Tuned In

Fox News's Obama "Baby Mama" Drama

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So yesterday afternoon, Fox News ran a segment about criticism of Michelle Obama captioned with the bottom-of-the-screen chyron, “OUTRAGED LIBERALS: STOP PICKING ON OBAMA’S BABY MAMA!” No, seriously, they did.

Is there an emoticon for “Jaw hitting the floor in amazement”? I don’t know how to make one, so I’ll have to risk being called an “outraged liberal” by commenting on this one.

“Baby mama,” for those of you who don’t go to Tina Fey movies, is a slang term generally used to refer to the unmarried mother of one’s child. Barack and Michelle Obama, you may have heard, are a married couple. Now it’s true that, in some instances, baby mama and baby daddy have occasionally been applied to married parents, as Julia Turner points out in a Slate history of the terms, but those are still the exceptions. Given that, and given that the term was popularized as African American hip-hop slang (having originated in Jamaican English), you might think someone would have decided that was a mildly questionable way to refer to the possible next First Lady.

Assuming, of course, that the offensiveness was not exactly the point.

Now, throughout the primary season, through Fox’s wallpapering of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America” clip and so forth, I’ve resisted the charge that Fox is out and out race-baiting Obama. It’s a heavy accusation for one thing, and I don’t like to get into the mind-reading business. It’s possible, I suppose, that you can attribute this incident to the general, lame fascination in both the MSM and blogs with the fact that “Obama” rhymes with “mama.” (To which fascination, the title of this post attests, Tuned In itself is not immune.)

Race baiting, actually, may be the kinder accusation to throw at Fox, because the alternative is that it’s simply laughably clueless and out of touch for an organization whose job involves, like, knowing things. Take last week’s flare-up after Barack and Michelle, just before his speech in St. Paul the night he cinched the Democratic nomination, exchanged a fist bump. Or, as Fox anchor E.D. Hill referred to it, a possible “terrorist fist jab.”

I mean, good God—I’ve probably never exchanged a fist bump with anyone in my life, and I know the gesture well enough not to dive for cover from a possible suicide bomb when I see it. The terrorist comment—for which Hill later apologized—could be part of some deliberate strategy to use hip-hop-associate gestures and language brand Obama as “other” in the public mind. It could be the unintended product of a mindset that simply sees Obama as other. It could be coincidence. It could be none of the above. [Update: A Fox exec tells Politico’s Michael Calderone the caption exemplified “poor judgment.”]

But however you slice it, it’s simply clueless—clueless not just about the meaning of the cultural symbols, but clueless about where and what America is right now. (And clueless in a way that is probably as much generational as racial.) Things like the fist bump, or even Obama’s use of the “brush the dirt off your shoulder” move, are widely mainstreamed in America now, culturally and racially. (To repeat: Baby Mama was a Tina Fey movie.)

Are there people out there who can be persuaded that a fist bump is some kind of crazed, Hamas-meets-Stokely-Carmichael extremist gesture? Sure, I guess. But I suspect those same people already believe that Obama is a secret Muslim who refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance and has a collection of American flag handkerchiefs, or whatever the latest e-mail slur is.

But to most of the rest of us who actually live in culturally cross-pollinated America—even non-Obama voters—I suspect all the fist-bump and baby-mama drama simply reinforces the perception that Obama’s most vitriolic critics are out of touch and forces of the past. (A perception that is not exactly hostile to the Obama campaign’s change theme.)

Regardless, this should be an interesting election for these pop-culture flare-ups. And it may just end up showing that the real “others” in America are the people who get weirded out by fist bumps.