Fairness and Accurracy in Reporting
of the presidential campaign has lately been dominated by
discussions of videotaped comments made by Jeremiah Wright, Barack
Obama's pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
Pundits and reporters are questioning to what lengths Obama must go
to distance himself from some of Wright's more controversial
remarks. This is not the first time that the press has devoted
significant time to raising questions about Obama’s associations or
connections with various public figures, but it is something the
press seems far less interested in doing with John McCain.
One example is Chicago real-estate developer Tony Rezko, now on
trial for bribery charges. Referring to Rezko, conservative
columnist Robert Novak reported on
March 3 that "Sen. Hillary Clinton's operatives have tried
frantically, but not effectively, to interest U.S. news media
outside Chicago in Obama's possible connection with his home state's
latest major scandal." But if media aren't interested in Senator
Obama's relationship to Rezko, one would hate to see what interest
would look like.
A search of U.S. newspapers and wires in the Nexis news database
turned up 946 stories containing "Obama" and "Rezko" between January
1 and March 14, 2008. This in a matter where, as blogger Glenn
Greenwald pointed out (Salon,
3/5/08), not only is there "no credible evidence of any
wrongdoing on the part of Obama...there aren't even any theoretical
allegations or suggestions as to what he might have done wrong at
all."With Obama, simply being connected to a person with what
Time columnist Joe Klein called (3/6/08)
a "suspicious visage" (is that code for "Syrian-born"?) merits being
mentioned over and over again.
By contrast, when Republican presidential candidate John McCain was
accused of doing political favors for a lobbyist, Vicki Iseman (New
2/21/08), the controversy generated only 352 stories in the same
Nexis file over the same time period--and many of these stories
focused on criticism of the New York
Times for invading McCain's private life.
Likewise, both Obama and McCain have been endorsed by religious
figures with a history of intolerant statements--Obama by
Nation of Islam leader Louis
Farrakhan, who called Judaism a "gutter religion," and McCain by
John Hagee, who has called Roman Catholicism a "false cult system,"
an "apostate church" and a "Great Whore." Hagee has also stated (NPR
9/18/06) that the Quran mandates Muslims to kill Christians and
Jews, and has blamed Hurricane Katrina on a New Orleans gay pride
parade. So far this year, U.S. media have found Farrakhan's Obama
endorsement much more interesting than Hagee's McCain endorsement:
The Nexis file had 478 stories on Obama and Farrakhan, 123 on McCain
Obama was grilled over the issue by MSNBC
moderator Tim Russert at the February 26 Democratic debate, even
after the senator stated that he denounced Farrakhan's anti-Semitic
comments as "unacceptable and reprehensible," "did not solicit this
support" and gave assurances that his campaign was "not doing
anything, formally or informally, with Minister Farrakhan." In
response to Obama's clear denunciation of Farrakhan, Russert
nevertheless pressed on, reiterating Farrakhan's anti-Semitic
comments and asking whether Obama was "in any way suggesting that
Farrakhan epitomizes greatness." Only after Obama declared "if the
word 'reject'... is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm
happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce," did
Russert drop the issue. Even then, MSNBC
either aired or discussed the exchange at least nine different times
occasions the day after the debate (Media Matters,
Other media pundits showed great interest in exactly how Obama
distanced himself from Farrakhan. The distinction between
"denunciation" and "rejection" was taken up that weekend in the
New York Times (3/2/08).
The L.A. Times (2/27/08)
referred to Obama as having "hedged about whether he would reject
his support." The exchange was dubbed Obama's "worst moment" of the
February 26 debate (Newsday,
3/3/08). And according to Joe Klein (Time,
3/6/08), Obama's repeated denunciations of Farrakhan's
anti-Semitism constituted unacceptable "political word games" the
candidate allegedly "played before rejecting the support of the
bigot Louis Farrakhan."
On the other hand, McCain actively solicited Hagee's support, and
did not initially repudiate Hagee's intolerant remarks. On February
29, McCain stated that Hagee "supports what I stand for and believe
in." He added that he was "proud" of Hagee's spiritual leadership.
Yet the media response to McCain's enthusiastic embrace of Hagee's
endorsement was considerably more favorable than it had been in the
case of Obama's repudiation of Farrakhan's endorsement. A brief
Washington Post news article (2/28/08)
about the endorsement failed to note that Hagee was even a
controversial figure, merely noting that "Hagee's endorsement could
be of particular help to McCain in Texas, where the Arizona senator
will face former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee on Tuesday."
The comparability of the two controversial endorsements was
acknowledged in some media reports. CNN
host Wolf Blitzer (3/2/08) asked the obvious question when he
stated, "Should John McCain repudiate and reject the comments, the
support from John Hagee, just as Barack Obama has done that with the
Rev. Louis Farrakhan?" Yet for most of the media, the answer seemed
to be no.
In contrast to Farrakhan's endorsement of Obama's campaign, the
endorsement of McCain by a religious figure with a history of
intolerant statements was framed as a matter of complex political
strategy, rather than a moral outrage. As
NPR's Scott Horsley put it (Morning
Edition, 3/1/08), the endorsement was a "mixed blessing":
"The episode underscores the fine line McCain is walking as he tries
to reach out to social conservatives without losing the moderates
and independent voters who fueled his campaign so far."
CNN news correspondent Brian Todd
introduced a segment (3/1/08) about the Hagee endorsement by saying,
"On the surface, it seemed like a much-needed conservative
endorsement for John McCain." Commenting on McCain's initial failure
to reject Hagee's endorsement, Todd continued, "Analysts say that
may not move the ball far enough with Catholic voters in key states
like Pennsylvania and Ohio." CNN's
Bill Schneider commented that "if John McCain is saying or accepting
an endorsement that is offensive to Catholics and doesn't repudiate
it, he risks alienating a crucial swing group."
Meanwhile, CNN commentator Bill
Bennett (3/3/08) urged McCain to "denounce the statements that
deserve denunciation. But, understand, the guy's career and his work
and his ministry has done a lot of good." This is not an approach
pundits urged Obama to take with respect to Farrakhan.
When McCain finally responded (3/7/08) to the pressure from Catholic
groups by saying (Boston Globe,
3/8/08) that he "categorically reject[ed] and repudiate[d] any
statement that was made that was anti-Catholic"--without saying that
he regretted soliciting Hagee's support--the issue of Hagee's
endorsement was more or less dropped by the media, in a way that
Obama's alleged initial "equivocation" was not. Unlike Obama, McCain
was allowed to denounce his endorser's comments and not reject his
As Deborah Douglas wrote (Chicago Sun
2/29/08), this double standard is part of a long-standing
pattern that posits "the renunciation of Farrakhan as a litmus test
for black leaders." Indeed, the media's calls for Obama to
dissociate himself from Farrakhan began even before the
controversial minister endorsed the candidate. In a
January 15 column headlined "Obama's Farrakhan Test,"
Washington Post columnist Richard
Cohen was already talking about Obama's "obligation to speak out" on
But media's inclination to hold Obama to a different standard from
McCain seems to cut across many issue areas. Obama was criticized
for supposedly going back on a pledge to accept public financing for
his campaign, even though what he had actually promised to do if he
became the nominee (which he so far is not) was negotiate an
agreement to accept public financing with his Republican
opponent--an agreement that would take into account the possibility
of outside spending on the race. The L.A.
Times inaccurately reported (2/27/08)
that Obama "agreed last year to accept public financing--and the
attendant spending limits," but now "seem[ed] to be waffling."
In contrast, McCain, who actually had accepted public financing for
his primary campaign before deciding that he would be better off
with unlimited fundraising, has gotten little criticism for this
questionably legal maneuver (Washington
2/26/08). A New York Times
seemed to acknowledge that Obama was getting more criticism on this
issue than McCain was. In an attempt at an explanation, reporter
David D. Kirkpatrick explained, "The issue may be more sensitive for
Mr. Obama, though, because [he] has run in part on his record as an
advocate of stricter government integrity rules, including the
public financing system."
It would surely be difficult for the New
York Times to explain why it feels that John McCain is not
running in part on his reputation as a campaign-finance reformer.
But perhaps it would be harder to admit that the corporate media
just has a bias for McCain.