Moving on from Obama's Pastor, NBC Focuses on McCain 'Mistake'

A day after Barack Obama's speech in reaction to the bigoted and hateful rants of his long-time pastor, the network evening newscasts moved on -- with only ABC briefly mentioning the topic -- while NBC Nightly News, which has run just one clip of Jeremiah Wright and on Friday had instead featured a whole story about Obama's childhood friends cheering him on, centered a Wednesday night story around “a mistake” by John McCain. Anchor Brian Williams provided an ominous plug: “Did John McCain slip, or was his mistake intentional? His choice of words making news tonight.”

Kelly O'Donnell soon proposed: “Defense and national security are central to McCain's campaign. So a mistake he repeated this week has stood out. At least three times McCain incorrectly asserted that Iran is aiding al Qaeda.” After video of Senator Joe Lieberman whispering in McCain's ear, McCain corrected himself as O'Donnell explained: “The mistake, al Qaeda is a Sunni group while Iran is a Shia nation.” O'Donnell highlighted how “Senator Obama seized on the error,” concluding with the suggestion the one comment undermined McCain's image: “Leaving McCain to defend his expertise during a trip in which he intended to showcase it.”

As recounted in my Tuesday night NewsBusters posting, in covering Obama's speech NBC's Lee Cowan admired how "in the City of Brotherly Love, Barack Obama gave the most expansive and most intensely personal speech on race he's ever given," adding it reflected "honesty that struck his rival Hillary Clinton." Also on the NBC Nightly News, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart asserted "it was a very important speech for the nation. It was very blunt, very honest" and so "a very important gift the Senator has given the country."

So far, the only Wright soundbite aired on NBC Nightly News ran on Saturday when viewers heard his "Not God Bless America, God damn America."

My March 15 NewsBusters item, “Instead of Wright, NBC Touts Childhood Pals: 'Good Luck Barry!',” reported:
Friday's (March 14) NBC Nightly News allocated a mere 22 seconds to Barack Obama's condemnation of what fill-in anchor Ann Curry vaguely described as "inflammatory remarks that his long time pastor made about Hillary Clinton and the nation," but instead of informing viewers of any of those remarks, such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright's suggestion that the U.S. deserved 9/11, the newscast then devoted three minutes to a celebratory piece about how excited Obama's childhood friends in Indonesia are about his candidacy.

In a story which began and ended with a picture of Obama's classmates in front of huge "Good Luck Barry!" lettering, reporter Ian Williams trumpeted the wonders Obama is doing abroad: "The fact that Obama lived in Jakarta and studied at this school has really captured the popular imagination. It's already working wonders for America's battered image here." A local commentator oozed over how "Obama's candidacy confirms the romantic ideals people like me have held since childhood that America's the land of opportunity."

Williams concluded with how "friends remember Barry playing barefoot in the paddy fields with a real spirit of adventure," and so now "hope there'll be no turning back on his journey to the White House. And Barry might attend their next reunion as President of the United States."...
ABC's World News provided the only Wednesday evening mention of Obama and Wright, in this brief exchange between Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos that followed a discussion about the problems facing Democrats in trying to count Florida and Michigan:
CHARLES GIBSON: One other subject I want to ask you about is the Obama speech from yesterday on which we reported so extensively. And I wonder how Republicans were reacting to it today.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They think it's is a killer issue, Charlie. They have all year long believed that Hillary Clinton would be easier to beat in November. But that view is starting to change now after this Wright issue has come to the fore. There's some polling evidence to back that up. And that may turn out to be Hillary Clinton's best argument now in this nomination fight. She can go to the super-delegates and say, look at what's happened. Barack Obama has been damaged. He is no longer electable.
Hmm, maybe the fact it's “a killer issue” is why the networks were so reluctant to cover the topic and so quick to move on.

The Wednesday, March 19 NBC Nightly News story:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Back to the presidential campaign briefly. John McCain's latest stop on his overseas trip, Israel where the talk was of neighboring Iraq and what the U.S. should do. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell is traveling with him.

KELLY O'DONNELL: John McCain's visit to one of Judaism's most revered and usually solemn sights, the wailing wall, set off a commotion. A sign of intense interest in his visit. And the Iraq war was a focus during our interview.

JOHN McCAIN TO O'DONNELL: For nearly four years, we pursued a failed strategy. For the last year it's been a successful strategy.

O'DONNELL TO McCAIN: Do you believe in a first term, if elected, there would be a dramatic reduction in the number of U.S. forces engaged in combat in Iraq?

McCAIN: Oh, yes, sure.

O'DONNELL: But he declined to say how many U.S. troops would need to stay.

McCAIN: I can't give you a number and honestly the number doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is American casualties. My goal as President is to reduce and eliminate American casualties.
O'DONNELL: Defense and national security are central to McCain's campaign. So a mistake he repeated this week has stood out. At least three times McCain incorrectly asserted that Iran is aiding al Qaeda.

McCAIN IN IRAQ: That al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That's well known.

O'DONNELL: Then after Senator Lieberman whispered in his ear.

MCAIN: I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al Qaeda. Not al Qaeda. I'm sorry.

O'DONNELL: The mistake, al Qaeda is a Sunni group while Iran is a Shia nation.

O'DONNELL TO McCAIN: People did notice that you made this comment and wondered was it simply a slip of the tongue?

McCAIN: I corrected it immediately. I corrected my comment immediately. But to think I would have some lack of knowledge about Sunni and Shia after my eighth visit and my deep involvement in this issue is a bit ludicrous.

O'DONNELL: But today, Senator Obama seized on the error.

BARACK OBAMA: Just yesterday we heard Senator McCain confuse Sunni and Shia, Iran and al Qaeda.

O'DONNELL: Leaving McCain to defend his expertise during a trip in which he intended to showcase it. Kelly O'Donnell, NBC News, Jerusalem.
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