Friday, January 15, 2010

Game Change in Context

I’ve written before about the obligation of journalists to place stories in context ( The latest affirmation of that necessity is the dust-up surrounding comments attributed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in the book Game Change.

Reid is reported to have said that he “believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama - a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one ....’ ”

Reid doesn’t deny saying it. He apologized to Obama and other Afro-American leaders for his poor choice of words.

Nonetheless, Republicans have stoked up the fire, hoping to have the tar warm enough to hold the feathers they’d like to affix to Reid’s body as they ride him on a rail out of town.

At first, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Reid said what lots of people, including yours truly, felt. Anyone who didn’t notice Obama’s accent changed when he addressed a Black audience was either tone deaf or a survivor of a Jim Jones Kool Aid party willing to believe anything.

Talking reality is another victim of today’s political atmosphere.

What angers me at least as much is the apparent lack of context most journalists have taken in the Reid affair. It took an interview by co-author John Heilemann with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report Wednesday night to open my eyes (

Asked if he thought the big story from the book would be Reid’s comments on Obama, Heilemann said, no, he thought the major revelation was Reid’s advocacy of Obama as presidential timbre in the summer of 2006 when almost all the Democratic establishment was thought to be solidly behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. In effect, Reid was a hero of the Obama election, not a villain.

What this episode reveals is that politicians can hijack a debate by selectively usurping parts of a story, and that most journalists will play along rather than provide the context that would deflate a controversy. Ratings, or newsstand sales, after all, usually don’t go up when partisanship is tamped down.

You really do have to read the book to get the full story. I’ve yet to read Game Change, so even my rant is probably a little out of context.