For Obama, How Bitter It Is

Unaware he was being recorded, Barack Obama told a San Francisco audience that “bitter” Pennsylvanians have turned to guns, religion, and  “antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment,” apparent euphemisms for racism.

Almost all of the network coverage glossed over Obama's grouping of religious faith and gun ownership with “antipathy” and “anti-immigrant sentiment” as problematic responses to economic distress. 

Only political analyst Stu Rothenburg of the Rothenburg Political Report got it right.  Commenting on ABC's World News Saturday, he said, “This reference to guns and religion, I think it'll be a huge problem, because he talks about them in a sense of things to be overcome.”  Like racism.

Obama made the statement April 6 while speaking behind closed doors to an audience of wealthy liberal political donors. A blogger snuck a recording device into the private meeting and posted the story on Friday, April 11 on the Huffington Post Web site. 

Speaking about small town blue-collar workers suffering because of disappearing jobs, Obama said, “it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

NBC and ABC put the best possible spin on Obama's stunning rhetorical gaffe, usually providing only portions of the damning quotation, and never discussing what the unguarded statement revealed about Obama's beliefs and values.

Network coverage began on Saturday morning when NBC's Today anchor Lester Holt framed the issue as elitism: “Is Barack Obama an elitist? What he had to say about blue collar voters that is igniting controversy on the campaign trail.”  Reporter Lee Cowan ignored the incendiary portions of Obama's statement, only acknowledging that Obama said “some of the blue collar voters he met were 'bitter.'” Cowan moved to a “horse race” analysis, emphasizing attacks on Obama by rival candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Holt turned to commentator Howard Fineman of Newsweek, who came closer to the real issue raised by Obama's statement, but still missed the mark. In Fineman's opinion, “The really damaging thing, I think, was not the notion that those voters are bitter, which they are, but his statement that they cling to their guns and their religion because of economic stress.” 

On Saturday evening, ABC's World News anchor David Muir also cut the race-related words out of Obama's statement: “He said the economy has made some of them bitter and they therefore, quote, cling to guns or religion.” Reporter T.J. Winick included a bit more of the quotation:  “It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them.”

NBC's Nightly News played a recording of the entire statement, but failed to follow up by exploring what Obama's words said about his beliefs and values.  Instead, NBC covered the statement's implications for the Democratic nomination “horse race.”

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.