Media Fall For “Race Card” Spin

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[Elections 2008]

Corporate media have been absurdly receptive to the McCain campaign's charge that Barack Obama "played the race card" by predicting that his opponents in the presidential race would try to use his race against him.

The fact is that racialized attacks are a standard part of the Republican playbook--and the strategy has been employed by key advisers to John McCain.

The "race card" controversy started when Obama responded to an ad by McCain that drew a nonsensical equation between Obama and celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears:

John McCain and the Republicans, they don’t have any new ideas, that's why they’re spending all their time talking about me.... Since they don't have any new ideas, the only strategy they've got in this election is to try to scare you about me. They're going to try to say that I'm a risky guy, they're going to try to say, "Well, you know, he's got a funny name and he doesn't look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five-dollar bills."

ABC News' Jake Tapper immediately called foul (Political Punch, 7/30/08), labeling Obama's prediction of race-baiting "pretty inflammatory": "There's a lot of racist xenophobic crap out there," Tapper acknowledged. "But not only has McCain not peddled any of it, he's condemned it."

(Tapper's comments recalled NPR's Scott Simon's outrage when Obama earlier previewed the Republican campaign against him with the phrase, "And did I mention he's black?" Scott declared on the June 21 Weekend Edition: "To my knowledge, Senator McCain has never mentioned Senator Obama's race, much less in the tone Senator Obama implied. What has John McCain ever done or said to merit the charge that he's going to make Senator Obama's race an issue?")

The McCain campaign itself chimed in on the "dollar bill" comment: "Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong." McCain's surrogates eagerly went on outlets like the Today show (8/1/08), Good Morning America (8/1/08), CNN Late Edition (8/3/08) and Fox News Sunday (8/3/08) to publicize their complaint--in one case charging that Obama was trying to instigate a "race war" (MSNBC, 8/1/08).

The New York Times (8/1/08) put the McCain camp's purported outrage on its front page --judging it a more important story than, for instance, a judge's ruling that the Bush administration claim that former officials could refuse to testify to Congress was "without any support in the case law," a story that ended up on page A12. The Times "race card" story, by Michael Cooper and Michael Powell, declared that the McCain camp's statement "effectively assured that race would once again become an unavoidable issue"--as though the New York Times' front page did not play a major role in determining which issues were "unavoidable."

Corporate media so accepted the McCain campaign's spin on this issue--when an Obama aide acknowledged that the "dollar bill" remark was an allusion to the candidate being African-American, (8/1/08) headlined the story "Obama Camp Admits Playing Race Card"--that it becomes difficult to see the obvious: that it's McCain and not Obama who is eager to see the 2008 campaign become a debate about race.

The shameful fact is that appeals to white racism have long been a winning part of the Republican playbook against African-American candidates--notably Harvey Gantt, who lost racially charged campaigns against Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) in 1990 and 1996, and Harold Ford, who lost a close race for an open Senate seat from Tennessee in 2006.

Gantt's 1990 loss is remembered for a notorious Helms ad in which white hands crumpled up a job application while an announcer intoned that the job had to go to a "less qualified minority." Ford's defeat is widely credited to an ad where a young white actress declared that she met the candidate at "the Playboy party;" she then winked at the camera, "Harold, call me." That ad's barely veiled appeal to white fears of race-mixing has been recalled (Talking Points Memo, 07/30/08) as a possible model for the McCain ad's juxtaposing Obama with white women well-known for their sexualized images--surely a more plausible explanation for their appearance in the ad than the McCain camp's claim that voters will actually see a similarity between Hilton and Spears on the one hand and the former community organizer and law professor on the other.

But McCain would never approve an ad with a covert appeal to racism, would he? That's the assumption behind media outrage at Obama's suggestion that racial messages might be used against him in the 2008 campaign. Yet the Republican strategist who created the anti-Ford ad, Terry Nelson, served as McCain's campaign manager from December 2006 until July 2007; at the time that he produced the ad he was an adviser to McCain (Austin American-Statesman, 10/26/06).

Meanwhile, the person who created the "white hands" ad, Alex Castellanos, serves as an outside adviser on advertising to the McCain campaign (New York Times, 5/12/08). (Castellanos is the spin doctor who declared on CNN that it was "accurate" to call some women "bitches"--Situation Room, 5/20/08).

McCain's chief campaign adviser, Charles Black, was a key strategist in Helms' 1990 race (, 7/4/08), and defended the ad in an appearance on PBS's NewsHour (11/5/90): "I advised Jesse Helms to do what he's always done."

McCain himself has defended the use of a racial slur to describe his captors in Vietnam. "I hate the gooks," he told reporters during the 2000 campaign (SFGate,
2/18/00). "I will hate them as long as I live."
And McCain gets credit for "candor" (Politico, 7/31/08) for acknowledging that he opportunistically described the Confederate battle flag as a "symbol of heritage" in order to win votes in the 2000 South Carolina primary (, 4/19/00).

In a rare exception to the media's uncritical coverage of McCain's claims, David Gergen pointed out on This Week (8/3/08) in relation to another ad that McCain ran that mockingly compared Obama to Moses:

There has been a very intentional effort to paint him as somebody outside the mainstream, other. He's not one of us. It's below the radar screen. I think the McCain campaign has been scrupulous about not directly saying it. But it's the subtext of this campaign. Everybody knows it. There are certain kinds of signals. As a native of the South, I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, "The One," that’s code for "he's uppity." "He ought to stay in his place." Everybody gets that who's from a Southern background.
(Watch clip on YouTube.)

And another guest on the August 3 This Week, Donna Brazile, was perhaps alone in corporate media in mentioning Michael Shaw's observation in the Huffington Post (8/1/08) that the McCain campaign actually had produced an ad that morphed Ben Franklin's face on a hundred-dollar bill into Obama's (YouTube, 6/27/08). If the point was not that Obama is out of place on money, what message was McCain trying to send?

It seems to be accepted in corporate media circles that it's worse to be accused of racism than it is to be subjected to racism. But maybe when a candidate has surrounded himself with advisers with a history of race-baiting, journalists ought to look more critically at that candidate's advertising--and at his charges that his opponent is "playing the race card."

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