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Why the Media Won’t Stop Laughing at Alvin Greene

Is it classism or racism?

Early last week, Alvin Greene paid a visit to the studios of WBT Radio in Charlotte. Ostensibly, he was there to drum up support for his campaign to unseat South Carolina Senator Jim Demint. But, as is always the case with Greene, politics quickly gave way to farce. For two hours, he offered up his daffy policy proposals (like selling action figures of himself to end the recession) and fumblingly dodged embarrassing questions about his involuntary discharge from the military and his recent indictment for allegedly showing pornography to a University of South Carolina coed. The most surreal moment came when the show’s host, Keith Larson, played a viral rap hit about the candidate (sample lyrics: “Greene’s a new face in politics / And he don’t show porno to college chicks”), spurring Greene, to the delight of Larson and the six cameramen filming the radio interview, to get up from his chair and dance. It was only a matter of hours before the clip of Greene shimmying went viral itself. Which, of course, is why, according to the Charlotte Observer, WBT shelled out $575 dollars for a limo to chauffeur Greene the 230 miles from his home in Manning, South Carolina, to Charlotte to do the interview in the first place. The radio station knew that, one way or another, Greene would make news.

It seems unfair to begrudge any candidate the right to what political consultants call “earned media”—newspaper articles, TV news stories, radio interviews, etc.—especially at a time when, thanks to the decrepit state of American journalism, earned media coverage is so hard to come by. But, in the case of Alvin Greene, it’s well past time that reporters stop covering him—for his good, and their own.

In the beginning, the media’s fascination with Greene was understandable. When the “unemployed 32-year-old black Army veteran with no campaign funds, no signs, and no website,” as Mother Jones’s Suzy Khimm described Greene in one of the first national articles about him, came out of nowhere to win the South Carolina Democratic primary in June, it was appropriate for journalists to try to figure out more about the candidate and his improbable victory. And as their reporting raised more questions—including accusations from prominent South Carolina Democrats, such as James Clyburn, that Greene’s victory was the result of a Republican dirty trick—the media swarm that engulfed Greene, who conducted almost all of his interviews from the rundown home he shared with his 81-year-old father in the tiny town of Manning, was painful to watch, but, at the same time, seemingly necessary.

In the end, however, the sinister suspicions about Greene proved unfounded, as an investigation by South Carolina officials concluded that Greene had paid the $10,400 filing fee himself. And, while no one has ever come up with a completely convincing explanation for how Greene was able to win over 100,000 votes after not having even conducted a campaign, the truth is that the question is moot, since the race against Demint, no matter who was running against him, was never going to be close.

And yet, rather than move on, the media have continued to cover Greene—despite the fact that polls have him trailing Demint by more than 40 points. This, not surprisingly, drives the South Carolina Democratic Party nuts, since it hardly helps other Democratic candidates in the state—Democratic candidates who are actually in competitive races—to have a man currently under indictment on obscenity charges serving as the public face of their party.

But it’s not just Fox News and conservative talk radio paying so much attention to Greene; it’s liberal media outlets like The Huffington Post and MSNBC, too. And, while it would be nice to believe that the continuing fascination with Greene is a right-wing conspiracy to hurt Democrats, I think it’s something worse. At this point, any journalist covering Greene is basically mocking him. In one respect, that makes him no different from the handful of other fringe candidates who, for whatever reason, capture the fancy of the mainstream media, whether it’s Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton on the left or Rick Barber and Dale Peterson on the right. But when reporters mock these fringe politicians, they are, to a large extent, mocking their ideologies—and the cultural baggage that comes with those ideologies.

Alvin Greene doesn’t represent any ideology, at least not a recognizable one. But he does represent a culture—namely the culture of the working-class (and often rural) black South. Granted, I make that claim with some trepidation; I don’t want to suggest that obscenity indictments and involuntary military discharges are representative of any particular culture. But if you’ve spent any time in the Pee Dee in South Carolina or the Black Belt in Alabama, then Greene probably reminds you of some of the people you’ve met there. His slow, occasionally halting pattern of speech—which once led a CNN interviewer to ask him if he was mentally impaired or drunk. His tumbledown home—which, as every profile of him almost invariably marvels, does not have a computer. His “family reunion” t-shirt. These aren’t unusual things in parts of this country, but these are the things that people mock when they mock Greene. For reasons that have more to do with class than race, being poor and black and demonstrating a remarkable unfamiliarity with the ironic sensibility that holds sway among denizens of coastal cities is still considered acceptable to laugh at. Because, let’s face it, laughing at white rednecks has become passé. (Laughing with them is another matter: see Larry the Cable Guy.) Laughing at black backwoods types, however, still seems relatively fresh. As The Awl recently pointed out, a lot of the popular Internet memes these days are “mostly just people laughing at working-class African-Americans”; what’s more, if you look at the five videos the Awl highlights, four have Southern datelines.

And that’s why reporters really need to stop covering Greene—not only because it does him no favors at this point (“Nobody should have to be a laughingstock,” as one South Carolina voter recently put it to the Charlotte Observer), but also because their coverage of Greene reveals their own prejudices. This was most apparent during that WBT interview. After Greene got up to dance, Larson, the show’s host who’d uproariously introduced his guest as “the unemployed, enigmatic, true American hero,” expressed his displeasure with Greene’s moves. “You’re biting your lower lip there, Alvin! You’re looking like a white guy in a wedding, biting your lower lip there,” Larson admonished the candidate. “Knock that off! You can’t do that!” To which I really wish Greene had replied, “Why the hell not?”

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic. You can follow him on Twitter at @zengerle.

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