For nearly two weeks in September the media propagated the idea that the nationwide protests sparked by Democrats' plan to overhaul the health care system and the profligate spending in
But by then the damage had been done.
Between Sept. 7 and Sept. 20, 22 news segments about this issue aired on ABC, CBS and NBC. “Obviously it's different because President Obama is black,” was how CBS's Maggie Rodriguez refuted the notion that the current protests were similar to those that liberals held during the Reagan and Bush administrations, during the Sep. 17 “Early Show.” ABC's Dan Harris centered a Sept. 15 “World News with Charles Gibson” report around the idea that “some prominent Obama supporters” believe the actions of the protesters “paint a picture of an opposition driven, in part, by a refusal to accept a black President.”
During this time, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson exclaimed, “You lie!” during Obama's speech in a joint session of Congress, and conservatives convened on the National Mall in Washington and in other locales around the nation to protest big government. On Sept. 20, Obama completed a media blitz in which he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, CBS's Bob Schieffer, and NBC's David Gregory that race was not the driving force behind these protests or the protests held over the summer. Since his Sunday morning media blitz only five news segments, most of them recaps of his tour, have aired.
Former president Jimmy Carter played a large role in propelling the notion of racist protesters. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that's he's African-American,” he told NBC's Brian Williams on Sept. 15. Carter continued, “I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South, but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.”
Despite having clips of Obama's pre-taped Sunday morning interviews in which he unequivocally stated his belief that the protests were not fueled by racism, CBS played the clip of Carter's accusation four times in the days leading up to the Obama interviews airing on the Sunday news programs. As for Obama's dismissal of the charge, CBS aired it only twice.
NBC re-played Carter's allegation five times, but played clips of Obama's refuting Carter six times. ABC played Carter's clip three times, and the Obama clips four.
How the Networks Pushed the Racial Accusations
President Carter wasn't the only prominent person willing to assert that disagreeing with Obama's policies was tantamount to bigotry. The networks turned to others to promote the notion of racist protestors.
Most notable was
Dyson has made incendiary remarks before about race. During a 2007 House Subcommittee hearing on rap music, he blamed
A Sept. 16 NBC “Nightly News” report by Andrea Mitchell further perpetuated claims of racist protestors. Mitchell reported that actor Bill Cosby agreed with Carter. “I don't think you can get people who are entrenched in their own hatred to stop,” he told NBC on Sept. 16. “I think what we have to do is find the people are willing to work together, the people who realize that mistakes will happen, and we've got to work for the betterment of the American people.”
As further evidence of prevalent racism Mitchell reported:
Well, when you look at how people voted last fall by region, in the south ten percent of white voters in
But Mitchell didn't ascribe racisms to the exit polls that indicated Obama garnered 98 percent of the black vote in
Walter Williams, an advisory board member for CMI's sister organization, the Business & Media Institute, further debunked Mitchell's claim. “Obama convincingly won votes in states with insignificant black populations, such as the New England states,
On the Sept. 20 broadcast of CBS's “Sunday Morning,”
A few right-leaning defenders appeared on the networks to refute the racism charges. Michael Steele, the head of the RNC, expressed his agreement with Obama on CBS's Sept. 20 “Face the Nation.” “I was very, very happy to hear the administration come out and make that stance with me, that in this instance what we heard, the eruption in the House, was inappropriate. It was wrong, but it was not racism.”
CBS correspondent Chip Reid cited Steele in a Sept. 16 “Evening News” report about Carter's comments. “There followed today a ferocious counterattack from top Republicans, including party chairman Michael Steele, who called Carter's accusation 'a pathetic distraction from Democrats to shift attention away from the president's wildly unpopular government-run health care plan.”
Pollster Frank Luntz, appeared on “Today” alongside Dyson and explained that conservatives' anger is not only aimed at the president. “The anger is not directed just towards Barack Obama. It's directed towards member – members of Congress. It's directed towards the Senate, it's directed towards the media, towards unions, towards institutions that we feel have failed us.”
Even CBS correspondent Jeff Greenfield was hard-pressed to find an example of racism at protests. “Evening News” anchor Katie Couric asked him on Sept. 18, “What about claims that some of the anger directed at the president is somehow fueled by racism?”
Neither Walter Williams nor Herman Cain, another member of BMI's board of advisors, who are both black conservatives and do not see race as the main issue of these protests, appeared on any network news programs to discuss racism.
The Kansas City Star reported Sept. 26 that Cain labeled the racist accusations “bullfeathers” and put the blame for it squarely on liberals. “They're creating a racism invisible fence to try and keep conservative criticism out,” he told the paper.
Williams also decried the notion that racism fueled the protests.
“Race is no longer the problem that it once was. That doesn't mean there are not white and black bigots and that every vestige of racial discrimination has been eliminated. What little racial discrimination remains is nowhere near the insurmountable barrier it once was,” he wrote on Sept. 29. “For the most part, white bigots are no longer respected among whites and I look forward to the day when black bigots are no longer respected among blacks.”
ABC, CBS and NBC were not the only media outlets to accuse Obama's opponents of racism. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd insisted in a Sept. 12 op-ed about Rep. Wilson's outburst, “The two centuries the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both.”
Dowd referred to the summer's protests as “shrieking lunacy” and noted that it was “
Helene Cooper, a Times' White House reporter, also found racial implications in the protests. During the Sept. 20 “Chris Matthew Show,” she stated, “I think race plays a huge part of what we're seeing. I'm looking at, you know, the—what you just described about the rural South and rural people who are afraid – I mean you didn't see that when George Bush was in power, and he's the ultimate elitist.”
Host Chris Matthews agreed with Cooper's assessment.
A week earlier, TIME magazine columnist Joe Klein asserted that the protests are “an awful lot about race.” He levied charges of xenophobia at Southerners as he continued:
You just can't avoid it. I mean, he [Obama] was born black. But it isn't only about the fact that he's black or the fact that his middle name is Hussein. It's a fact – about the fact that in middle America among white people; especially working-class white people, they're seeing all of this stuff: They're seeing Latinos in Arkansas, quite a few of them, move into their neighborhoods; they're seeing South Asians, you know, running a lot of businesses; they're seeing intermarriage; they're seeing all these things that they find threatening, and the believe that the America they knew, which was always kind of a myth, is disappearing.
Still, there is an ugly undercurrent out there. Yes, some on the right tried to delegitimize Bill Clinton as well -- remember the garbage linking him to drug trafficking and murder? -- but this is dark and personal in a much more unsettling way. What other president -- with a
Newsweek jumped on the bandwagon with a Sept. 14 cover headline that read, “Is Your Baby Racist?” The story itself had little to do with the current discussion of racism and politics, but focused on studies that showed children were not blind to skin color. Still, the headline implied something much more sinister.
The media certainly did its part to undermine the concerns of millions of Americans with the accusations of racism. It does not much matter that Obama finally stepped in to say, “No, it's not about race,” because by then, the damage had already been done. Carter's words had been carried by the three networks, and media elites of all types had gotten in their licks. The Democrats and the media have let it be known they have the ugly rhetorical weapon of race. Even if they never pick it up again, the threat hangs over conservative protestors.
Naturally, the media would turn to the pundits such as the liberal Michael Eric Dyson to discuss the accusations. Others, such as Walter Williams and Herman Cain didn't fit into the story the media attempted to tell.