Thursday, July 02, 2009

How Now Howard?

Howard Kurtz writes about reporters on the Michelle Obama beat and their race and gender. It's an odd piece, sort of like an embroidery with several unfinished ends dangling from it, and I can't make up my mind which of those ends I should tug on to see what might come unraveled.

To take it in steps, the beginning of Kurtz's article suggests that the selection of journalists who get access to Michelle Obama is racist and sexist:

While Michelle Obama was meeting with doctors and patients at the Upper Cardozo Health Center, nearly two dozen journalists stood behind a white rope in a small room upstairs, most finally growing so tired during the hour-long wait that they sat on the floor.

Finally the first lady emerged, read a short speech about releasing federal stimulus money for community health clinics -- including $2.5 million for the Northwest Washington center -- and greeted a handpicked audience with handshakes and hugs. Then she turned and left, and the press pool quietly filed out.

Rachel Swarns of the New York Times and The Washington Post's Robin Givhan were among those herded behind the rope Monday. They and the other main beat reporters -- Newsweek's Allison Samuels, Darlene Superville of the Associated Press and Politico's Nia-Malika Henderson -- have something in common: They are all African American women.

Perhaps this gives them a richer cultural understanding of Obama as a trailblazer. Indeed, most write with enthusiasm, in some cases even admiration, about the first lady as a long-awaited role model for black women.

But then something else grabs hist attention and the article turns into examining whether African-American female journalists indeed might be better suited for covering the First Lady:

Whether racial and gender identification produces a gauzier, more favorable portrayal of Obama is perhaps too early to judge. After all, no one raises questions when an Irish American male reporter covers a pol named Murphy. And with her carefully crafted focus on her children, affordable fashion and such reduced-fat apple pie issues as healthy eating, Obama has done little to warrant sharp criticism.

Even within that short paragraph I quote the emphasis shifts again, because the last sentence pretty much says that this is probably OK because Michelle Obama isn't saying anything very interesting. Well, "interesting" for guys such as Howard Kurtz.

But note that gauziness! Ooh! Might there be bias in having African-American women cover one of their own? Not that there's anything wrong with that, naturally. After all, white men have covered one of their own for a few centuries and it's worked out very well for them.

As the article meanders on Kurtz muses on his fear that covering "one of your own" might make the journalists biased though of course special knowledge is a Good Thing, too. But what about that racial preference, again? Like this:

Such developments can foster a mixture of tokenism and opportunity. When Jesse Jackson made his first White House run in 1984, a number of black political reporters got their first crack at a presidential campaign. The assignment was a sideshow -- Jackson had no serious chance of winning -- but also boosted the careers of his chroniclers.

Tricky stuff, is it not? What makes reading this even trickier are a few additional dangling ends which are not part of Kurtz's main theses (whatever those might be) but which I can't help noticing all the time.

The first of these has to do with the fact that male journalists haven't exactly wrestled each other for the chance to cover the First Lady (pardon for the unintentional pun there), because that shit is for chicks. The news about presidents' wives are supposed to be about fashions and family values and the pursuit of some public cause so uncontroversial that there's no news in it. It's only when the First Lady says or does something scandalous that the beat becomes hot. And I can't help noticing that this is pretty much what Kurtz writes.

The second dangling end is not really about Kurtz at all but about what we view as in-depth coverage of women's issues. An example:

The day before the inauguration, Henderson wrote in Politico that "to fashionistas, she's Michelle O, the new Jackie. . . . Post-feminists see Michelle Obama as one of their own, the having-it-all Harvard-educated lawyer. . . . African American women say she'll upend age-old stereotypes of the angry black woman who can't find a good man, or keep him when she does."

We live in a post-feminist world where women can have it all but where African-American women suffer from the stereotype of being too angry to hang on to a man. Soundbite after soundbite and the invisible elephant just lounges on that living-room couch. Note how that whole quote is about a world of women? Not a man, child, corporation or society in sight. Women struggle with trying to have it all or with their bad reputations and all this happens somehow not in the actual society but only inside their own little heads.

My anger there has nothing to do with Michelle Obama. It isn't even about Howard Kurtz's meanderings with his foot in his mouth (How does he do that? Can he really have it all?) It's that odd way in which women's problems are a) trivialized into silly fashions or soundbites and b) removed from the societal contexts which would allow us to understand them.