Gwen Ifill's Overactive Imagination: Media Unfair to Obama on Race and Cops?

President Obama's vacation in Martha's Vineyard also became an occasion for a panel of liberal journalists, politicians, and academics to mourn his alleged mistreatment in the media at a race-and-the-media panel discussion organized by Harvard professor Charles Ogletree. PBS Washington Week anchor Gwen Ifill  lamented the overwhelming media bias against Obama in the Henry Louis Gates controversy, when Obama said he didn't have all the facts, but the local police "acted stupidly" for their actions in arresting Gates on his own porch.

Ifill somehow ignored that the Obama-supporting news networks pouted over how this comment was a "distraction" from passing ObamaCare, and overpublicized the "beer summit" Obama held at the White House with Gates and his arresting police officer to fix any public-relations damage he might have incurred. (She even ignored the newscast she sometimes anchors, the PBS NewsHour.) On August 18, the Vineyard Gazette reported Ifill complained:

“What he learned from that episode was that the only thing anyone heard was that he called the Cambridge police stupid,” she said. “His one, two, three parts of ‘Well on one hand, on this hand, on the other hand’ was clearly not going to make it on the air. So when you see critiques of the President that he is too cautious, that he holds back, that he doesn’t come out guns a-blazing, these are the lessons learned.”

First of all, Ifill isn't at all careful about the facts in this statement. He said all this in a nationally televised press conference, so in fact, his entire messy discussion of the issue did "make it on the air." You could complain that a reporter asked about this matter, but not that Obama's full remarks weren't aired by the media. The more biased part of this is Ifill complaining about the only thing "anyone heard," as if the entire country is arrayed against poor Obama.

For a small sliver of the real facts, here's Brent Baker reporting on July 24, 2009, when Obama backtracked from his "stupid" comment:

ABC, CBS and NBC all led Friday night with President Obama’s decision to appear in the White House press room to backtrack on the fury he inflamed by presuming “stupidity” by the police in the Professor Henry Gates alleged “racial profiling” incident, but only Katie Couric trumpeted Obama’s appearance in the White House briefing room -- which the CBS Evening News ran for an uninterrupted four solid minutes -- as “extraordinary” and “really unprecedented,” before she pouted over how “the timing could not be worse. Just as he was pushing so hard for health care reform and having some pretty serious setbacks.”

She pressed Bob Schieffier to provide Obama with guidance to get back on track on health care: “And how do you think the President can, if he can, resuscitate this whole effort?” Schieffer advised the obvious: “What he's got to do, I think now, is set out some specific things that he wants them to do and then push them to do it.” (Between the four minutes of Obama and when Couric turned to Schieffer, CBS aired a piece from reporter Bill Whitaker on why blacks fear the police.)

Does that sound like an anti-Obama media in action? Ifill was clearly not speaking factually, but about her impressions of poor Obama. After all, Ifill's own PBS NewsHour aired a 257-word soundbite of Obama's Gates remarks on July 23, 2009. Then NewsHour anchor Ray Suarez berated a police chief: "Chief Thomas, you heard no less than the president of the United States say there`s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately and that`s just a fact. Do you agree with him that it`s indisputable?"

The Vineyard Gazette also captured Ifill insisting that she was diligent in listening to somewhat racist white people:

"When I traveled the country after Obama was elected I found the most interesting response from audiences," she said. "They'd start by saying either, `I'm white but...', or `I'm not a racist but,' - which is always a fun beginning to a conversation." The audience laughed.

"But I also found that people were hungry to talk about race, and hungry to talk about it in a way that they weren't being judged immediately. Maybe because they felt they knew me because I had been in their living rooms, they felt like they could safely say the most incredibly crazy, offensive things. . . but that I wouldn't mock them, that I would listen to them, because my job is to listen and hear what people are actually saying, not what I wish they would say. Because that tells me about what is hopeful about our country or what rot is eating our society. If I don't listen to it I come away less informed. If I walk into a room thinking I know what you think already, or I know who you are already, I'm not going to learn anything more. What I found was that people were anxious to say things like, `If all your people were like you . . .' Well, I let them finish the sentence. I didn't let Shirley Sherrod finish the sentence. I would let them finish the sentence and find out where they were coming from and where they wanted to go until we almost always ended up in a better place."

The Gazette story also recounted how New York Times columnist Charles Blow said "academic debates about the President’s blackness, and the media’s inordinate coverage of the subject have masked a more important conversation about the real plight of African Americans," which still suffer, though it's not Obama's fault:

“If you look at the rates of poverty [among African Americans] in America they have not changed very much since the year Dr. Martin Luther King was killed, and in fact they’re a little bit higher now — about 12 per cent then, about 14 per cent now,” he said. Mr. Blow also pointed to the resegregation of the American classroom as an indication that race relations were deteriorating in America, even in the age of Obama.

“What you see is a real flashback to the sixties without the vehicle to move out of it and that scares me to death,” he said. “President Obama’s ascension, through no fault of his own, has hurt that effort.”

"Antiracism activist Tim Wise" was invited to warn of the "perfect storm of white anxiety" in the age of Obama: “I’ve been white a long time, it will be 43 years in October,” he said. “I’ve been white long enough to know that when white folks older than me say they want their country back that scares the hell out of me. I know what their country was and so do they.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis