Editing Reverend Wright's Wrongs
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Guest List Tilt
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 praised Obama’s remarks. 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 to three conservatives, including MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough. ABC offered conservative Peggy Noonan and liberal Donna Brazile one appearance each. In both interviews, they were paired with NPR’s Juan Williams, who was more critical of Wright than both women. Overall, the pundit count was 16 to 5.
This guest count does not include the actual staff analysts of the networks in March, like ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, NBC’s Tim Russert, or CBS’s Jeff Greenfield. But only Greenfield appeared on a panel with other pundits. It also doesn’t include officially designated campaign spokesmen, like Shaun Casey’s aforementioned defense of Obama on ABC right after the first Brian Ross exposé.
CBS was the most eager network to book guests supportive of both Obama and Wright. On the March 17 Early Show, CBS interviewed Rev. Calvin Butts, who announced to anchor Russ Mitchell that he was "very close" to Wright and proclaimed that black churchgoers should never denounce their pastors for radical pulpit rhetoric, since it’s "the practical application of the love of God to everybody." From there, CBS moved on to a three-liberal panel of guests: Debra Dickerson of the hard-left magazine Mother Jones, liberal Columbia professor Randall Balmer, and Bucknell professor and "hip hop scholar" James Peterson. CBS’s Maggie Rodriguez asked if Wright had crossed any lines in his statements, and Peterson announced: "I don’t think so." Rodriguez wondered if Obama should be seen as "guilty by association" with Wright, Balmer said "I don’t think so...that’s just not a fair thing."
On the March 18 Early Show, CBS offered liberal commentator Nancy Giles and Democratic consultant Joe Trippi. Rodriguez asked, "How careful does he have to be today not to denounce Jeremiah Wright and make black voters angry?" Russ Mitchell added this hopeful question to the liberal pair: "After the speech today, is the race and gender issue over?"
On the March 18 Evening News, Couric offered Debra Dickerson of Mother Jones, religious-left organizer Jim Wallis, and CBS’s Jeff Greenfield. Dickerson said Obama was "brilliant." Wallis said Wright’s career had been unfairly "boiled down to four angry soundbites." He also declared "The black pulpit is a place of truth-telling about the experience of black people," an odd quote when applied to AIDS conspiracy theories. That might explain Greenfield’s subsequent condemnation of the Wright government-genocide comments.
On the March 19 Early Show, CBS turned to Greenfield and right-leaning pollster Frank Luntz for analysis. Luntz only discussed Obama’s speechmaking technique, that he looked too much into the tele-prompter instead of connecting visually with the audience. Greenfield repeated his critique of Wright’s AIDS theories. Rodriguez began the segment: "Consensus seems to be that this was yet another great, eloquent speech by Barack Obama."
CBS also interviewed Time managing editor Rick Stengel and (for a third time) Debra Dickerson of Mother Jones, who declared the speech was "brilliant" and "visionary." Stengel weirdly declared "It’s kind of amazing we’re reckoning with the fact, wow, we actually have a black candidate running for president."
Not every liberal spared Reverend Wright (see box), but most did. On March 15, NBC interviewed radical professor and Obama supporter Michael Eric Dyson and Melinda Henneberger of the liberal Huffington Post website. Dyson dismissed Wright’s "so-called inflammatory remarks," and Henneberger claimed "I actually think it might turn out to be a positive for Obama in a funny way, because it completely puts to rest this motion that he’s a secret Muslim." So much for a debate.
Some conservative pundits tried to be non-committal. On the March 18 NBC Nightly News, Joe Scarborough tried to reserve judgment on the Obama speech’s impact, saying reactions in the news studios weren’t as important as reactions among Reagan Democrats in industrial towns. NBC’s other pundit in that segment, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, swooned over the speech, calling it "a very important gift the Senator has given the country." By March 21, Scarborough was telling Today viewers it was "the most important speech on race since Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech."
On the March 20 Today, NBC brought back Dyson again, and paired him with right-leaning Michael Smerconish, who condemned his own talk-show listeners for being skeptical of the Obama speech: "You get an impression when you watch YouTube for 10 seconds. The speech requires an investment of time. But I maintained if you make that investment of time, it removes this issue...he addressed in a very unmuzzled fashion the questions that I and a lot of other members of white America had about this problem."
When Lauer asked Dyson if Obama "went after the speech from a candidate who happens to be black to a black candidate," Dyson replied: "Well, of course not, because in America one is punished for being conscious of the racial restrictions that have been imposed historically, and yet when one seeks to move beyond them, one is ever trapped by them." NBC also interviewed leftist Air America host Rachel Maddow on the morning of March 22.
On the March 19 Good Morning America, columnist and former GOP speechwriter Peggy Noonan showered Obama with praise [see box]. Surprisingly, NPR correspondent Juan Williams was more critical than the former Reagan staffer. While he acknowledged it was a good speech, he noted the Obama campaign was in crisis "over the statements made by Reverend Wright damning America, suggesting that the government spreads AIDS among black people. Really outrageous statements, that initially, you know, he [Obama] said he wasn’t in the pews. Yesterday he said, you know, I did hear some of these statements, to be honest with you." He said "I don’t think the Reagan Democrats...they’re gonna buy this as him disowning himself sufficiently from the kind of rantings of Reverend Wright."
A few minutes later, as they continued the interview in the 7:30 half hour, Noonan added that Obama helped himself by refusing to disassociate with Wright: "I’ve got to tell you, in American politics, there’s too much throwing people over the side. ‘You said a bad thing, you’re out of here. You said a bad thing, you’re done.’ He [Obama] said [of Wright], ‘he said a bad thing, there are reasons, you’re wrong, let’s go forward together.’ I like that better."
Only Newt Gingrich on ABC offered one hard-hitting conservative critique a month later, on the April 29 Good Morning America, in an interview largely about other matters with substitute host Barbara Walters. Gingrich said "I think Reverend Wright’s a very angry person. I think he’s actually more reflective, as is William Ayers, of the hard left than he is of African-Americans. And I think he represents a very, very hardline anti-American viewpoint."