NBC's "Today" show on Friday minimized and neglected a gaffe by Barack Obama that his bowling skills are on the level of the "Special Olympics or something." In contrast, ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "Early Show" heavily covered the remark. GMA devoted the first two segments to the ill advised joke the President made on Thursday's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno." And although "Today" opened the program with Obama's appearance, they didn't get to the Special Olympics crack to the very end of the piece. Co-host Meredith Vieira awkwardly explained that the President "said something that forced the White House to issue an explanation afterward."
Fellow co-host David Gregory vaguely added, "When you're on comedy shows, there's always a chance that a punch line doesn't work." What was the punch line? He didn't say. Chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd then reported on the story and only got to the gaffe at the segment's end. In contrast, "Good Morning America" senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper asserted that Obama "proceeded to put his foot in his mouth" with his remark. GMA featured the offending line right at the beginning of the piece and also included a graphic that announced, "Late Night Gaffe: Obama's Special Olympics Joke." Co-host Robin Roberts even observed that "some have an issue with the venue" of the talk show.
In a follow-up segment, Roberts brought on Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver to discuss the comment. Shriver is a supporter of Obama and gave $1750 to the then-candidate during his presidential run. (Roberts didn't mention this.) So, it's not surprising that he accepted the apology (which the President offered in a call on Thursday night) and suggested the event could be a "teachable moment." However, Roberts pressed the subject and wondered, "Is that enough for you? Or do you think there's something else that he should do?"
Over on the "The Early Show," CBS also featured the controversy prominently. Co-host Maggie Rodriguez announced that the President created a "whole new uproar." Fellow host Julie Chen explained, "First, it was a whirlwind trip to the West Coast for President Obama, but his message on the economy may be drowned out by an inadvertent comment." Guest co-host Chris Wragge deemed the statement a "flippant comment." However, he seemed confused about the fact that Obama has already apologized. Wragge asked Slate.com's John Dickerson, "Does he need to make an apology?" As "Good Morning America" and "Today" noted, the President put out a statement apologizing shortly after talking with Leno.
In the 9am hour of the "Today" show, the segment was repeated and NBC's Todd deemed the quote a "inappropriate comment." He also related the story that Obama called Mr. Shriver to apologize. In the 7am hour, however, after playing the offending clip, this was the extent of NBC's coverage:
TODD: Now, Air Force one was barely in the air when the White House put up an official statement apologizing for the remark. Bill Burton, deputy press secretary, says "The President made an offhand remark making fun of his own bowling that was in no way intended to disparage the Special Olympics. He thinks that the Special Olympics are a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world." David, I have a feeling some phone calls this morning to the Shriver/Kennedy family, who of course have been big advocates of the Special Olympics.
DAVID GREGORY: Chuck Todd in Washington at the White House, thanks so much.
The contrast between the three shows can most clearly be seen in how each program teased the story. Only NBC skipped the Special Olympics comment. Here is the GMA version:
DIANE SAWYER: The President hits the late night comedy circuit.
BARACK OBAMA: I do think in Washington, it's a little bit like "American Idol," except everyone is Simon Cowell.
ABC GRAPHIC: Late Night Gaffe
JAY LENO: One joke prompted a White House apology this morning.
OBAMA: I bowled a 129.
LENO: Oh, that's very good, Mr. President.
OBAMA: This is like Special Olympics or something.
SAWYER: The head of the Special Olympics answers the President.
"The Early Show" tease was similar:
MAGGIE RODRIGUEZ: President Obama takes to late night TV defending his embattled Treasury Secretary but causes a whole new uproar.
OBAMA: This is like Special Olympics or something.
The "Today" show crew ignored the gaffe in their show open:
JAY LENO: Please welcome President Barack Obama.
MEREDITH VIEIRA: Good morning. Late night pitch. President Obama makes history with an appearance on the "Tonight Show," mixing humor with his economic message to the country.
OBAMA: But, ultimately, I'm now the guy who's responsible to fix it. In Washington, it's a little bit like "American Idol," except everybody is Simon Cowell.
VIEIRA: And he had a lot more to say about life inside the beltway.
[Special thanks to MRC intern Mike Sargent for transcribing the "Today" segment.] "Today" viewers who just heard the opening headlines certainly wouldn't know that the President said anything at all controversial.