Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Rule of Three

There's an old axiom in journalism that if you want to write about a trend, you have to have at least three examples.

It's a rule created to prevent reporters from stretching one incredible anecdote into a story on an amazing trend. Typically, reporters collect three examples of something happening, add a few statistics and an expert, an voila, we have a trend story. You get extra points if your trend story actually chronicles a normal occurrence that nobody else has noticed is special, like this New York Times story.

I thought about the rule of three this week after Clinton campaign surrogate Geraldine Ferraro said in a radio interview that Barack Obama is lucky he's a black man because otherwise he wouldn't be doing so well in this primary election. Read about her lovely comments at the blog Jack and Jill Politics.

Ignoring the gut-splitting premise that any black man in America is lucky, (Did she read this?) I'd like to focus on what type of media play this comment is going to get.

Those of us who have followed her campaign closely know that Clinton has made her living with subtly-coded, racist messages. Whether it has been her supporters insinuating that Obama is a Muslim drug dealer, that he's just a "kid," or that he's no different from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Clinton has not shied away from tapping into America's most prevalent, latent racial fears. (Check this out for a full accounting.)
Most of the time Clinton supporters attempt to hide their racist comments by claiming that black people just "misunderstood" what they were saying or that Obama and his folks are playing the race card. Both of those claims also are insulting, but I don't want to deal with that today.

Rather, I'd like to discuss how the media handles these events. True to form, media types report the original racist comments and then go to a black person or black sympathizer to get a reaction. That reaction is printed and everybody moves on. The next time an incident occurs, the whole process is repeated. If readers are lucky, they might get a story about how the racist comments might affect voters.

That's it.

What we don't get is a bunch of stories discussing how the Clinton's behavior is evidence of a racist trend. I mean, there have been far more than three examples of them appealing to racist sentiment, and while the campaign has dutifully apologized for each "mistake," they still happened. In my mind, that warrants a thorough vetting of why exactly these "mistakes" keep occurring and an explanation of what emotions the campaign is trying to target.

See, it's the media's job to deconstruct myths and lies. However, when it comes to certain topics, particularly race-related topics, media types seem loathe to point out and discuss trends or deeper issues. Look, I understand that calling a white person a racist is like giving Michael Vick a puppy for Christmas; it's going to cause some outrage. I also understand that the media is loathe to take sides in racial issues unless someone uses one of the "magic hate words."

But, using standard media rules, it's clear that what's occurring with Clinton's campaign is a trend. At least it's clear to anybody who doesn't have their heads up their asses. So, if the media created the rules, they need to follow the damn rules. Don't pussyfoot around the issues by framing the story as if there is a question whether or not a trend exists. The trend exists, just like the trend of George Bush lying every time he holds a press conference. Report the trend.

Follow the rules.


Dark & Stormy said...


Big Man, well said. Great post!

Lesley Q said...

Big Man, it is because of this trend that I will not vote for her ass in November if she should become the nominee. It pains me to say it. I do not take my voting privileges lightly; my mother put her life on the line during the voter registration drives of the 1960s. Thus, you can imagine what voting means to my family.

However, I cannot in good conscience vote for someone who is all but saying "F you n*ggers". She made all that hoopla over rejecting and denouncing Farrakhan, yet she and her staff are hell bent on making one insidious and racist move after another. I'm tired.

Eff Hoelary and that Grand Wizardess Ferraro.

Lolo said...

Do you happen to know how racially and ethnically diverse the average newspaper, newsroom, etc. is? I'm of the opinion that the fact that most coverage is done from they typical white, middle class, college educated male point of view, that the chance of there being any sort of depth in terms of culture and or race is pretty much as likely as Paris Hilton weaing underwear.

Come on, you must recall Jayson Blair. I swear, I haven't paid for one single issue of the NYT since they had Gerald Boyd fall on his sword and you know, I can go OFF on the staff make up of the fucking YT Times. Gah.

Sorry, what was I saying? Oh. The idea that ANY mainstream news outlet is going to address racism? Haaaa to infinity. Not unless it's sub rosa or de facto exploitation, not going to happen. Not until the newsrooms are comprised of more people that reflect life.

I open the local paper and what bleeds is what leads, as they say. I rarely see stories of how there are teenagers who are cleaning up the streets outside of their church (it happens but it doesn't play to the editorial staff, evidently) or the ones who are working to help support their family, while going to the local community college. But, you get some local roughs who act like life is cheap and dirty (and we have too much of that here too) well, that is front and center.

Bah. I'm grumpier than usual this week. Must be all the crappy news coverage of old bigots and their stupid statements.

vicdamonejr said...

The problem is that the media as a whole can't continue to portray Hillary as Darth Vader in a skirt, although that's what she is, while staying on its knees for Obama.

The media, as a whole, feels as though it must balance the mess, although she is obviously using tactics that exploit race and ethnicity.

You're right, though. Unless you use a magic word in front of a mic or mob a black man in front of camera ala Rodney King, not much is going to happen to you. Case in point, Rush Limbaugh is still on the air ...

oh yeah, I responded on the Whitlock thing on my blog ...

Big Man said...

Thanks for the comments y'all.

And Lesley, don't get too stressed out girl, don't let them win.


You're right about the average newsroom. Actually, there are many smaller papers in the country that don't have any black staffers.

But, the fact is that the makeup of newspapers is not holding them back from writing this story. They are only avoiding it because they don't want to have to deal with the fallout, not because they can't see what's happening. Can you imagine how hard Hillary's campaign would attack a media outlet that basically labeled her a racist? It's a fear of disturbing the status quo, not a lack of diversity that's preventing the coverage.

Lolo said...

Well ~ I just had a pleasant surprise. I have been catching bits of television news these days (normally it's too strident but I have to watch for the vote results) and what should I hear but Chris Matthews, saying how it's the job of the media to call this stuff out when it happens!! I'm kind of pinching myself.

He actually said how the 3 a.m. ad wasn't a 9/11 moment but "a 911" ad and that it was to raise our fears, the white mom and her sleeping children, about who's outside the peaceful house. Whoa. He spoke about "dog whistles" and how it's their job to point it out when it happens!!

I'm .... surprised, and impressed. Interesting times, indeed.

Anonymous said...

'Subtle' my A##! Both Shrillary and slick Willie are BLATANT racists and con artists who will use every and I do mean EVERY dirty trick in the book. I knew for years now that she and Bill weren't about s**t but that 'hard working WHITE Americans' crack put me right over the edge. But since too many black people were more than willing to drink the Kool-Aid I say you get what you pay for.

Raving Black Lunatic