New York Law School

The Challenge of Black Commentators in the Obama Era

Political commentary has certainly been contentious since the election of President Barack Obama. However, a new phenomenon has arisen since the election of the nation’s first black president: differing opinions of black commentators regarding their criticism of President Obama, especially regarding issues of race. This has led to two sharp extremes: some steadfastly defend the President on all accounts, while others have harshly criticized him, using incredibly inflammatory rhetoric in the process.

On November 9, 2012, just days after the reelection of President Barack Obama, broadcaster Tavis Smiley and professor and activist Dr. Cornel West joined Democracy Now! for an interview discussing poverty in America; specifically, the lack of dialogue on the issue, both in the media and from President Obama. Host Amy Goodman asked Dr. West who currently is ahead regarding poverty in America, and who is not. After expressing his disappointment in how much campaign money was spent without any serious discussion of poverty in America, Dr. West had some choice words to share regarding his feelings towards President Obama:

CORNEL WEST: So it’s very sad. I mean, I’m glad there was not a right-wing takeover, but we end up with a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface, with Barack Obama, so that our struggle with regard to poverty intensifies.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a pretty rough assessment of President Obama.

CORNEL WEST: Oh, that’s what we have. That’s what we have. Richard Nixon is to the left of him on healthcare. Richard Nixon is to the left of him on guaranteed income. And the same policies in terms of imperial foreign policy is at work…

As the discussion transitioned to the topic of the political left pressing President Obama for change, Ms. Goodman brought up a clip from a debate held in September with author/MSNBC analyst/professor Michael Eric Dyson. In the clip, Mr. Dyson argued, “Obama is as progressive a figure who has the chance of being elected in America. Friedrich Engels is not going to be the secretary of labor, and Marx will not be the secretary of treasury, bottom line,” and says “he’s the most progressive president…since FDR.” When Ms. Goodman requested a response from Mr. Smiley and Mr. West, they responded thusly:

TAVIS SMILEY: It is so disappointing… to hear Michael, Professor Dyson, advance that kind of argument. He comes out of a black prophetic tradition that is rooted in speaking truth to power—and, I might add, to the powerless. But to somehow try to suggest in any way that this president has been progressive or is the best example of progressivism that we could put forth in this country is just inaccurate. […]

And so, what I hear in Professor Dyson’s critique is that there is some excuse to be made or that we have to settle for this as the best example of progressivism that we can find. And Doc and I just don’t believe in settling. We don’t believe in making excuses. We believe that if he is not pushed, he’s going to be a transactional president and not a transformational president. And we believe that the time is now for action and no longer accommodation. But that doesn’t happen unless you’re pushed.

CORNEL WEST: And Brother Tavis is being very kind, because he’s right. I love Brother Mike Dyson, too, but we’re living in a society where everybody is up for sale. Everything is up for sale. And he and Brother [Reverend Al] Sharpton and Sister Melissa [Harris-Perry] and others, they have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves. But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kind of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people. […]  And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way, given the kind of critical background that all of them have had at some point.

Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson, and Melissa Harris-Perry all work for MSNBC. In recent years, MSNBC has been widely recognized as the liberal foil to FOXNews, where both hosts and guests are labeled Obama apologists. Some of Dr. West’s targeted criticism of these commentators is fueled by ongoing personal feuds. However, there is evidence that justifies Dr. West’s claims of commentators compromising their journalistic integrity in exchange for political favors. Take this transcript excerpt from a 60 Minutes interview with Al Sharpton and Lesley Stahl:

[Stahl narrating:] Sharpton told us that having a black president is a challenge: if he finds fault with Mr. Obama, he’d be aiding those who want to destroy him. So he has decided not to criticize the president about anything – even about black unemployment, which is twice the national rate.

“Have you told other blacks not to criticize him publically?” Stahl asked.

“What I’ve told them is to be genuine about it. There are some blacks that say he needs to go with a black agenda. He needs to do this. He said when he was running he wasn’t gonna do that. Duh. Surprise,” Sharpton said.

“But just because he didn’t campaign on improving unemployment in black areas, why aren’t you out there saying, ‘We need more done?'” Stahl asked.

“What I don’t want to see is because he’s black that we act like he’s not the real president. ‘He ought to be leading the black cause or the labor cause,’ He’s the president. To minimize who he is, I think is an insult to the achievement of having him there,” Sharpton said.

[Stahl narrating:] Given his loyalty and his change from confrontational to accommodating, the administration is rewarding him with access and assignments, like making him a spokesman for their education policy and sending him on the road with Newt Gingrich, of all people, to build support for hiring better teachers.

The existence of cable news commentators lacking political objectivity is not a new phenomenon. Every cable news channel has its own media personalities, and each of those personalities carries its own political biases. Conservative commentators on FOXNews are far more favorable to conservatives who fall in line with the rest of the party, and individuals who do not fall in line are ostracized and demonized by the conservative community. Even MSNBC, with their progressive “Lean Forward” campaign, pushes for progressive candidates and policies with their own line of commentators. Commentators from each side of the political spectrum make sure that their own candidates are protected from scrutiny in order to champion their political interests.

However, it is a new phenomenon for news commentators to protect political figures based on race. Rev. Sharpton is right to point out that President Obama is not simply the leader of the black cause, and his importance should not be minimized just because of the color of his skin. However, it is completely indefensible for Sharpton to publicly say that he will not criticize the President about anything. His justification for not criticizing the President is not based on policy grounds, nor is it based on party affiliation. While Rev. Sharpton says the President’s role shouldn’t be minimized because he is black, Sharpton’s justification for not criticizing the President about anything seems to be because he is the first black President. As a result, Sharpton protects the President because of his race while simultaneously ignoring critical issues that affect the black community. To then be rewarded by the administration with assignments and access for being “accommodating” is even more damning, and makes Dr. West’s criticism of Rev. Sharpton look entirely appropriate.

In defense of Ms. Harris-Perry, she takes a more reasoned approach to handling issues involving President Obama. Discussing Dr. West’s criticism of President Obama, she recognizes that Dr. West and herself are tenured professors, and thus “are not meaningfully accountable,” as opposed to President Obama who is accountable by the voters. This is true- it’s what gives Dr. West the license to criticize the President on legitimate policy issues while using language as inflammatory as calling the President“a Rockefeller Republican in blackface” without any real repercussions. However, it does not explain Dr. West’s criticisms of Ms. Harris-Perry and other black commentators as being unwilling to provide a voice for issues in black America during the Obama presidency.

As a result, we’re stuck with two vastly different approaches to dealing with the President and issues concerning the black community, neither of which are particularly helpful in advancing the public discourse in this nation on these issues. On the one hand, Dr. West’s rhetoric presents an incredibly inflammatory approach in an attempt to illuminate issues that concern the black community. On the other hand, we have Rev. Sharpton’s approach: protect President Obama from criticism at all costs, even if that means sacrificing the political dialogue needed to illuminate serious problems in this nation, including those concerning black communities.

With that in mind, which approach is more damaging to the public in the long run? More importantly, which approach is more damaging to the black community in the long run? Surely, the President does not shoulder all of the blame when it comes to critical issues pertaining to black communities in America. Similarly, it is not incumbent on all black commentators in America to speak exclusively on issues of race, particularly issues concerning the black community. That being said, to be silent on these issues is to imply that the President bears no responsibility at all. As a result, this diminishes the responsibility and accountability of the President. It also fails to fully represent the problems these communities face, and ultimately undermines any potential solutions for these issues.  While Dr. West’s words might catch some of the public’s attention for its sheer shock-value, the inflammatory language he uses diminishes whatever legitimate substantive policy issues he tries to raise. However, Dr. West’s approach can also be viewed as a desperate response to people like Rev. Sharpton, who refuses to acknowledge that a real problem exists. When the host of a news and commentary program grants an administration complete immunity from criticism and is subsequently rewarded for his silence, it appears to be a fundamental betrayal of one’s responsibility to deliver truth and honesty to an audience. Dr. West’s words are harsh, inflammatory, and some may say completely inappropriate, but his words also created a conversation. The public deserves a conversation, not silence.

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