How should the media cover Barack’s blackness?

A typo (I think that’s what it is) in today’s lead NYT campaign story caught my eye:

Mr. Obama also has sought to tie Mr. McCain to the country’s current economic woes, charging that the Bush administration has been “the most fiscally irresponsible administration in history.”
“And now John McCain want to give us another,” he said.

Among journalists, the usual practice when someone we’re quoting makes a minor grammatical error is to quietly correct it in print. In part, this is because (don’t gasp) not every quote is totally word-for-word accurate; reporters’ brains, like everybody’s, naturally edit lots of “ums” and “likes” and sometimes change a tense or two. So, the thinking goes, there’s usually no harm in cleaning things up for clarity’s sake.

But Obama gives us a different situation. As (among other people) David Foster Wallace eloquently argued in his oughtta-be-a-classic 2001 Harpers essay on American usage, we have to accept both that (a) black dialects are valid and internally consistent varieties of our language and (b) they’re not the culturally dominant mode of communication.

(Major caveat: I don’t know shit about actual black dialects, and couldn’t tell you for sure whether “John McCain want” might be part of Obama’s. Please bear with me anyway.)

Having a presidential candidate who sometimes speaks in a black dialect — who, in fact, deliberately embraced a black identity in high school — changes the game. What better way to push us toward linguistic equality than to accurately report Obama’s culturally black speech?

Obama, the king of self-consciousness, is aware of this divide. See this New York Magazine piece from before Obama decided to run:

“I mean, the fact that I conjugate my verbs and, you know, speak in a typical midwestern-newscaster voice—there’s no doubt this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences,” [Obama] says. “And there’s no doubt that when I’m with a black audience, I slip into a slightly different dialect.”

Transcribing Obama’s “black” speeches unedited would also reinforce the latently racist qualms that lots of white people have about him. But those qualms are rooted in a truth — that his ethnic identity is not West Virginia’s. A truth that merits reporting, if it can in fact be done accurately by the overwhelmingly white press corps. Don’t you think?

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8 Responses to How should the media cover Barack’s blackness?

  1. martin says:

    or it could just have been a typo…

  2. Mike says:

    True, Martin. But even if this one was, they won’t all be.

  3. TheGNat says:

    No offense to anyone meant, but pretty much *every* language has a standard dialect that everyone is able to understand, and that’s as it should be. When speaking to a nation as a whole, yes, a person should use the standard. This is not to say other dialects are invalid or lesser. It’s a matter of pragmatism.

    The concept of “self-identifying as….” and all it’s logical extensions are my eternal frustration as a linguist – language cannot *exist* unless everyone agrees about the meanings of things most of the time. This isn’t too far from that – a standard dialect is necessary because you cannot demand everyone be conversant in every dialect and variant within a language, especially if they have low exposure to it. (And no, increased exposure is not an appropriate answer – the dialect would have limited usefulness to them)

    That said, mostly for the sake of journalistic integrity (dear god, we have audio recorders, why don’t we *use* them??), I do think Obama’s, or anyone else’s speech should be reported faithfully, along with the context of their remarks. If Obama is speaking to a mostly black audience and uses that dialect, than that’s what he said, and to whom he said it. I do not see an issue here.

  4. Mike says:

    Yesss … I’ve lured in one of the linguists.

    “Increased exposure is not an appropriate answer – the dialect would have limited usefulness to them.”

    Why so limited, this usefulness? As a reporter, I occasionally wish I could speak in a black dialect or at least understand its nuances when I listen to it. Wouldn’t this be a common wish?

    For me, the interesting question is whether reporters should take the standard method of “correcting” Obama’s “improper” grammar — which I’m certain many of them have — or they should attempt to report them verbatim in dialect. (And even his speeches in dialect of course, will contain the normal irregularities of spoken language.)

  5. TheGNat says:

    You are a reporter, of course it’s useful to you. But if, for example, you live in the middle of the Midwest, just about everyone around you speaks the same way you do. There are towns out here where the only time people really see someone who isn’t white is on t.v.! Increasing their exposure by artificial means wouldn’t really be helpful or useful to them.

    As a reader of broadsheet news, I really wish reporters would just report things as they are, without corrections to speech (regardless of it’s caused by dialect or laziness or whatever). For everyone they report on. I’ve been quoted in a few articles in college newspapers before, where “correction” or worse, not writing stuff down properly, has resulted in me being completely misrepresented and infuriated. And reporters have a great deal of power to say “well, that’s not what I heard…”. I feel like “correcting” is going beyond one’s proper position as a journalist – your job is to report the news, faithfully and accurately and hopefully thoroughly. At the moment, I’d settle for getting the first two on a regular basis.

    I just don’t understand this as some sort of racial or socio-economic issue. I don’t see a need to frame it in those terms, journalistic integrity already dictates how to report a speech, so why should it change because Obama isn’t white?

  6. Mike says:

    Fair enough. I wasn’t thinking about the possibility that it’d be practical to report everything verbatim, but if that’s the practice, you’re right that we’d be free of the cultural complexity.

    Sorry about the misrepresentation. Obviously, almost no reporter is deliberately misrepresenting or “correcting” the meaning of a source’s words — though obviously that happens. I’ve been quoted a couple times myself, and I cherish the experience, since on no occasion was I totally satisfied with the representation of what I said … even though the transcription was word-for-word, or close to it.

    I do think that, before you expect verbatim transcripts in your news articles, that you should tape a tense and/or substantive conversation with a stranger and then transcribe it word for word. When I do that, I’m always shocked at the amount of chaff and stammer that my brain gently removes for me on its way past.

  7. TheGnat says:

    Hence my “dear god, we have audio recorders, why don’t we *use* them??” 😉 I’ve conducted a couple interviews for school projects, and I audio-recorded one, and outright video-recorded the other, then wrote transcriptions for them (placing ellipses for long pauses and all the “uh”s and “um”s). But I’m sort of insane with transcription. I’ve done quite a bit of it for work, school, and pleasure, and as a linguist, I *don’t* filter much because all those “useless” or “incorrect” bits of language are really useful and interesting to me. My first question in a language class is “how do you say ‘um’?”! Sadly, the lack of filtering also makes me exceedingly impatient with some speakers who say “like” or “you know” too often as fillers. And I admit to be less likely to notice slips that are valid in one of my better languages.

  8. Mike says:

    Interesting. Thanks.

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