E. D. Hill has company
When Fox News anchor E. D. Hill suggested that Barack and Michelle Obama may have engaged in a "terrorist fist jab" at a recent campaign event, condemnation (and mockery) of Hill's comments was swift, and forced her to offer an on-air quasi-apology.
While Hill's apology was unusual (though not unprecedented -- just a few weeks ago, a Fox analyst apologized for joking about assassinating Obama), her original comments were sadly typical of the media's treatment of Obama. Since he began running for president, news reports have relentlessly suggested that Obama is different; that he isn't like you; that he isn't on your side.
Sometimes, like Hill's "terrorist fist jab" comment, those suggestions have been obvious, and clearly offensive. Other times, they have been comparatively subtle and seemingly pointless -- Chris Matthews' deep concern with Barack Obama's decision to order orange juice in a diner and what it says about his ability to connect with "regular people," for example. But they have two things in common: They portray Obama as weird -- un-American, even -- and they do so based on little more than the fevered imaginations of some journalists and the vicious lies of right-wing partisans.
Rush Limbaugh says Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden are "on the same page." Other conservative commentators have suggested an affinity between Obama and Hamas -- despite Obama's denunciations of the organization, and its description of Obama's policy positions as "hostile to us." Conservative columnist Mark Steyn has described Michelle Obama as "Kim Jong-Il dressed up with a bit of Oprah Winfrey dressing."
Michael Savage claims to "doubt" that Obama "would take our side" after a terrorist attack, adding that Obama would "march thousands of us into the hands of the enemy in order to gain what they would think would be a long-term peace. I think that they would gladly take the guns of the American military and turn them first on the American patriot, rather than turning the guns of the American patriot on the enemy within." Savage also asks, "Why are there no queries being provoked about Saddam Hussein -- I mean, Barack Hussein Obama?" Tucker Carlson has compared Obama's campaign to the Khmer Rouge, the brutal Cambodian regime that led to the deaths of nearly a quarter of that nation's people.
Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman responded to a question referencing the possibility of "Osama blowing up the Sears Tower" by writing, "How about Obama blowing up the Sears Tower! I never liked that building anyway." Weisman did add, "Just kidding, folks." Another washingtonpost.com reader later followed up: "Um, did you really just joke about Obama blowing up the Sears Tower, or were you thinking Osama, but wrote Obama? Either way, not funny."
Weisman wasn't the first reporter to use the "just kidding" defense after inappropriately and baselessly linking Obama to a controversial figure. CNN commentator Jeff Greenfield (now with CBS) compared Obama's tendency to wear shirts with open collars to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's preferred style of dress. When criticized by, among others, Columbia Journalism Review, Greenfield claimed he had been kidding, that he meant the commentary as a "patently absurd parody of muddled political thinking" and lashed out at his critics.
But humor (if you can call it that) doesn't excuse making comments like this -- indeed, it makes it more likely that the public will remember and internalize the comparisons, and that the caricatures will take hold.
Media figures also often portray Obama as un-American or unpatriotic. Dick Morris says that "the question that plagues Obama is ... Is he pro-American?" and that the presidential election hinges on whether "we believe" Obama is "sort of a sleeper agent who really doesn't believe in our system." Investor's Business Daily asks, "Would Obama put African tribal or family interests ahead of U.S. interests?" On Fox & Friends, host Steve Doocy says Obama has "patriotism problems." MSNBC's Chris Matthews thinks "it's a hard thing for someone like Barack Obama" to express a "gut sense of Americanism" and describes Obama as "almost Third World in his sort of presentation." Jonah Goldberg falsely claims Obama "dodg[es] the word and concept of patriotism." And countless news reports -- not just in the right-wing media -- have obsessed over the fact that Obama often does not wear a flag pin (Fox News' Sean Hannity particularly loves this line of attack -- despite the fact that Hannity himself often appears on television without such a pin) or have passed along ridiculous claims about Obama and the Pledge of Allegiance, as CBS News and The Washington Post (among others) have done.
Countless news reports have directly suggested Obama is secretly a Muslim, while others uncritically report the allegation without bothering to make clear that it is false. As is often the case, Michael Savage takes things a bit further, falsely claiming that "we have an unknown stealth candidate who went to a madrassas in Indonesia and, in fact, was a Muslim," and stating, "We have a right to know if he's a so-called friendly Muslim or one who aspires to more radical teaching."
Gratuitously invoking Obama's middle name -- Hussein -- is a favorite tactic used by conservative media figures such as Ann Coulter to associate Obama with Saddam Hussein. (Coulter claims that she does it not out of malice but "because I think it's funny.") For some, Obama's actual name isn't enough: Right-wing radio host Bill Cunningham referred to Obama as "Barack Mohammed Hussein Obama." (Just a few weeks later, Cunningham was chosen to warm up the crowd at one of Sen. John McCain's campaign rallies.)
MSNBC's Matthews has explained the problem with these gratuitous references to Obama's name:
[E]ven that little seemingly neutral information gets into some older people's heads, and they go, "We got a problem here."
[O]lder people -- and I can tell stories in the millions about politicians playing to older voters. They play on the past. They play on fear. They play on confusion. They play on suggestion. You know how it's done with older voters.
But Matthews himself was the first person -- media figure or political operative -- to invoke Obama's middle name in a political context in any news report available in Nexis. Way back in November of 2006, Matthews noted: "You know, it's interesting that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein. That will be interesting down the road, won't it?" And now Matthews says that the mention of Obama's middle name plays on "fear" and "confusion" and "suggestion" with "older voters." So why did he introduce the name into the national conversation?
Matthews frequently claims that Obama is not a "regular" person -- and that his supporters aren't "regular people," either, as I explained last week:
Matthews' election-night portrayal of Obama as out of touch with "most Americans" was striking in its intensity, but it was not a new theme. MSNBC personnel, particularly Matthews, have been trying out this anti-Obama theme for months. Matthews has attacked Obama for shooting pool ("[I]t's not what most people play. People with money play pool these days.") and obsessed over what he claims is Obama's inability to connect with "regular people" in "a dinette." And Matthews and David Shuster mocked Obama for the grievous sin of ordering orange juice in a diner.
Matthews has said of Obama, "[T]his gets very ethnic, but the fact that he's good at basketball doesn't surprise anybody, but the fact that he's that terrible at bowling does make you wonder." On another occasion, Matthews suggested that Obama's lack of bowling prowess "tells you something about the Democratic Party." Matthews has contrasted "regular people" with "people who come from the African-American community." He has suggested Obama should pick a Jewish running mate because he "need[s] some ethnic balance." Matthews has said Obama "seems a little foreign" and that he and Jeremiah Wright are "different faces of the same guy."
Matthews' portrayal of Obama as unlike "regular people" is catching on. The New York Times' David Brooks recently said Obama wouldn't seem to "fit in naturally" at an Applebee's salad bar. (Turns out that, by Brooks' logic, it is Brooks himself who is out of touch with "regular people"; Applebee's doesn't have a salad bar.) And on MSNBC on Tuesday, columnist Margaret Carlson said of Obama: "Don't you want to say to him, 'Eat the taco. A funnel cake won't kill you.' " Carlson then asserted that Obama needs to get "a little bit more down with the people."
Other examples of the media portraying Obama as strange or dangerous abound. Coulter suggests Obama is "a Manchurian candidate." Fox News Radio's Tom Sullivan compares Obama's speeches to Hitler's. Slate.com teases an article with the line "Why Obama is Like a Serial Killer." Tucker Carlson says Obama "sounds like a pothead to me" and "seems like kind of a wuss," while MSNBC colleague Joe Scarborough suggests Obama is not a "real man."
And the media don't stop at portraying Obama as abnormal; his supporters have received similar treatment. Brooks, Time's Joe Klein, ABC's Jake Tapper, and other media figures have called Obama supporters "creepy" and "cult-like" and compared them to followers of Charles Manson.
Obviously there is a difference between calling Barack Obama a terrorist or suggesting he might not "take our side" in the event of a terrorist attack and saying his lack of bowling prowess prevents him from understanding and connecting with "regular people." But both storylines portray Obama as out of the mainstream; they each prime audiences to be more receptive to the other (and the more extreme comments coming from the likes of Michael Savage and Fox News have the pernicious effect of making Chris Matthews' absurd claims about Obama and "regular people" seem reasonable by comparison) -- and neither has any basis in reality. After all, polls show Obama beating McCain, so he must not be doing too badly among "regular people."
Yesterday, Barack Obama's campaign unveiled a website dedicated to rebutting false rumors. On MSNBC Live, Andrea Mitchell and Time's Jay Carney discussed the need for the new site:
MITCHELL: [Obama] was being asked by reporters about things that are completely unprovable, and the way this stuff circulates, it's so viral that a reporter asks him a question, it gets picked up, and then that ratifies the rumor, which we're not even going to be talking about because, you know, there's no proof about a lot of this stuff. So --
CARNEY: You know, the one, Andrea -- there's one in particular that they talk about where Michelle is alleged in a rumor to have referred to white Americans as whitey in a speech at, of course, the Trinity church, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's church. There's no evidence at all that this is true. This rumor started circulating among conservative bloggers and then was picked up and just repeated as a rumor by Rush Limbaugh, of course, the widely listened-to conservative talk radio host. Now over -- driving over to the studio just half an hour ago I heard Rush Limbaugh's show, and he's talking about this non-stop, talking about how it's not -- you know, he's not to blame, he was just reporting a rumor. But of course, he spent half --
MITCHELL: But reporting a rumor, Jay --
CARNEY: But he spent half an hour at least when I was listening to him re-circulating the very rumor without shooting it down, so that's the effect of these things.
MITCHELL: Well, let's put it to rest right now. This didn't happen. It hasn't happened, it's not gonna happen. But the Obama campaign has felt concerned enough clearly about all of this --
MITCHELL: -- and our own NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows this resistance to him by, you know, white men, with McCain having a 20-point lead in -- among white men and still problems with suburban women, which is kind of more understandable coming out of a primary election between him and Hillary Clinton. This is something he's going to have to fix.
CARNEY: Right. It's out there and they just have to -- the goal of circulating these rumors from Obama opponents is basically to create an atmosphere of doubt about the candidate -- about his patriotism, about his background, his religion.
Journalists like Andrea Mitchell and Jay Carney understand that the repetition of baseless rumors "ratifies the rumors," as Mitchell put it. And they understand the intent behind the rumors -- creating "an atmosphere of doubt about the candidate," as Carney said.
But journalists need to do more than understand the intent and effect of false rumors pushed by the right. They need to understand how their own reporting and commentary have similar effects, regardless of their intent. They need to understand that they have a responsibility that goes beyond being careful not to spread (intentionally or otherwise) these bogus right-wing themes; they also have a responsibility to aggressively report the truth. There is a broad smear campaign being waged against Barack Obama, and it is long past time for the media to expose and debunk those smears, not play into them.