The ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts on Tuesday framed coverage of Barack Obama's speech, in reaction to the furor over the racist, paranoid and America-hating remarks of his long-time pastor, not by focusing on what it says about Obama's true views and judgment but by admiring his success in “confronting” the issue of “race in America” in an “extraordinary” speech. Indeed, both ABC and CBS displayed “Race in America” on screen as the theme to their coverage, thus advancing Obama's quest to paint himself as a candidate dedicated to addressing a serious subject, not explain his ties to racially-tinged hate speech. NBC went simply with “The Speech” as Brian Williams described it as “a speech about race.”
In short, the approach of the networks was as toward a friend in trouble and they wanted to help him put the unpleasantness behind him by focusing on his noble cause. “Barack Obama addresses the controversial comments of his pastor, condemning the words but not the man,” CBS's Katie Couric teased before heralding: “And he calls on all Americans to work for a more perfect union.” On ABC, Charles Gibson announced: “Barack Obama delivers a major speech confronting the race issue head on, and says it's time for America to do the same.” Reporting “Obama challenged Americans to confront the country's racial divide,” Gibson hailed “an extraordinary 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.” On NBC, 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.” [Updated with Nightline]
The CBS Evening News, following a lengthy report from Byron Pitts, brought aboard a panel of two from the far-left -- Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Debra Dickerson, a former U.S. News editor who is now a blogger for Mother Jones magazine, plus Jeff Greenfield of CBS News. Dickerson declared: “Obama was brilliant in this speech.” Wallis insisted “the black pulpit is a place of truth-telling about the experience of black people.”
Echoing that theme, ABC's Steve Osunsami centered a story, following the lead story from Jake Tapper and an assessment from George Stephanopoulos, around rationalizing Wright's rants as just typical of what's heard Sundays inside black churches:
There's an understanding among many black parishioners that what happens in the black church -- the sermons, the discourse -- that they are performances of exaggeration; in the words of one black minister: gross hyperbole, but certainly with strands of truth.
The “truth-telling” and “strands of truth” that AIDS was created by the government to kill people of color and 9/11 was America's “chickens coming home to roost?” (See full quotes below.) To say nothing of Wright's praise for the anti-Semitic Louis Farakhan.
Also on ABC, George Stephanopoulos touted Obama's honor: “By refusing to renounce Reverend Wright, that was in many ways an act of honor for Senator Obama.”
Can you imagine such admiration for a conservative candidate associated for decades with a religious figure who believed in separating the races and denounced Jews?
The networks matched the themes pushed in the afternoon by the New York Times and Washington Post. “Criticizing Pastor, Obama Assesses Race in America,” declared the NYTimes.com headline. The WashingtonPost.com headline: “Barack Obama Confronts Racial Division in U.S.” How about “Obama Refuses to Separate Self from Anti-U.S. Hate-Speech Spewer”?
[UPDATE, 1:15 AM EDT, March 19: Tuesday's Nightline featured an “exclusive” interview with Obama in which ABC's Terry Moran tossed softballs and cued up Obama to expound on his views about race. He never challenged Obama on his awareness of Wright's hate speech. (Interview excerpts will also air on Wednesday's GMA.)
Moran trumpeted: “Obama tried the almost impossible in America: He tried to talk about race honestly, about injustice, about white resentment, about black anger.”
Moran also fretted over how “Obama has to worry about” his views on other issues getting “drowned out,” as if that should be the concern of a journalist, as Moran hoped for “another way to think and communicate” about race:
What Obama has to worry about now is that everything he is trying to say that isn't about race -- his views on Iraq, the economy, health care, education -- all that will get drowned out in our old, predictable ways of thinking about race. The big question now for Obama -- and for the rest of us, really -- is there another way, another way to think and communicate across the color line?]
CBS's Katie Couric, and ABC's Jake Tapper, but not NBC's Brian Williams or Lee Cowan, noted how Obama admitted hearing some of the remarks he now condemns, but neither pointed out how Obama thus contradicted what he said in interviews on Friday. From Special Report with Brit Hume on FNC:
MAJOR GARRETT: To a packed auditorium of supporters and reporters, Obama went farther than ever before in admitting that he listened in the pews to sermons from Wright that many might find objectionable.
BARACK OBAMA: Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.
GARRETT: But that's a notable re-calibration of Obama's statement to Fox on Friday as to whether he'd ever witnessed the words from Wright he now so strenuously condemns.
OBAMA, ON FRIDAY: None of these statements were ones that I had heard myself personally in the pews.
After barely touching over the last few days the most outrageous of Wright's allegations, ABC, CBS and NBC on Tuesday again provided at best only cursory references to them so anyone relying on those newscasts would be hard-pressed to understand all the fuss.
NBC Nightly News didn't air any soundbites from Wright nor quote him as Brian Williams said Wright made “some” comments which “some” found upsetting: “He's made some comments some find highly objectionable.” Lee Cowan, using “some,” raised “an outcry over inflammatory and, some say, hateful words that his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had spoken from the pulpit.”
The CBS Evening News viewers heard Wright's “God damn America” and Jeff Greenfield referred to how Wright claimed “AIDS is a government conspiracy.” (Wright's inane paranoia about AIDS: “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.”) On ABC's World News, anchor Charles Gibson cited “comments cursing America, implying that the U.S. deserved 9/11.” That was the first broadcast network evening newscast reference to Wright's take on 9/11.
In a sermon the Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Wright suggested America spurred and deserved the attacks:
We bombed Hiroshima! We bombed Nagasaki! And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye....We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yard. America's chickens are coming home to roost.
No part of that far-left, Blame America First language has made it onto the ABC, CBS or NBC evening newscasts since the video became public last Thursday. The March 15 NewsBusters posting, "Instead of Wright, NBC Touts Childhood Pals: 'Good Luck Barry!'," recounted:
Friday night, ABC didn't have anything on Wright, though after Thursday's Good Morning America aired a story by Brian Ross about Wright's rants, Thursday's World News was the only broadcast network evening newscast to touch Wright as Jake Tapper ran this one soundbite from Wright attacking Hillary Clinton: "Barack knows what it means to be a black man, living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich, white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a n----er."
Friday's CBS Evening News carried a story by Dean Reynolds which ran the "Not God Bless America, God [bleep] America" before Reynolds explained the close connection between Wright and Obama: "Reverend Wright officiated at Obama's wedding and the baptism of his children and he is described as a mentor for whom Obama took the phrase 'the audacity of hope' for the title of his book."
Saturday's World News and NBC Nightly News (as well as Sunday's World News) ran the "Not God Bless America, God damn America" soundbite. (College basketball meant no CBS Evening News on Saturday, none in the EDT/CDT on Sunday.)
My March 17 NewsBusters rundown, “Ongoing Blackout of Wright's 9/11 Rant, Only ABC Covers Him Monday.”
The teases and intro from ABC and CBS on Tuesday night, March 18, as well as a full transcript of NBC's coverage, the shortest of the three:
ABC's World News:
CHARLES GIBSON, in opening teaser: Welcome to World News. Tonight, Barack Obama delivers a major speech confronting the race issue head on, and says it's time for America to do the same.
GIBSON: Good evening. It may turn out to be the seminal speech of his presidential campaign. Barack Obama, in Philadelphia today, took on the issue of race. It was a speech he says he's wanted to make for some time. He made it after inflammatory comments from his preacher, Jeremiah Wright, became widely publicized, comments cursing America, implying that the U.S. deserved 9/11 and attacking American support for Israel. Obama condemned the remarks but praised the preacher himself, and Obama challenged Americans to confront the country's racial divide. An extraordinary speech, and ABC's Jake Tapper reports from Philadelphia.
GIBSON: Well, in his speech, Obama complained about the endless loop of snippets from Pastor Wright's sermons, which have been broadcast over and over and reverberated around the Internet. The Senator says they give a distorted picture of the pastor and of his church, and only widen the gulf between blacks and whites in America. Here's ABC's Steve Osunsami.
CBS Evening News:
KATIE COURIC, in opening teaser: Tonight, race and presidential politics. Barack Obama addresses the controversial comments of his pastor, condemning the words but not the man.
BARACK OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.
COURIC: And he calls on all Americans to work for a more perfect union.
OBAMA: Working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds.
COURIC: Good evening, everyone. It may have been the most difficult, risky and important speech of his political career. Barack Obama, the first African-American to have a serious chance of becoming President, today addressed the race issue head on, including the racially charged remarks of his own pastor. Obama acknowledged hearing the remarks at church services, and, while he condemned them, he also tried to put them into context. And he challenged Americans to work together so we can, quote, "move beyond some of our old racial wounds." Our national correspondent, Byron Pitts, begins our coverage....
NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS, in opening teaser: On the broadcast here tonight, the race. Barack Obama makes the most important speech of his presidential campaign and tackles the issue of his controversial pastor.
WILLIAMS: Good evening. This country is currently feeling its way through something entirely new. This is the first time an African-American candidate has a serious, some would say likely, shot at becoming the next President of the United States. So race is an issue in this year's campaign, both in a way that's inescapable and in other ways. The latest controversy has to do with a Chicago minister. He's made some comments some find highly objectionable, and he happens to be Barack Obama's former minister. He married the Obamas and baptized their two children. So what happened today has been coming for some time. Barack Obama gave a speech today about race, which amounted to another first in many ways. We begin here tonight with NBC's Lee Cowan. He's covering the Obama campaign tonight in Philadelphia. Lee, good evening.
LEE COWAN: Well, good evening, Brian. Not a lot of time to savor the speech tonight. The Senator is already on his way down to North Carolina tonight where he'll campaign tomorrow. In fact, he's giving another big speech on foreign policy there tomorrow. But he leaves behind this speech which, as you said, could be one of the most important of his career that will likely be talked about for the rest of this campaign. The symbolism was lost on no one. In the City of Brotherly Love, Barack Obama gave the most expansive and most intensely personal speech on race he's ever given.
BARACK OBAMA: I'm the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents. These people are part of me, and they are a part of America, this country that I love.
COWAN: But also a part of this country, he said, is a stubborn divide -- a racial stalemate, he called it -- that he says both whites and blacks have contributed to.
OBAMA: 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.
COWAN: The speech was a political necessity for the Illinois Senator.
Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT: Mothers and fathers-
COWAN: It sprang from an outcry over inflammatory and, some say, hateful words that his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had spoken from the pulpit.
OBAMA: Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.
COWAN: That said, though, he refused to drive a wedge between himself and his pastor.
OBAMA: 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, 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.
COWAN: Honesty that struck his rival Hillary Clinton.
HILLARY CLINTON: I'm very glad that he gave it. It's an important topic, you know. Issues of race and gender in America have been complicated throughout our history, and they are complicated in this primary campaign.
COWAN: Even her young supporters agreed.
STEVE LUCAS, HILLARY CLINTON SUPPORTER: And I give Senator Obama a lot of credit and respect for actually taking a leap of faith in the American people and saying some things that are difficult to talk about.
OBAMA: And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.
COWAN: Now, Brian, a lot of people describe this as much an outline of his presidency as it was a response to the Wright controversy. But these kind of speeches take a little while to percolate down to the electorate, so it could be some time before anyone can say for sure whether the Senator did what he had to do today. Brian?
WILLIAMS: Lee Cowan starting us off in Philadelphia, the scene of today's speech. Lee, thanks. And with us tonight for some perspective on what we heard today from Senator Obama, Joe Scarborough, former Republican Congressman and, these days, of course, the host of Morning Joe on MSNBC. And from the Washington Post, editorial writer Jonathan Capehart. Jonathan, let's start with you. What did you make of today's speech?
JONATHAN CAPEHART, Washington Post: I thought today's speech by Senator Obama was certainly the most important speech of his career, but I do also think it was a very important speech for the nation. It was a very blunt, very honest, very open speech that really put out into the open the furtive conversations and furtive thoughts on both sides of the racial divide that have been going on for generations. And to have it out there, out in the open and in black and white for people to read for years to come, I think, is a very important gift the Senator has given the country.
WILLIAMS: And, Joe, you devoted a substantial portion of this morning's broadcast to a preview. Now that you've seen it, what did you think?
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Well, it made history. And certainly it's a speech that a lot of people think he needed to make. The question's not, though, how we're going to react in Georgetown or Manhattan or other areas. It's how they're going to react in Youngstown, Ohio; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Jacksonville, Florida. These are the Reagan Democrats that voted for Bill Clinton twice, that voted for Ronald Reagan twice, voted for George W. Bush twice. There is white resentment there. The question is: How do they respond to Reverend Wright? And how do they respond to that speech today? I think they may, may not respond quite as well as we respond here.
WILLIAMS: Jonathan, quick last word. It was called, in our setup piece, a political necessity. Does that change what was in the speech?
CAPEHART: It was a political necessity, but I'm still not clear -- and I'm trying to still processing what exactly that means politically for the Senator -- I don't know if it did 100 percent what he needed it to do.