Nets Decry 'Caustic' Talk Host Who 'Compelled McCain to Apologize'

With cover from John McCain, NBC and ABC on Tuesday night condemned the “caustic” and “mocking” remarks of Cincinnati radio talk show host Bill Cunningham who, on stage before an Ohio campaign appearance by McCain, dared to utter Barack Obama's middle name and call him “a hack” Chicago politician.

Though Hillary Clinton on Sunday, without upsetting journalists, ridiculed Obama with religious overtones (“Let's get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing!”), NBC's Kelly O'Donnell asserted: “Cunningham's nearly ten-minute provocative performance veered into more controversy when he parodied Obama as a religious figure.” Cunningham's supposedly offensive line: “When the great prophet from Chicago takes the stand and the world leaders who want to kill us will simply be singing Kumbaya together.” O’Donnell maintained that Cunningham's words “compelled John McCain to apologize” and she took for granted that he properly acted “to quickly undo any damage.” Damage the media assumed needed undoing.

ABC anchor Charles Gibson teased: “Bashing Obama. John McCain apologizes for remarks made about Barack Obama at a McCain rally.” Ron Claiborne charged that “local conservative radio personality Bill Cunningham made caustic references to Barack Obama, calling him a hack politician from Chicago” and presumed Cunningham had a nefarious motive since he “went on to use Obama's Muslim middle name, Hussein, three times. Obama is actually a Christian.” At least Claiborne however, unlike NBC's O'Donnell, highlighted conservative disgust with McCain's cave-in to media sensibilities: “Rush Limbaugh wasted no time mocking McCain's apology.”

The cable news channels covered the incident all day and Cunningham defended himself, and castigated McCain for his rebuke, in appearances Tuesday night on CNN's Election Center and FNC's Hannity & Colmes.

Tuesday's CBS Evening News didn't consider the matter newsworthy.

At a Providence event on Sunday, Hillary Clinton announced: “Now, I could stand up here and say let's just get everybody together. Let's get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing.”

On Sunday’s NBC Nightly News, Ron Allen set up that blast without criticism: “Clinton began her day facing more speculation her campaign is on its last leg while she went after Barack Obama with sarcasm.” Over on ABC's World News, Jake Tapper was more upbeat in introducing the soundbite: “Clinton took a lighter tone this afternoon in Rhode Island, mocking Obama’s oratory.”

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide transcripts of the February 26 NBC and ABC stories:

NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: And on the Republican side, the campaign of John McCain for his party's nomination, well, Senator Obama was an issue there, too, today. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell covering that for us tonight. She is with us tonight from Fairfield, Ohio. Kelly, good evening.

KELLY O'DONNELL: Brian, when campaigns hold events with big backdrops like this, we usually don't show you what happens before the candidate gets there. Typically, there are speeches, some of them partisan. And what one said at an event earlier today compelled John McCain to apologize. Warming up a crowd waiting for John McCain today-

BILL CUNNINGHAM: I tell you, it's a great, great morning to be an American. I guarantee you.

O'DONNELL: -conservative Cincinnati radio host Bill Cunningham, whose shows airs on 300 stations nationwide, repeatedly used Barack Obama's middle name in a mocking tone-

CUNNINGHAM: -peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama-

CUNNINGHAM: -Barack Hussein Obama-

CUNNINGHAM: -Barack Hussein Obama-

O'DONNELL: -and accused the news media of going easy on Obama.

CUNNINGHAM: At some point, the media will quit taking sides in this thing and maybe start covering Barack Hussein Obama the same way they covered Bush.

O'DONNELL: More than just a few partisan zingers, Cunningham's nearly 10-minute provocative performance veered into more controversy when he parodied Obama as a religious figure.

CUNNINGHAM: -when the great prophet from Chicago takes the stand and the world leaders who want to kill us will simply be singing Kumbaya together.

O'DONNELL: After the event, McCain tried to quickly undo any damage.

JOHN MCCAIN: -and I absolutely repudiate such comments, and again, I will take responsibility, it will never happen again. It will never happen again.

O'DONNELL: McCain acknowledged that the shock jock's appearance was coordinated by his campaign. And, although Cunningham has a well-publicized reputation for making controversial comments, McCain advisors say they did not know in advance what Cunningham would say. And, Brian, Senator Obama heard about all of this and said he appreciated Senator McCain's apology. And, of course, this overshadowed much of what McCain wanted to be talking about today. And that radio host went on the air. He remained unapologetic and turned against McCain.

ABC’s World News:
CHARLES GIBSON: As for the Republicans, at a rally in Cincinnati today, John McCain felt compelled to apologize for some derisive remarks that were made about Barack Obama -- not by McCain himself, but by the speaker who had been asked to warm up the crowd for the Republican candidate. And then, McCain was sharply criticized for making the apology. Here's Ron Claiborne.

RON CLAIBORNE: Warming up the crowd before the McCain rally in Cincinnati today, local conservative radio personality Bill Cunningham made caustic references to Barack Obama, calling him a hack politician from Chicago.

BILL CUNNINGHAM: Imagine your horror if you wake up on January the 20th, 2009, and the commander-in-chief is Barack Obama.

CLAIBORNE: And Cunningham went on to use Obama's Muslim middle name, Hussein, three times. Obama is actually a Christian.

CUNNINGHAM: At some point, the media will quit taking sides in this thing and maybe start covering Barack Hussein Obama the same way they covered Bush-

CUNNINGHAM: -Barack Hussein Obama-

CUNNINGHAM: -Barack Hussein Obama-

CLAIBORNE: McCain arrived at the event following Cunningham's introduction. Immediately afterward, he quickly huddled with aides, then apologized profusely before reporters.

JOHN MCCAIN: I will take responsibility, and any offense that was inflicted I apologize for.

CLAIBORNE: On his national radio program, Rush Limbaugh wasted no time mocking McCain's apology.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: McCain went out there and, "We're sorry. It's uncalled for. It's uncalled for in American politics. I take full responsibility, although he did it."

CLAIBORNE: Campaign officials said Cunningham had been recommended by the local Republican party here in Cincinnati. But they had not vetted him themselves.

MATTHEW DOWD, ABC News Political Contributor: I don't know if it was dumb. Normally, in these presidential things, whoever introduces the candidate is totally researched, and usually they're giving some level of talking points, and told what to do and not to say.

CLAIBORNE: On his show today, Cunningham was defiant.

CUNNINGHAM: It's the nature of my life to speak truth to power.

CLAIBORNE: It's a sign of just how tentative the first steps of reconciliation between McCain and conservatives are that they may have been set back already just by his apology. Ron Claiborne, ABC News, Cincinnati.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center