Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why I buried my first exclusive with Barack Obama

Yesterday I had to bail on an opportunity to say a few words about covering the Barack Obama campaign during the celebration of his inauguration at The Royale. Before I realized that, with half the staff of The St. Louis American on assignment in Washington, D.C., I needed to remain close to the home base, I did think of a few words I might say. So I will say them here.

I have spoken personally to Barack Obama twice, during two personal phone calls he placed to me as editorial director of The St. Louis American - once very early in the Democratic primary, when (believe it or not) not everyone even knew who he was, and once just two weeks before the general election, as more than 100,000 people waited to hear him speak on the Gateway Arch grounds in Downtown St. Louis.

When Obama called during the primary, I was out and about with my friend Frank Di Piazza. I was writing a feature for St. Louis Magazine, and Frank was shooting it. I took him down to the subject's house in the States Streets neighborhood, near the Mississippi River. While Frank was shooting the photo, I fielded the call from Obama's media handler and had about 15 minutes to ask the candidate questions.

It is difficult to remember those days, but there was a time when many people did not know the name, face or voice of Barack Obama, let alone his signature views. I did not expect most of our readers to know Obama's stump speech. In fact, most of our newsroom still did not believe Obama had a ghost of a chance to win the Democratic primary, which was the main reason I was doing the exclusive interview.

In no way am I trying to show up my colleagues when I say this. All along, I have argued that it was easier for a white progressive like myself to embrace Obama as a viable candidate than for black Americans, because white progressives had so much more reason to believe in a large plurality of educated, open-minded non-black people who would vote for the best candidate, regardless of race - or for whom Obama's race might actually be an incentive.

Early in the primary, however, many black folks in St. Louis were not buying it. I know, because that's one of the things I do every day - I talk to black folks in St. Louis about politics. Many black folks here thought Obama was not American or black enough to get their vote - or, alternately, that he was too black to get America's vote. Or they thought he was an irrelevant nuisance getting in the way of a credible and attractive known phenomenon in Hillary Clinton (or John Edwards, not yet in baby mama disgrace).

I didn't argue with anybody about this. I just said, over and over, "Hey, I'm a white progressive, and Obama is our candidate." And in that spirit I accepted the exclusive interview opportunity, which in other circumstaces I would have passed off to a reporter.

I then did another thing I never do: I asked the candidate questions I already knew the answer to. Why would I do that?

Because our readers didn't know his stump speech yet, so I gave him a chance to air it out for them. The only thing I asked him that was even remotely off the beaten path was what he would say to someone who questioned whether or not he was really "black enough". (I prefaced the question by saying I thought it was a ridiculous question, but people were asking it and they deserved an answer.)

I knew the answer to that question, too - and he dutifully gave it to me.

We spoke on a Friday afternoon, and hotter local news had come around before we went to press again the next Wednesday (deadline day) - and I knew that most black folks in St. Louis still really didn't want to hear about this Barack Obama nobody - and that is why the first exclusive interview with Barack Obama in the St. Louis media market during his presidential campaign ran INSIDE a black newsweekly.

Yes - I buried my first exclusive with Barack Obama! I ended our interview by telling him he had my vote - but I buried the interview in the back pages! And not one person asked me why I downplayed it like that, or made any remark about the exclusive interview at all. After all, who was Barack Obama and what chance did he have of being the next president?

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about my second exclusive with Obama, when everybody knew his name, and everybody wanted to take that call - but I hogged it for myself because I felt like I had earned it.


Photo of myself in the background as Obama talks to Michael McMillan and April Ford Griffin (and other local black leaders) by Wiley Price. I know, the shades are ridiculous, but they are prescription and I had stepped on my frame with the non-tinted lenses and destroyed them!

1 comment:

A.A. said...

You know that photo will come up on someones conspiracy blog 20 years from now......'hey who is that operative in the shades behind Obama'....!?