Media Echo Obama's False Claim that McCain Lied about Sex Ed Bill

Did the media tell the truth about the sex ed bill Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama supported in the Illinois state Senate? Was the bill aimed at protecting kids from sexual predators, as he says?  Or would it have extended "comprehensive" sex education to the kindergarten level, as GOP nominee John McCain says? 

After McCain released a campaign ad asserting that Obama supported teaching "comprehensive" sex education to five-year-olds, many of Big Media's biggest players not only accepted the Illinois senator's explanation uncritically, they impugned McCain's character with accusations of lying, deception and distortion.

Apparently, many of these reporters never read the actual text of SB 99, which proposed changes to the sex education sections of the Illinois School Code.  

Obama's campaign said SB 99 was written to guard young children against sexual predators. The term “sexual predator,” however, never appears in the document.  Only 57 lines in the 14-page, 455-line document (a 19-line section repeated almost verbatim two more times) address “unwanted” and “nonconsensual sexual advances.” Even this section is aimed principally at resisting “peer pressure,” not child molesters, as Obama implies.

Here is the small portion of the bill that addresses nonconsensual sexual advances, the only part of the bill that could be construed as applying to sexual predators: 

8     (9) Course material and instruction shall teach
9     pupils to not make unwanted physical and verbal sexual
10   advances and how to say no to unwanted sexual advances
11   and shall include information about verbal, physical, and
12   visual sexual harassment, including without limitation
13   nonconsensual sexual advances, nonconsensual physical
14   sexual contact, and rape by an acquaintance. The course
15   material and instruction shall contain methods of
16   preventing sexual assault by an acquaintance, including
17   exercising good judgment and avoiding behavior that
18   impairs one's judgment. The course material and
19   instruction shall emphasize personal accountability and
20   respect for others and shall also encourage youth to
21   resist negative peer pressure. The course material and
22   instruction shall inform pupils of the potential legal
23   consequences of sexual assault by an acquaintance.
24   Specifically, pupils shall be advised that it is unlawful
25   to touch an intimate part of another person, as specified
26   in the Criminal Code of 1961.

The great majority of the bill addresses a variety of sex ed issues affecting all levels of the Illinois school system. One of the most significant of SB 99's proposed changes to the Comprehensive Health Education Program section of the education code was to lower the beginning of “age-appropriate” comprehensive sex education from sixth grade down to kindergarten.  Here's how it appears in the bill itself.  Proposed additions to the code's language are underlined, and deletions are in bold type:  

22        Sec. 3.  Comprehensive Health Education Program.

23        (a)  The   program   established  under  this  Act  shall

24    include,  but  not  be  limited  to,  the   following   major

25    educational  areas as a basis for curricula in all elementary

26    and secondary  schools  in  this  State:  human  ecology  and

27    health,   human   growth   and  development,  the  emotional,

28    psychological,    physiological,    hygienic    and    social

29    responsibilities of family life, including sexual  abstinence

30    and   prevention  of  unintended  pregnancy  until  marriage,

31    prevention and control of disease, including age  appropriate

32    instruction  in  grades  K  6 through 12 on the prevention of

33    sexually transmitted infections,

The bill clearly calls for comprehensive sex education for kindergartners, a point made by Republican strategist Alex Castellanos on CNN during the September 10 Situation Room and the September 15 Election Center, by Fox News correspondent Major Garrett on the September 10 Special Report with Brit Hume, by McCain campaign advisor Lisa Graham Keegan on PBS's September 10 NewsHour, and by John McCain during MSNBC's September 16 Morning Joe.

And what did SB 99 mean by "age-appropriate" comprehensive sex education?  Fox News's Sean Hannity explained to Hannity and Colmes viewers on September 10 what the coalition of organizations that was promoting SB 99 considered age –appropriate sex education for five-year-olds: 

It talks about specific names of body parts for men and women and reproduction organs.  [That] some people are homosexual; it means they can be attracted to and fall in love with other people of the same sex.  Masturbation should be done in a private place.  This in that level one curriculum that he supported.  Why shouldn't that be a campaign ad?

The real content of the bill was not acknowledged by the Obama campaign.  Instead, Obama spokesman Bill Burton responded to the McCain ad by saying, “It is shameful and downright perverse for the McCain campaign to use a bill that was written to protect young children from sexual predators as a recycled and discredited political attack against a father of two young girls” (emphasis added).

CMI found numerous examples of the media reporting, as fact, the language from the Obama campaign response:

    September 10, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow: “The legislation in question was not sponsored by Barack Obama.  It never became law and it was actually designed to warn young children about sexual predators.” (Emphasis added.) September 12, New York Times editorial: “The kindergarten ad flat out lies. …at most, kindergarteners were to be taught the dangers of sexual predators.” September 12, PBS's Judy Woodruff on NewsHour: “Obama supported a law to educate children on the dangers of sexual predators.” (Emphasis added.) September 12, syndicated columnist Mark Shields on PBS NewsHour: “Obama voted for…a bill in the Illinois state legislature that would – for age-appropriate sex educations for youngsters taught to be – to warn them about adult sexual predators and what they could do to avoid and to discourage and to resist.”  (Emphasis added.) September 12, CNN's Larry King during The Larry King Show: “…the quote about kindergartners is not teaching sex to kindergarten kids.  It's dealing with predators.”  (Emphasis added.) September 15, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow: “Obama supported legislation to help keep kindergarteners safe from sexual predators, and turning that into some creepy, anti-sex ed ad, it's not just a McCain lie, it is a prevarication miracle, totally unknowable through rational means.” (Emphasis added.) On September 15, CNN's Election Centerand Anderson Cooper 360 both featured Viveca Novak of  According to Novak, “The kind of thing he was interested in having kids at a young age learn about what was inappropriate sexual advances that might be made against them.  (Emphasis added.)

CBS's Bill Plante did a little better in his September 10 “reality check” to Evening News viewers, but he still bought into the “sexual predators” fig leaf: “The facts: the bill introduced in the Illinois legislature never became law.  It called for non-mandatory sex education for grades K – 12 that was 'age and developmentally appropriate.'  For kindergartners, that included, among other things, 'how to say no to unwanted sexual advances.'  Obama did vote for the bill in committee, and he says he supports similar laws in other states.  But he said the point was to help parents teach their children how to deal with sexual predators.”  (Emphasis added.)

At the July 23, 2007 CNN/YouTube debate, Obama himself said the bill was aimed at protecting children from predators: 

I've got a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old daughter.  And I want them to know if somebody is doing something wrong to them, encroaching on their privacy, that they should come talk to me or my wife.  And we've had that conversation, but not every parent is going to have that conversation with their child, and I think it's important that every child does, to make sure that they're not subject to the sexual predators.

Byron York at National Review noted that a press release issued by groups who supported the 2003 bill in question, including the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, “contained no mention of sexual predators or inappropriate touching.” 

SB 99 never passed the Illinois Senate.  Ralph Rivera, state lobbyist for Illinois Citizens for Life, told CMI, “If it was only 'stranger danger,' it would have blown through the Senate and passed.”

As Castellanos noted on Election Center, SB 99 included “standards in there [in] which 5-8 year-olds should be, you know, talking about body parts, lifestyles and what feels good and a lot of American think that that's going too far.  Now, you know, whether he intended it or not, that's what he voted for and that's fair game.”

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.