The ignorance factor: Obama, religion and the media

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 9:33 AM

The chilling chunk of people who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim has caused some serious soul-searching in the news business.

How have journalists failed to adequately communicate that the president is a Christian? Or does it no longer matter what we report if people choose to believe something with no basis in fact?

This is not like people believing in death panels during the health care debate, despite news outlets repeatedly saying they were imaginary. There was heated rhetoric back and forth that influenced public opinion. But the religion of a man who attended church for 20 years--a controversial church, in case the memory of Jeremiah Wright has faded--is beyond dispute.

And yet you've undoubtedly heard about the Pew Research poll in which 18 percent of those surveyed say Obama is a Muslim and only 34 percent say he's a Christian (with another 43 percent saying they don't know). To make matters worse, six in 10 of those who mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim say they learned it from the media.

So it's not that these folks are saying they don't believe the media on this question; in their confusion, they are attributing to the MSM what they probably heard from friends, crazy e-mailers or Web sites that traffic in distortion.

I suspect that for some the question is a proxy for whether they like the president. (If you don't trust the guy, maybe you think he's lying about his religion, and after all his father was a Muslim, yadda yadda yadda.) It can't be a coincidence that a third of conservative Republicans say they believe the president is of the Muslim faith, a level twice as high as Americans as a whole.

Some skeptics are saying Obama has contributed to the ignorance because he hasn't joined a church in Washington (citing the disruption to parishioners) and is rarely seen attending. But how do you explain the fact that 48 percent of the public thought he was a Christian last year, according to Pew, and that has now declined? He is, after all, the president of the United States. It's not a trick question. It's not like asking people to name all nine Supreme Court justices.

In the end, the media aren't to blame. This is a truly strange phenomenon. But it is frustrating nonetheless to think that in a culture awash in opinion, we can't even get people to agree on some basic facts.

At Slate, John Dickerson says Mitch McConnell's "I take him at his word" response on "Meet the Press" is typical of Republicans on this question:

"If McConnell wasn't trying to stir the pot, he also wasn't trying to lower the boil. What you didn't hear McConnell say was that the whole notion that Obama is a Muslim is ridiculous because by any standard we use to evaluate the religious beliefs of our leaders, President Obama is a Christian. Nor did he go on to say that any politician who tries to benefit from this urban legend--by courting either Islamophobes or conspiracy nuts who think Obama is engaged in some kind of systematic deception--should be ashamed of himself.

"He also did not produce a baby unicorn. That is to say, expecting the events of the previous paragraph would ever happen in real life is a fantasy. We can define our politics by the outrageous things people say. Rep. Joe Wilson yelled, 'You lie' during a presidential address to Congress. Newt Gingrich called Sonia Sotomayor a racist, and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson said, 'Republicans want you to die quickly.' But the shamelessness of our politics can also be measured by silence. It's just as embarrassing that in a case like this, no politician will take the high road against their political interest. . . .

"For Republicans whose constituents dislike the president, there's no advantage in going out of your way to stick up for him. That's why McConnell kept trying to get back to talking about the economy. He was trying to stay on the issue voters care about."

But Dickerson doesn't leave out the Democrats: "During the primaries, Hillary Clinton's campaign staffers passed around Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mails. Hillary Clinton gave a McConnell-esque response when asked whether she thought Obama was a Muslim. And Clinton's campaign strategist Mark Penn talked about making Obama's otherness the central pitch of the Clinton campaign." Which, obviously, she declined to do.

National Review Editor Rich Lowry seems to fault the Christian president:

"The numbers tell us something important about President Obama: We don't know him. The most powerful and famous man in the country is still the mysterious stranger. He rose from nowhere, winning an election based partly on being an unknown quantity, and an unknown quantity he remains.

"Obama has proven adept at crafting and then casting off synthetic identities. He was the good-government, process-obsessed reformer -- until he wanted to raise countless millions of dollars outside the campaign-finance system. He was the post-partisan scourge of politics as usual -- until his hyper-partisan first 18 months in office. He was the moderate -- until he pushed his vast left-wing spending agenda. . . .

"According to Pew, the number of Americans who identify him as Christian has declined from 51 percent in October 2008 to just 34 percent. The more we see of him, the less we know of him. Only 46 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of blacks think Obama is a Christian. His faith simply hasn't made an impression on the public."

Maybe, but that would explain the don't-know category, not the he's-a-Muslim category.

The Weekly Standard makes light of the matter: "We do wonder if it isn't a bit judgmental of the mainstream media to condemn the 18 percent of Americans who say they think Barack Obama is a Muslim. For one thing, this is fewer than the number of Americans who say that intelligent beings from other planets have made contact with humans on Earth."

At the Huffington Post, Brendan Nyhan blames such pundits as Frank Gaffney, who wrote a Washington Times column last year headlined "America's First Muslim President?" )"In the final analysis, it may be beside the point whether Mr. Obama actually is a Muslim.") And HuffPost's Sam Stein has this:

"The Republican National Committee is distancing itself from a personal tweet sent by one of its directors that suggested President Barack Obama had once admitted his Muslim heritage.

"Late last week, the committee's new media director, Todd Herman, posted an item asking whether the president was among the 20 percent of the public who thinks he was a Muslim. The tweet linked to an old interview Obama gave in which he stumbled, verbally, in trying to explain why people were confused about his religion."

At OpinionJournal, James Taranto disputes the notion that racism is involved:

"It was left to old reliable Juan Williams, on 'Fox News Sunday,' to fall back on the familiar claim of antiblack racism. Here's how he explains the poll results on Obama's religion:

"I think that this is a malevolent effort by people who are his critics to make him out to be the 'other' in American life--that he's not 'really an American,' he's some sort of Manchurian candidate. . . . I think it's the same people who say, you know, 'This guy's a socialist.' I think it's now about a third of Americans who--and overwhelmingly Republicans--who say he wasn't born in the country. People who want to say that he favors whites over blacks [sic] in terms of what the Justice Department is doing with the New Black Panther Party, it's about reparations for slavery. I think these are people who are uncomfortable with a black president, or uncomfortable with his policies. They don't like Barack Obama.

"How feeble, how wan. Obama was no less black when he took office with very high approval ratings. To the extent that voters have soured on him since then, it is because they have exercised judgment, not yielded to prejudice. They are 'uncomfortable with his policies,' as even Williams acknowledges, or uncomfortable in other ways with his comportment as president."

The Des Moines Register finds one GOPer who's out of the closet on this:

"Iowa's Republican national committeewoman said today that she believes President Barack Obama is truly a Muslim, contradicting his earlier statements that he's a Christian.

"Kim Lehman, who is one of Iowa's two national Republican Committee members, may be one of the first national committee members to publicly state she believes Obama is a Muslim.

"In a speech in Egypt in June 2009, Obama said he is a Christian. But Lehman said the speech 'just had the appearance that he was aligning himself with the Muslims.' "

Oh. Well, that settles that.

In a related development, check out these Rasmussen numbers:

"Forty-eight percent (48%) of U.S. voters now regard President Obama's political views as extreme. Forty-two percent (42%) place his views in the mainstream, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

"By comparison, 51% see the views of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as mainstream. Thirty-five percent (35%) think Clinton's views are extreme. Fourteen percent (14%) are undecided.

"Among five top contenders for the White House in 2012, only former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is viewed as more extreme than the president. Just 38% say Palin's views are mainstream, while 55% regard them as extreme."

If more than a third think Hillary's views are extreme, then extreme must be a synonym for can't-stand-the-person.

Primary colors

And the lesson of Tuesday's batch of elections is. . . . who knows?

LAT: "Arizona Sen. John McCain romped to the Republican nomination for a fifth term Tuesday, fending off a stiff conservative challenge to make a resounding comeback from his loss in the 2008 presidential campaign." He was supposed to be in deep trouble, remember?

NYT: "Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose family has held a decades-long grip on one of the state's two Senate seats, was in a surprisingly tight race Wednesday morning against an insurgent candidate, a Tea Party favorite who received the backing of Sarah Palin."

Miami Herald: "Rick Scott pulled off his one-man political revolution Tuesday night, narrowly defeating Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary for governor."

Orlando Sentinel: "Miami Congressman Kendrick Meek battered Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate Tuesday in a race that generated much more heat than light."

So a really rich guy lost in Florida, except the other really rich guy, Rick Scott, won. The most conservative guy in the Arizona race, J.D. Hayworth, lost, and the semi-establishment figure, McCain, won, after denying he had ever been a maverick. And the incumbent that no one in the press thought would lose, Murkowski, could fall to an unknown, just as journalists were starting to write that Palin's endorsements didn't mean that much after all.

Perfectly clear?

So much hot air

Having decried the so-called mosque coverage as way overblown for a largely symbolic issue, I was interested in this Daily Beast piece by Asra Nomani. She goes a step further:

"As debate rages over the 'ground zero' mosque, the media has once again whipped itself into a frenzy over a story that doesn't really exist.

"Without money, a nonprofit organizational structure, or a coherent PR strategy, the plan to build an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, dubbed Park51, remains nothing more than a pipe dream. And the growing media brouhaha is a little reminiscent of last year's storm over 'Balloon Boy,' the Fort Collins, Colorado, child whose parents claimed he had drifted away in a helium balloon."

The analogy doesn't hold up, though. Balloon Boy was an outright hoax, while the Islamic center, whatever the odds against it, is a real proposal.

Blogging for pay

There's no evidence that it's widespread, but the Daily Caller has a good case study:

"In California, where former eBay executive Meg Whitman beat businessman Steve Poizner in a bitterly fought primary battle in the campaign for governor, it sometimes seemed as if there was a bidding war for bloggers.

"One pro-Poizner blogger, Aaron Park, was discovered to be a paid consultant to the Poizner campaign while writing for Red County, a conservative blog about California politics. Red County founder Chip Hanlon threw Park off the site upon discovering his affiliation, which had not been disclosed.

"Poizner's campaign was shocked to learn of the arrangement, apparently coordinated by an off-the-reservation consultant. For Park, though, it was business as usual. In November 2009, for instance, he approached the campaign of another California office-seeker -- Chuck DeVore, who was then running for Senate -- with an offer to blog for money.

" 'I can be retained at a quite reasonable rate or for 'projects,' '' Park wrote in an e-mail to campaign officials. In an interview, Park defended himself by claiming, 'nobody has any doubt which candidates I'm supporting,' and noting that his blog specifies which candidates he 'endorses.' "

Nothing like having the incriminating e-mail.

Ann Althouse is dismissive: "It's so annoying to read an article like this. The headline and first paragraph make you think it's a big exposé and the rest is a lukewarm mishmash."

Conservative blogger Dan Riehl takes sharp exception to these paragraphs:

" 'Riehl World View' readers might be interested to know that Riehl is not simply a blogger, but also a paid consultant to the RNC. In an interview, Riehl said he was paid an amount in the 'hundreds of dollars' for writing a strategy document on how the RNC could better reach out to bloggers. Riehl said his motivation for defending [Michael] Steele was to aid the Republican Party, and that he didn't disclose his consulting work because, 'I didn't see it as having anything to do with my views.' 'I never made enough money to be bought,' he said."

Riehl says this was no secret: "If I had done it as a consultant, I'd likely have charged in the tens of thousands of dollars. I didn't. When all was said and done, the RNC asked me to write up a concise document based on the knowledge that was discovered from the process. It's called knowledge transfer, actually. I promptly disclosed to all involved bloggers that I had a chance to make a few hundred bucks for doing that, and only that - and I was taking it, if there were no objections. . . .

"Now, here is my question for the Daily Caller. If I'm lucky, I made 10 - 12 grand as a blogger last year after walking away from a six figure career to help build new media and work to take the country back for conservatism. I have to pay taxes on that. I have to worry about how I'm going to pay my rent every month and pay my health care out of pocket these days. On the other hand, Tucker Carlson took millions, gave himself a nice office in DC and does little good partisan journalism for us. . . .

"I'd like to know why Carlson is spending millions to attack his alleged own side, instead of doing much of anything serious to help it, as I have done on my own time and dime for years."

What Carlson says is that even as an unabashedly conservative journalist, he's not trying to help any political party.

Facebook finds you

As MSNBC's Bob Sullivan tells it, Facebook's new "location" feature sounds, well, scary:

"An angry 'friend', for example, can broadcast to everyone (including your boss) that you are in a coffee shop, museum or airport -- even if you are sitting in your cubicle working. Even if you haven't agreed to use Facebook's location service. And even if you aren't logged in to Facebook.

"The new Places tool, which is integrated into the standard Facebook mobile application, was released last week with much fanfare and some hand-wringing about its privacy implications. For the most part, however, Places offers users lot of control over when they tell others where they are. Users must actively check-in -- as opposed to being automatically checked in -- as they move around.

"But there's an exception: By default, friends can 'check you in' whenever they want, and wherever they happen to be."

Then are they really friends?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, 'Reliable Sources.'

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