Obama, who said the police officer who arrested Gates "acted stupidly," later back-tracked: first in an interview with ABC's Terry Moran and then making a surprise appearance at the White House briefing on Friday to make additional statements about the matter.
On Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz sorted through with several top journalists what Obama himself described as "the media frenzy." Should Obama have known that commenting on a racially charged story would add fuel to the media's fire?
Roger Simon, Chief Political Columnist for Politico, criticized the President's comments while noting the story as a whole is "very irresistible. No President ought to begin with a sentence with the words 'I don't have all the facts' and end the sentence with 'the police acted stupidly.' He was briefed on this question. The president answers a dozen questions or less, and he practices 20, 30, 40 questions...We can't protect the President from himself. The President really threw gasoline on the flames with something that he walked back the next day, handled properly the next day, and called it what it was, a 'teachable moment.'"
Kurtz said media professionals have an obligation to give coverage to important issues such as health care, even if the President makes other news. "You have a judgment to be made by media professionals, whether health care, this huge debate facing the country, [which] the press conference was devoted to until that last question, if it deserved equal billing."
Callie Crossley, an African American media commentator who serves as program manager for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, said the fact that the first black President speaks about a race issue is news in itself. "I think more than the President kicking it up a notch, which he did, you had to also think, 'Hey, this is the first black president talking about race from a position of understanding and having experienced racial profiling.' I think that deserves a little coverage."
Kurtz asked Lauren Ashburn, managing editor of Gannett Broadcasting, if the media rushed to conclude that Gates' arrest was an instance of racism.
"I think in the beginning, you're right, people thought this could be racism. But by the next day, the next news cycle, everybody was culpable," Ashburn said.
Kurtz also asked whether the many stories by black journalists about their own experiences with law enforcement officials could have affected the overall tone with respect to the coverage of the Gates story.
"Absolutely,” Ashburn said, "That's why we saw the kind of discussion that's going on on online comments and on talk radio. It's absolutely experience. That's where the President was coming from, albeit he probably shouldn't have said what he said, but he was coming from a place of history and a place of personal experience."