As the presidential campaign unfolds, conservatives will no doubt have numerous gripes -- many of them legitimate -- about mainstream media coverage of the candidates. Witness the recent åspate of stories complaining about the negative tone of the campaign that appeared only after the Bushies unleashed attack ads on John Kerry. The previous three months in which no Democratic candidate for the nomination could utter the word "Bush" without ranting and raving, well, that was just the normal happenings of a primary campaign.
Media bias is sometimes found not only in what makes it into print but also what doesn't. This is evident in the campaign theme of "outsourcing." There probably isn't a Democratic politician who hasn't used the term to attack President Bush, and this has resulted in a flurry of news stories about the subject. But in all the media coverage, have you heard anyone refer to outsourcing as a "racial code word"?
For the uninitiated, racial code words are words politicians (usually Republicans) are accused of using to supposedly help them win votes by raising whites' fears of minorities. According to pundit Clarence Page, racial code words include terms like "states' rights," "crime in the streets," and "welfare queens." Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. has even suggested that "tax-and-spend liberals" qualifies. The concept was trotted out again during the controversy over the University of Michigan affirmative action cases early last year. In a column in AsianWeek, Phil Tajitsu Nash lamented that "President Bush is continuing to use racial code words...such as 'quota.'" Earlier this year, Howard Dean similarly tagged President Bush:
"The President used the word 'quota' five or six times.…the word 'quota' every politician and every pollster in America knows is a race coded word deliberately designed to appeal to people's fears that they may lose their job, or their place at [a] university to a member of a community of color."
Whether or not one agrees with Dean, it is no stretch to argue that his description of "quota" can be applied to "outsourcing." Outsourcing also raises people's fears that they may lose their job to a member of a person of color. The only real difference is that it is a member of another nation.
INDEED, TO THE EXTENT that outsourcing is a racial code word, the code isn't all that secretive. An organization calling itself Make America Work For Us, which is affiliated with the 527 group Media Fund, is running an attack ad that begins, "During the past three years, it's true that George W. Bush has created more jobs. Unfortunately, they were created in places like China." As the commercial proceeds, the camera pans out to reveal a factory covered with Chinese symbols. One can only imagine the outrage that would occur if a conservative group had run such an ad.
Groups on the left, however, are certain to be given a pass. Last month the AFL-CIO began a "Show Us the Jobs" bus tour in the Midwest. The AFL-CIO's press release announcing the tour claims, "The government is one of the largest exporters of American jobs...and the government is responsible for outsourcing its own jobs." Did any reporter covering this tour ask its organizers whether they are playing on American workers' fears of foreigners? Yeah, right.
One obvious reason why such questions won't be raised is liberal bias in the media. Most reporters likely believe that racism is largely the purview of Republicans. Plus, outsourcing is an issue that helps the Democrats and hurts the GOP, so why upset the apple cart?
A slightly less obvious reason is that there are no organized pressure groups in the U.S. devoted to fighting for outsourcing. Thus, no one is bringing to the attention of the media that outsourcing is a potential racial code word. By contrast, there are pressure groups in the U.S. that fight for policies like welfare and affirmative action, and so have a vested interest in promoting the racial-code-word criticism.
WHETHER THE RACIAL-code-words charge is helpful to policy debates in the U.S. is an open question. There are legitimate criticisms to be made of policies like affirmative action and welfare, and dismissing criticism of them as racially motivated is probably myopic. Yet if the mainstream media will draw attention to the political right's use of words that supposedly appeal to people's racial fears, fairness demands that they focus on the political left's use of a word that appeals to people's xenophobia. Of course, conservatives learned long ago not to expect fair treatment from the mainstream media.