Common, Controversy and Coverage

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...full text also available at Huffington Post and Brave New World

About a week ago Fox News started a “Common Controversy” about whether the Chicago-based poet and rapper should have been invited to a White House poetry reading by the First Lady.

Claims surfaced that Common’s lyrics promote cop killing, misogyny, and prejudice against interracial relationships. Karl Rove told the Associated Press that the White House’s decision to feature Common and his work in the program "speaks volumes about President Obama and the White House staff." Apparently Mr. and Mrs. Obama were either supporting racism, misogyny and prejudice by inviting Common to perform or were letting racial affiliation cloud their better judgment and ability to lead because everyone involved is black.

As I see it there are three problems with the “Common Controversy.” The first problem is context. The snippets that we're hearing of lyrics from Common’s songs, especially the 2007 song “A Song for Assata,” aren’t quoted in their entirety. What we don't get is the end of the story, where, as Jon Stewart points out, Common promotes peace by calling for an end to the violent picture he paints in the song. Also ignored is our nation’s history of racial profiling and police brutality that affects people of color.

The second problem is a dangerous mix of “post-racialism” with “laissez-faire racism.” Translation: the idea that we live in an era where race and racism are dead relies on subtle and often unspoken anti-black stereotypes that actually justify or legitimate political inaction. Because mainstream press labels ours a “post-racial” era it becomes easy to frame Common as someone who can’t stop speaking about or let go of the past and its racism. That’s why he and his words appear violent, angry and bitter (when taken out of context). That’s also why it becomes easy to associate Common with other highly criticized outspoken Americans like Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and Jill Scott. Like Common, Scott came under fire for addressing historical race relations and the internal “wince” she experienced regarding interracial marriage.

The third problem is perspective. By overplaying black-white racial dynamics the press winds up underreporting other demographics, particularly Native American, Pan-Asian, Pan-Hispanic, mixed race, and new immigrant communities. What’s more is that the public’s gaze is shifted away from more important events that deserve prime time news coverage. For instance, our ongoing involvement in three wars, reports of Libyan troops’ Viagra fueled gang-rapes, investigating why more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850, increasing budget cuts to education and, on a more positive note, celebrating civil rights accomplishments of the Freedom Riders.

At the end of the day the Common Controversy is exactly that… common. It’s the same old uncritical media hype dressed up in newer, cooler clothes. If the hype goes unchallenged then a large number of news consumers may actually believe these inflated interpretations of otherwise ordinary events. And, they may ignore uncommon and extraordinary events that actually affect their lives.

In a world that is at once more connected by communication technology and more fragmented by historical differences, the consequences of media-driven controversies are more profound, and the opportunities for reconciliation and honest deliberation may be smaller than ever before. That is, unless we do something about it.