Media uncritically report McCain surprised by Cunningham's remarks despite Cunningham's history of using Obama's middle name

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell and CNN's John King asserted that Sen. John McCain was surprised by conservative radio talk-show host Bill Cunningham's controversial remarks about Sen. Barack Obama at a February 26 McCain rally, failing to note that Cunningham has previously referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" and "Barack Mohammed Hussein Obama." Fox News' Molly Henneberg suggested McCain could not have expected Cunningham to refer to Obama's middle name, even though Cunningham did just that on Fox News a month ago.

In February 26 reports, NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Kelly O'Donnell and CNN chief national correspondent John King asserted that Sen. John McCain was surprised by conservative radio talk-show host Bill Cunningham's remarks at a February 26 McCain rally, including Cunningham's repeated use of Sen. Barack Obama's middle name, Hussein, but did not note that Cunningham has previously referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama" and "Barack Mohammed Hussein Obama," as Media Matters for America has documented. Rather, the reports noted only that Cunningham was known to be "controvers[ial]." Fox News correspondent Molly Henneberg also suggested McCain could not have expected Cunningham to refer to Obama's middle name, even though Cunningham did just that on Fox News on January 27.

On NBC's Nightly News, O'Donnell said: "McCain acknowledged that the shock jock's appearance was coordinated by his campaign, and although Cunningham has a well-publicized reputation for making controversial comments, McCain advisers say they did not know in advance what Cunningham would say." On The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer asked King: "Was the McCain camp blindsided by this radio talk-show host's introduction of the Republican candidate, John?" King replied: "Well, Wolf, the campaign says he was blindsided, that he had no idea that the talk-show host was even part of the program, let alone that he was going to say controversial things. Now, locals here say the talk show host in question is a magnet for controversy." On Special Report, Henneberg said, "Little did Senator John McCain know, as his bus pulled up outside of an event site in Cincinnati, Ohio, that inside one of the warm-up speakers was going way off message " and then noted that "Cunningham emphasized Obama's middle name at least three times."

In addition, King reported on The Situation Room that Cunningham provided "an instant headache for a candidate who every day promises a respectful tone," while on Special Report, anchor Brit Hume introduced Henneberg's report by stating, "If Republican presidential candidate John McCain has his way, he says his eventual race against the Democratic nominee would be both civil and respectful." But neither noted that McCain did not denounce a question asked by a voter in South Carolina in November, in which she referred to Sen. Hillary Clinton as a "bitch"; rather, McCain called her question -- "How do we beat the bitch?" -- an "excellent" one. In addition, at an October event, McCain referred to a nursing school training mannequin as "Hillary." Nor did King or Hume mention that McCain apparently has yet to address remarks by another of his supporters, former Rep. Rob Portman (R-OH), who praised Cunningham after Cunningham spoke about Obama at the February 26 McCain rally. The Associated Press reported:

As Cunningham finished, Portman, who is mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, took the microphone to introduce McCain.

"Willie, you're out of control again. So, what else is new? But we love him," Portman said. "But I've got to tell you, Bill Cunningham lending his voice to this campaign is extremely important. He did it in 2000, he did it in 2004. It was crucial to victory then and it's even more important this year with his bigger radio audience. So, Bill Cunningham, thank you for lending your voice."

Speaking to reporters later alongside McCain, Portman said: "I was backstage so I didn't hear everything he said. Bill Cunningham is a radio talk show host who is often controversial so it does not surprise me that he was controversial." He added: "That's, I guess, how he makes his living."

From the February 26 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: It was supposed to be a rousing warm-up for a John McCain event in Cincinnati. Instead, it turned into a tirade against Barack Obama, repeatedly stressing the Democrat's middle name, Hussein, in a disparaging way. And it was a stark reminder of a potentially very ugly side to a campaign, despite McCain's very quick and adamant apology.

Let's go to our chief national correspondent, John King. He's watching the story for us. Was the McCain camp blindsided by this radio talk-show host's introduction of the Republican candidate, John?

KING: Well, Wolf, the campaign says he was blindsided, that he had no idea that the talk-show host was even part of the program, let alone that he was going to say controversial things. Now, locals here say the talk-show host in question is a magnet for controversy. But Wolf, it is safe to know this: When the warm-up act is getting the headlines, it's a sign of trouble.

[begin video clip]

KING: At first glance, perhaps a sign of progress -- a conservative radio talk-show host on hand to support John McCain.

CUNNINGHAM: All is going to be right with the world when the great prophet from Chicago takes the stand and the world leaders who want to kill us will simply be singing "Kumbaya" together around the table of Barack Obama.

KING: Bill Cunningham is a local legend in Cincinnati --

CUNNINGHAM: Well, my fellow Americans, now we have a hack Chicago-style Daley politician who's picturing himself as change.

KING: -- and an instant headache for a candidate who every day promises a respectful tone.

CUNNINGHAM: It's going to peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama. That day will come. At some point the media will quit taking sides in this thing and maybe start covering Barack Hussein Obama.

KING: Senator McCain was on his bus at the time, planning to focus his day on the economy and national security.

From the February 26 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: If Republican presidential candidate John McCain has his way, he says his eventual race against the Democratic nominee would be both civil and respectful. For that reason today, McCain moved quickly to distance himself from some remarks made at an Ohio campaign event that many considered neither civil nor respectful. Correspondent Molly Henneberg reports.

[begin video clip]

HENNEBERG: Little did Senator John McCain know, as his bus pulled up outside of an event site in Cincinnati, Ohio, that inside, one of the warm-up speakers was going way off message. Bill Cunningham, a local conservative radio talk-show host, slammed Senator Barack Obama.

CUNNINGHAM: We have a hack Chicago-style Daley politician who's picturing himself as change. When he gets done with you, all you're going to have in your pocket is change.

HENNEBERG: Cunningham emphasized Obama's middle name at least three times, in this instance saying the mainstream media soon will --

CUNNINGHAM: Peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama. That day will come. Then you'll know the truth about his business dealings --

HENNEBERG: And he even went after former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a comparison with the current secretary.

CUNNINGHAM: How about Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, who looks like death warmed over. I think there's a difference between Condi and Madeleine.

HENNEBERG: McCain heard none of it. When he entered the event, former Ohio congressman and possible vice presidential contender Rob Portman was introducing him. But aides filled him in later and he quickly distanced himself from Cunningham's remarks.

From the February 26 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:

O'DONNELL: After the event, McCain tried to quickly undo any damage.

McCAIN [video clip]: And I absolutely repudiate such comments. And again, I will take responsibility. It will never happen again. It will never happen again.

O'DONNELL: McCain acknowledged that the shock jock's appearance was coordinated by his campaign. And although Cunningham has a well-publicized reputation for making controversial comments, McCain advisers say they did not know in advance what Cunningham would say.

And Brian, Senator Obama heard about all of this and said he appreciated Senator McCain's apology. And, of course, this overshadowed much of what McCain wanted to be talking about today. And that radio host went on the air. He remained unapologetic and turned against McCain.

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