Mar 14 2008

Media Hold McCain, Obama to Different Standards

Media coverage 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 York Times, 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 Fresh Air, 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 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 occasions the day after the debate (Media Matters, 2/28/08).

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 support.

As Deborah Douglas wrote (Chicago Sun Times, 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 Farrakhan.

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 Wire, 2/26/08). A New York Times story (2/28/08) 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.