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COMMENTARY: ON THE MEDIA

President Obama and the role of the ethnic press

He has signaled that he may shake up the traditional protocols of Washington journalism.

February 22, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

While the New York Times awaits a postelection sit-down with President Obama, Ebony magazine already nabbed its interview, the first given when Obama was still the president-elect.

Once Obama was sworn in, he granted one of his first Q&A's to the editor of Black Enterprise magazine. His first known radio interview went to host El Pistolero, followed last week by a friendly phone-in to another giant of Spanish-language radio, Los Angeles-based Piolin.

It may not qualify as a pattern, much less a new world order, but the nation's first African American president has signaled that he may shake up the traditional protocols of Washington journalism.

But Obama's forays into sometimes marginalized ethnic media outlets also renew a strategy dating to the Reagan administration and earlier -- finding alternatives to reach around the mainstream media and speak to loyal constituents.

I suspect these niche operators will also be used by the Obama administration -- maybe something like President George W. Bush used evangelical Christian radio -- because the White House believes they are more likely to funnel the chief executive's message with little scrutiny or criticism.

Although much of their coverage thus far has celebrated Obama's history-making ascension to the White House, several reporters from the ethnic media assured me they would not be pushovers.

I agreed that was a standard that they, and we in the mainstream media, needed to adhere to if we want to maintain our credibility.

"It was important in our coverage to pay attention to a milestone moment," said Derek T. Dingle, editor in chief of Black Enterprise. "But going forward, we need the same vigilance and critical eye as we had with the Clinton administration and the Bush administration."

That's especially tough for outlets less experienced in the capital, with fewer reporters and whose audiences, surveys show, overwhelmingly approve of Obama.

Pamela Gentry, who blogs about politics for BET.com, said those factors would not prevent her from asking pointed questions. When I spoke to her last week, she laid down a marker for Obama.

"As of yesterday, with the signing of the stimulus bill, this economic problem is now his," Gentry said. "And we will have to look closely at how things go with his solution."

That's the goal for many reporters, but expect Obama to follow a well-worn path to the infotainment zone -- radio and television outlets that take a much lighter look at the issues of the day.

During the campaign, Sen. Obama and his wife, Michelle, got a particularly warm reception from daytime hosts, such as Tyra Banks, Ellen DeGeneres and the women of ABC's "The View." (The latter chewed over Republican John McCain so thoroughly during one appearance that that his wife, Cindy, said the "View" ladies "picked our bones clean.")

Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo, heard in Southern California on La Nueva FM (101.9), provided another comfy outpost for Obama and other presidential candidates, including McCain.

Obama last week honored a campaign promise to return to the program -- which has an estimated 4.3 million listeners in about 50 cities. Sotelo is also one of the radio personalities who urged hundreds of thousands of Latinos to march for immigration reform.

In the nine-minute segment, Piolin (a nickname meaning "Tweety Bird") greeted Obama effusively, calling him "my friend," and asked, "How soon can we expect to see the positive effect of the stimulus package?"

The host, who first immigrated to the U.S. illegally, praised Latinos for their hard work and asked Obama for his help.

Piolin, who never got an interview with Bush, told me that merely having a line of communication to the White House represented a breakthrough.

"It's important that the nation can be united," he said, adding that he welcomes political leaders "using my show to make that happen."

"To criticize is not my job. To move forward and be positive -- that's my job."

Even though they may not wield a sharp rhetorical ax, hosts like Piolin keep alive issues that largely have fallen off the mainstream media radar, such as immigration reform.

Obama, whose remarks were translated into Spanish, committed to the radio host to assemble interested parties to set an agenda on immigration, though he committed to no specifics or timetable.

Like everything in the White House, Obama's relations with ethnic media will remain under a microscope.

A story this month in the conservative Washington Times alleged a first breach in the young relationship. The piece described black reporters as "red hot" after they were given prime seats but not called on during Obama's first news conference as president.

That account gained some currency in the blogosphere, where Obama was ripped as a hypocrite.

But several African American reporters I talked to weren't buying it.

"The impression was left that we were all up in arms and snubbed," said Cynthia Gordy of Essence. "That was just not how it was at all."

It's hard to draw many conclusions about media trends from the early days of any administration.

Bush granted his first formal interview to print reporters from cities like Memphis, St. Louis, Albuquerque and Milwaukee. He spent a time, that first term, courting the New York Times, which later became a sworn enemy.

Black and brown media are having their moment. That's long overdue. But I agree with the journalists who told me that, to serve their audiences best, it's time to turn from celebration to examination.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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