Stephanopoulos Defends Obama's Muslim Exclusion as Response to Smears

Former top Democratic aide-turned ABC journalist George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday spun Barack Obama's repeated exclusions of Muslims as a way to "combat this issue" that he is a follower of Islam. Reacting to a question by "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts about Muslim voters feeling snubbed by the Democratic presidential candidate, Stephanopoulos admitted that the campaign is distancing itself from anything Islamic.

He then justified, "What the Obama campaign makes no apologies for, though, is trying to combat this issue that's really running around e-mail chains all across the country that Barack Obama is a Muslim. He is not." Stephanopoulos continued, "And they feel that they have to take every possible step they can to combat these rumors." In other words, the fact that the Obama campaign excluded two Muslim women from a campaign rally last week is an understandable reaction for someone trying to "combat rumors?"

Stephanopoulos and Roberts actually minimized the extent that Obama has attempted to separate himself from anything related to Islam. While Roberts referenced the June 24 piece in the New York Times on the subject, neither journalist mentioned that the only Muslim member of Congress said he experienced a similar example of rejection back in December of 2007. (Representative Keith Ellison claims that he offered to speak on behalf of Obama at a Mosque in Iowa, but was rebuffed by the campaign.) Perhaps this would be another example of barring a religious group in order to fight rumors.

Instead, Stephanopoulos spent more time focusing on how Obama will combat future appeals to racism by the GOP: "Senator Obama will shine a light on [racially tinged appeals] all the time, call out Republicans whenever he senses they're playing the race card."

Finally, Roberts appeared to channel the conspiracy theories of Keith Olbermann in her opening question. She speculated on comments by top John McCain aide Charlie Black that a terrorist attack would help the Republican's campaign, wondering if the statement was part of some sort of good cop/bad cop routine: "Almost immediately, we had apologies from McCain and Charlie Black, but is this the kind of thing that a campaign puts out there on purpose and then retracts?" This was too much for even Stephanopoulos. He retorted, "Oh, no way. Not on this one, Robin."

A transcript of the June 24 segment, which aired at 7:07am, follows:

ROBIN ROBERTS: And now for the bottom line, we go to Washington and talk with our chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos. All right, George. Almost immediately, we had apologies from McCain and Charlie Black, but is this the kind of thing that a campaign puts out there on purpose and then retracts?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Oh, no way. Not on this one, Robin. In fact, the McCain campaign is tearing their hair out over this this morning. Now, it is true, as Jake pointed out in his piece, that the fight against al Qaeda is one of the clearer issues where John McCain has an advantage, a clear advantage over, over Senator Obama. But a lot of observers, Democrats and Republicans alike, agree that a terrorist attack could end up benefiting John McCain. But this is the kind of thing you just can't say. It's too crude. It's too insensitive, and the bigger problem for the McCain campaign right now is that they can't seem to avoid what one aide called these unforced errors. They were trying to drive home a message on energy policy yesterday. This got in the way. This clouded it. They're trying to tighten control of the message to stop these unforced errors but they haven't been able to do it yet.

ROBERTS: But it's not just about national security here, George. We heard in Jake Tapper's piece, hearing from Barack Obama, who predicted other attacks, saying their going to make you-- they being the Republicans-- make you afraid about me, about my experience, about a host of things so what is Barack Obama trying to do by making a statement like that?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, what he's especially concerned about is they're going to try and use race in an unconscious way and the Obama strategy is to shine a light on this issue. They know a couple of things about the issue of race. They know that the overwhelming majority of Americans are prepared to vote for a black candidate for president and that they don't want -- they hate the idea they're discriminating against an African-American candidate but their research also shows that just beneath the surface there are some concerns, particularly among white working class voters, that somehow Barack Obama will be a candidate for African-Americans and not for everyone else and they're concerns about Reverend Wright and his other associations, so combating it in a couple of ways: One Senator Obama will shine a light on it all the time, call out Republicans whenever he senses they're playing the race card. Secondly, if you look at his new ad, I think they go straight at this issue. They show pictures of Senator Obama growing up with his white mother, with his white grandparents in Kansas. They also take pains to show Obama talking about issues like welfare reform, which cut against the idea that he's simply going to be the candidate for minorities.

ROBERTS: And one other issue this morning smack dab on the front page of the New York Times. In the headline, "Muslim Voters Detect a Snub From Obama. What do you make of that?"

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the Obama campaign doesn't want to admit it, but they are distancing themselves from the Muslim community in some way. You had that issue last week where two Muslim women wearing veils were taken out of the photo-op with Obama. Obama had to apologize for that. What the Obama campaign makes no apologies for, though, is trying to combat this issue that's really running around e-mail chains all across the country that Barack Obama is a Muslim. He is not. And they feel that they have to take every possible step they can to combat these rumors.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org