Editing Reverend Wright's Wrongs

How the Networks Censored and Manipulated Jeremiah Wright Soundbites and Glorified Barack Obama's Race Speech

Reverend Wright Re-Emerges

2008-04-24-CBS-EN-MoyJWri6While the networks tried to drop the Wright story (and certainly the Wright soundbites) out of the campaign narrative, Rev. Wright failed to cooperate. After weeks of traveling out of the country to let the story cool, Wright accepted several prominent invitations to comment on the last weekend of April: a Friday night interview with Bill Moyers on PBS, a Sunday night address before the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, and most prominently, a Monday morning discussion at the National Press Club in Washington.

Without these events, the Wright story would have been left in a quiet corner. But Wright’s speaking tour spurred greater coverage. In the last week of April, the networks increased their time devoted to Wright soundbites: 286 seconds on the evening news and 351 seconds in the morning. While both these totals fell below the amount of seconds the networks gave in their promotional treatment of Obama’s race speech, Wright snippets drew about four times as much time on the evening shows in April as the Wright soundbite total in March. Wright soundbites amounted to almost a minute more time in April than they did in March on the morning programs.

Although the media played along with the Obama campaign spin that Wright’s beliefs had been caricatured, when Wright was pressed harder on his most outrageous statements at the National Press Club, he refused to back down from any of his claims about the evils committed by America – including that the "terrorism" of the United States caused 9/11, and that the government conspired to infect blacks with AIDS. Wright’s National Press Club vitriol demonstrated his positions were not being exaggerated, but his reiteration of his opinions about an AIDS conspiracy and America deserving 9/11 went virtually unreported. Three of the shows featured clips of Wright suggesting America had committed terrorism (ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News), adding up to 23 seconds.

They each used slightly differing versions of this quote: "Jesus said ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles."

None of the networks showed Wright defending his conspiracy theory on AIDS, citing a book by Leonard Horowitz that charges both AIDS and the Ebola virus were U.S. government conspiracies. But on the April 29 World News, ABC suddenly featured Obama denouncing "Such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS." That was a first for ABC, which had never informed their audience of this conspiracy theory.

A numerical breakdown of the soundbites shows that much of the April soundbite time was devoted to soundbites from an hour-long softball interview of Wright by Bill Moyers on PBS. Moyers helpfully built a taxpayer-subsidized platform for Rev. Wright to complain about his victimization in soft tones, much calmer than his screaming sermons. Between the three network morning and evening shows, there were almost six minutes of clips from the Moyers show (358 seconds), but only about two and a half minutes (155 seconds) from the National Press Club.

The networks ran healthy chunks of Wright’s attack on conservatives: "I think they wanted to communicate that I was unpatriotic, that I’m un-American, that I’m filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. ‘And by the way, guess who goes to his church? Hint, hint, hint.’ That’s what they wanted to communicate." Moyers asked him how he felt about it, and Wright said: "I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt that those who were doing that were doing it for some very devious reasons."

Wright4While reporters acknowledged Wright’s high-profile tour wouldn’t be good news for Obama’s campaign, these network stories offered no soundbite time for rebuttals from Wright’s critics. No conservative was allowed to question the merits (or lack of merits) of the minister’s complaints to Moyers, or that it was bizarre for him to suggest that his sermons were not defined by America-bashing, and not full of bitterness and hate.

The PBS remarks encouraged the networks that the story could be finessed, so the soundbite time was greater. For example, on ABC, World News devoted 61 seconds to Wright’s comments on PBS, but the embarrassing National Press Club statements were only shown for 13 seconds. Good Morning America promoted the PBS interview with 69 seconds of soundbites, but used just 35 seconds of National Press Club remarks. ABC’s combined morning and evening soundbite time added up to 130 seconds for the PBS comments to just 48 for the National Press Club remarks.

CBS Evening News reversed that trend: 32 seconds for the PBS interview, and 61 seconds of Press Club soundbites. But The Early Show, the same program that awarded Obama almost seven minutes of race-speech sound, devoted 98 seconds to Wright’s "I’m-no-hater" smooth talk on PBS, and just 16 seconds from the Press Club, a soundbite that didn’t mention AIDS or 9/11 but almost heroically replayed how Wright promised Obama "if you get elected November 5th, I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government who policies grind under people, all right?" CBS’s combined morning and evening soundbite time was 129 seconds for the PBS to 77 for the Press Club.

NBC Nightly News also favored the PBS soundbites over the D.C. speech, 58 seconds to 23, and Today played 40 seconds from PBS and just one seven-second Press Club soundbite (where Wright lauded Louis Farrakhan). NBC’s combined morning and evening soundbite time was 98 to 30.

NBC was the only one of the three networks to notice Wright had mocked John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address in his Sunday night speech in Detroit. In both the introduction and a story on the April 28 Today, NBC ran clips of Wright insisting Kennedy said "Isk" not what your country can do for you instead of "ask," and that while black children are mocked for bad English, Kennedy was not. Considering their triumphant treatment of Obama’s endorsement by Ted and Caroline Kennedy in January, that should have been news on all three networks.