When Barack Obama ascends the stage Sunday at the Unity journalism convention, fresh from an exhaustively chronicled overseas tour, he will face a surprisingly divided audience.
Not on the subject of whether Obama should be president — members of the four minority organizations that comprise Unity are largely Democratic. But many at the quadrennial gathering differ on whether the underlying current of enthusiasm for Obama’s historic candidacy should be constrained or allowed to spill forth on live television.
“This is not a pep rally,” said Tonju Francois, a producer for CNN en Espanol and board member of the National Association of Black Journalists. “I don’t want to say it’s offensive, but the idea that just because he’s a black candidate, somehow our journalistic ethics would go out the window … I think we need to behave.”
“People don’t view (attending Obama’s speech) as work,” said Connie Llanos, a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News and member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “We’re not going to write about it, so you’re allowed to voice your emotion or feeling.”
Still, “people shouldn’t be throwing underwear,” said Veronica Garcia, a NAHJ board member and copy editor who spent 17 years at the Los Angeles Times. “We’re journalists. We should strive to be a little objective.”
Conservatives have spent years decrying a liberal media bias; Democrats fought over how Hillary Clinton’s primary coverage compared with Obama’s. This week, the campaign of John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, sniped at the media constellation chasing Obama on his excursion through the Middle East and Europe. And questions of personal politics have plagued journalists of all backgrounds.
But even against this backdrop, the Unity journalists face some unique pressures. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry inspired a standing ovation; President Bush got a few boos during his speech, which disturbed some of the journalists present.
Barbara Ciara, president of NABJ and the anchor/managing editor at WTKR in Norfolk, Va., said it would be inappropriate “to show enthusiasm on any level” on Sunday because of a perception that minority journalists’ coverage is slanted by their ethnicity.
“Maybe I’m a little bit old school, but I do believe there’s a trust we have to achieve with our audience of viewers, listeners and readers,” she said. “In order to trust you, they have to believe you’re going to act dispassionately. You can’t start jumping around like a little bumblebee just because a bee that looks like you is in the room.”
Leonard Pitts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald, believes that media objectivity is “a fairy tale we’re supposed to pledge allegiance to.” As one of the panelists who will question Obama on Sunday, he’s more concerned with being fair to both sides, and he isn’t bothered by the prospect of a few extra cheers.
“It’s asking a little bit much to ask a room full of African-American journalists, or a room full of journalists of color, who have seen people like them and probably seem themselves excluded many times on the basis of color, not to have some sort of emotional reaction to the success of the person who may arguably become the first African-American president,” said Pitts, who is black.
Said Luz Villarreal, an associate producer for “Dateline NBC”: “I don’t think it’s such a bad thing if for 15 minutes you take off your reporter hat and respond to (Obama) as a human being at an event where you’re surrounded by people of color and you’re here for a united cause.”
In the new media world of attack blogs, pundit power and felled newspapers, perhaps Obama’s candidacy is marking yet another milestone.
“Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of our era,” said Pitts, the columnist. “There’s no getting around that, there’s no asking people not to respond to that. … Journalists are recruited from the human race. And as long as they’re recruited from the human race they’re going to have emotions, and they’re going to have feelings.”