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Editing Reverend Wright's Wrongs

How the Networks Censored and Manipulated Jeremiah Wright Soundbites and Glorified Barack Obama's Race Speech

The Race Speech Celebration

The evening news shows on March 18 carried almost six minutes (348 seconds) of snippets from the Obama speech (or roughly five times more than the Wright bites). The morning shows carried roughly nine and a half minutes (572 seconds) of sound from the speech, led by CBS, who set aside six and a half minutes for viewers to enjoy. That total was nearly twice as much time as the 297 seconds the network morning shows devoted to Wright soundbites in the entire month of March. CBS Early Show co-host Maggie Rodriguez oozed: "It’s being called a defining cultural moment in America. Barack Obama speaks about America’s racial stalemate, a moving moment, a political risk."

After decades of media scholars complaining about the way the networks have miniaturized soundbites to seven or eight seconds in length, the networks let Obama speak in a soundbites that lasted a minute or more. They attempted to add gravity to the remarks by placing still photographs over his remarks, including stills of an admiring Michelle in the audience and old photos of his childhood featuring his parents and grandparents.

2008-03-18-ABC-WNCG-GibRace4The coverage was not just heavy, but glowing. The speech was introduced as historic. On ABC’s World News, anchorman Charles Gibson declared "It may turn out to be the seminal speech of his presidential campaign....an extraordinary speech." The anchors allowed Obama to play media critic. Gibson added: "Obama complained about the endless loop of snippets from Pastor Wright’s sermons, which have been broadcast over and over." Gibson didn’t see a need to fact-check Obama, at least in terms of the networks’ very limited appetite for Wright snippets.

The controversy was described as unfortunate, and Wright’s rants were a scandal only to some Americans. On NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams began sympathetically: "This country is currently feeling its way through something entirely new. This is the first time an African-American candidate has a serious, some would say likely, shot at becoming the next President of the United States. So race is an issue in this year’s campaign, both in a way that's inescapable and in other ways. The latest controversy has to do with a Chicago minister. He’s made some comments some find highly objectionable, and he happens to be Barack Obama's former minister."

In the beginning seconds of the CBS Evening News, anchor Katie Couric highlighted Obama’s refusal to disown Wright: "Barack Obama addresses the controversial comments of his pastor, condemning the words but not the man," followed by an Obama clip: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."

On ABC, Obama’s refusal to disown Wright was cast as a magnanimous, even heroic gesture. George Stephanopoulos declared, "By refusing to renounce Reverend Wright, that was in many ways an act of honor for Senator Obama." The next morning, Stephanopoulos oozed, "I think it was a stunning success, as a speech. It was sophisticated, eloquent. Barack Obama is as a fine a writer as you’ll find in a politician." ABC’s Robin Roberts announced the results of a poll that found "65 percent of voters said Reverend Wright’s comments made no difference in the way they view Obama." Stephanopoulos praised Obama’s courage again: "He did not renounce someone that he was under great pressure to renounce, even though he disagreed with his comments. And I think a lot of voters, even if they’re uncomfortable with Reverend Wright, will respect Barack Obama for that act."

Stephanopoulos also singled out Obama for his great honesty: "I think the other intangible here is how voters will respond, not only to the honesty that Barack Obama showed yesterday, not only the sophistication he showed in the speech, but also the honor that he showed." ABC reporter Terry Moran also saw honesty: "Well, as you know, one of the hardest things to do in American politics, in American society, is to talk honestly about race. And it’s clear that’s what Barack Obama was trying to do in that remarkable speech."