When campaign discussion focused on videotaped comments made by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, it was not the first time that the press raised questions about Obama’s connections— something corporate media seem far less interested in doing with Sen. John McCain.
For example, look at two endorsements made by religious figures with a history of intolerant statements—one of Obama by Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan, who called Judaism a “gutter religion,” another of McCain by evangelical leader John Hagee, who has called Roman Catholicism a “false cult system” and a “Great Whore.” (Hagee has also stated that the Quran commands Muslims to kill Christians and Jews, and has blamed Hurricane Katrina on a New Orleans gay pride parade—NPR Fresh Air, 9/18/06.)
So far this year, U.S. media have found Farrakhan’s Obama endorsement much more interesting than Hagee’s McCain endorsement: From January 1 to March 31, Nexis had 669 U.S. newspaper and wire stories mentioning Obama and Farrakhan, 235 mentioning McCain and Hagee.
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 the next day (Media Matters, 2/28/08).
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 [Farrakhan’s] 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.
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—or subsequently with Wright.
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. Unlike Obama, McCain was allowed to denounce his endorser’s comments and not reject his support.