When a Republican presidential candidate goes around talking about Barack Obama as the "food stamp president," eventually reporters are going to have to write about racism. But how they talk about the issue in instructive. In today's New York Times (1/18/12), Jim Rutenberg has a piece headlined "Risks for GOP in Attacks With Racial Themes," where we learn this about Newt Gingrich's food stamp rhetoric:
Mr. Gingrich was clearly making the case that he is the candidate most able to take the fight to Mr. Obama in the fall, but he was also laying bare risks for his party when it comes to invoking arguments perceived to carry racial themes or other value-laden attack lines.
This is the kind of language one expects to encounter when reporters have to figure out ways to talk about racism without calling it racism. In Monday's Times (1/16/12–Martin Luther King Jr. Day), John Harwood reported on why several Republicans didn't pursue the presidential nomination:
Political heavyweights who declined to enter the 2012 race all had uniquely personal reasons. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana faced family resistance; former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi feared being bogged down in the politics of race; Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey doubted his readiness for the Oval Office.
People who remember the Barbour story might not recall anything about a bog. Barbour talked to the Weekly Standard in late 2010, and he professed fond memories of the white supremacist Citizens Council groups in Mississippi. In Barbour's mind they were anti-Klan activists, which as critics pointed out, is a rather remarkable description of groups that were founded to oppose school integration and protest civil rights advocates.
That controversy brought up other unpleasant Barbour stories, like this anecdote from a 1982 New York Times article (dug up by Ben Smith at Politico) about Barbour's Congressional campaign:
But the racial sensitivity at Barbour headquarters was suggested by an exchange between the candidate and an aide who complained that there would be "coons" at a campaign stop at the state fair. Embarrassed that a reporter heard this, Mr. Barbour warned that if the aide persisted in racist remarks,he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks.
That the obvious racism on display is characterized as "racial sensitivity" suggests the Times hasn't changed a whole lot over the years.
One point that Rutenberg's piece today makes is that the pointed questions that were posed to Gingrich at the recent debate were asked by a black reporter: Fox's Juan Williams. To Williams, there's nothing subtle about what Gingrich is doing here; it is "more than a dog whistle…. It's a hoot and a holler."
It could be that journalists of color would be more likely to call out a candidate making these kinds of appeals. That's less likely when there are few journalists of color covering the campaign. To take just one outlet as an example, Richard Prince recently noted in his Journal-isms column (1/4/12) that Time magazine does not have any blacks or Latinos covering the 2012 political season.