New York Times Conduct Not Angelic

"Counterfeit"? A "pimp"? Cornel West’s vicious attack on President Obama

Cornel West is an ultra-liberal, tough-talking, African-American professor who can’t stand Barack Obama.

Even in light of this longstanding animosity, West has mounted an extraordinarily harsh and personal attack on the president. And that says two things to me:

One, Obama is as deeply disliked by some on the far left as he is on the right.

And two, Cornel West is one angry dude.

It’s unlikely that any person who could be elected president of the United States would satisfy West. He has no patience for the compromises and trade-offs that our political system demands. He comes off as an absolutist for whom any deviation from left-wing orthodoxy is a shameful sellout.

West is a longtime Princeton professor and author who went to jail after protesting New York’s stop-and-frisk policy. He’s gained new visibility by co-hosting a radio show with Tavis Smiley. And with most black liberals in the Al Sharpton mode, fervently supporting the president, West stands out.

West tells Thomas Frank in Salon that Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free.”

Okay, at least that attack is policy-based. He thinks Obama has been too friendly to big banks and hasn’t cracked down on Bush administration officials over waterboarding. Next up:

“We ended up with a brown-faced Clinton. Another opportunist. Another neoliberal opportunist.”

I thought Bill Clinton was kind of the first black president. West doesn’t like him either.

Then he takes a musical turn: “It’s like you’re looking for John Coltrane and you get Kenny G in brown skin.”

So Obama doesn’t strike the right notes.

Next, a prostitution analogy: “What I hear is that, ‘He pimped us.’ I heard that a zillion times. ‘He pimped us, brother West.’”

I was going to diagram this one but gave up.

Oh, and Obama “was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground.”

Well, it’s not an unreasonable critique. The president’s split-the-difference approach often makes neither side happy, and that was particularly true when he was trying to negotiate with the Republican leadership.

For what it’s worth, West also uses the Salon interview to rip Sharpton (“the word integrity does not come to mind,” a man who “sees it as an act of racial traitorship to be critical of the president”).

Sharpton, by the way, delivered a highly political eulogy at Michael Brown's funeral Monday, then led off his MSNBC show with four long sound bites from the speech. Talk about covering yourself!

West, for his part, also dumps on MSNBC (“it’s all Obama propaganda”). And he’s not waiting for Hillary (“an extension of Obama’s Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, national surveillance, national security presidency”).

There’s a place for activists who push Democratic presidents from the left or Republican presidents from the right. But West’s words are so harsh that he seems more interested in denigrating than influencing.

It’s hardly an overstatement to say that Obama wouldn’t want Cornel West as an ally, that the man’s fierce rhetoric would turn off the broad swath of voters in the middle. The president is down in the polls, but last month he had an 83 percent approval rating among blacks. Some of the rest may echo West’s views, but most are probably just disappointed that Obama hasn’t accomplished more for their community and their country.

New York Times Conduct Not Angelic

The Gray Lady got hammered from the left yesterday for a profile of Michael Brown that called him “no angel.”

That seems undeniably true, and it played off the lead anecdote in which the 18-year-old was said to have said he saw an angel in the clouds.

Here’s the paragraph from the Times piece:

“Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.”

The profile was balanced, including material from Brown’s friends, and Times editors defended the phrase. But critics said the paper would never have used such a phrase for a white person who had used drugs and alcohol, enjoyed rap music and once got into a fight.

Ombudsman Margaret Sullivan isn’t buying the editors’ explanation.

“That choice of words was a regrettable mistake. In saying that the 18-year-old Michael Brown was ‘no angel’ in the fifth paragraph of Monday’s front-page profile, The Times seems to suggest that this was, altogether, a bad kid.”

Sullivan got the author, John Eligon, himself an African-American, to acknowledge that this was not a good choice of words.

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