During the Republican presidential race, members of the press corps have recently implied racist motivations from three of the candidates before getting all the facts of the story. Are reporters too quick to assume that Republican candidates, in particular, are motivated by racism?
Romney and the KKK
In the first example, MSNBC and The Washington Post ran a story in December that implied Mitt Romney had ties to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist organization. A liberal blog, AmericaBlog.com, first reported that Romney used the phrase “keep America American,” which was also a KKK slogan in the 1920s. A blogger for The Washington Post and a reporter for MSNBC then picked up the story.
Under the title, “Mitt Romney is using a KKK slogan in his speeches,” Washington Post blogger Elizabeth Flock asserted, “When the white supremacist group used 'Keep America American,' it was to rally people against blacks American, gay people, Catholics and Jews. When Romney’s used it, as he did in this Los Angeles Times piece, it was to promise that as president he would 'keep America American with the principles that made us the greatest nation on Earth.'”
MSNBC ran their story based upon the AmericaBlog post during the 11 a.m. hour the same day. The segment showed scenes of Romney campaigning under the heading, “Romney's KKK Slogan?” The MSNBC host can be heard chuckling as he explains to his audience that “keep America American” was a rallying cry for the KKK in the 1920s.
Both The Washington Post and MSNBC issued apologies the same day.
The Washington Post placed an editor’s note above the post which begins, “This posting contains multiple, serious factual errors that undermine its premise.” It then lists a host of errors in the post, including the fact that Romney did not say, “keep America American.” He said “keep America America” in the video that Flock cited, which is different because it lacks the xenophobia implied in “keep America American.”
Chris Matthews delivered the apology for MSNBC, saying, “It was irresponsible and incendiary of us to do this and showed an appalling lack of judgment. We apologize, we really do, to the Romney campaign.”
Flock also noted that the Los Angeles Times reported that Romney said “keep America American” in a speech in Iowa. Carl M. Cannon, Washington editor for RealClearPolitics, contacted Seema Mehta, the reporter who wrote the story and asked if she was certain that Romney said that. After checking her voice recorder, she reported back to Cannon, “I screwed up. [Romney] said, 'keep America America.' We'll correct it.”
Patrick Pexton, ombudsman for The Washington Post, wrote a blog post noting the many failures in reporting on the story, and noted the need for reporters to be particularly sensitive when a story could damage a person's reputation.
Pexton finishes his post by saying, “I mean, really, Mitt Romney may be many things, but has anyone, anywhere, accused him of being a KKK sympathizer, racist, or anything similar? I don’t think so.”
Paul's Racist Newsletters
In the second example, Texas Congressman Ron Paul was reported to have a relationship to newsletters with racist sentiments.
In the closing weeks of December polling in Iowa showed Paul was leading, or close to leading in that state's caucus. It was then that several reporters began asking questions about the newsletters published by a company that Paul owned.
Unlike the first example, there is no egregious lack of journalistic integrity, but, there are some questions about the choice of timing and shallowness of the research.
As the story developed, Paul did not handle the situation well. He became testy in some of the interviews and gave confusing and inconsistent answers.
The story itself, however, was not new. It was brought up in Paul's 1996 U.S. House election, his 2008 presidential election and several times in between. Reporters were asking Paul legitimate questions, but he announced his candidacy last May. Why wait until December to ask about it?
Another difficulty with the media's reporting on the Paul newsletters is that while the reports suggested that Paul could be racist, there was little effort to present information that would suggest Paul is not a racist. (See, for instance, this CNN interview.)
When a reporter suggests that someone might be racist, it then becomes incumbent upon the accused to prove that they are not racist. It is more difficult to prove a negative (you are not a racist) than that a positive (you are a racist). Pexton's advice to reporters regarding the Romney/KKK incident becomes relevant here as well.
Pexton wrote, “Any reporter doing a story that questions a person’s reputation in a direct and public way, such as accusing Mitt Romney of using a KKK slogan, should stop and consider whether, first of all, does that make sense, knowing what you know about the person.”
In the absence of any other evidence that Paul is racist, the newsletters were nonetheless the main news in much of the press on Paul in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucus. Plus, there seemed to be little attempt to balance the story with evidence that Paul is not racist.
Santorum and “Black People”
In the third example, Rick Santorum was accused of saying that he does not want to make black people's lives better.
Campaigning in Iowa on Sunday, many news reports stated that Santorum said, “I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
When listening to the clip of what Santorum said, however, it sounded more like this, “I don't want to make ... mmblagh ... people's lives better ... .”
So, did Santorum really mean “black” when he said “mmblagh”? The answer is not entirely clear. Most of the media, however, just assumed that he said “black” and reported the story that way, without getting clarification from the Santorum campaign or noting that his words were jumbled and he may have said something else. The fact that his words were unclear and the context of the question did not have anything to do with race, should have given reporters pause.
In a Wednesday night interview on Fox News, Santorum said he watched the video and did not say “black.”
“If you look at it, what I started to say is a word and then sort of changed and it sort of – blah – came out. And people said I said 'black.' I didn't," Santorum said. “And I can tell you, ... I don't use the term ‘black’ very often. I use the term ‘African-American’ more than I use 'black.' ... I think sometimes you want to give someone the benefit of the doubt if it's a little bit of a blurred word.”
Republicans and Race
The Republican Party began as an anti-slavery party in the 1850s and had the strong support of African-Americans for about a century. That changed in the 1960s when the party embarked on its “Southern strategy,” which was to unite Western libertarians with white Southerners who wanted the federal government to not interfere with their disenfranchisement and apartheid of black Southerners.
The 1964 presidential election, in particular, was a turning point. Even though most of the opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came from Southern Democrats before that election, the Democratic nominee, President Lyndon Johnson, had signed the act, and the Republican nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) voted against it. Blacks gravitated to the Democratic Party in large numbers.
It may be that, because the Republican Party sought to include racists in their coalition in the 1960s, Republican candidates are not given the benefit of the doubt by the news media when confronted with information of a potentially racist nature.