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March 18, 2008

Obama tells the Best Political Team on Television: You Have a Choice

In Wolf Blitzer's instant analysis, Obama's big speech on race in America boils down to a "pre-emptive strike" against attacks yet to come. In fact it was a speech aimed right at him and other makers of political television.

(I don’t usually do quick reax posts, but….)

I was watching CNN for Obama’s speech. Moments after it concluded Wolf Blitzer was asked to tell us what he heard in it. Wolf’s ear is the big ear for the Best Political Team on Television, according to CNN. So he went first. And according to Blitzer, Obama’s speech boils down to a “pre-emptive strike” against various attacks that are still to come, in the form of videos, ads, and news controversies that are sure to keep Reverend Jeremiah Wright and “race” in play as issues in the campaign. (For his exact words see the bottom of this post.)

Wasn’t the speech about that very pattern?

This is a style of analysis—and a level of thought—we have become utterly used to, especially from Blitzer but also many others on TV: everything is a move in the game of getting elected, and it’s our job in political television to explain to you, the slightly clueless viewer at home, what today’s tactics are, then to estimate whether they will work.

That Blitzer, offered by his network the first word on that speech, did the savvier-than-thou, horse race thing tells you about his priorities (mistakenly “static,” as Obama said about Wright) and his imaginative range as an interpreter of politics (pretty close to zero.)

For as Greg Sargent at TPM said, “Obama’s speech, throughout, asks its listeners to transcend themselves — it asks them to choose nuance over cartoonish political controversy; it asks them to acknowledge stuff about race they don’t want to acknowledge; it asks them to think big instead of small.”

And as Charles Murray—yes, that Charles Murray—at The Corner said “It is so far above the standard we’re used to from our pols… rhetorically, but also in capturing a lot of nuance about race in America.”

In fact it was a speech aimed right at Blitzer, at the best political team on television, and the makers of our election year spectacle.

Obama had moments earlier told Blitzer. “You’ve scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.” And so he had— him as much as anyone on television.

Obama had just said to Blitzer, look: “If all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way…” And so if the reactions you report on are reactions to your reporting and video looping how are you, the talent in political television, not an actor with me in this cycle?

Wolf, Obama had just said, “We have a choice in this country.” And your team at CNN has to make a choice, too. You should be asking yourselves, what’s our choice, as broadcasters and journalists…

… We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

You can do that. That’s one option. But I’m told you are the best political team on television. Surely you can think of something better to do between now and April 22.

Think they were they listening to that part of the speech?

UPDATE: Jon Stewart doesn’t. He did a way better version of this post. Hang on for the end, where savvy pundits dissect the Gettysburg Address. And don’t miss the CNN reporter doing interviews in the field who asks a construction worker in a hard hat the following question: “What do you think it’s going to take for Barack Obama to win the working class white man’s vote?” (Hat tip to Rhetorica.)

Andrew Tyndall summarizes on-air reactions to Obama’s speech at the major networks, but he does not include the cablers like CNN.

I now have the transcript of Blitzer’s horse-race mind at work. Notice that the question he was asked: “What did you think the speech was about?”

Wolf, you know what, I want to start with you. What did you think the speech was about?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I thought it was a preemptive strike designed to rebut all the criticism, not only he’s faced over the past few weeks as a result of these comments from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright coming to light, Heidi, but going down the road in terms of his continuing struggle to get the Democratic presidential nomination, the struggle against Hillary Clinton.

And then if he does get the Democratic presidential nomination, a preemptive strike against what he could expect down the road in his battle against John McCain in the general election in the fall.

And he took virtually every one of the potential criticisms out there, and he directly addressed them in a way that try — I think he tried to speak from his heart and to say, you know what, I strongly condemn, I strongly repudiate the remarks that have been — that have come to light of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

On the other hand, let me explain the 20-year relationship I have with this man and why I simply can’t abandon him at this time, despite some of the outrageous things that he said. And I think he went through by point by point and he delivered an excellent speech in terms of that regard.

It’s not going to end the criticism by any means. People are now going to dissect word by word, sentence by sentence this speech, and his critics, whether critics on the Democratic side or critics down the road, Republicans and conservatives and others, they’ll find plenty to disagree with in the speech, but I think he addressed it head on, and it’s an excellent start in trying to move on beyond the issue.

Thanks to Ron Brynaert of The Raw Story.

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 18, 2008 1:55 PM