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Norman Solomon
3 Oct 2009
Rediscovering the Real Columbus

Columbus Day is a national holiday. But it's also a good time to confront the mythology about the heroic … Read More.

26 Sep 2009
A Farewell Column, But Not Goodbye

Seventeen and a half years ago — at a time when a little-known governor named Bill Clinton was running … Read More.

12 Sep 2009
The Devastating Spin for War

For those who believe in making war, Kabul is a notable work product. After 30 years, the results are in: a … Read More.

The Media Can Learn from Obama


Unfortunately, journalists are not often prone to deep reflection. Deadlines and conventional wisdom are powerful forces that usually keep introspection at bay. But there are signs that Barack Obama achieved a breakthrough with his landmark speech on race relations in Philadelphia on March 18, and the news media — along with our entire society — stand to gain a great deal from what he had to say.

In an era and a society that's apt to use the phrase "that's history" as a dismissive comment, Obama went deeply into a past that lives on in the American present.

"We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country," he said. "But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven't fixed them, 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students."

And, Obama added, "Legalized discrimination — where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments — meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today's urban and rural communities."

With such willingness to see the present in context of what has come before, Barack Obama turned his speech into an address worthy of history instead of a stopover for campaign oratory. He lifted the national discourse while boosting his own political prospects in the process.

The spark for Obama's speech came from the media firestorm over some radical comments made by the longtime minister of his church, the Rev.

Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. — but Obama turned the occasion into a well-utilized opportunity to explore some of the murky depths of "race" in the United States.

Of course, more than a few media brickbats followed closely behind. But much of the journalistic commentary was favorable. "Mr. Obama's speech was an extraordinary moment of truth-telling," said the lead editorial the next morning in The Washington Post, a bellwether of establishment media opinion. "He coupled it with an appeal that this year's campaign not be dominated by distorted and polarizing debates about whether he or his opponents agree with extreme statements by supporters — or other attempts to divide the electorate along racial lines. Far better, he argued, that Americans of all races recognize they face common economic, social and security problems."

The Post editorial concluded: "We don't agree with the way Mr. Obama described some of those problems yesterday or with some of his solutions for them. But he was right to condemn the Rev. Wright's words, was eloquent in describing the persistent challenge of race and racism in American society — and was right in proposing that this year's campaign rise above 'a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism.'"

All too often — as a matter of fact, nearly always — what passes for mass media's political discourse on race-related issues in the USA skirts the basic continuing impacts of the nation's awful racial legacies. It's hard to imagine any other politician on the national political scene who could deliver the quality of speech that Obama provided last Tuesday.

Contrary to the common media line that Obama distinguishes himself with mere oratory, this is a presidential candidate who is ready, willing and able to elevate the country's discourse — and, along with it, the atmosphere of media reporting and punditry. That's a Herculean task, and no one can accomplish it alone. That's why none of us should be content to watch Obama do what he can. The rest of us should take it upon ourselves to participate in genuine dialogue and find out what is possible when we try to use the First Amendment for purposes of generating more light than heat.

Norman Solomon's is the author of "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State." For information about Norman Solomon, go to, or visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



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