Obama exposes skeletons in White House Press closet

Now that the unthinkable–an African American President–is happening before our eyes, some light is being cast on a number of other White House realities.

One of the most glaring is that the lens through which the world looks at the first Black Commander-in-Chief is focused almost exclusively by White hands. Yes, the White House Press Corps is just that: virtually all White. No surprise there.

Like the rest of the “Big Time” media, the White House Press Corps is a tight, White coterie. Way back–28 years ago to be precise, long enough ago to be forgotten, then forgotten again–my Black Journalism Review commissioned and published an article in a special edition with Howard University, commemorating its annual School of Communications Conference asking the question: was there “Racial Discrimination on Sunday TV Panel Shows?”

The answer was in 1981, and is in 2009, a resounding Yes! “…some of the nation’s leading Black writers believe that the (Sunday) shows discriminate against African American journalists, denying to all but a few Blacks, the prestige and authority which comes from appearances on (those) programs,” John W. Lewis Jr. wrote in 1981.

And that reality remains across the board in the elite media circles today, most especially at the White House, the most elite news beat there is.

So now, here comes soon-to-be President Barack Obama, who is the first Black resident of that house that was built with slave labor, who moves in to the place not even wearing a “slave name.” And while the corporate-owned White media tried to exploit Mr. Obama’s name–especially his middle name Hussein–as a wedge to turn some White voters against him, most White reporters don’t even understand why that is important.

But there is hardly a Black family in America which does not have someone in it, a cousin, an uncle, an auntie, someone in that family who wears a “free name”–Jamal, Hassan, Ayanna, Yasmine, Malia, Sasha. That’s certainly not going to be headline news every day, but that’s much more relevant to the culture of the First Family, to Black people in particular, and to the nation at large, than how often fried chicken and watermelon appear on the First Family’s menu.

Media critics have begun reporting the absence of Blacks in the White House Press Corps like it’s new news. Not like any of them would have any reason to even know or care, for example that in 1980 President Jimmy Carter held an East Room prime-time press conference where he did not call on either of the two or three Black reporters in the room, then proceeded immediately to host a group of Black mayors. When a dog bites a man that is not particularly newsworthy.

What might be news to the Secret Service, if no one else, is that Tamu White (who worked then for WHUR-FM) and I literally hid in the bushes along the walkway leading to the North Portico (it was dark and easier for us to conceal ourselves that evening) to plead our case to any friendly mayor attending the President’s meeting. Along came Richard Hatcher, then Mayor of Gary, Ind., who heard our plea and raised our concern inside with Mr. Carter. At the next press conference, I was called on for a question. I am forever grateful to Mayor Hatcher for using his long awaited “turn in line” and chance to speak privately to the President of the United States, to raise the issue of the exclusion of the Black Press from White House press proceedings.

It’s more important to know “how the game is played,” than it is to know “how to play the game.”

Over the decades we have seen the President’s Cabinet integrated all the way to the highest appointment there is–Secretary of State. We have seen the federal judiciary integrated. We have seen the agencies integrated, we have seen the Congressional Black Caucus grow from 30 members to now 42 members including now an incumbent Senator, but the White House and even the Congressional Press Corps remain mostly White enclaves.

But just like the elite program “60 Minutes” was all White for a long time after Ed Bradley departed, now, I’m happy to say, CBS News named a Black reporter, Byron Pitts to the team. Bravo.

It’s unseemly at best to agitate for a change for which one could be the beneficiary. So, most of those of us who know the truth about the uphill battle Blacks face in getting into the White House in the first place, and then the battles for recognition once inside that closed guild, most of us must be silent, hoping that the bosses of the news industry wake up and one day “do the right thing,” appointing qualified Black folks, because we all hope that one of the appointees might be us.

As a White House Correspondent Emeritus–indeed the Dean, the Poet Laureate of Emeritus White House Correspondents–I can now raise my voice and agitate and scold without fear of contradiction, because as exciting a beat as it will likely now be with a “Brother” as the HNIC-in-Chief, I know my days there have past and brighter days must be ahead for new, and many more, deserving Black reporters at the White House.

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