With the media's freeze-out of the California senator, are we losing one of our best Democratic contenders for the presidency?
Here’s an experiment. Go into any white newsroom—which is to say, any newsroom—and offer $100 to the first person who can tell you what “AKA” stands for. Offer another $100 if they can name one famous member. Hell—give them $10 just to say what it is.
I promise, you will leave with your wallet intact.
I have thought of this, and various other experiments (“What’s the Talented Tenth? Who’s Barbara Jordan? Where’s Howard?”) as I watch the coverage—misguided, mistaken, or simply absent—of presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris. And I’ve tried to figure out why, when we know Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and the media continue to disdain or dismiss the one right there on the stage.
The trouble began with a New Yorker profile in July, just one month after Kamala’s “That Little Girl Was Me” moment gave her an enviable bump in the polls. It was a chance to let the electorate know the candidate more deeply, but reporter Dana Goodyear focused on seemingly manufactured moments, like the campaign’s visit to a coffee shop frequented by law students. (As if campaigns don’t assess the electoral value of every meat-on-a-stick.) She wrote that Harris has “crafted” a “contradictory” persona, and chased down former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, with whom Harris had a brief relationship in 1995, to ask about her “political education.” (He declined.)
Time’s Molly Ball was similarly confounded, telling readers, “At a time when the electorate is looking for sharp definitions and ambitious visions, her emphasis strikes some Democrats as vague and noncommittal … she seems both familiar and yet mysterious.” (At least she didn’t say, “Who knows what she’s cooking inside those silky sleeves?”) Yet another Molly, Buzzfeed News’s Hensley-Clancy, wrote that Kamala “confused voters” and was seen as a “cautious politician and unclear communicator.”
Yet when Kamala’s message is clear as day, the media doesn’t want to hear it. At last week’s debate, she called for Elizabeth Warren to join her is asking Twitter to suspend Trump. The blue-checks were aghast: Former Obama staffer and Pod Save America host Tommy Vietor railed, “I cannot believe @KamalaHarris is pushing this suspend Donald Trump’s twitter account bullshit at a presidential debate. It’s so small ball,” while his co-host Jon Lovett, Obama’s former speechwriter, called it “one of the more pathetic stunts I’ve seen in a debate.” Chris Hayes quipped: “Kamala 2020: I Will Get Trump to Log Off” while Nate Silver at 538 was bewildered: “She decides to take her big stand on whether Trump is violating the Twitter Terms of Service?”
It’s not surprising to me that Kamala’s biggest moment with the media (and biggest bump in the polls) came, instead, when she told a story about bussing. The white media is happy to allow a Black woman to be the voice on segregation. They just aren’t interested in her being the voice on anything else.
In fact, they are so uninterested, they tend to leave her out of stories entirely. Usually, the media fact-checks supporters. Kamala Harris needs supporters to fact-check the media. Into this vacuum has risen #khive, a doughty Twitter group of hilarious, ride-or-die Kamala supporters. (Confession: I’m a frequent retweeter.) It was #khive that corrected the Daily Beast when it gave Pete Buttigieg credit for Kamala’s drug-cap proposal; that reminded the Washington Blade that Harris, whose participation in the LGBTQ community is legendary, had also just released a comprehensive plan; #khive that pointed out that Kamala had focused on Black maternal health long before Warren; #khive that informed the journalist who said Elizabeth Warren was first out of the gate with a plan for the rights of sex workers that—you got it. A #khive member created a master thread of all the times Kamala was erased by the media, and it continues to expand. But a thread tweeted to thousands is no match for an article seen by millions.
Many of the #khive members have #stillwithher on their profiles and, as Biden slides in the polls, the media seem to take it for granted that the Hillary coalition, of which Black women were the lifeblood, will naturally redound to the next frontrunner. This assumption is dangerous. Neither Warren nor Bernie has built the coalition of Black voters Hillary did (which they acknowledge) and the fact the media repeatedly absolve them is part of the problem.
Reporters do not only erase Harris from the story. They erase the depressingly regular racist eruption, such as the mortifying hymn Warren sang at the LGBTQ debate featuring white, Black, and “yellow” children. There was no mention of that in the media the next day—only glowing clips of a clever joke she’d made. At the last debate, Bernie, for the 800th time, equated “working class” with white. The chattering heads debated how healthy he looked. Voters of color and LGBTQ voters regularly express discomfort with Warren’s lengthy stint as a Republican; with Bernie’s pivot from every question about race and discrimination to class. Indigenous leaders have yet to find Warren’s explanation for claiming to be “Native American” satisfactory. But giving voice to these concerns is equated with giving Trump ammunition.
Well, listen—sticking with Medicare-for-All is giving Trump plenty of ammunition too. But, as when the media dismissed Kamala’s Twitter call as “small ball” they read calling out all racism in the light of self-interest. #khive’s Chris Evans, aka @notcapnamerica, observed: “The very same people praising Elizabeth Warren for going after Facebook are now upset with @KamalaHarris for pointing out that Twitter should held responsible for their complicity in spreading Trump’s hateful propaganda on their platform.” But Warren’s stunt on Facebook is aimed at FB undermining the free press, of which those journalists above are card-carrying members. Trump’s Twitter feed only endangers the lives of people of color.
So why ignore the one candidate that has actual appeal for the Hillary coalition? I wonder if Kamala is simply so far out of the frame of reference for white journalists that they, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, don’t know what they don’t know. As a journalist, calling a subject “mysterious” or “contradictory” makes as much sense as a teacher calling a student ignorant. Factcheck: that’s why you have your job. But how can you understand Kamala’s policies, the choices she’s made in her career, if cops smile at you and you can’t point to Fisk on a map? Of course, you don’t explore why Kamala went to an HBCU; or what it meant to be Indian American and Black; or what it means to be a career prosecutor in a criminal justice system steeped in racism. Why would you? Are you going to an AKA reunion any time soon?
White people of all stripes accepted Obama because he met them where they were: for liberals, he was the man who would finally prove they weren’t racist; for conservatives, he was the man who said they never would have to think about race again. (As he knew full well.) Kamala isn’t offering the same payoff. She doesn’t come with a free prize, and she doesn’t let the media get away with digging out their old Obama notes to cover her. As she told Goodyear, she’s not continuing Obama’s legacy—she has her own. If the media will let her.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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