The Cutline

Was the Associated Press transcription of Obama’s CBC speech ‘racist’?

Dylan Stableford
The Cutline

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Obama speaks at the Congressional Black Caucus awards, Sept. 24, 2011. (AP)

By most accounts, President Obama gave a fiery speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual awards dinner in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, telling blacks to "quit crying and complaining" and support him in the fight for jobs, according to the Associated Press. But was the AP transcription of Obama's remarks racist?

That's the subject currently being debated after the issue was raised on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show on Sunday.

On MSNBC, the African-American author Karen Hunter complained the news service transcribed Obama's speech without cleaning it up as other outlets did--specifically including the "dropped g's."

Via the AP version:

"Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes," he said, his voice rising as applause and cheers mounted. "Shake it off. Stop complainin'. Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'. We are going to press on. We have work to do."

Hunter called the AP's version "inherently racist," sparring with New Republic contributing editor and noted linguistics expert John McWhorter, who argued the g-less version "is actually the correct one," noting that the president's victory in the 2008 election was due, in part, to how effortlessly "he can switch into that [black] dialect."

Whatever the reason, Hunter found it offensive. "I teach a journalism class, and I tell my students to fix people's grammar, because you don't want them to sound ignorant," she said. "For them to do that, it's code, and I don't like it."

It's worth noting that the same sorts of arguments arose during George W. Bush's presidency, with the White House cleaning up the president's speeches to make him sound smarter, and news outlets sometimes not doing so.

According to Mark Smith, the AP reporter who filed the story, Obama was making a point by dropping his g's, making the transcription a no-brainer.

"Normally, I lean toward the clean-it-up school of quote transcribing—for everyone," Smith told Mediaite. "But in this case, the President appeared to be making such a point of dropping Gs, and doing so in a rhythmic fashion, that for me to insert them would run clearly counter to his meaning. I believe I was respecting his intent in this. Certainly disrespect was the last thing I intended."

"The AP Stylebook counsels against using spellings like gonna or wanna--or in this case, complainin' and cryin'--'in attempts to convey regional dialects or informal pronunciations, except to help a desired touch or to convey an emphasis by the speaker,'" Tom Kent, the AP deputy managing editor for standards and production, said in a statement to The Cutline. "In this case, our reporter, who was there in person, felt the spellings were appropriate to convey a particular touch that President Obama appeared to be intentionally making use of."

Conservative bloggers agree--mainly because the story showed Obama pandering to a black base.

"The first job of a journalist is to report a story as accurately as possible," Howard Portnoy wrote on HotAir.com. "Part of the job of reporting Obama's speech last night was to highlight his obvious pandering, which is borne of desperation. The only element missing from the story is whether any of the listeners were offended by the president's 'blaccent.'"

"The AP did not print the words as written for the president," Mike Opelka wrote on Glenn Beck-owned TheBlaze.com, "instead choosing to transcribe the speech with what might be considered a bit more accuracy."

"He was specifically, and intentionally, using an African-American linguistic style to emphasize his message," a conservative blog called the Last Refuge noted.

"Now that the presidential campaign season has begun," Courtland Milloy wrote in an op-ed column for the Washington Post, "it's okay for President Obama to openly court black people again."