AP's Babington Fears Willie Horton/Helms Attacks on Obama

AP political reporter Charles Babington, who recently touted "ample evidence that Obama is something special," is now warning that Obama is bracing against "race-based ads." Recent examples of "racially tinged" TV images like Obama wearing a turban and native Kenyan gear are "harbingers" of conservative 527-group ads to come. Babington then typically recounted the usual liberal-media suspects on racial politics – the Willie Horton ad and the crumpled-letter ad from Jesse Helms.

But he typically ignored acidulous race-baiting liberal commercials like the NAACP in 2000 suggesting that George W. Bush was dragging black victim James Byrd to death behind a pickup all over again, and the Missouri Democratic Party ad in 1998 that claimed: "When you don’t vote, you let enough church explode.When you don't vote, you let another cross burn." Babington implied that the history of nasty racial politics is a one-way avenue:

U.S. politics has a long history of racially charged campaigns. Opponents hit Democrat Michael Dukakis with a now-infamous TV ad showing Willie Horton, a black inmate who raped a white woman while free on a weekend release program that Dukakis had supported.

Former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., defeated a black opponent after airing an ad in which a white man's hands crumpled a letter informing him that he had lost a job he deserved to a minority.

Babington left out a few important facts, like the fact that Horton was a convicted murderer, in prison for viciously stabbing a gas-station attendant to death. But Babington telegraphed the media’s hypersensitivity will be acute, as one of their favorite professors explained in the next paragraph of the Babington article:

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an authority on political communications at the University of Pennsylvania, said overt racial references are risky. But more subtle ads might stir doubts in voters' minds that could lead, in part, to racially tinged subjects, she said.

"The appeal that suggests that Senator Obama is 'out of touch with American values' invites audiences to ask what 'American' means," Jamieson said. Are voters being asked to link Obama to Wright's anti-American remarks? she said. "To question his patriotism? To fill in their fears and stereotypes? Foreigner? Muslim? For some, that appeal may elicit race-based reactions."

Meanwhile, another liberal professor, Drew Westen, wrote for The New Republic that McCain would have to go negative on racial matters:

[T]he only road that could take McCain to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the low road, one of the few pieces of infrastructure left in good repair by President Bush. His father paved it against Michael Dukakis, George W. Bush repaved it running against John Kerry, and the GOP repainted the dotted line in now-Senator Bob Corker's 2006 contest with Harold Ford.The path to success for McCain is to make the election a referendum on his opponent, by working in silent concert with 527 groups and media outlets such as Fox News to pursue character assassination, guilt by association, and, most of all, the effort to paint Obama as different, foreign, unlike "us," and dangerous (and did I mention that he's black?).

Westen boasted of how he showed CNN that nasty ads might be Obama’s biggest vulnerability:

For any who wonder how successful this technique can be, my colleague Joel Weinberger and I recently ran a study for CNN testing the conscious and unconscious impact of three attack ads. The results were clear: The conscious and unconscious impact of an attack ad can be diametrically opposed. For example, just as exit polls showed that more than half of voters in Ohio, where she ran it, said she'd run an unfair campaign against Obama but still handed her a substantial victory, viewers of Hillary's "3 A.M." ad decried it and claimed that it made them think less of Hillary--but the words most strongly activated unconsciously about Obama by the ad were weak, Muslim, terrorist, and lightweight.

We are poised for the nastiest, most racist presidential contest in modern American history. Why? Because John McCain can't win any other way.

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