A Complex Speech, Boiled Down to Simple Politics

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

It was a 37-minute speech that ranged widely across the jagged landscape of race relations, with Barack Obama challenging the media to lift their level of discourse above the inflammatory rhetoric of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

On the nightly newscasts and in the morning papers, many journalists did try to grapple with the complexity of Obama's Tuesday address about the roots of racial tension. But when the story hit the Cuisinart of talk-show debate, it got whipped into a single question: Did Obama adequately distance himself from the radioactive reverend?

Not surprisingly, most liberals loved the speech and many conservatives -- though not all -- lambasted it.

"Folks, don't fall for this," Sean Hannity said on his radio show. "Most of America is not going to buy this flimsy excuse. . . . If you can't disown Reverend Wright, you're not qualified to be the president of the United States. I don't even think you're qualified to be senator."

"How do you possibly associate yourself in any way," Glenn Beck asked on his Headline News show, "with someone who believes the government invented the AIDS virus to kill African Americans?"

On the left side of the spectrum, radio commentator Ed Gordon called the speech "brilliant." CNN's Donna Brazile dubbed it "very courageous." Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, on "NBC Nightly News," pronounced it "a very important gift" for the country.

"He did not oversimplify," said MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. "He actually brought down his rhetorical tone a notch so that this would be something that brought light and not heat to a subject on which there is so much heat. . . . I actually think that the speech did call out to Americans' better angels."

By inviting journalists to join a nuanced conversation about race, the Illinois senator was poking at a sore spot. News organizations are skittish about racial subjects, preferring to wrap them around the flap of the day rather than deal with underlying anger and grievances.

As Obama put it, the media often "tackle race only as spectacle -- as we did in the O.J. trial -- or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina." They can abandon that model, he said, or "we can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel every day" and make the presidential campaign about whether "I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words."

Many mainstream journalists cast the speech in a positive light. A Boston Globe news story called it "a frank reflection on the problems of race in America that rejected the minister's words but also drew a broader personal and historical context in which to read them."

NBC's David Gregory and Newsweek's Howard Fineman each called the speech "gutsy." ABC's George Stephanopoulos said it was "sophisticated" and "eloquent." CBS's Jeff Greenfield described the address as "exemplary," saying: "Only an African American can talk this bluntly about race." Time's Jay Carney said it was "exceptional" and "breathtakingly unconventional." "Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran, who interviewed Obama afterward, said the senator was trying "to talk honestly about race."

Most voters didn't watch the morning speech, which was carried live on the three cable news channels, although a YouTube version was viewed 1.2 million times in the first 24 hours. Still, television excerpts have been critical in framing the narrative. The most frequently replayed lines were these, which followed Obama's criticism of Wright's harshest rhetoric: "I could no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I could no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother . . . who once confessed her fear of black men who pass her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

That proved a lightning rod for some conservative critics. "What he did," the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes said on Fox, "was throw his grandmother under the bus."

Others on the right offered mixed reviews. National Review called the speech "eloquently written, and at times moving. . . . But it should be noted that Obama deployed his formidable talents to try to minimize and excuse Rev. Wright's rants."

To their credit, the network newscasts ran four or five sound bites to evoke Obama's broader argument that while the anger of older blacks like Wright, 66, is understandable, the country needs to move beyond the racial wounds of the past. But Obama, 46, is trying to win the Democratic nomination, so the anchors kept returning to one core question.

"Is it enough to reassure white voters?" ABC's Charlie Gibson asked.

"Does it make too many white voters uncomfortable?" asked CBS's Katie Couric.

One lingering question for the news business is why, during 15 months of intense and largely positive coverage of Obama's candidacy, it took so long to focus on the pastor and family friend whose controversial views were no secret.

In March 2007, Fox News's Hannity conducted a contentious interview with Wright, saying that if a church made such comments about whites, "wouldn't we call that church racist?"

"No, we would call it Christianity," Wright responded.

Also that month, the New York Times quoted Wright as saying he had been disinvited from Obama's presidential announcement to avoid negative attention.

There were other hints. In a YouTube video posted a year ago, Wright rattled off a series of assertions about the country: "America is the number one killer in the world. . . . We put [Nelson] Mandela in prison. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God."

In January, the Baltimore Sun reported on a sermon in which Wright repeatedly "singled out 'white reporters' for criticism," "talked of blacks being held down by attitudes of white supremacy," and charged that Bill Clinton "did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky." And that same weekend, Post columnist Richard Cohen criticized Wright for his support of Louis Farrakhan, an issue also raised by NBC's Tim Russert at a debate last month.

But it wasn't until last week, when Fox News and ABC News bought DVDs of Wright's sermons from the church, that the simmering controversy reached full boil. The recordings have long been sold by the church, but journalists did not seek them until now.

Fox Chicago correspondent Jeff Goldblatt says he was looking into whether Obama's Trinity United Church of Christ deserved its tax-exempt status. In his report on Wednesday, March 12, he played a clip of Wright saying that the country is "controlled by rich white people" and that Hillary Clinton "ain't never been called a [N-word]."

"When it became palpable to the public is when there was a videotape," Goldblatt says.

On "Good Morning America" the next day, Brian Ross played video of Wright saying "God damn America," asserting that the government gives African Americans drugs and that the 9/11 attacks showed "America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Ross says the tapes he ordered came in early this month and he soon "realized they went beyond what had earlier been reported. . . . The 'God damn America' and 'US of KKK A' and 9/11 took it to a level that surprised me." Ross dispatched a crew to the church and the story was supposed to run early last week, but got bumped by the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.

But even as CNN and MSNBC began airing the Wright videos, the New York Times and "NBC Nightly News" ran only brief items Friday, and The Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, USA Today and the "CBS Evening News" carried nothing. It wasn't until Saturday that the controversy hit The Post's front page.

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