The Story So Far: Very Famous Black Harvard Professor is arrested for breaking into his own Cambridge, MA house. Obama outraged. Media mayhem ensues. Cops pissed off. Tempest enters teapot. Obama invites VFBHP and cop to White House for a beer.
In other words, chillax, mofos!
Look, man, here's how it went down. Here's what Obama & Co. were thinking. What we have here, Obama thought, is the classic Town-Gown Conflict suddenly made tasty to the press corps – in part, but only in part – because this one event highlights the Great American Conflicts of rank, class and race in a single handcuff. Obama's seen this shit before, remember, both at Harvard and at the University of Chicago (the latter, a phenomenally white enclave surrounded by black Chicago slums which are currently among the most murderous of neighborhoods). This was a textbook example of how to turn a challenge into an opportunity, and – it must be said – without the cynicism that corporate or political interests tend to place upon that phrase.
But I'm not interested in the event.
I'm interested in the press's reaction. Moreover, I'm interested in, shall we say, “the press/political interface” – at this particular moment in time. Frank Rich is absolutely correct in his interpretation of Big Media's construction of this story:
[Obama] answers a single, legitimate race-based question at the end of a news conference and is roundly condemned for “stepping on his own message” about health care. It was the noisiest sector of the news media that did much of the stepping. “Health care is bad for ratings,” explained one cable anchor, Dylan Ratigan of MSNBC, with refreshing public candor. What a relief, then, to drop dreary debates about the public option and declare a national conversation about black-white fisticuffs.
What's hilarious is that even after Obama's remarkable speech at the Press Correspondents' Dinner (yes, I keep coming back to that), the media establishment, fighting for survival, continues to undermine itself. Even as veteran journalists like Mort Rosenblum write impassioned pleas for serious reportage, the monologuists in our national conversation chase headlines – rather than stories – like 3rd-graders chasing a soccer ball.
It's unfortunate that Obama labelled this episode “a teachable moment.” Guys don't have “teachable moments” – they buy each other beers, and and hash it out through laid-back conversations in private. But oh, no, the Media won't stand for an easing of tension; no, since this became a diversion largely created by the media itself, they certainly can't admit that it's much to do about nothing. Suddenly it's a “Beer Summit,” a label of such mock heroism that it could easily be our age's Rape of the Lock. (“This is not a summit, guys,” says Obama in a Huffington Post article headlined, “Obama Beer Summit.”) This rhetorical flourish – which abuses the political definition of a “summit” – then provides all license to mock the “heroism.” The so-called “Beer Summit” is then derided as a “failure” because it produces no apology, no absolute capitulation in black-and-white terms, and is designated (by professional cynics) as a self-serving PR event – even as reporters were forced to keep their distance from the get-together.
Of course talking heads want to talk about image, because they're obsessed with image. The White House correspondents of course want to talk about political gain and cost, because that's the lexicon of their beat. But the story exists in neither of these arenas. Descend through the layers of conflict: it's not just about African-Americans and the police; it's also about the expectations of power, authority and prestige that each person brings to the point of conflict – the white-collarm black-skinned professor; the blue-collar, white-skinned policeman; and, oh yes, the professor of Constitutional law who just happens to be a bi-racial President of the United States. Ultimately, the story is about achieving a level of mutual respect on the individual level: balancing not just rights but spheres of respect due. “This is a sergeant in the Cambridge police force: his job is to enforce the law.” “This is a citizen: an individual who may well be within his rights.” “This is the President, who has better things to do.”
Good, right? Done. Tired of this fish-wrapping? Me too. I'm losing my sympathy for the press corps. I'm stressed out about my health-care options. I need a beer. No, wait – make that a glass of red wine. I hear it has health benefits. But what if I appear too much of an effete elite? I must think about my image. The media would say that's very presidential of me.