August 18, 2010

Well before the NAACP publicly called out the tea party last week for having racist elements in its ranks, questions about the racial attitudes of tea party supporters had been popping up in news stories, broadcasts and online forums. But they were just that — questions.

A sampling of recent headlines: “Are Tea Parties Racist?” and “Is the Tea Party Movement Racist?” and“But Isn’t the Tea Party Movement Racist?

The question marks in those headlines reflect a longstanding squeamishness by mainstream journalists in wrestling with race and racism. Racism has been a difficult subject for traditional journalism, with its insistence on letting all sides have an equal say. If someone alleges racism, find someone who will argue that it’s not racism and put him or her in the story too. Leave it to the readers to sort out. 

Racism is a judgment call, one that’s often not easy to make. It’s far easier to dig through a pile of public records to uncover a government scandal than it is to figure out whether the darkness of racism can be found inside someone’s heart.

The headlines cited above, though, were not from daily newspapers. They were from the blogosphere, where the standards of journalism are changing, where writers often seem more vested in arriving at a conclusion. The blogosphere is not burdened with the institutional voice of mainstream journalism. It is a place where everyone can have a voice and a valid opinion.

And yet that same squeamishness about race is evident in the Fifth Estate’s coverage of the tea party.

Yes, there were predictable claims by overtly partisan blogs and websites that the tea party was chock full of racists or, depending on the ideology of the person making the argument, that it was all a liberal smear job. 

And there were a handful of serious attempts to dig deeper into the question; John B. Judis of The New Republic stirred plenty of online debate with an article published in early June arguing that the tea party movement is not racist. But, on the whole, coverage of the question of racism in the tea party has not been noticeably different in the Fifth Estate than it was in the Fourth Estate.

Coverage of the issue picked up after the NAACP approved a resolution last week condemning what it called the “bigoted elements” within the tea party. It called on the movement’s leaders to repudiate the racist elements within their ranks.

E.J. Dionne Jr., a liberal columnist for The Washington Post, applauded the NAACP’s move in a columna couple of days later. He said the NAACP ensured that we will have an “honest conversation about the role of race and racism in the tea party.”

Dionne, who has written extensively about the tea party during the past year, said in an interview that the NAACP forced journalists to finally confront the question. “What the NAACP did was prod a conversation and coverage that I think should have happened earlier,” Dionne said.

While the volume of coverage has increased since the NAACP resolution, the coverage has largely been traditional and safe. That has been true in both the Fourth and Fifth Estates. 

There have been reports on the news of the day, the search for reaction from various political figures and the inevitable back-and-forth dogfight between the left and the right. There has been precious little coverage that digs deeper into the question and looks at the potential ramifications if, indeed, a significant right-wing political movement has racist tendencies.

Kai Wright, editorial director of ColorLines, an online magazine that deals with race and culture, says the Fifth Estate has some advantages in covering an issue like race. There is little impulse among bloggers not affiliated with legacy newsrooms, he said, to fall into the he said/she said format often found in traditional journalism. And he said there are plenty of voices on the Web who are not afraid to tackle identity politics.

“But even in the blogosphere,” he said, “there is still the underlying problem of not talking about race enough.” He said that trying to prove whether the tea party is racist is time not spent trying to look at how issues of race impact government policies on everything from health care to joblessness.

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“The conversation we’re having now is not that different from what we had three months ago, or will have three months from now,” he said. “It won’t change the way race shapes people’s lives.”

Arlene Notoro Morgan, associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says journalists can and should play a role in helping people understand issues of race. But Morgan, who co-wrote a textbook on covering race and ethnicity, says it requires reporters to do more than get quotes from both sides of the debate.

“It’s just been knee-jerk,” she says of most of the recent coverage. “I don’t think we’re really doing good, authoritative, in-depth reporting about what’s going on. Journalists have to really dig deeper.”

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