Report on Obama and slavery irks many readers

Public Editor

March 11, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

The Sun's March 2 report on a genealogical study indicating that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's forebears had owned slaves quickly became one of the most controversial articles the newspaper has produced in some time. The Sun's online version of the front-page article, "A new twist to an intriguing family history," was linked to a number of heavily trafficked national Internet sites - and the online readership was phenomenal.

So was the volume of e-mail comments - both local and national - received by the newspaper. The vast majority were critical of the article. As many readers know, Obama's father was an African from Kenya and his mother was a Caucasian from Kansas.

Some readers believed the article reflected an effort by The Sun or Obama's political opponents to harm his image. Others questioned why it was played on Page One with a "Sun Exclusive" label. Some said they believed the report was trivial.

"It seemed like a non-news story with every appearance of being a politically inspired hatchet job," said reader George Somerville.

From Bill Sandersley: "What a remarkably irrelevant article to write about a presidential candidate."

Dawn Deskins said: "This is the most non-issue story I have ever read in a mainstream newspaper."

Said Oria T. McClain Jr. "What a weak story. Most blacks are reading this with a smile on their faces knowing why this story was written: to cast a shadow over Barack Obama about his being black and white."

The reporters and editor who produced the article - Washington bureau correspondent David Nitkin, Baltimore-based Harry Merritt and assistant managing editor Marcia Myers - were surprised by the reactions.

Said Nitkin: "We pursued the story because the [report] - which had not been publicized before - seemed interesting. Nothing more, nothing less. We had no agenda, or larger goal or missions."

Merritt, who did the reporting on the genealogical study by a Library of Congress researcher, said: "It was not intended to be a `gotcha' story. It was not an attack on Obama. It was not racially motivated. It was just interesting."

Myers agreed, but she acknowledged that because the story appeared at the time of sharp attacks between Hillary Clinton's and Obama's campaigns, readers were especially sensitive to anything that could have been construed as an attack.

I believe the reporters had no motive beyond writing about what they considered an interesting historical footnote. Because Obama did not mention slave-owning relatives in his best-selling book, Dreams From My Father, the reporters and editors believed that this information was newsworthy. In fact, the article quoted an Obama campaign spokesman saying that this genealogical study illuminated the candidate's diverse family history.

Still, the strong reaction to the article spotlights the continuing sensitivity of Americans toward the nation's troubled racial history as well as fears of what has been called "the politics of personal destruction."

Readers are also suspicious that the news media sometimes have ulterior motives. In my view, the newspaper's "Sun Exclusive" label - used on both its front page and on its Web site - gave readers the false impression that the story was a hard-hitting investigative piece, like recent articles about problems at the Bowling Brook facility for juvenile offenders. In fact, the label was intended to ensure that The Sun's reporting would be credited when other media picked up the story.

Patrick Dunkerley said: "The way the article was presented gave me the impression that it was a big, in-depth thing. After reading it I realized this was not the case."

In my view, the article also should have more prominently displayed reservations about the validity of the genealogical study. The paragraph: "Genealogical experts, who reviewed the Obama family tree at the request of The Sun, would not vouch for its findings" needed to be higher in the story to offer readers better context.

I also think a passage by the author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson questioning Obama's racial makeup deviated from the tone of the rest of the article. Dickerson was quoted as saying: " `Black,' in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves."

Mya Alexander, one of number of readers who criticized the use of this comment, said. "I don't remember anyone giving Debra J. Dickerson the authority to decide who or what can be considered `black.' "

With more than a year and a half remaining before the next presidential election, Obama's supporters and those of other candidates are already very sensitive to reporting that might hurt their favorites. It's important for The Sun to be assertive in its political reporting while avoiding any suggestion of unfair attacks or favoritism.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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