Kicking diversity out of campaign coverage

January 21, 2008

This country has never had a field of presidential contenders of such diversity  not just Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton, a woman, and Barack Obama, an African-American, but among the Republicans, ex-governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani, an Italian-American Catholic. Meantime, Hispanic ex-governor Bill Richardson just dropped out of the running, and New York’s Jewish mayor Michael Bloomberg has let it be known he might drop in.

Now, that paragraph may not have bothered you, but it should have. Out of all the facts I might have offered about those candidates, I selected a few ethnic, sexual, racial and religious attributes. I implied that the significance of their candidacies resides largely in those attributes  and I was a half-step from suggesting that their prospects may depend on how acceptable those attributes are to voters.

That’s what news media routinely do. Coverage continually dwells on those attributes  not because they are thought to have some discernible relationship to the candidates’ qualifications. We think we know better. Our civic culture holds that a candidate’s fitness has to do with capacity, judgment, seasoning and values  not sex, race or religious designation.

So why do those attributes, which we all agree don’t matter, still get enormous media prominence? It’s because they’re believed to have some primal importance to voters.

So we get such burning questions as: How will African-American voters in South Carolina decide between “a black man” and “a white woman” (as if those are the categories they use)? Will mainstream Christians vote for “a Mormon?” Will tales of Giuliani’s mayoral cronyism reawaken anti-Italian stereotypes? Do voters trust “a woman” to be tough enough?

The problem with those questions is that you can’t frame them without drawing from the unseen river of bigotry and stereotype that makes them intelligible. And you can’t know how real that river truly is.

Suppose a reporter was assigned to find out if voters believe a Catholic president could act independently of the Vatican. That was a big issue when John Kennedy was running in 1960, but it’s a bizarre question to pose nowadays. Even if a dutiful reporter came back with a “balanced” account that included some wingnuts railing against the Pope, we’d recognize the whole project as fatally tainted by anti-Catholic bias.

Yet we accept a front-page article in The New York Times last week, “In Obama’s pursuit of Latinos, race plays role.” It is a train wreck of a story. It starts by positing a unitary group called “Latinos,” in fact a hugely varied population with nothing in common but Hispanic surnames  fifth-generation Texans of Spanish origin, Cuban-Americans who’ve been Floridians for 40 years, recent Argentine arrivals whose grandparents are Italian, etc. The article then bases its argument that “Latinos” aren’t “ready for a person of color”  ignoring the vast Spanish-speaking population of Indian or African ancestry  largely on quotes from a 20-year-old from East Los Angeles and a man whose grandmother might not vote for Obama.

Not content with thinly-sourced generalizations about race bias, the article shifts to gender bias. Latinos, we learn, are culturally inclined for Clinton because they are “family-oriented” and, as a Las Vegas politico said, “we respect our mothers.” So long, mindless machismo; welcome, apron-huggers.

It’s not just that the Times article was unusually bad. The problem is that the entire undertaking is doomed. Journalists cannot know whether these attributes they spend so much time ballyhooing will really matter. This is uncharted terrain.

Worse, not only is the reporting futile, it’s harmful. It invariably summons forth bigotry and causes it to be reinvigorated, reiterated, reasserted. When you ask if somebody would vote to put “a woman” in the White House, what are you asking but how powerfully traditional stereotypes have a grip on that person’s imagination? How does any answer contribute to truthful political discourse, compel candidates to come clean with hopes and plans, clarify issues so voters can make wiser decisions? How does it even illuminate the thinking of the electorate, since nobody can know how truthful  let alone how representative  the answer is?

Hence a radical proposal: Embargo “diversity” and its misbegotten offspring from campaign coverage. Ours are the elections of a sovereign republic, not some ragtag assemblage of tribes and sects. Cover individuals and issues. And may the best man or woman win.

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