By Sandra Kobrin
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
From Fox News to vicious Internet rumors the media is turning Michelle Obama into the new female campaign target. But Sandra Kobrin says news watchers and the Obama campaign are hustling to her defense.
(WOMENSENEWS)--If you thought the way Hillary Clinton was treated by the media was a nightmare, brace yourself for what's going on with Michelle Obama.
With Hillary gone, the African American wife of the Democratic nominee is the new woman to demonize.
Exhibit A is "Obama's Baby Mama," a caption Fox News used to identify Michelle last week. Baby Mama? Calling the wife of the presidential hopeful a term for an unmarried woman no longer involved with the father of her children? Why?
Nearly next in line is the don't-let-it-die brouhaha over the comment she made in February, four months ago, while campaigning in Wisconsin, when she said, "For the first time I'm really proud to be an American." She was just saying it was great to see people turning out in droves to vote. But it got warped and retailed as anti-American, with the "really" part of her comment typically lost in the quoting.
Then there's the outright lie being spread all over the Net and fueled by Fox News that she used the word "whitey" in a speech at Trinity Church. Conveniently enough the tape is nowhere to be seen. Geraldo Rivera has bet $100 on the rumor being false and while I hate to agree with Geraldo, I'd say that's a safe gamble.
One by one these incidents add up to an effort to portray a warm, humorous, gracious, hard-working professional woman and an apparently devoted wife and mother as a racist shrew.
Why are people so afraid of her?
Is it because she's smart, educated, outspoken, 6 feet tall and an African American woman?
I think so.
Is it because many people are somewhat OK with the idea of an African American president but are still petrified by the idea of an African American first lady?
Could be. That double whammy: African American and a woman.
Is it because destroying her reputation harms her husband's chances of winning?
But don't worry Michelle, we got your back. We're not going to let them slam you and marginalize you. There are many women--white women and those of color--in the trenches and on your side.
Gina McCauley, a 32-year-old African American blogger, is one.
"The whole country doesn't know what to do about Michelle," says McCauley, who started What About Our Daughters, a blog by and for black women. A few days ago she launched MichelleObamawatch.com to track the slings and arrows aimed at Michelle.
"I was getting so many e-mails every day citing horrible things being said about Michelle, I just had to create this separate site to let people know," she said. Her main site was being overrun with negative posts not only about Michelle but also the Obama daughters, including one referring to them as "nappy headed ho's."
A cartoon that briefly appeared last month on the progressive Daily Kos site was there too, offering a glaring example of what can only be explained by complete cultural incompetence. The drawing showed Michelle being lynched and branded.
The point was to portray the ferocity of Republican attacks against Michelle that could be expected and the site quickly took down the offensive image.
Mark Lamont Hill, an assistant professor at Temple University, was one of those who came to Michelle's aid in that instance.
"The last thing we need is the normalization of images depicting the abuse of black female bodies," he wrote in The Root, which offers a daily array of online news commentary from a variety of black perspectives. "Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that such tactics would be used against any of the other potential first ladies. Can you imagine Bill O'Reilly talking about lynching Nancy Reagan?"
MichelleObamawatch.com has 10 volunteer employees who scan the media daily to monitor how Michelle is being portrayed.
"Many Americans, both Republican and Democrat, can't deal with a strong smart black woman," says McCauley. "They're used to the black women they see on TV, either passive or funny. Michelle just doesn't fit and they don't like that."
What do they like?
Apparently the general preference is for first ladies who are docile, smiling and know their place.
Four years ago the Republicans went after Theresa Heinz Kerry, the outspoken, educated, foreign-born wife of Democratic nominee John Kerry, for being too opinionated and for acting as his advisor.
A USA Today-MacNeil-Lehrer Productions-Gallup Poll conducted during the Kerry campaign found "the majority of Americans said the first lady shouldn't be a formal advisor to the president, two-thirds said it wouldn't be appropriate for her to be elected to office and nearly half said she shouldn't hold a job in the private sector. And almost everyone said she could serve as an official hostess at White House events and champion a non-partisan cause. Being the president's confidante and volunteering for a charity are widely acceptable, too."
Cassandra West, formerly the women's section editor of the Chicago Tribune and now director of communications for the Chicago Foundation for Women, wrote the first profile of Michelle Obama to run after Barack delivered the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.
"Michelle was genuine, interested in others, and easy to talk to," West said. "Yes she's got opinions, but what educated, informed, intelligent woman doesn't?"
West sees the attacks as politically strategic. "To damage her reputation is to destroy her husband's campaign. That's the reason for this. Some tactics are to hurt the person closest to the candidate. We've never seen a potential white first lady being treated this harshly."
The Obama campaign is well aware of what's going on. It has hired longtime Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter to work as Michelle's chief of staff, with her first order of business being the defense and enhancement of her boss's media image.
"She also will lead a war room to fight attacks against Mrs. Obama," Adam Nagourney wrote in the New York Times political blog on Monday.
Well, you need to fight fire with fire I guess. With that in mind I think I'll go loosen up my flame-throwing arm.
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles writer and columnist.
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