Last night a bewildering debate broke out on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight over video posted online yesterday of a young Barack Obama speaking at a student protest at Harvard Law School more than two decades ago.
The debate focused on whether the new BuzzFeed website or Breitbart.com deserved credit for the scoop.
My bewilderment stemmed from the question of why anyone would consider this video to be a scoop at all.
The background: Obama was a student leader at Harvard Law and was well known as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. In the video posted by BuzzFeed, Obama lauded Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell at a protest against at the paucity of black law faculty and the absence of any black women law professors there.
The conservative website Breitbart.com additionally posted a slightly longer version — involving Bell getting a hug from Obama.
Its editors saw the video as damning in two ways: in tying Obama to what someone its editors consider an extremist and in showing the media's complicity with Obama in failing to put a spotlight on his past. The story kicked off what is to be a series of exposes on Obama planned by the late conservative culture warrior Andrew Breitbart, the impresario behind Breitbart.com.
BuzzFeed's Smith, a liberal, called the video amazing and repeatedly termed it a scoop; his site said it had found "video, not previously available online but licensed by BuzzFeed from a Boston television station."
That's far from a full account. I found the footage very familiar and remembered seeing it in a Frontline documentary on PBS. I quickly located it — online — in full. The documentary was a twinned look at the rise of candidates Obama and John McCain just ahead of election day.
Frontline, by the way, is produced by WGBH, a major public broadcaster in Boston. But it's a national show seen in prime time on hundreds of stations. That's not exactly the neglected, dusty archives of a little known local station.
Here's what I tweeted at 4:12pm yesterday:
David Folkenflik @davidfolkenflik
Love @BuzzFeed's unearthing old vids, but I saw part of Obama Harvard law protest video in fall 08 on PBS to.pbs.org/wtbk4A - abt 30m in
Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post passed it along. And then BuzzFeed's Smith responded:
Ben Smith @BuzzFeedBen
@mlcalderone @davidfolkenflik Right - that's what put us on the hunt for the fuller video, which we licensed from wgbh.
Smith's outfit got the video in the clear — a few extra seconds of Obama speaking, and without the Frontline narration or music. Breitbart's site also showed the student embracing the professor.
What Barack Obama did as a student leader is absolutely fair game for biographers, journalists to sift through and for voters to consider as they cast their ballots.
But what on earth do BuzzFeed and Breitbart's Big sites consider the scoop to be? Obama, who has repeatedly written and spoken about race, identity and American history, advocated greater diversity for the Harvard law faculty. This should surprise neither his supporters nor his detractors.
Bell, who died last fall, was a leading civil rights lawyer and a chief proponent of a school of thought specifying that race and power play a central role in the American legal system. This was controversial and contested at the time. If someone wants to revisit it, that's their prerogative.
It remains impossible to demonstrate the scoop, despite what Smith and Breitbart.com's Dana Loesch contended last night on Twitter and on CNN. The earlier footage was shown at the height of the 2008 election season to a national audience by the most prominent documentary series in the country.
Loesch soon emphasized the notion Obama's embrace of the scholar was hidden by the mainstream media. It is hard from a journalistic standpoint to see what is added by the physical sight of a black law student hugging a black scholar for whom he has already expressed affection.
For perspective, I turned to one of Obama's fellow editors at the law review --Bradford Berenson, who was also interviewed for the PBS documentary. He is a conservative lawyer who served as an associate White House counsel under President George W. Bush.
"I'm a little mystified about how or why this would be a story, especially in 2012," Berenson wrote me in an email. "None of this was a secret; it's ancient history; and whatever one thinks of Derrick Bell or critical race theory, they are not exactly comparable to [the Rev.] Jeremiah Wright or ex-members of the Weather Underground."
Scoops are supposed to break news or deepen our understanding in new ways. This video flap accomplished neither.
(David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent.)