When an MSNBC commentator accuses someone of racism, it’s dog bites man. MSNBC is a Left-heavy channel; the Left can hardly talk without accusing others of racism. Last month, however, there was a whiff of man bites dog. An MSNBC commentator accused someone of racism, all right. But the accused was a reporter for the Associated Press — not an organization you would expect to come in for such condemnation. The AP is a member of the “mainstream media” in good standing (all too good).
Here’s what happened: The AP’s Mark S. Smith filed a report on a speech by President Obama to a Congressional Black Caucus dinner. He wrote,
Obama said blacks know all too well from the civil rights struggle that the fight for what is right is never easy.
“Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes,” he said, his voice rising as applause and cheers mounted. “Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”
Smith’s offense, according to his accuser? He quoted Obama faithfully — “dropped g’s” and all. His accuser, Karen Hunter, said this was “racist,” and not just “racist” but “inherently racist.” Hunter is a journalist and, depressingly, also a journalism professor. She once ghosted a book for Al Sharpton. She said that Smith should have standardized Obama’s English: “complaining,” “grumbling,” etc.
I watched a video clip of Obama’s speech. He went very, very southern in that speech. He slipped into preacher mode, strong on exhortation. Smith’s report gave you an idea of what it was like to be in the room — which a report should do. “Complaining” and “grumbling” would have robbed the report of flavor, and also of some veracity. Actually, Obama said “marchin’ shoes,” rather than “marching shoes.” Smith did not drop all the g’s he could have.
This episode sparked a memory in me. In 1988, Jesse Jackson was running for president, as he had in 1984. Clark Clifford, the Democratic “wise man,” said that Jackson was “bringing a new maturity to the American political scene.” George Will, in a column, said, Oh, yeah? “Twenty years ago, Clifford was secretary of defense. Here is Jackson on defense policy: ‘Don’t nobody want no Midgetman missile for Christmas. They don’t want no Star Wars for Christmas.’”
Will, naturally, was accused of racism, and some newspapers refused to run that particular column. The claim was that Will should have put Jackson’s statements into conventional English. In other words, he should have misquoted him, in a way. But would that have opened Will to different charges of racism? You can hear it: “What’s the matter with what the reverend said originally? You think he has to ‘talk white’?” Shortly after Will’s column appeared (or didn’t appear), the New York Times ran a chin-stroking article headed “As Jackson Rises, Reporters Search for Proper Balance.” The article asked, “How should Mr. Jackson be treated? As the first black to achieve such electoral success? As a liberal politician? Or simply as a contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination?”
The issue of quotation goes beyond skin color, of course. In the weeks before George W. Bush’s second presidential inauguration, in 2005, I was asked to write a piece for an inaugural publication. I agreed. In my piece, I quoted something Bush repeatedly said in the 2000 campaign: “I’m runnin’ for a reason.” He usually said this when he was pushing Social Security reform. He didn’t want to go to the White House and mark time. He wanted to do big things. “I’m runnin’ for a reason.”