With less than three months to go until the presidential election, the profusion of media spin about Barack Obama — pro and con — has gone into overdrive. For this potential president, who was virtually unknown in the national news media just five years ago, the battle over his public image has been notably compressed.
Observing this process as a media critic, and as an elected Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention, I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which various types of media outlets have been inclined to characterize him as a person and a candidate.
Some of the favorable press often seems relevant to what psychologists call “projection.” Over the years, Obama has excelled at being — or seeming to be — a lot of things to a lot of people. His persona has been welcoming, and welcome, to many. Given the stillappreciable barriers to African Americans in the upper reaches of U.S. politics, maybe that was the only way he could have won the presidential nomination.
On the other hand, a lot of media negativity toward Obama is based on unexamined assumptions that fault him for not living up to arbitrary — and sometimes rigidly arrogant — assumptions about what should be acceptable in a serious candidate for president.
In American media soil, myths take root about major politicians on a regular basis. Sometimes the politicians and their strategists actively seek to cultivate those myths. Other times, the campaigns try and fail to prevent negative myths from sprouting.
In Obama’s case, the current media myths often seem to be extreme caricatures that say more about the “mythologizers” than they do about him.
— Media myth: Obama is somehow suspect because he hasn’t quite fit in anywhere during his life.
In the last week or so, this myth has been given a boost by a front-page New York Times article and soon thereafter by the newspaper’s columnist David Brooks. While the same information could have just as easily been portrayed as indicating strength of character, independence of mind and willingness to march to his own drummer, this recent media theme has a slight but tangible odor of redefining Obama as a chronic “other.”
— Media myth: Obama has a huge ego that led him to go on a presumptuous tour of Europe in July, almost as though he had already been elected president.
Given a notable shove forward by Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, who accused Obama of “hubris” a couple of weeks ago, this theme has a subtext of complaint that Obama doesn’t know his place. That place is usually being defined by whitedominated news media. The word “uppity” is not used, but it comes to mind.
— Media myth: Obama the political phenomenon has managed to transcend race.
This myth is apt to fade as the racial undertows of some methodical anti-Obama efforts become clearer.
— Media myth: Obama’s propensity to compromise with Republican positions is a laudable indication of potential for great presidential leadership.
For several decades, a predictable chorus from many pundits has warned Democrats against being too “liberal” and has claimed that they would be well advised to choose a “moderate” path. This reflects a corporate bias that Obama is trying to assuage.
Obama could not have risen so high if his political record had reflected a willingness to challenge the basic financial power structure and its ongoing imposition of vast economic inequality. Overall, news coverage has little negative to say about the mutual affinity between the interests of huge U.S.-based corporations and Obama’s political positions.
Candid realism about presidential candidates often seems to be in short supply, whether among their fervent backers or the journalists covering their campaigns. Ultimately, major news outlets seem comfortable focusing on “race” (though much less so on racism). But when the journalistic establishment gives short shrift to issues of economic class that are fundamental to our society, the media myth is that nothing is amiss.
©2008 Creators Syndicate, Inc.