Why there is so much media coverage of Ralph Northam’s racist photo
Man bites dog
Reaction to the unearthing of a thirty-year old medical school yearbook photo in which Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, posed either in blackface or in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Northam, after initially admitting that he was one of the models, has now chosen to deny his earlier position. As Soledad O’Brien pointed out, why would he include such a picture in his yearbook profile if he was not in the picture?
Or, as Leon Wolf pointed out, is it better that Northam included this picture in his yearbook profile if he was not one of the models?
At any rate, Northam’s in big trouble, and I predict he will be out of his job this week.
Several commentators had expected Democrats to behave as cynically and self-servingly as Republicans have in hypocritically protecting wrong-doers who happen to share their party affiliation. Most of these commentators have had to admit they were wrong. In fact, the reaction among Democrats has been universally negative, urging their fellow Democrat to resign.
There are at least two other storylines developing related to this revelation. The first has to do with Republicans calling for Northam to resign. In many cases, these are the same Republicans, including Donald Trump, who defended Roy Moore, or the white supremacists in Charlotte, or Mitch McConnell pictured smiling before the ultimate sign of treason: a confederate battle flag.
The reaction of the twitterverse has been intensely negative to such comments by Republicans. While Democrats have no love lost for Northam at this point, they point out that Republicans have no credibility on this issue. Perhaps they should first clean their own house before worrying about the Democrats.
As Richard Nixon once reportedly said, allegedly quoting Napoleon,
“Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.”
I would dispute the characterization of this incident as the Democrats destroying themselves, by the way. Ralph Northam is certainly destroying himself, with his pitiful press conference assisting in that process. But Democrats in general have responded admirably.
The second ancillary storyline has to do with the media coverage itself. Coverage of the Northam revelation has been wall-to-wall for the past few days. Three stories on the front page of today’s The New York Times address the incident. All this is prompting some commentators to bemoan the relatively light coverage of many Republican racist incidents, such as McConnell’s picture above, when compared to the overwhelming coverage the media has given to the Northam debacle.
There are at least two reasons for this difference. The first has to do with what is news. There is that famous saying that dog biting a man is not news, while a man biting a dog is. At this point, Republicans behaving as racists is a dog biting a man story. Indeed, it is probably the case that the Republican brand is now inextricably associated with racism.
On the other hand, a Democratic official with a racist past is a dog bites man story.
Remember that the Democratic Lieutenant Governor is a very impressive African-American man, and Northam was praised during the campaign for his past advocacy of civil rights.
Evidence of this fact comes from the revelation that Northam’s Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, probably had discovered this picture during the campaign. Gillespie’s campaign, however, reportedly did not use the picture for fear of alienating the Republican white supremacist constituencies.
The second reason the media has given this story so much coverage relative to Republican racist incidents has to do with the fact that the media want to have an impact on the public debate. This coverage of Northam has led to a Democratic outcry that will likely lead to Northam’s resignation. On the other hand, coverage of another Republican behaving like a racist accomplishes nothing at this point. Republicans don’t care — in fact, many of them like it — and Democratic outrage has no impact on them.
As a result, rightly or wrongly, journalists will view covering Republican racism as pointless, while they can have a real impact by covering Democratic racism.
Indeed, just as the Democratic response to the Northam revelation has made many Democrats proud, so too does the media response to this incident say a lot about the Democratic party. The fact that coverage has been so intense says two things: first that Democrats tend to consistently oppose racism, and second, that when racism is discovered within their ranks, they root it out. Thus, both the party’s reaction, as well as the media coverage, make it clear which party really opposes racism.
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