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Wednesday, July 30, 2008 01:55 am

Made for TV

Obama event highlights what’s wrong with the media

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Minutes before the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, addressed journalists of color this past weekend in Chicago, a few dozen latecomers were asked to relocate, which involved the laborious task of awkwardly scooching past others who were already seated.

When nobody moved, a volunteer with the host organization, UNITY: Journalists of Color, barked: "You all need to stand up and fill the front. The scatter doesn't look good on camera." Moments later, a CNN producer directed everyone to shut off all video and audio recording equipment, drawing more growls of disapproval.

Indeed, the stipulations were probably unnecessary, considering that CNN, which co-sponsored the forum with Time magazine, had exclusive rights to broadcast the event live on Sunday morning. The risers weren't even equipped to allow other camera crews to go live.

Most shocking was UNITY's eager complicity in allowing CNN and Time — both owned by Time Warner — to force the 10,000-member journalist alliance to bend to their will. Unfortunately, suppression of a free and unfettered press didn't stop with powering off the recorders in the McCormick Place ballroom.

The promised "60-minute conversations" with representatives of UNITY shrunk to a half-hour. Moderators Suzanne Malveaux, a CNN White House correspondent, and Ramesh Ratnesar, Time's deputy managing editor, devoted half of the allotted time to questions about Obama's trip overseas.

And when reporters with other organizations were finally allowed to speak, questions were limited to one from each of the four associations that make up UNITY: the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the Native American Journalists Association.

Instead of being used to provide one deserving student journalist a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask a question of the would-be leader of the free world, those prized slots were given to recognizable reporters from high-profile outlets: Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, NBC White House reporter John Yang, Dallas Morning News reporter Diane Solis, and Brian Bull of Wisconsin Public Radio, an NPR affiliate.

At least they were good questions, some of which seemed to catch the visibly fatigued candidate off guard.

For instance, Bull, a member of the Native American journalists group, asked Obama whether his administration would follow the leads of the governments of Australia and Canada and issue an apology on behalf of the federal government for human-rights abuses against indigenous people.

"When it comes to our treatment of Native Americans, as well as other persons of color in this country, we've got some very sad and difficult things to account for," Obama said.

He continued: "But the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just to offer words but to offer deeds. I have to confess that I'm more interested in creating a better and having a better relationship with Native American peoples than anything else."

The event was Obama's first public appearance after returning from a 10-day tour of Europe and the Middle East.

The Republican nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain, also received an invitation from UNITY but declined to participate.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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