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Jewish World Review
August 5, 2008
/ 4 Menachem-Av 5768
When journalists applaud Obama
Did Barack Obama get an ovation after his speech in Chicago at Unity '08, a convention of minority journalists, or was it merely a warm reaction? It matters because "the ovation problem" hovers over the quadrennial Unity conventions. Applause levels are predictably high for Democratic politicians and low for Republicans. At the last Unity convention in 2004, John Kerry received a thunderous reception, while George W. Bush got the traditional Republican small hello, with a slight mixture of booing. At Unity '99, George W. Bush drew sour comments for not planning to attend, so he changed his schedule, made a whirlwind tour of the convention and got sour comments for not staying longer. Al Gore, on the other hand, got a wildly positive reception with the "cheering, hooting and salivating you'd expect at a campus rally," according to Michelle Malkin.
Journalists, of course, are not supposed to wildly applaud or boo politicians. It's unprofessional. Worse, the rapturous reception for big-name Democrats gives the impression that Unity conventiongoers may be more committed to the Democratic party than to journalistic detachment. To their credit, leaders at Unity '08 asked attendees to restrain themselves when Obama appeared. The ovation issue is so touchy that reporters covering the convention cautiously approached the issue of whether an ovation for Obama had actually occurred. Chicago Public Radio said Obama got 30 seconds of applause when he arrived and 40 seconds when he finished his talk, but the "O-word" was not mentioned.
Writing in Editor and Publisher, columnist Mark Fitzgerald straddled the ovation issue: "While Obama got a warm and even rousing welcome, the audience was not cheering his every word." Later he added a giveaway line: "One sure way to get applause from the crowd in the cavernous Skyline Ballroom for the opening ceremony was to mention Sunday's appearance" by Obama.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin attracted attention with a report stressing the convention's unabashed enthusiasm for the visiting politician. "When Obama walked on stage," the newspaper reported, "many journalists in the audience leapt to their feet and applauded enthusiastically after being told not to do so. During a two-minute break halfway through the event . . . journalists ran to the stage to snap photos of Obama." The Chicago Tribune's political blog, The Swamp, said applause was "restrained," but added some details of nonrestraint: "Obama received a standing ovation from many in the audience at the start and end of his appearance. There was also a rush toward the stage after his speech, as Obama shook hands and signed autographs. One journalist was also overheard wishing him luck, while another squealed 'He touched me!' as she left the ballroom."
But this was a convention of journalists, not a rally of groupies for Obama. The problem is that the four journalist associations that meet at Unity (blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans) are in an awkward position, part professional organizations, part lobbyists for a racial or ethnic group.
At previous Unity conventions, American Indian journalists talked about the need to protect tribal rights and celebrated "our" victories - legal wins for Indian causes. Are they reporters and editors or political advocates? The National Association of Black Journalists takes political positions related to journalism, for instance, working to reverse the FCC decision allowing corporate ownership of both print and broadcast media in the same city. The connection between minority journalism groups and minority activism is a potentially dangerous one for the news business. It encourages groupthink and confusion over allegiances in the newsroom. The ovation issue is just a minor example of the problem.
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