Obama Can Run, but He Can't Hide Without Media Help – and They're Helping

It's embarrassing to watch the media gush over a presidential candidate, especially one whose feet they should be holding to the fire.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is selling himself to voters as the candidate who can unify America.  Last week's revelation that he chose to attend, for nearly 20 years, a church led by a pastor who routinely preached racism and hatred of America, has created a profound threat to his presidential hopes.

Obama's Tuesday morning speech in Philadelphia was an attempt to separate himself from the racist, anti-American rants of his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Rather than explain why he remained in Wright's flock, however, Obama attempted to change the subject by delivering an eloquent address on race relations. 

And on Tuesday evening, as they led their broadcasts with coverage of his speech, the media refused to call him on it.

Even before she introduced herself as anchor of the CBS Evening News, Katie Couric was casting Obama as a visionary:  “He calls on all Americans to work for a more perfect union.”  CBS guest commentator Debra Dickerson, a columnist for leftwing magazine Mother Jones, said, “I think Obama was brilliant in this speech.”

NBC Nightly News reporter Lee Cowan praised , “…the most expansive and intensely personal speech on race he's ever given,” and said the “honesty” of the speech even affected rival Democratic presidential hopeful N.Y. Senator Hillary Clinton.  NBC guest commentator Jonathan Capeheart, an editorial writer for The Washington Post, described Obama's remarks as, “…an important speech for the nation.  It was a very blunt, very honest, very open speech.”

Over on ABC's World News, anchor Charles Gibson called it “an extraordinary speech.”  Political analyst George Stephanopoulos described Obama's refusal to renounce Rev. Wright personally as “an act of honor.”

Nobody on the network news remarked that in the process of defending Wright, Obama said his own grandmother, “on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

The detailed coverage of the speech on all three networks sounded more like high school book reports than the work of professional journalists.  ABC's Jake Tapper, NBC's Lee Cowan and CBS's Byron Pitts all fell into a pattern of summarizing Obama's main points, then playing clips of Obama delivering the points himself.   

All the reporters missed the most newsworthy nugget in the candidate's speech:  that after denying for days that he had been aware of Wright's extreme views, Obama admitted he knew all along.  “Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.”

Only CBS senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield even came close to addressing the problem that prompted the speech, the questions about Obama's patriotism and judgment raised by his decision to remain in Rev. Wright's congregation.

Said Greenfield, “How does a guy who spends 20 years with somebody with some notions that seem very bizarre – like AIDS is a government conspiracy – what's he doing with that guy for 20 years? And I think people who are looking at Obama as a new kind of guy, it sets up a kind of confusion. It's a question, who is this guy really? And I don't think this speech, effective as it may be in other areas, ends that controversy for him.”

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.