Editing Reverend Wright's Wrongs
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Barack Obama’s greatest struggle in the drawn-out Democratic primary campaign was his relationship with his long-time minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Rev. Wright’s noxious recorded sermons suggesting that America deserved 9/11 and that the federal government created AIDS as a tool of black genocide were widely viewed on YouTube and discussed on talk radio and cable TV. But what about the network news shows, the programs most watched by the least politically involved viewers? TV pundits suggested the virulent video clips unfairly caricatured the minister (and by association, Obama himself.) PBS star Bill Moyers lamented that Wright was "assassinated by soundbites."
Did the nation’s broadcast networks really play Wright’s remarks to excess? A Media Research Center study of ABC, CBS, and NBC news broadcasts from the formal announcement of the Obama campaign on February 10, 2007 through July 15 reveals that a viewer watching only broadcast TV news would have received a much more limited (and even censored) version of Wright’s sermons. Key findings:
The broadcast networks took an entire year to locate Reverend Wright. Despite a feisty interview on Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes back on March 1, 2007 about Obama’s church’s controversial commitment to a "black value system," the name of Jeremiah Wright didn’t surface on the Big Three networks until CBS first broached it on February 28, 2008. The first story with Wright sermon soundbites aired two weeks later, on ABC on March 13. By then, 42 states and the District of Columbia had already voted.
The broadcast network evening news shows gave virtually no coverage to Wright soundbites in March. Snippets of Wright’s sermons drew only 72 seconds of evening news coverage in all of March, or an average of 24 seconds per network, less than one commercial.
The Big Three morning shows gave four times as much time to Wright soundbites as the evening shows in March. The morning shows carried almost five minutes of Wright clips (297 seconds), with ABC offering the most at 128 seconds. The other two networks each ran less than 90 seconds.
The networks completely ignored soundbites of Wright’s conspiracy theory about the U.S. government inventing AIDS to kill blacks, and mostly ignored his comments about the September 11 terrorist attacks being "America’s chickens coming home to roost." None of the network morning or evening shows found one opportunity to air Wright’s 2003 sermon accusing the federal government of hiding the truth about their "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color." His attack on America’s alleged record of terrorism and violence was ignored by all three evening shows, as well as by CBS’s The Early Show.
The broadcast networks gave clips of Obama’s "race speech" on March 18 more than twice as much air time in a few hours than they gave all of the Wright bites aired in the month of March. The evening news shows on March 18 carried almost six minutes (348 seconds) of highlights from the Obama speech, or roughly five times more than all the Wright bites in March. The morning shows carried roughly nine and a half minutes (572 seconds) of sound from the speech. The three morning shows gave almost twice as much time to the Obama speech clips as they devoted to Wright soundbites in March. Combined, Obama’s one speech drew about 15 minutes of clips, while Wright’s years of sermons drew about six minutes.
Broadcast network interview segments on the Wright remarks and Obama’s race speech in March were dominated by liberal guests. When the networks allowed Republican or conservative guests, they stayed neutral or praised Obama’s remarks. Overall, the network pundit count was 16 to 5. CBS especially loaded its reaction panels with nine liberals and just one right-leaning pundit, pollster Frank Luntz, who contained his remarks to grading Obama’s stagecraft. NBC allowed six liberals and three conservatives. ABC aired one liberal and one conservative.
Wright’s National Press Club vitriol repeating his opinions about an AIDS conspiracy and America deserving 9/11 went virtually unreported. The broadcast network morning and evening shows aired only two and a half minutes (155 seconds) of soundbites from Wright’s April 28 performance at the National Press Club, but there were no soundbites about AIDS and only 23 seconds about America deserving a terrorist attack. By contrast, these same Big Three shows aired almost six minutes (358 seconds) of clips of Wright’s softball interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, where he accused conservatives of smearing him as a hater.
In today’s rapid-fire political atmosphere of cable news, talk radio, and the Internet, media analysts can easily make the mistake of believing that the leading network news outlets were tough on a candidate because of the general perception of how the entire media – Old Media and New Media – brought a controversy to the public’s attention. But voters who sampled only a light menu of news from Big Three network TV could easily have missed the depths of Reverend Wright’s outrageous remarks. No one could find in these stories a scouring scrutiny of Obama’s decades of membership in his controversial church.