Journalists write, as the maxim has it, the first draft of history. And Kamala Harris is seeking to make history.
As presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate, she is the first Black woman on a major party ticket for national office. She is also the first South Asian. She’ll become just the fourth woman to be nominated for one of the two top slots from a major political party.
And that has posed a test for numerous American media outlets that have faced a season of newsroom rebellions and reflection over coverage of matters of race and identity, from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal to Fox News.
In the first days after Biden’s announcement, several major news organizations gave Harris a heroic treatment, recognizing her many firsts. Numerous pundits on the right sought to pick apart her identity, notably questioning her immigrant heritage and whether she is, in fact, African American. (Harris has most often identified herself as Black and also, at times, as African American.)
To some observers, these reactions to Harris recalled birther attacks on the nation’s first Black president.
The criticism is “a way of characterizing people who are biracial as not really being Black. That’s what they did with [Barack] Obama. I think that’s what they’re attempting with Kamala Harris,” said Cornell University historian Margaret Washington.
Stark contrasts drawn in the media
Striking photos that could appear in movie posters dominated the front pages of USA Today and The New York Times on Wednesday.
MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, a strong Trump critic, laughed joyously as she introduced a video clip of Biden making the announcement.
“See, this is a just a great Joe Biden trait,” Brzezinski told viewers. “He’s not afraid of having a strong woman by his side.”
Harris has a lengthy résumé: San Francisco district attorney; California attorney general; U.S. senator.
It’s all fair game for dissection. Politico columnist Jack Shafer challenged the political press corps’ pliant positivity. “There’s nothing like a political promotion, especially one that could lead to a presidency, to make the press corps adjust the seasoning and serving presentation on a candidate,” Shafer wrote. “Yesterday, Harris was just another overbaked politician. Today, she’s fresh as can be, and the press corps can’t stop salivating.”
Partly, he acknowledged, the treatment had to do with the pioneering nature of her candidacy.
In the conservative media, however, pundits wielded Harris’ identity against her.
On Fox News, longtime Republican operative Ari Fleischer suggested Black Americans simply wouldn’t embrace Harris.
“She’s just not that historically exciting to African Americans,” Fleischer said Tuesday night. “She certainly wasn’t during the [Democratic presidential] primary — and that was one of the biggest reasons Biden picked her. He needs that boost in African American turnout in order to win. I just don’t see it.”
Some Fox journalists sought to temper their colleagues’ assessments that she was a leftist or extremist. Chris Wallace told viewers, “She is not far to the left despite what Republicans are going to try to say.” Anchor Martha McCallum tweeted: “she is accomplished, young and a fighter.” Political anchor Bret Baier said her choice “sent a powerful message” for young Asian or Black girls.
Yet Fleischer wasn’t the only one who sought to question Harris’ authenticity as an African American. His argument was fleshed out further by Mark Levin — a conservative legal pundit — speaking just hours after the pick was named. “Kamala Harris is not an African American,” he told viewers on his show for the conservative site the Blaze. “She is Indian and Jamaican. Jamaica is in the Caribbean. “India is” — he paused — “out there near China.”
“Out there near China” as a description of the world’s most populous democracy is its own special brand of geographic dismissiveness. Yet Harris — the daughter of a mother from India and a father from Jamaica — was born in Oakland, Calif. She spent part of her childhood in Berkeley before moving to Montreal with her mother and sister, where she graduated from high school.
Harris chose to attend a leading historically black U.S. college, Howard University, and even pledged AKA — a premier black sorority.
Even so, Levin, who also has a weekly show on Fox News, focused like a laser beam on her heritage in the opening of his program for the Blaze: “Her ancestry does not go back to American slavery. To the best of my knowledge, her ancestry doesn’t go back to slavery at all.”
Cornell historian Washington, who has spent her decades-long career studying the American South and slavery, tells NPR that Levin appears to be willfully missing the point, in an effort to peel Black voters away from Harris, and ultimately from voting for Biden, too.
“The Americas represent two hemispheres and Jamaica was a slave society. And so why is she any less African American than I am?” Washington asked. “We are all Americans, and those of us who have African heritage are African Americans.”
Some conservative pundits such as Dinesh D’Souza have revived a piece written by Harris’ father in which he said he was descended from a notorious white Irish slave owner in Jamaica. The link has not been conclusively proven, according to journalistic explorations of the claim by Snopes and others; if so, the mother of the slave owner’s child who was her ancestor has not been identified. Some Trump-friendly pundits are using this to claim Harris is not authentically Black. As Trump surrogate Stacy Washington (no relation to the Cornell scholar) said on Fox News of Harris: “She’s not descended from slaves, she’s descended from a slave owner.”
Margaret Washington says the one possibility hardly rules out the other.
“Not many Black people in the Americas are free of the stigma of white blood. It is the case that slaveholders had sex with their slaves and had children who were biracial,” Washington, the professor, says. “It was the case not only in the United States. It was even more so the case in a country like Jamaica. And it was the case in India where her mother was from.”
All three nations are former British colonies, she argues, “cut from the same cloth.”
The media’s record reporting on pioneering candidates is mixed. Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton all periodically endured sexist strains to coverage. The press was mocked for falling for candidate Barack Obama’s charisma on the trail, yet it took years to find ways to convey that untruthful assertions from political opponents and critics about his schooling in Indonesia and his birth were lies, not merely valid points of view.
Right on schedule, Newsweek this week published a column by a conservative law professor who argued that Harris isn’t eligible to run for vice president because her parents were immigrants and not citizens at the time of her birth. (A decade ago, the professor came in second in a Republican primary race for California’s state attorney general. Harris ultimately won the office that year.)
The article follows the legal logic that has been widely discounted by legal scholars, including other prominent conservatives.
As a journalistic matter, the Newsweek piece represents a revival of the playbook deployed by large segments of the conservative media that indulged the racist birther claims against the nation’s first black president.