Since its announcement in March, the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite President Barack Obama to give this year's commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate in law has been a big story for American Catholics. Pro-life Catholics were outraged and more than 366,000 people signed a petition urging Notre Dame to rescind the invitation. Somehow, though, the controversy didn't merit notice by the broadcast networks. They refused to cover it.
Yet after the fact, Obama's commencement address led ABC and NBC's evening news programs on May 17. (CBS' “Evening News” was preempted by golf, but anchor Russ Mitchell did offer a newsbreak that included a brief mention of Obama's address.) The broadcast networks' morning news programs, including CBS, also discussed Obama's speech. In each case they praised his words and ignored what had stirred so much controversy: the president's history of supporting even the most extreme abortion rights measures. And they turned to mostly liberal Catholics to provide context and perspective on the debate.
NBC's Lester Holt framed the controversy as “President Obama today stepped squarely into the middle of what may be this country's deepest cultural, religious and political divide” during Sunday's “Nightly News.” ABC's Dan Harris, anchor of “World News Sunday,” reported, “Today President Obama walked right in to the heart of the abortion debate and essentially told both sides to lower the volume.”
On Monday morning, NBC correspondent Savannah Guthrie told “Today” viewers, “On the campus of Notre Dame Sunday, President Obama stepped into the eye of the debate over abortion.” ABC Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper noted, “President Obama's pending Supreme Court nominee pick will likely bring the issue of abortion, which he has tried to put on the back-burner, front and center. And he got a dress rehearsal for this passionate debate over the weekend when he addressed the graduates of
Only CBS' Russ Mitchell acknowledged that Obama did more than just “step into” the debate. He noted on Monday's “The Early Show,” “The President's stance on abortion rights ignited the controversy at the Catholic institution.”
While each full report mentioned protesters and “hecklers,” none stated just why pro-life Catholics were outraged at the idea of a Catholic university honoring this president. Instead, they simply stated that Obama supports abortion rights.
Radical Support of Abortion
Judging by media reports, pro-life Catholics were overreacting to an incident involving a Catholic institution and a nominally pro-choice politician. But honest reporting on the controversy would include some pertinent facts about President Obama's position on abortion and life issues:
Three days after becoming president, Obama opened up American funding for foreign abortions by rescinding the Mexico City Policy.
His newly confirmed Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius,  has close political ties to George Tiller, a notorious
And Catholic objections to Notre Dame extending honors to Obama go beyond the abortion issue. Obama named Harry Knox to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Knox has called  the Pope Bendict XVI's stance on condoms and HIV “morally reprehensible,” and has called the Knights of Columbus “foot soldiers of a discredited army of oppression.” Knox has also stated that “by refusing to sign a basic statement opposing inhumane treatment of LGBT people, the
Despite Obama's words about “open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words” in yesterday's address, his appointments, his actions and his unscripted remarks say otherwise. None of his media fans will call him to account for it.
ABC: Captain of the Obama Cheering Squad
ABC “World News Sunday” gleefully positioned itself as Head Cheerleader for Obama with its coverage of his address. Correspondent John Hendren characterized sections of Obama's speech by reporting the president “did his persuasive best to turn down the temperature” and that he “pleaded for common ground.”
Hendren included clips of Obama's address in which he said, “Maybe we won't agree on abortion but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.”
Obama also stated “the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable” but Hendren chose not to include that clip in his report. ABC did show Obama using the word “irreconcilable” on Good Morning America the next day.
Hendren's report provided a perfect set-up to correspondent David Wright's report on the current division in Catholic Church over issues such as abortion. Wright introduced his report, “Today the President sought common ground with Catholics, even though he supports abortion rights and that message clearly resonates with many in the church.”
To back up his assertion, Wright turned to two liberal Catholics: Father Langan, a professor of ethics and political philosophy professor at
Langan stated, “I wish Obama's views on abortion were different than they are but nothing should, nothing convinces me that he isn't a morally serious, sensitive person.” He later noted, “You don't always find out what a group is thinking by listening to its noisiest members.”
Gramick told Wright, “There are even elements within the Catholic community that do not want to see [Obama's] presidency succeed. So you know, that's tragic.”
Wright however, failed to disclose to viewers that Gramick received a silencing order from the
The Catholic League's Bill Donohue provided the only opposition to Langan and Gramick. He told Wright, “[Obama] cannot say, 'that I'm interested in social justice and soup kitchens and the like, and health care' and at the same time be pro-abortion. He's got a real problem within the Catholic community.”
ABC's May 18 “Good Morning America” presented a more tempered segment on Obama's address. Host Diane Sawyer broke with the AP style guide and used the preferred language of each camp in her introduction, labeling the pro-abortion side “pro-choice” and the anti-abortion group “pro-life.”
Chief White House correspondent Jake Tapper featured the “irreconcilable” clip of Obama's speech and featured sound bites from a pro-life protester and an Obama supporter. His report also featured pro-abortion supporters protesting the pro-life demonstration.
Yet Tapper still refused to fully examine the reasons behind the protests and reduced the pro-life arguments against Obama to simple slogans such as “Abortion is murder” and a heckler's assertion that “You have blood on your hands.”
NBC: Not Bad Coverage?
NBC's “Nightly News” broke its coverage of Obama's Notre Dame visit into two segments. The first praised the president's speech without critically examining it. White House correspondent John Yang reported, “President Obama took on [abortion] boldly and directly in a speech that was at times very much a personal statement.”
Yang's segment included the “irreconcilable” clip omitted from the “World News” report and featured clips that touched on issues outside of abortion, such as the president's faith and embryonic stem cell research. Yang also noted the presence of protesters in the auditorium.
However, correspondent Ron Allen's segment, which immediately followed Yang's, reported on the protests and provided information not found on any other network. Allen featured footage of a rally held elsewhere on the Notre Dame campus and provided a glimpse into the heart of the controversy. Allen highlighted the remarks of Rev. John Raphael, a Notre Dame graduate who said at the rally, “If, as we have been told, a dialogue is actually taking place over there, that dialogue must be shaped by truth and charity, and protecting the sanctity of all human life as the church understands life, must be its goal.”
Allen also reported that pro-life activists held a ceremony “to honor the students who did not attend their official graduation exercises. John Bales, a Notre Dame graduate who did not attend the President's address told Allen while holding his four-month-old son, “Having a kid of my own, just, you know it really rings true as far as like, I believe strongly that, you know, this is life and needs to be protected.”
Correspondent Savannah Guthrie's Monday morning report on “Today” combined elements of her colleagues' reports. She reported, “The President chose to address the abortion issue directly,” featured the “irreconcilable” clip, and included sound bites from two Notre Dame graduates, one in support of the President's visit and the other against it.
On Monday's “Early Show,” CBS chief White House correspondent Chip Reid managed a decent report of what occurred at Notre Dame. He tempered his pick of Obama's most inclusive statements, “Open hearts. Open Minds. Fair minded words.” and “Let us work to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let's reduce unintended pregnancies,” with Alan Keyes' statement, “Barack Obama's deeply committed to what John Paul [II, the late pope] called the culture of death and the murder of innocent children.”
Yet still missing was a real discussion about why Obama was a controversial choice to deliver a commencement address at Notre Dame.
Reid's colleague, “Early Show” co-host Maggie Rodriguez, unabashedly waved her pom-poms for the president. She stated:
He did a great job. He didn't shy away from the controversy. You know, his position on stem cell research and abortion, even when he was heckled. He said 'we can't shy away from things that make us uncomfortable.' And when the president of the university introduced him, he said the reason that they're having him speak, despite their differences, is because it's a message of inclusiveness and welcoming people who are different.
The media delude themselves into thinking that Obama's character is revealed in his statements like “open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.” Pro-life activists however, see his character in the following anecdote he shared with the Notre Dame Class of 2009:
As I considered the controversy surrounding my visit here, I was reminded of an encounter I had during my Senate campaign, one that I describe in a book I wrote called "The Audacity of Hope." A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the
What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website – an entry that said I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words." Fair-minded words.
After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn't change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that –when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe – that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.
For Obama, it's not so much about seeking common ground. It's changing the language of a controversial view to cloak it in euphemisms that are easier for the public to swallow. No network played this entire clip of Obama's speech.
Nor did they mention that as he said, “fair minded words,” a baby could be heard crying in the audience.