Study: Broadcast Networks Fell Down on Covering Jeremiah Wright

As Jeremiah Wright's screaming sermons have gone from ABC across the media in the last 24 hours, many are asking: where were the networks on this story? It sounds like Obama's minister is less versed in the audacity of hope than in the audacity of hate. A Nexis search of network transcripts shows that up until now, Obama's church and minister have been barely mentioned -- and usually as an Obama defense mechanism.

Up until this week, NBC has done nothing. CBS has devoted about a minute to controversy in a February 28 CBS Evening News story. ABC's Jake Tapper offered Obama's church-and-minister defense three times in November and December.

On ABC's World News with Charles Gibson on November 16, Tapper offered a generic story on negative phone calls and e-mails, including anti-Mormon calls against Mitt Romney and suggestions Obama was a Muslim. Obama said: "There are a variety of nasty e-mails going out. This is similar to the e-mails that's, e-mails that have been floating around that says I am, you know, I'm a Muslim plant who's planning to take over America, you know? This would surprise my pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ."

On November 19, Tapper repeated a version of that on Good Morning America. Tapper ended a report: "The Internet, of course, is where even more malicious information can be spread at the speed of light such as these false e-mails claiming that Barack Obama is a Muslim operative, which Obama jokes his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago would find surprising."

On the December 5 edition of Nightline, Tapper reported Hillary Clinton had to fire a county chairman in Iowa for forwarding an e-mail accusing Obama of secretly praying to Allah. Obama's clip was run again: "This is similar to the e-mail that's, e-mails that have been floating around that says I am, you know - I'm a Muslim plant who's planning to take over America. You know, this would surprise my pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ."

On the February 28 CBS Evening News, reporter Dean Reynolds dug deeper into the emerging Farrakhan-endorsement issue:

REYNOLDS: No flag pin on his lapel? No hand on his heart that one time? Opponents call it unpatriotic. Is he a Muslim? The whispering persists no matter how often Obama debunks it.

OBAMA: I've been going to the same church for 20 years, praising Jesus.

REYNOLDS: That church is the Trinity United Church of Christ. Self-described as unashamedly black, with an emphasis on African culture, the church has been targeted by critics who call it separatist, racist and anti-Israel.

OBAMA: I consistently have not only befriend the Jewish community, not only have I been strong on Israel, but more importantly I've been willing to speak out even when it's not comfortable.

REYNOLDS: Obama has said the church's former pastor and his spiritual mentor, Jeremiah Wright, "is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things I don't agree with." Among Wright's pronouncements, that racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run. A church-related publication saluted Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, a well known anti-Semite, who in turn has praised Obama's candidacy as recently as last Sunday.

Mr. LOUIS FARRAKHAN: I love that brother.

REYNOLDS: A gesture Obama rejected Tuesday night after some prodding.

OBAMA: There’s no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. But if the word reject, Senator Clinton feels, is stronger than the word denounce, then I'm happy to concede the point and I would reject and denounce.

Up until the Brian Ross report, CBS was the only network to do the barest shadow of a report that could make Obama's campaign a little more difficult. Even Reynolds left out a few details. Farrakhan won the "Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award" to a man who "truly epitomized greatness" -- in 2007. Where were the media on that?  Doesn't this divisive minister of Obama's cause a serious problem for a candidate who's been sold as a uniter, not a divider?

Why, this late in the primary season, are we still discovering that they haven’t asked any of the hard questions? We are starting to see the same disturbing pattern we saw with John Kerry in 2004. The media didn’t see its job as vetting John Kerry as he told everyone he was the bravest of war heroes. When the men who fought with him on the swift boats told a different story, the media tried to ignore them.

The media was saying "print the legend," and suggested that when opponents try to vet the Democrat, when they try to do the job a supine media blatantly failed to do, it was then the media’s job to vet the opponents and question their sincerity, not vet the Democrat.

The news media doesn’t see its job as informing the electorate. They see their job as getting the Democrat past the electorate.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis