Barbour Maligned in New York Times
The New York Times has never been a cheerleader for conservative politicians, but "Mr. Washington Goes to Mississippi," in its October 19 Sunday magazine article on gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour, is egregious even by Times standards. Reporter Nicholas Dawidoff blends two staple media stereotypes - the rich Republican and the bigoted white Southerner - to paint a portrait of Barbour (and of his state) that is remarkable in its one-sidedness.
Much of the article is devoted to casting Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman who is now vying to replace Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove, as "the consummate Washington insider." Dawidoff presents an image of a shrewd superlobbyist who has spent his life peddling his political influence to big corporations (tobacco companies, of course, are mentioned prominently). We are told of Barbour's "brazen" lobbying practices, "lavish invoices," legislative "ploys," "coy campaign," "aura of privilege," and "ability to have things both ways." As he details selected incidents from Barbour's career, Dawidoff asks how "such a congenial man can be so blithely capable of behavior that others consider unethical."
The reporter's attempts to depict Barbour - and the Republican Party - as beholden to the wealthy are unmistakable: A "gleaming succession of expensive sedans and S.U.V.'s" heralds the beginning of a Barbour fundraiser, in which "[e]leven hundred prosperous Republicans" open their bulging wallets for the privilege of eating lunch with President Bush. After listening to the President speak and filling Barbour's coffers, the rich Republicans contentedly depart in their "BMW's and Mercedeses." (The parking lots at Musgrove fundraisers presumably are filled with rust-eaten Ford pick-ups.)
Barbour's opponent, in contrast, is depicted as a "self-made man" and champion of the people. After putting himself through college and law school, Dawidoff reports, Musgrove worked his way up the political ladder - no mention is made of rich donors or big corporations - and became an "agent of progress." Dawidoff hails the governor's ability to attract businesses and his increased spending on education; the only flaws he finds in Musgrove are his "chirpy" voice and his "anti-abortion-rights" stance (not "pro-life" or "anti-abortion," mind you, but "anti-abortion-rights.")
The article is even kinder to Barbara Blackmon, a black state senator and the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Dawidoff describes her in only positive terms: "A laborer's daughter who grew up in inner-city Jackson" and "graduated from college at 19," Blackmon is expected to "energize" the state's black voters. The reporter also claims that, if elected, Blackmon would "become the first African-American to hold statewide office in Mississippi history," which is simply false: More than 100 years ago, A. K. Davis served in the very office Blackmon is currently seeking. (Davis was a black Republican, which perhaps explains why the Times would prefer to deny his existence.)
Although Dawidoff never explicitly charges that Barbour is a racist, it would not take much inference on the reader's part to come to that conclusion. The article quotes one businessman who blames the economic decline of Barbour's hometown on the departure of whites - including the Barbours - during the town's period of school integration. Another Mississippian, a college classmate of Barbour's, comments that the Mississippi Delta region, where Barbour was raised, "was a wonderful place to grow up if you were a privileged white kid. If you had the sensitivity of an anvil, it helped you though." (You would need the sensitivity of an anvil to miss the implication of this statement.)
Thus, Dawidoff reports, when Barbour is not shilling for Big Tobacco or raising obscene amounts of money from his fellow millionaires, he is speaking in code to his redneck supporters. Luckily for the reader, the Times has deciphered Barbourese: When the gubernatorial hopeful refers to Blackmon's supporters, "he means blacks," Dawidoff declares. When he pins the state flag on his lapel, he is reminding "Nascar whites" that his opponent tried to remove the Confederate emblem from the flag. (Dawidoff notes that "the removal was badly defeated, with only 35 percent of voters backing it, in a state that is 36 percent black," but he does not mention that nearly one-third of black voters rejected the proposed change.)
Indeed, it seems that every word proceeding from candidate Barbour's mouth is part of "a nuanced racist message," according to those quoted by Dawidoff. Even Barbour's use of the word "liberal" is "simply code for nigger-lover, integrationist," one former newspaper editor tells us. Everyone Dawidoff quotes regarding the race issue seems to agree that Barbour is a divisive man: One professor calls him "the poster boy for polarization," while another condemns "the subtle way Haley Barbour's using race" and says, "I don't know why a middle-class white Mississippian would vote for Haley Barbour when he doesn't represent their interests at all, but race is still deep here."
Dawidoff does not include a single quote defending Barbour's record on racial issues, nor does he report any divisive actions on the part of Barbour's opponents. Indeed, while the reporter seems to detect racial overtones in every speech Barbour makes, he finds nothing sinister in Musgrove's charge that Barbour's support of NAFTA helped to send Mississippi jobs to Mexico. (At a July campaign event, the Sun Herald reports, one Musgrove supporter expressed his disdain for Barbour by shouting, "Let's send that Mexican back to Washington.")
Dawidoff concludes his article by lamenting that Barbour's candidacy "is surely an indication of how dominant the roles of money and influence have become in American politics." He makes a valid point. But the fact that The New York Times Magazine would present such a one-sided profile of a mainstream politician is also a sad indication of how dominant the role of ideology has become at the New York Times.
Sean Grindlay is an intern at Accuracy In Media and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org