latest in “the making of the president” series, Obama volume one, although not the franchise brand. Lemann is actually quite articulate on Maraniss’ failings which don’t need to be recounted here. What's most important about the Lemann piece is that we are now well into a string of Obamacentric long and short-form journalism, histories, biographies, biopics soon to come, that are by most accounts lame or inaccurate. Lame—among black people—is inaccurate, by the way. We do have rhythm—we’re not talking about the dance floor here—a kind of pacing that rules our lives and if there is any evidence of that it is Barack Obama himself who was in a groove for a few years the likes of which this country has never seen. In order not to correct the record—that journalistic milk has already been spilt—but to plan for the future in daily and magazine journalism as well as in books and in film, to give the president a break from the basketball analogies while simultaneously holding him more to account for policy and execution—we need to take stock of what has gone wrong until now.
           As has been pointed out elsewhere Barack Obama has been best done by Barack Obama himself which is a big part of why and how he was elected President of the United States. But secondary sources also have something valuable to contribute, at least potentially, the outsider’s take on the man we call prez.

            The most disappointing work so far on the life of the president is David Remnick’s biography in which the surprising rise of Barack Obama is placed in the context of the civil rights movement of which the incumbent is our sometimes-felicitous result. The Bridge, the book is called.
            Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, had access and resources that few biographers can imagine (233 interviews, we are told, either by the author or his assistants) but produced a work with the emotional content of a Wikipedia entry, a kind of authorized unauthorized biography that serves more as primary resource than narrative.
            Remnick’s work on the big man apparently follows the conceit that if you talk to all the survivors of “The Movement” and every black person who matters in Chicago you can color by the numbers and get a good picture of Barack Obama. What David Remnick got was an essentially soulless account, which is hard to do when writing about a blood, especially the First Brother. There is a theme, a thread in the president’s story which Remnick and Maraniss—if you believe Dean Lemann, which there’s no reason not to—both missed. How? Where was the error? To use the basketball analogy that white writers seem too ready to attribute to this president’s career or management style—this time, not to describe Obama himself, instead to depict the failures of his biographers—it’s not that white men can’t jump. It’s that they can’t jump high.
            Both of these biographers are white, obviously, and specifically Jewish, which may be frankly part of the problem as well, not because they are Jews but because they are Jews doing a poor job as biographers of the African-American peoples. Dean Lemann, too, is Jewish and has spent a good deal of his professional life writing about black people. Lemann like Remnick et al seems to lack the core understanding to give chosen subjects our due.
            That’s one issue.
            The product.
            The other discontent is who is getting the access that leads to the work produced. Most writing about Obama and blacks in general in this country has been by whites because they are the overwhelming majority in the upper reaches of American journalism and in most of academia. Jews, for example, have long been self-professed “experts” on black people both popularly (recently, think David Simon’s The Wire and Treme) and at the Post, the Times, the New Yorker, NPR . . . wherever you like. In the past and continuing today my Jewish brothers and sisters have made a good living “interpreting” my culture, reproducing African-Americana for the mass market of whites, for people who may be too fearful or too isolated to learn about us themselves. However well the subject was covered previously though, and my belief is that it was not covered particularly well, the game has changed and many white reporters, well-fed and out of shape, comfortable and isolated in a professional culture today that smacks of Jim Crow, lack the moves to compete. Instead they are tripping up—getting caught going the wrong way like Maraniss or losing the ball entirely like Remnick—which means getting the story wrong
            The most convincing case in support of my theory actually is a white woman who can’t jump either. Or who declines to jump, because there's reason to believe this writer brings more storytelling skills to the game than her male counterparts.
            Her name is Jodi Kantor and she is a Times correspondent who produced what is arguably the most popular work on Barack Obama outside the president’s own writing, The Obamas, which came out in 2011. There’s so much wrong with coverage of the president and First Lady it’s hard to know where to start but the least helpful part of Kantor’s book, in the hardback edition at least, is the first full paragraph on page 204 where the index tells us that race is explicitly discussed, under an entry for Michelle Obama. This passage covers the president's third year in office: “But the issue of what a black president could and could not say was confusing. When fellow African American Eric Holder, the attorney general, called America a ‘nation of cowards’ for refusing to discuss race honestly, the president gently rebuked him in public and Rahm Emanuel tried to install a minder at the Department of Justice. The one time Obama spoke instinctually about race in public, expressing his frustration with the white policeman who had arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., had been a disaster, necessitating an awkward ‘beer summit’ with the parties. Michelle Obama was the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, but she did not discuss that legacy: the closest the Obamas got was the annual Passover seder they held, the guests mostly Jews or African Americans, the holiday a rare chance to safely discuss oppression and liberation.” This strikes me as one of the most condescending and false passages in modern American journalism or at least that's crossed my desk, all the more incredible because it comes from a Times White House correspondent, in fact the main correspondent covering the Obamas. If Ms. Kantor, who is also Jewish, can look at Michelle Obama either in person as Kantor tells us she has—up close and personal—or even in a photo or news clip and believe that the only time the First Lady has discussed her legacy as the descendant of slaves, or discussed issues of “oppression and liberation,” was during Passover while sitting seder with Jewish friends, Ms. Kantor has missed her calling—which is any profession other than journalism.
            Having never met Michelle Obama personally, having never seen her in the flesh but being the great-grandson of slaves myself, and kind of knowing what that means, which Ms. Kantor does not, my bet—and it is a bet which would include the house, the kids, the car and my pension, as well as Ms. Kantor’s paycheck—is that Michelle Obama has had that discussion frequently and at great length during her time in the White House and that in many if not most cases no white people were in the room. Not even Jews. Among black people Michelle Obama is not called the “Prisoner of Pennsylvania Avenue” for no reason. But inside the White House my bet is nonetheless that she has a free run and says what she wants to say and doesn’t need to wait for Passover when sitting with white people for the freedom to speak her own mind about her heritage in this country.
            What Ms. Kantor has written is not only wrong it’s intentionally wrong. It’s not just a mistake, it’s propaganda. A little background is helpful: The biggest split in the liberal Democratic coalition in modern history has been between blacks and Jews. The reasons go back a few decades, even before my time—my age is 57, born right after Eisenhower’s first heart attack but before his second inaugural—and if you asked me my initial awareness of bad political blood between blacks and the Jewish community it was actually 1965 during the Watts riots, watching the smoke rise down the street and seeing brothers hitting Jewish-owned businesses with relish—particularly pawn shops and liquor stores—for both practical and ideological reasons.
             The drill during the riots, FYI, not that it has any practical use, unless you're going out to break some windows, was for black business owners to write “SOUL BROTHER” on the fronts of their shops in order to avoid getting torched. Some enlightened individuals also wrote “SOUL BROTHER” on the storefronts of Chinese restaurants because as my mother explained at the time, in all seriousness, driving through the ruins of the 'hood, “We Negroes have to have our Chinese food.” No one did that for Jewish businesses. There was and is a feeling of exploitation. There. It’s said. On the Jewish side, there's a feeling of ingratitude, that blacks haven't been grateful enough for Jewish sacrifices for civil rights. You won’t hear any of this from Barack Obama’s lips, nor should you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
            There’s long been a fault line between blacks and Jews in this country, it’s deep, well-marked, well-documented and unless Ms. Kantor is completely clueless which obviously she is not she is aware of it. Instead she’s trying to plaster over which doesn’t speak well of her or the Times. Her kind of reporting is reminiscent of Karl Rove’s work for George W. Bush. Rove ran a lot of spots in which Bush talked about the environment or was pictured smiling at black schoolchildren not because environmentalists or black people really trusted him but to reassure middle class suburban whites that W wasn’t what he really was, a danger to moderation on oh-so-many fronts. So, too, Ms. Kantor’s work—which is not intended for black consumption because we would never accept a whitewashed version of race relations in this country, but for Caucasians and others who are unaware or may actually be willing to believe that Jews and blacks hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” It’s just not true. Most American politics is tribal. There have been sharp elbows between these two tribes for more than half a century. Longer. What’s more, Ms. Kantor knows it. Or should.
            Is that what Attorney General Holder was talking about: We’re incapable in this country of an honest discussion about race?

            Some mistakes in coverage are just that of course, mistakes. Several years ago Nick Lemann wrote a piece for the Atlantic about dysfunction in City Hall in his native New Orleans (“Hard Times in the Big Easy”) in which he described then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy as the first black big-city mayor in America elected by whites.
            Lemann went into great depth about what it all meant for blacks and whites alike, talking about the issues of skin color and class among African-Americans which are, as you can imagine, pretty touchy subjects even for a black writer to approach. The problem with the piece was that Barthelemy was not the first black big-city mayor in America to be elected by whites. That was Tom Bradley in Los Angeles more than a decade earlier.
           Bradley was still in office when Barthelemy was elected and had actually come within a few thousand votes of being governor of California, also courtesy of a mostly-white electorate. Bradley, an ex L.A. cop, was one of the most influential forces in urban American politics of the era—and was eventually brought down by another Los Angeles race riot, after the Rodney King beating. Lemann made a mistake in his piece and that’s cool, it was certainly unintentional, but the question is how likely would a black writer have been to have such a fundamentally-flawed premise? Tom Bradley was the most important black elected official in America at the time. Chances are that a black writer would have known better because we’re not observing our own history—as outsiders—we’re living it. You can call that a lot of things but in the context of journalism you might want to call it expertise.
            If you want to get to the bottom of what went wrong with David Remnick’s Obama biography you have to listen to the writer’s interview on “Big Think” a few years ago. You don’t get far before there is a hint of trouble ahead. “I wanted to write about race,“ Remnick tells us, “and I had written a fair amount about race in my time as a journalist,” explaining how the “Joshua Generation” issue, the November 17, 2008 New Yorker was planned, after Obama’s election, which led to Remnick’s book. Race was a fundamental concern of that issue of the magazine—but only, it should be noted, as defined by white writers. If you look at the table of contents this is another NNNA New Yorker: no-niggers-need-apply. Indeed in the interview Remnick offers no hint of his exact credentials for a task that's pretty formidable, explaining the march of black history in this country, other than telling us that he had previously written about Muhammad Ali and part of Ali’s time had been spent in Chicago where Barack Obama was shaped. Remnick is described very often as an “expert” on Obama and on race relations but it’s hard to see why if this interview is any indication. Muhammad Ali, as great as he is—indeed “the Greatest”—doesn’t lead naturally to Barack Obama, at least not in my mind as aback person. Obama and Ali are both black men, yes, who have managed to stand up to traditional white society and thrive but—well, maybe there’s something else Remnick meant to say, like how he was qualified to dissect the body of black American history? Where is the cultural competence here? A better question: What would a black writer have done with the access Remnick got? We’ll never know.
            What we do know is what we did get. More of Ms. Kantor.
            In the lead-up to the second inaugural, she wrote a front page piece in the Times describing how the president and First Lady have changed from one term to the next. The only religion profiled in her story is, interestingly, once again, Judaism. In this piece she gives us the latest update on Jewish-Obama relations (what that has to do with the subject of how the Obamas have changed in office is unclear, but Ms. Kantor is on a mission) which sounds a lot like her prior commentary in the book, more Kumbaya: “At their White House Seder, the small group of mostly African-American and Jewish attendees reads the Emancipation Proclamation right before welcoming Elijah, just as the year before.” This is news? Why not let someone who actually knows African-American culture and who can imagine the stresses that the Obamas have been under for four years (that they cannot at any price fuck up, for fear it will be viewed as a reflection on “the race”) write the story? That would be worthy of history but apparently not worthy of the Times.
            What’s really interesting in Kantor’s piece on how the First Couple have changed is that all six of the first individuals mentioned, if you ignore Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Speaker John Boehner, who did not have speaking parts in the Times story—are Jewish: Susan Sher, Tony Kushner, Elie Weisel, Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Arun Chaudhaury. This would seem to be a sign of limited sources or limited resources on Ms. Kantor’s part. But really she is doing exactly what she apparently intended to do, promoting the idea that there is no daylight between the Obamas and the Jewish community, especially donors and celebrities and that Jews are the center of the president’s official, unofficial and spiritual world. The harder she works to make this point the more strained it becomes. And the more condescending. No black other than the president and Mrs. Obama is mentioned until the fifth paragraph from the bottom of the jump in a story about the changes in the first black First Couple. 
            Barack Obama didn’t arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by himself, that’s true. He has Jewish supporters, that’s also true, supporters of many faiths in fact. But a lot of black people suffered and many died to put a man or woman of color in high office, the secular version of the mountaintop Martin Luther King talked about—and Steven Spielberg was not among them. The problem here is a kind of hero worship and celebrity-driven desire for liberal whites to claim closeness to the Obamas. That doesn’t jibe with serious journalism, especially about a major political figure who is still in office. Barack Obama may be a messiah—but only to white people. Blacks have a more professional, detached but not necessarily skeptical view of the president which might actually be valuable in chronicling his administration. For black people Barack Obama is the end result of a lot of hard work stretching over four centuries since the first slaves arrived in Virginia. Literally, his success comes after a lot of blood and sweat and tears—much of it shed before he was born. There's a bridge, yes, just not the one described by David Remnick. There's a certain accountability expected of the president by the present generation of blacks and Hispanics, and a certain level of truth the Times seems incapable of. Indeed, as a former fact-checker trained in "the New Yorker method" at Texas Monthly it’s my feeling that blacks and whites to some degree—this is not an absolute by any means—view the “truth” differently. And this has become increasingly apparent in how white writers are unsuccessfully chasing the Barack Obama story.
            Modern long-form journalism is particularly susceptible to a kind of error. You can have your article fact-checked, certainly, somebody with a red pencil and a telephone or computer connection reviews the name spellings, the dates, does the math to be sure that the numbers add up, even looks to be sure which way you turn when you step out of one building to approach another if that’s mentioned in the piece. But the story can still be wrong. Which is what we’re getting with works on Barack Obama. There’s a specific danger of inaccuracy here: not so much the details, the dates, times, amounts, whatever, but the bigger picture.
              The shape of the nose is described perfectly but it’s positioned at the right ear, so to speak. Details that are exact—but don’t add up to a focused larger image. And that’s what we’ve seen thus far. The issues, it seems, are related to both worldview and motives. The questions about accuracy in Obama’s autobiography, for example, are surprisingly un-troubling to most black people. If every detail Barack Obama related about himself back in the day wasn’t completely accurate, wasn’t exactly the way he was, it was the way he wanted to be and what’s most important it is the way he mostly has turned out to be. So far, his narrative has been consistent to us, black people, even if not every detail is dead on. The theme of his life and work is understandable, for most people of color; the president is his own creation, with a little help from his antecedents. We’re cool with that. White journalists apparently are not.
            Because, in a way, fact-checking Obama’s previous life is a white person’s game: double-checking the unimportant, or superfluous. What Barack Obama was doing on some date in 1968 is of little concern to me or, it’s my belief, is of little concern to most blacks. It’s not that we’re uninterested in the details, it’s more that we are equally concerned with both kinds of truth, the “facts” and the soul of the story. The theme. Obama’s geist—as well, if not more than his movements at any date or time. We understand his narrative better than whites because we helped create it and we are more worried about deviations from who he is supposed to be today and for the remainder of his time in office than any possible old indiscretions or whatever it is exactly white writers are looking for in the president’s past. We’re also suspicious about works like Maraniss’ book. Many white writers are unfamiliar with the power of the black middle class and because they don’t understand African-American ambition or ability—how Barack Obama came to be or how Michelle Obama’s parents managed to send their kids to Princeton, for a good example—they feel the need to "explain" and they will do that with data points. It’s like, sure, whatever. But it means you miss the story. The big question is why?
            When David Remnick says as he did in his “Big Think” interview that Obama’s white mother was actually more important to his life than she has been given credit for, what does that mean exactly? Probably Remnick’s own mother was more important in his life than Mrs. Remnick has been given credit for. Everybody’s mother is more important in their lives than Mom is given credit for. So, what are we talking about here?
           When David Maraniss “discovers” that some of the composite characters in Obama’s autobiography were really white, not black, and Dean Lemann repeats it as if it’s Revelation you can’t escape an uneasy feeling that these white writers still can’t come to terms with how successful Barack Obama has been, that they somehow believe that there has to have been more of a white influence in his life than he is letting on. In other words, race is still an issue in "post-racial America"—especially to the people covering the president. That’s why Barack’s biographers are not faring well. They don’t understand even the fundamentals of the history of race in this country, issues on which they are supposed to be experts.
            These writers would have been more familiar with blacks like Barack Obama in the past and better describing the challenges he faces today, and describing his strengths and weaknesses, but the system as it existed didn’t enable success for black people at the national level previously. Does any of this sound familiar? White writers are not experienced explaining successful black national politicians because there haven’t been successful black national politicians previously, Obama is the first black leader for whom everything lined up and the environment was conducive on a national level. The theme of Barack’s story is American history itself not just “The Movement.”
            My mother, who was also a journalist, had a favorite saying: “I don’t like the facts to get in the way of a good story.” She wasn’t saying that getting the details wrong is somehow acceptable. What she was saying is that having the narrative line accurate, having rhythm if you will—having the soul of the piece reflective of the soul of the subject—is just as important as spelling the names right and getting the numbers to add up.
            That’s a kind of reporting Maraniss, Remnick and Dean Lemann have yet to learn.


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