On Friday, October 17, news broke that Rep. John Murtha told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Barack Obama might have tough sledding in his home area: "There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area." Trying to add context to his remarks, Murtha later said many in Western Pennsylvania were "rednecks" several years ago. Now he’s in danger of losing his House seat. But have the national media noticed? ABC, CBS, and NBC all brushed past the remarks in stories on other, broader subjects, as did NPR. Time and Newsweek have run nothing. Even the major newspapers – The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today – have each mentioned the remarks only once, in passing.
Among the networks ABC was the worst (but also the first) to raise Murtha on the Sunday morning program This Week on October 19. But they utilized a separate, slightly less insulting interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Potentially the biggest X-factor out there in these final two weeks is still race. Barack Obama, the first African American nominee of a major party and Congressman John Murtha of western Pennsylvania actually spoke to that directly in an editorial board meeting of The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review just the other day and I want to show you a bit of what he said.
MURTHA: Obama has got the problem with racist issue in western Pennsylvania. When I was with Hillary Clinton and I was out there campaigning for weeks, in Washington, they said that Obama would lose by four or five points. They said she was going to win by 10 points, 9.5 because in this area you're not always sure that the polls are accurate.
STEPHANOPOULOS: David [Gergen], they call it the Bradley effect after Tom Bradley. He was running for governor, African American of California. Huge lead in the polls, ended up losing. Now there are a lot of different reasons for that. A lot of pollsters don't believe there is a Bradley effect anymore but there still is that concern on the Obama team.
ABC’s World News was the only evening news program that ignored Murtha. CBS and NBC each touched on Murtha on Tuesday night, October 21, four days late. On the CBS Evening News, reporter Chip Reid offered a story mostly about the Republicans that threw in Murtha’s Tribune Review clip:
REID: Running mate Sarah Palin, still popular with the party's base, was in conservative rural Pennsylvania this weekend. One key target for the campaign: Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton but are uneasy about Obama, especially in rural areas and white working-class suburbs. Blunt speaking Democratic congressman John Murtha, referring to some of his own constituents, recently said race is an issue.
MURTHA: Obama has got the problem of the racist issue in western Pennsylvania.
REID: He later apologized, but late today, McCain responded to Murtha outside Pittsburgh.
Sen. McCAIN: I could not disagree with those critics more. This is a great part of America. This is the heartland of America. This is where people love their country and they serve it.
REID: From here McCain heads for New Hampshire...
Correspondent Andrea Mitchell was quicker on NBC Nightly News that evening, as a brief aside as she mocked Sarah Palin’s knowledge of the vice presidency. She used the more offensive Post-Gazette remarks:
MITCHELL: The vice president, according to the Constitution, presides over the Senate and has a tiebreaking vote. McCain was campaigning in Pennsylvania, where veteran Democratic congressman John Murtha recently said racism would hurt Obama.
JOHN MURTHA: He'll have a tough time, you know. There's no question western Pennsylvania is a racist area.
MITCHELL: Murtha later apologized. In our national poll most people said race was not a big factor. Eight percent said race was important. And among those people, only 4 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for Obama.
USA Today was the first newspaper to educate readers on Murtha’s remarks, on Tuesday morning, October 21, in the tenth paragraph of an unbylined story headlined "Despite candidates’ efforts, race lurks below surface." But Murtha was treated more as a pundit than a politician who put his foot in his mouth:
At the same time, reporters traveling around the country have had little trouble finding bigoted Americans who say they won't vote for Obama because he's black or biracial (his mother was white, his father black). Crude racial stereotypes remain common.
So how will the racism show itself at the polls?
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., told Pittsburgh's Tribune-Review last week, "Obama's got a problem with the race issue in Western Pennsylvania" that could cost him 4 percentage points on Election Day. On the other hand, some analysts have discussed a "reverse Bradley effect," in which some whites vote for Obama while telling bigoted friends they didn't. Blacks, meanwhile, are expected to turn out in big numbers for Obama, potentially offsetting race-based white votes.
The other papers followed on Wednesday morning, October 22. The Washington Post blew by Murtha in paragraph 8 of a story by reporters Michael Abramowitz and Robert Barnes on page A-2:
In his final appearance of the day, in Moon Township near Pittsburgh, McCain criticized the "nasty" comments of certain politicians about western Pennsylvania, a reference to Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha's comments that the area he represents is "racist." Murtha has apologized for the comments, although he was also quoted as saying the area was once "really redneck."
"I could not disagree with these critics more," McCain said to loud cheers.
The Los Angeles Times disposed of it in paragraph 10 of an article on page A-16:
Race may be a complicating factor. U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) said last week that some in western Pennsylvania may be reluctant to vote for Obama because he is black. "There's no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area," Murtha said. He later apologized for the remark.
The New York Times team of Elizabeth Bumiller and Jeff Zeleny not only played down Murtha in their front-page article, buried inside the paper in paragraphs 13 and 14. They turned it around to mock McCain for bumbling his attack line:
Mr. DuHaime rejected comments made last week by a Pennsylvania Democrat, Representative John P. Murtha, who told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, speaking of his home base, that ''there is no question that Western Pennsylvania is a racist area.''
Mr. McCain referenced Mr. Murtha's comments in his third stop of the day, at Robert Morris University here, when he said, ''I think you may have noticed that Senator Obama's supporters have been saying some pretty nasty things about Western Pennsylvania lately.'' As the crowd booed, Mr. McCain became tangled up in the rest of his remarks. ''And you know, I couldn't agree with them more,'' he said, to silence, and then wandered around in a verbal thicket before finally managing to say, ''I could not disagree with those critics more; this is a great part of America.''
National Public Radio also just mentioned it once, at the end of a Scott Horsley report on Morning Edition on October 22, but they allowed McCain an effective soundbite:
HORSLEY: McCain trails Obama by double digits in the polls in Pennsylvania, but his aides insist the state is more competitive than that. They've devoted a lot of time and money to campaigning in Pennsylvania, a state that's gone Democratic in the last four presidential elections. Obama did run poorly in the primary in Pennsylvania, and Democratic Congressman John Murtha warned in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview that Obama would suffer in the Western part of the state he represents because, Murtha said, it's a racist area. McCain's aides said yesterday they hope race does not play a role in the contest. McCain himself took issue with Murtha's comment during a campaign rally outside Pittsburgh.
McCAIN: I could not disagree with those critics more. This is a great part of America. This is a heartland of America. This is where people love their country and they serve it.