Nets Concerned If Obama Has Now Put Wright 'Behind Him'?

Tuesday night the broadcast network evening news shows centered their coverage, of Barack Obama's repudiation of Jeremiah Wright, from Obama's point of view with “'I'M OUTRAGED'” (ABC) or just "OUTRAGED" (CBS) plastered on screen by an Obama image, interest in whether Obama has now put the “controversy behind him” (ABC and NBC) and only an afterthought about whether anything Wright said Monday was any different than what he had over the previous 20 years Obama has known him. (NBC chose “FIRING BACK” as the on-screen heading)

Brian Williams asked Tim Russert: “Do you think this stops the damage?” Similarly, CBS's Katie Couric wondered to Jeff Greenfield: “Is today's repudiation enough to kind of control the damage?” Echoing NBC's Lee Cowan, ABC's David Wright relayed how Obama is “hoping it will finally put the Wright controversy behind him.”

NBC aired a clip of Obama maintaining “I have known Reverend Wright for almost 20 years. The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago,” but Cowan did not challenge that premise. At least CBS's Dean Reynolds pointed out that “yesterday's wording did not differ markedly from the sermons Wright delivered in the past” and ABC anchor Charles Gibson noted Wright “really didn't say anything different than he said in some of those sermons that have been played over and over again.”

Back in March, the first time Obama addressed the Wright issue, network journalists were downright giddy in their praise. My March 18 NewsBusters item, “'Extraordinary' Obama Speech a 'Gift' for 'Confronting Race in America' with 'Honesty,'” began:

The ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts on Tuesday framed coverage of Barack Obama's speech, in reaction to the furor over the racist, paranoid and America-hating remarks of his long-time pastor, not by focusing on what it says about Obama's true views and judgment but by admiring his success in “confronting” the issue of “race in America” in an “extraordinary” speech. Indeed, both ABC and CBS displayed “Race in America” on screen as the theme to their coverage, thus advancing Obama's quest to paint himself as a candidate dedicated to addressing a serious subject, not explain his ties to racially-tinged hate speech. NBC went simply with “The Speech” as Brian Williams described it as “a speech about race.”

In short, the approach of the networks was as toward a friend in trouble and they wanted to help him put the unpleasantness behind him by focusing on his noble cause. “Barack Obama addresses the controversial comments of his pastor, condemning the words but not the man,” CBS's Katie Couric teased before heralding: “And he calls on all Americans to work for a more perfect union.” On ABC, Charles Gibson announced: “Barack Obama delivers a major speech confronting the race issue head on, and says it's time for America to do the same.” Reporting “Obama challenged Americans to confront the country's racial divide,” Gibson hailed “an extraordinary speech.”

NBC's Lee Cowan admired how “in the City of Brotherly Love, Barack Obama gave the most expansive and most intensely personal speech on race he's ever given,” adding it reflected “honesty that struck his rival Hillary Clinton.” On NBC, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart asserted “it was a very important speech for the nation. It was very blunt, very honest” and so “a very important gift the Senator has given the country.”...

Partial transcripts, gathered tonight by myself and the MRC's Brad Wilmouth, to provide a flavor and highlights of the Tuesday, April 29 evening newscast coverage

ABC's World News:

CHARLES GIBSON, IN OPENING TEASER: Welcome to World News. Tonight, Barack Obama says he is outraged by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, calls his comments "offensive," his behavior a "spectacle."


GIBSON: Good evening. Strong words today from Barack Obama about his former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, much stronger than anything Obama has said previously. No issue has threatened his campaign more than the relationship with Wright, whose controversial sermons have been all over television and the Internet. Yesterday, as you saw here last night, Wright defended those sermons, reiterated some, speaking at the National Press Club. Today, Obama called Wright's behavior "outrageous" and a "spectacle." Here's ABC's David Wright.


DAVID WRIGHT: Now this was a markedly different speech than the one he gave in Philadelphia. But Obama's hoping it will finally put the Wright controversy behind him. He has been struggling to connect with white working class voters. So the first real test of whether this helped will come next week in Indiana.

CHARLES GIBSON TO GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: George, Barack Obama has been judicious in his comments, up until now, about Jeremiah Wright. Jeremiah Wright yesterday, at the National Press Club, really didn't say anything different than he said in some of those sermons that have been played over and over again. So, what changed with the Senator?

STEPHANOPOULOS: It was on national TV. Everyone could see it, Charlie, and his campaign realized this was posing a moral threat, really, to his nomination. Also, Reverend Wright yesterday left the impression that somehow Barack Obama secretly agreed with me. He's just being a politician. Barack Obama couldn't afford to let that stand. They were seeing this bleeding in Indiana and North Carolina. They were hearing from other super-delegates that Obama had to look strong. And then, when Obama saw the performance himself, he did get royally teed off. That tipped the balance.

GIBSON: Do they have any measure of how badly hurt he has been? I know the polls are down slightly. But do they know that this is what's doing it?

STEPHANOPOULOS: They're hearing from everybody. I mean, this is something you know in your gut...

CBS Evening News:

KATIE COURIC, IN OPENING TEASER: Tonight, Barack Obama denounces the media blitz by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

BARACK OBAMA: I am outraged by the comments that were made, and saddened over the spectacle.


COURIC: Good evening, everyone. One week before critical primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, Barack Obama shifted today into major damage control, all but severing his ties to the pastor he once defended, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama denounced Wright's appearance yesterday before an audience of journalists in Washington, saying he was outraged by the minister's remarks. Dean Reynolds is covering the Obama campaign.


DEAN REYNOLDS: The Clinton campaign was eager to point out this afternoon, and even provided a YouTube link for reporters, it was only last June that Obama was extolling Wright.

OBAMA IN YOUTUBE VIDEO: He's a friend, and a great leader.

REYNOLDS: Yesterday's wording did not differ markedly from the sermons Wright delivered in the past, so why the change in Obama's tone today?

OBAMA ON TUESDAY: The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I had come to know over 20 years.

REYNOLDS But there's another reason to be sure. After a week's worth of the gospel according to Jeremiah Wright, the Obama campaign is in a defensive crouch, and with voters going to the polls in Indiana and North Carolina in a week's time, it's vital for Obama to put Wright's rants, as he calls them, behind him -- something he has so far been unable to do. Katie?

COURIC: Dean Reynolds reporting from Chicago tonight. Jeff Greenfield is our CBS News senior political correspondent. Jeff, did Barack Obama have a choice? Or did he have to definitively distance himself today from Jeremiah Wright?

GREENFIELD: He did, Katie. Jeremiah Wright's occupation of center stage was blocking everything else about Obama, and more to the point, Wright's insistence that to attack him was to attack the black church was defining Obama in an odd way in terms of race, the one definition Obama has spent a year trying to say "that's not what I'm all about."

COURIC: Clearly, his association with Wright has not been helpful to his candidacy -- I guess that's an understatement.

GREENFIELD: Understatement of the year.

COURIC: Is today's repudiation enough to kind of control the damage?

GREENFIELD: I think that's going to depend on whether people see this as a genuine act of indignation....

NBC Nightly News:

BRIAN WILLIAMS, IN OPENING TEASER: Also, damage control. Barack Obama goes after his former pastor. Tonight, we'll assess the impact on his campaign.


WILLIAMS: And now to the presidential campaign. The retired Reverend Jeremiah Wright has been on a publicity tour, one that has damaged the Obama campaign. The last time Obama fully commented on Wright, people said he refused to throw his former pastor under the bus, as they put it. Some believe that happened today. Obama went on the attack. He says Wright has him all wrong. Our report from NBC's Lee Cowan.

LEE COWAN: It was a voter who first brought up Reverend Jeremiah Wright today at a townhall meeting in North Carolina. And Barack Obama was ready to pounce.

BARACK OBAMA: I'm going to be having a big press conference afterwards to talk about this.

COWAN: And when he finally appeared before the mikes, he unloaded on Reverend Wright like never before, describing his former pastor's remarks as "rants not grounded in truth." He called them "destructive," "outrageous," and "flat-out appalling."

OBAMA: At a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it, in front of the National Press Club, then that's enough.

COWAN: It had gotten personal. And suddenly, the pastor who, only six weeks ago to the day, Obama said he could no more disown than the black community, was now out the door.

OBAMA: I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that, obviously, whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this. I don't think that he showed much concern for me. I don't, more importantly, I don't think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign.

COWAN: His somber, almost angry, response was different, though, than yesterday, when the Senator casually dismissed Wright's comments and blamed the media for making too much out of them. But he explained today that he hadn't seen all of Wright's most controversial remarks. When he did, he said, it became clear Wright wasn't just defending himself.

OBAMA: The insensitivity and the outrageousness of his statements and his performance in the question and answer period yesterday, I think, shocked me. It surprised me. I have known Reverend Wright for almost 20 years. The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.

COWAN: Now, the upshot of all this, Brian, is pretty obvious. The Senator hopes that by distancing himself from the Reverend Wright and the comments he made, not only at his church here in Chicago but the comments he's been making on the road recently, would end up putting this controversy behind him and end what he called the distractions in this campaign that now has only six days to go before the next round of primaries.

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center