The Right's Short Memory When It Comes to Candidates and Religion

Think there's a problem with coverage of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann's religious ties? Just look at how Obama and Rev. Wright were treated.

Think there's a problem with coverage of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann's religious ties? Just look at how Obama and Rev. Wright were treated.

In a National Review post that echoes what a lot of conservatives are saying, Victor Davis Hanson suggests that the media is being hypocritical in its treatment of GOP presidential candidates. "There is much talk about what some are perceiving as the fringe religiosity of Republican candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry," Hanson writes. "But the media established the precedent four years ago that no candidate can be held responsible for his church."

I don't doubt that Hanson earnestly believes this, which is amazing, because the reality is that Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial pastor, was exhaustively covered by "the media." It delved into his sermons, investigated whether Obama had been present for the most controversial among them, and questioned the candidate about whether he rejected Wright's statements.

As is typical, Hanson is using a strange definition of "the media" -- common among conservatives seeking to claim victim status -- that excludes Fox News, talk radio, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, National Review, The Weekly Standard, the Claremont Review of Books, and the myriad other right-leaning outlets that gave exhaustive coverage to the Wright controversy, often stating outright that Obama should be held responsible for the words he tolerated. But even the mainstream media decided that Wright  would dominate many news cycles.

Don't believe me? See the video clip above for starters. 

Here's Mike Allen of Politico in March of 2008:

The fracas started Thursday morning, when ABC's "Good Morning America" ran a Brian Ross expose on Wright that included old video of him saying: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God bless America'? No, no, no. Not God bless America. God [expletive] America." On Friday night, there was Leno on NBC's "Tonight Show" joshing: "McCain was running so fast from President Bush, he ran into Barack Obama, who was running from his minister."

The story had burst onto the radar screen of average Americans with as much velocity as any other story during the 2008 campaign. Political reporters and editors were inundated with e-mails from red-state friends and relatives wanting to know why the brouhaha wasn't getting more instant and constant coverage from every news outlet. To reporters who had followed the campaign, it was an old, oft-written story. But this time it had video of Wright saying things like "U.S. of K.K.K.A.," available on YouTube and played endlessly by cable news channels.

The New York Times first addressed the Rev. Wright controversy in April 2007:

Mr. Wright's assertions of widespread white racism and his scorching remarks about American government have drawn criticism, and prompted the senator to cancel his delivery of the invocation when he formally announced his candidacy in February. Mr. Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate who says he was only shielding his pastor from the spotlight, said he respected Mr. Wright's work for the poor and his fight against injustice. But "we don't agree on everything," Mr. Obama said. "I've never had a thorough conversation with him about all aspects of politics."

It is hard to imagine, though, how Mr. Obama can truly distance himself from Mr. Wright. The Christianity that Mr. Obama adopted at Trinity has infused not only his life, but also his campaign. He began his presidential announcement with the phrase "Giving all praise and honor to God," a salutation common in the black church. He titled his second book, "The Audacity of Hope," after one of Mr. Wright's sermons, and often talks about biblical underdogs, the mutual interests of religious and secular America, and the centrality of faith in public life.

Here is Bill Kristol writing on the NY Times op-ed page:

It certainly could be the case that Obama personally didn't hear Wright's 2003 sermon when he proclaimed: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people. ... God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human."

But Ronald Kessler, a journalist who has written about Wright's ministry, claims that Obama was in fact in the pews at Trinity last July 22. That's when Wright blamed the "arrogance" of the "United States of White America" for much of the world's suffering, especially the oppression of blacks. In any case, given the apparent frequency of such statements in Wright's preaching and their centrality to his worldview, the pretense that over all these years Obama had no idea that Wright was saying such things is hard to sustain.

The newspaper's coverage of Rev. Wright proved frequent enough to justify a Times Topic Page for him. Here's an excerpt from another news article:

Rush Limbaugh dwelled on Mr. Wright in his radio program, calling him "a race-baiter and a hatemonger." In the statement he released a few hours later, Mr. Obama, known for his uplifting messages about national unity, professed a certain innocence about his pastor's most incendiary messages. "The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation," he said.

The eight-paragraph statement, first posted on the Web site The Huffington Post, did not recount Mr. Wright's claims but addressed concerns about whether his beliefs reflected Mr. Obama's. "He has never been my political adviser," Mr. Obama wrote. "He's been my pastor." Mr. Obama has belonged to Trinity for two decades. He was married by Mr. Wright, and his two daughters were baptized by him.
Said PBS in the intro to an extended interview with Rev. Wright, "More than 3,000 news stories have been penned since early April about Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama. But behind the five second loop is a man who has preached three different sermons nearly every Sunday since 1972."

NPR did a bunch of stories on Rev. Wright. News organizations asked voters about him in the polls they conducted. David Letterman poked fun at Obama for being uncomfortable talking about the controversy. Jon Stewart dedicated a lot of segments to the controversy too. Here's one of the New Yorker pieces about Obama's controversial church.

I am sure Hanson would have some critiques of this coverage if he acknowledged its existence. So do I. But it's nonsense to claim that Obama's religious associations weren't delved into extensively, or that he wasn't "held responsible" for attending the church -- as a consequence of his attendance, he was made to answer endless questions about Wright, brought extreme scrutiny of the church, and eventually disavowed his pastor. That is how the media holds candidates responsible: by lavishing scrutiny upon them when they'd much rather talk about anything else.

Certainly nothing more than media scrutiny is being done to hold Bachmann or Perry "responsible" for their pastors. And at present, it seems unlikely that either will attract as much scrutiny or "MSM" coverage as did Wright.

That isn't to say the scrutiny the two Republicans are getting is without fault. Ross Douthat has written a sensible column and a two blog posts recommending how liberal journalists could better cover faith generally and critiquing a specific profile of Bachmann. The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, author of the piece, responded here. And that's what a useful conversation about religion coverage looks like. Hanson undoubtedly has insights of his own about how religion might be covered better. But we'll neither read that reality-based critique nor see liberal journalists grapple with it. Such is the opportunity cost of critiquing media flaws and double standards that are mistaken manifestations of the partisan mind, rather than the ones that exist in reality.