CBS’s Rodriguez: Obama Speech 'Defining Cultural Moment in America’

NewsBusters.org - Media Research CenterWednesday’s CBS "Early Show" devoted four segments to Obama’s speech on race and the Jeremiah Wright controversy and that coverage began with a proclamation by co-host Maggie Rodriguez that: "It's being called a defining cultural moment in America. Barack Obama speaks about America's racial stalemate, a moving moment, a political risk." Rodriguez went on to tease upcoming coverage of the speech by again emphasizing its "historic" nature: "It was without question a defining moment in American political history. But for an African-American presidential candidate who'd played down race in his campaign, this was a huge gamble politically."

The first of the show’s four segments featured a report by correspondent Byron Pitts, who observed: "If critics hoped Senator Barack Obama would disown his controversial pastor, they were disappointed." After speaking of Obama’s "disappointed critics," Pitts went on to praise Obama’s unifying message and give some political advice:

But beyond condemning his minister's words, Obama tried bridging the racial divide, acknowledging years of bitterness and anger amongst blacks and whites...While Obama invoked the tone of a preacher, it was a politician speaking. With a slip in the polls, the Illinois Senator needs to take the nation's attention off race and back on jobs, health care, and the war in Iraq.

Following the report by Pitts, co-host Russ Mitchell went on to highlight one of Obama’s "disappointed critics," Rush Limbaugh:

MITCHELL: As you might expect, Obama was a hot topic on talk radio as well. Take a look.

LIMBAUGH: Barack makes whites feel good. Jackson and Sharpton did not, but his association with Reverend Wright now threatens this, the association with Reverend Wright has de-masked Obama.

Mitchell then went on to show a sample of voters reacting to Obama’s speech. If one includes Limbaugh’s comment, there were 3 comments critical of Obama and twice as many, 6 comments, in favor of Obama. One such pro-Obama voter, Ann Loeb, remarked: "I wish that people would just stop. I think the problem is that the primaries period is much too long, and people can't help digging up little things that are really beside the point, and I would just like to forget about it and move on."

Mitchell followed that comment by colluding the segment this way: "Well, the polls show this incident has cost Obama support among some voters. Many political pundits give him credit for tackling the issue right now, head on."

In the second segment of the day, co-host Maggie Rodriguez talked to CBS political analyst Jeff Greenfield and pollster Frank Luntz about the political fallout of the speech. Rodriguez introduced the segment by quoting a new CBS poll: "About 30% said that Reverend Wright's statements made their view of Obama less favorable." Of course CBS has barely reported on Wright’s most controversial comments, so one wonders what "statements" the poll refers to.

Rodriguez began by asking Greenfield: "Consensus seems to be that this was yet another great eloquent speech by Barack Obama, but, Jeff, let's start with you and take it further. Do you think that it accomplished his task, which was to diffuse the Reverend Wright situation?"

Greenfield said no and actually provided some tough criticism for both Wright and Obama when he later said that: "Some of the things that Reverend Wright said -- that AIDS was a government conspiracy to commit genocide against black people. These are the words of a crackpot, and the question is if this is a spiritual mentor, this is a guy that's part of your life, at what point do you look up and say this guy is too much off the rails for me to be associated with him."

For his part, Luntz explained why the speech was not the "great eloquent" one that Rodriguez described:

Also, he had two Teleprompters, left and right, when you watch clips of it, you'll notice that he never looked straight at the camera. This is important. Voters want to see your eyes. They want to judge whether or not you really believe what you're saying, but, instead, he's going back and forth. And third, he had to spend so much time on Reverend Wright that people have already forgotten the key points of his speech where he did talk so powerfully about race.

The third segment on Obama’s speech was hosted by Mitchell, who talked to Time Magazine’s Rick Stengel and liberal columnist for the left-wing Mother Jones Magazine, Debra Dickerson. At one point Mitchell asked Dickerson: "Debra, as you watched the speech, did anything cross your mind that he had done particularly wrong?" Her response was predictable:

That he had done wrong? I got to tell you, I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was visionary. I don't think he struck a false note. He didn't -- he didn't -- he didn't distance himself -- he didn't distance himself from the things that have been said. He put them in context. I don't think he struck a false note at any place in this speech. He forgave Geraldine Ferraro. He put Jeremiah Wright in context in Obama's life, not in the context of Jeremiah Wright, 'You're not voting for him. You're voting for me. And this is my relationship with him.' I think it's a speech that people are going to be studying for a long time. I don't think he did anything wrong.

Later, Dickerson praised Obama for not denouncing Reverend Wright and she used Obama’s own comparison of Reverend Wright to his grandmother:

I think it's exactly what he's -- what people wanted him to do and what he did not do, and I really admire, is he was basically asked to disown him, and he specifically refused to do that, and I think it's exactly like being required to disown one of your grandparents, and I thought that was beautiful in the speech because your grandparents are wise and they tell these crazy stories that don't make sense until the end. They smack you upside the head and give you a meat loaf sandwich, but then once or twice a month they say something so heinous and horrific that you're embarrassed. You never know what grandma is going to say. But you can't disown grandma.

The forth and final segment on Obama’s speech was simply a 7 minute edited version of the speech. This 7 minutes was nearly half of the show’s total 16 minute’s of coverage of Obama.

Here are the full transcripts of the segments:

7:00AM TEASER:

MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ: It's being called a defining cultural moment in America. Barack Obama speaks about America's racial stalemate, a moving moment, a political risk.

7:01AM TEASER:

RODRIGUEZ: This morning America is talking about the speech from Barack Obama. It was without question a defining moment in American political history. But for an African-American presidential candidate who'd played down race in his campaign, this was a huge gamble politically. Did he reassure voters concerned about the remarks of his former pastor? We'll talk about the speech itself and the political risk.

7:02AM SEGMENT:

RUSS MITCHELL: Barack Obama's speech on race was the toughest challenge yet for him and his campaign. The issue was thrust upon Obama by the words of his long-time pastor. CBS News National Correspondent Byron Pitts reports from Philadelphia.

BYRON PITTS: If critics hoped Senator Barack Obama would disown his controversial pastor, they were disappointed.

BARACK OBAMA: I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.

PITTS: Condemn the sin and not the sinner was Obama's message, but it was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's angry rhetoric about race in America.

JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people.

PITTS: That took the Obama campaign off message and forced Tuesday's speech.

OBAMA: As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive. Divisive at a time when we need unity.

PITTS: But beyond condemning his minister's words, Obama tried bridging the racial divide, acknowledging years of bitterness and anger amongst blacks and whites.

OBAMA: To wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns, this, too, widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.

PITTS: Even Obama's rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, while admitting she didn't see the speech, she welcomed the sentiment. While Obama invoked the tone of a preacher, it was a politician speaking. With a slip in the polls, the Illinois Senator needs to take the nation's attention off race and back on jobs, health care, and the war in Iraq. Byron Pitts, CBS News, Philadelphia.

MITCHELL: So did Barack Obama score points with American voters? We sampled reaction in cities and towns across the nation. As you might expect, Obama was a hot topic on talk radio as well. Take a look.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: Barack makes whites feel good. Jackson and Sharpton did not, but his association with Reverend Wright now threatens this, the association with Reverend Wright has de-masked Obama.

BARBARA THOMPSON: I don't think the minister represents him. You know, we all go to church and have a minister, and so it doesn't represent, you know -- everybody is still an individual.

DON TITTLE: Barack has denounced it, and I think we should accept him at his word that he does no believe what that -- in what that minister's been saying lately.

OBAMA: I strongly disagree with many of his political views.

JEVAN WYCHE: Simply, we need unity in this -- this country, and that's what we like the most, so, you know, I agree with what he's saying.

JOHN CAMDEN: You have to stand with people that you are associated with one way or another, and he's been with him for years, and it's a very weak and indecisive statement that begs more questions than it answers.

KATE SINATRA: You know, he's all about hope. Yet, the message that his pastor preached was all about dividing and, you know, hatred towards certain aspects of society.

PETER COLLINS: I just think that it's amazing how he responded to this without being defensive and without being preachy.

MICHAEL DICKSON: I'd say he's as accurate as anybody else, and you can throw in McCain's minister and probably Hillary's minister in there somewhere too.

ANN LOEB: I wish that people would just stop. I think the problem is that the primaries period is much too long, and people can't help digging up little things that are really beside the point, and I would just like to forget about it and move on.

MITCHELL: Well, the polls show this incident has cost Obama support among some voters. Many political pundits give him credit for tackling the issue right now, head on. We're going to have more on this in just a bit.

 

7:12AM TEASER

MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ: Speaking of speeches, we're going to talk about the political fallout from Barack Obama's speech on race in America coming up this morning.

7:15AM SEGMENT:

MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ: In a CBS News poll taken before Barack Obama's speech on race yesterday, we asked voters about the controversial remarks made by the Senator's pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. About 30% said that Reverend Wright's statements made their view of Obama less favorable. So, did the speech do enough to repair the damage? Joining us now, pollster Frank Luntz and CBS Senior Political Analyst Jeff Greenfield. Good morning to you both, gentlemen.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Good morning.

FRANK LUNTZ: Good morning.

RODRIGUEZ: Consensus seems to be that this was yet another great eloquent speech by Barack Obama, but, Jeff, let's start with you and take it further. Do you think that it accomplished his task, which was to diffuse the Reverend Wright situation?

JEFF GREENFIELD: No. I think absent the controversy with Reverend Wright, this would have gone down as a terrific speech, uncommonly blunt, kind of the Nixon-goes-to-China, maybe only an African-American can talk this bluntly about race. But what to me -- the comments of Reverend Wright leave -- will leave in some people's minds a notion that Obama, who is still an unformed candidate, not nearly as well known as, say, Hillary Clinton or other candidates have been in the past. A question of who is this guy? What does he really believe? How do you sit in a church for 20 years, become aware of some of these comments, and not say 'I'm sorry, this isn't for me'? Disowning your grandmother is a little different from disowning your pastor. So, while the talk about race was, I thought, exemplary, the lingering problems left by the Wright comments I think will remain as a low level fever, at least.

RODRIGUEZ: What about you, Frank? You wrote a book where you study words. It's called "Words that Work." Do you think that these words worked?

FRANK LUNTZ: Well, it's interesting because I was also looking at the presentation. I agree completely with Jeff's analysis. This is the first time that I've seen Obama deliver a major speech in front of flags, rather than people, so he's trying to state something there. Also, he had two Teleprompters, left and right, when you watch clips of it, you'll notice that he never looked straight at the camera. This is important. Voters want to see your eyes. They want to judge whether or not you really believe what you're saying, but, instead, he's going back and forth. And third, he had to spend so much time on Reverend Wright that people have already forgotten the key points of his speech where he did talk so powerfully about race.

RODRIGUEZ: That's interesting. So you think maybe the words worked, but maybe not the setting is what you are saying?

LUNTZ: And I would have definitely shortened it. I would have only made one or two references to Reverend Wright, and then I would have focused the rest of it just on race in America, because that's what -- that's what he wanted to talk about. Instead, every news program for the last 24 hours has been mentioning what he didn't want to talk about.

RODRIGUEZ: Right. That's right. Alright, Jeff, you mentioned the quote. Let's show it for a minute where he's talking about Reverend Wright, and he says "I can no more disown him" -- we have the quote here. "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother." Do you think -- do we give him credit for dismissing the words, but not disowning the man, or do you think that that's not enough?

GREENFIELD: The question here for me, actually -- and this may seem odd given the context -- is really not race. Some of the things that Reverend Wright said -- that AIDS was a government conspiracy to commit genocide against black people. These are the words of a crackpot, and the question is if this is a spiritual mentor, this is a guy that's part of your life, at what point do you look up and say this guy is too much off the rails for me to be associated with him.

RODRIGUEZ: Alright. Jeff Greenfield, Frank Luntz, unfortunately, we're out of time. Thank so much.

 

7:30AM SEGMENT:

RUSS MITCHELL: More now on Barack Obama's speech on race in America. One of the most important of his campaign. We're joined by Rick Stengel, Time Magazine's Managing Editor, and Debra Dickerson, professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Albany and a columnist for Mother Jones Magazine. Good morning to both of you.

RICK STENGEL: Good morning.

DEBRA DICKERSON: Good morning.

MITCHELL: Debra I'm going to begin with you. By many accounts, this was a risky speech for Barack Obama. At the end of the day what do you think? Is it going to translate into more votes for him or for Hillary Clinton?

DEBRA DICKERSON: Well, it was a risk he had to take. If he had dodged the issue, it would have been so much worse. And I think he also -- when you listen to this speech, you also get a sense that he felt his humanity was at stake, that the need to explain something without making excuses for it or being embarrassed by it. So it was definitely a risk he had to take. I don't think that this is a question. We're in the process of transcending race. It's not something you do in one stroke, and the process is one of synthesis -- he -- we ask questions, he answers back, we talk, the questions get better and we move up. So, will it result in more votes for him today? Maybe not. But I think that he garnered a lot of respect for himself and for the humanity of black people to be diverse in terms of -- who we should listen to and who we should not maybe, so it was a risk he had to take, but this conversation is far from over.

MITCHELL: Rick, who was he trying to reach in your mind, and did he connect?

RICK STENGEL: You know, that's a good question, Russ, because he had multiple audiences. On the one hand, he's talking to the American people and saying -- he's re-introducing himself. One thing that Hillary has not had to do because people know her is introduce herself. Every time he goes to a new state, he has to say 'here I am. I'm presenting myself.' He's been so successful from the beginning in terms of transcending race and making himself a post-racial candidate. So, it's kind of amazing that now we're reckoning with the fact, wow, we actually have a black candidate running for president. So one of his audiences is the voters of Pennsylvania, but he's also talking do the super-delegates and saying, 'you know what, this is how I will be in the general election campaign. I'm not going to be a traditional candidate. I'm not going to renounce people. I'm not going to denounce people. I'm going to be in the general election the way I have been from the very beginning, and it's pretty unconventional.'

MITCHELL: Debra, as you watched the speech, did anything cross your mind that he had done particularly wrong?

DICKERSON: That he had done wrong? I got to tell you, I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was visionary. I don't think he struck a false note. He didn't -- he didn't -- he didn't distance himself -- he didn't distance himself from the things that have been said. He put them in context. I don't think he struck a false note at any place in this speech. He forgave Geraldine Ferraro. He put Jeremiah Wright in context in Obama's life, not in the context of Jeremiah Wright, 'You're not voting for him. You're voting for me. And this is my relationship with him.' I think it's a speech that people are going to be studying for a long time. I don't think he did anything wrong.

MITCHELL: Rick, when it comes to Jeremiah Wright, was that damage done already, or is there a way to recover for that? For Barack Obama?

STENGEL: You know, I don't know, Russ. I mean it's -- we're in unchartered waters. I think to talk a little bit what Debra was talking about, if he had -- he was trying to reach white voters, older white voters, older women voters, and basically say, 'you know what, I'm not the guy you think I am. I'm not associated with this guy.' He didn't do that. Now, I don't even think he tried to do that. That's what is so unconventional about it. So, if I'm looking at it in a very hard-headed way, in a practical political way, he didn't do some of the things that he needed do.

MITCHELL: Debra, we talked about this a bit on Monday. Is this whole incident going to force black ministers to dial back when they're speaking to their congregations?

DICKERSON: I think the ones -- in some ways. Not so much dial back, but I think they understand now that this vestige of racism that said 'we don't really pay attention to what black people say. We listen to the choir, we go and admire the big church hats, but nobody cares what they say.' Now the black -- the politicized black ministry is going to not dial back, but to make sure that they're saying exactly what it is they want to say. But I think a very important audience that he was speaking to was also black people, and he was saying, 'look, I'm not going to disown you. This is not my Sister Souljah moment,' and I think it's exactly what he's -- what people wanted him to do and what he did not do, and I really admire, is he was basically asked to disown him, and he specifically refused to do that, and I think it's exactly like being required to disown one of your grandparents, and I thought that was beautiful in the speech because your grandparents are wise and they tell these crazy stories that don't make sense until the end. They smack you upside the head and give you a meat loaf sandwich, but then once or twice a month they say something so heinous and horrific that you're embarrassed. You never know what grandma is going to say. But you can't disown grandma.

MITCHELL: Alright. Well, Debra Dickerson, Rick Stengel, good to talk to you, good insight this morning, we appreciate it.

DICKERSON: Thanks for having me.

 

8:37AM SEGMENT:

RUSS MITCHELL: We want to take another look now back at Barack Obama's speech on race in America and see how folks around the nation reacted to it.

[Screen with Capitol Dome and American flag in the background with the title: 'HERITAGE']

BARACK OBAMA: I'm a son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived the Depression to serve in Patton's army during World War II, and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America, and I have lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners, an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible. It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional of candidates, but it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts. That out of many, we are truly one.

[Screen with same patriotic background with the title: 'REVEREND WRIGHT']

OBAMA: We've heard my former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation. They rightly offend white and black alike. I have already condemned in unequivocal terms the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy and in some cases pain. But the truth is that isn't all that I know of the man. The man I met more than 20 years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another, to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a United States Marine and who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country and who over 30 years has led a church that serves the community by doing God's work here on Earth, by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing daycare services and scholarships and prison ministries and reaching out to those suffering from HIV AIDS...And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children...I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me, and they are part of America. This country that I love... And I suppose the politically safe thing to do would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the wood work. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro in the aftermath of her recent statements as harboring some deep-seeded bias, but race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.

[Screen with same patriotic background with the title: 'POLITICS & RACE']

OBAMA: This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle. Or with a single candidate, particularly -- particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own. But I have asserted a firm conviction. A conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that, in fact, we have no choice. We have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away. Nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public in front of white co-workers or white friends, but it does find voice in the barbershop or the beauty shop, around the kitchen table. At times that anger is exploited by politicians to gin up votes along racial lines or to make up for a politician's own failings, and occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning. In the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning. That -- that anger is not always productive. Indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems. It keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity within the African-American community in our own condition. It prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real. It is powerful. And to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

MITCHELL: And as we told you earlier, in a CBS News poll taken before Obama's speech, 30% said the comments by his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, made their view Obama less favorable.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC