Anatomy of a Political `News’ Hit

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg

Reverend Jeremiah Wright, senior pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2008.

In the afternoon before the first of three presidential debates, the Drudge Report, a Web site with a large following, announced that a problematic videotape was coming.

Stay tuned.

Near the start of the evening newscasts, Drudge reported that FOX News would be delivering the news.

At 6 pm, there was no news.

But there was, on Drudge, this, accompanied by a flashing blue and red police patrol-car light: “THE ACCENT… THE ANGER… THE ACCUSATIONS… THE SERMON… THE SHOUT OUT TO REV. WRIGHT, WHO IS IN AUDIENCE…”

And a blind but recognizable quote: “My pastor, the guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me. He’s a friend and a great leader. Not just in Chicago, but all across the country.”’

And word that FOX News would have the rest of the story at 9 pm.

In the meantime, The Daily Caller, a politically conservative Web site, bannered this: “The DC Exclusive: Never-before-seen Obama video debuts 9 p.m. ET.”

And again Drudge: “DAILY CALLER: ‘For nearly 40 minutes, using an accent he never adopts in public, Obama describes a racist, zero-sum society, in which the white majority profits by exploiting black America’… Developing tonight…”

What arrived, on FOX, at 9 pm, was a videotaped recording of President Barack Obama — then Senator Obama, from Illinois — at a public campaign appearance in 2007 that was open to the media and widely reported at the time.

At the start of Sean Hannity’s show, at the conclusion of Bill O’Reilly’s program — the top-rated show on the cable news network. All of which contributed to a night of anticipatory ratings on FOX, starting with the 6 pm news show anchored by Bret Baier. Hannity announced at 9 : “A bombshell is about to be dropped.”

The tape of a June 2007 campaign appearance before black clergy members at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, was obtained by the Daily Caller, Hannity said on his show. “The most outrageous comments” were ignored by the mainstream media at the time, Hannity explained. (Never mind that the Daily Caller’s founder had reported on the candidate’s appearance at the time., as had FOX and NBC News that evening.)

“I’ve got to give a special shout-out to my pastor, the guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me — he’s a friend and a great leader,” Obama is shown saying about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor whose incendiary comments Obama later rejected during his 2008 campaign for president.

It also shows Obama questioning why federal reconstruction aid was slow in flowing to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, after the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York had gotten swift attention. “It tells me, the people in New Orleans, they don’t care about much.”

This, Hannity explained, “was a glimpse into the mind of the real Barack Obama.”

Then came Tucker Carlson, the conservative commentator and founding director of The Daily Caller, joining Hannity on his program, calling Obama’s comments “remarkable.”

“The accent, let me be totally clear… this accent is absurd, this is not the way Obama talks,” Carlson said of Obama’s inflection in the taped address. “This is a put-on, this is phony… He is telling a predominantly black audience… the federal government does not like you because they are black.”

“This is not a dog whistle,” Carlson told Hannity. “This is a dog siren.”

At the end of the day, there was no news here.

There was a videotape of an old speech by Obama once recognizing a pastor whom he disconnected himself from in his 2008 campaign after some of Wright’s most controversial remarks about America in the pulpit.

And some conservative commentators commenting on Obama’s accent at the time.

And a night of cable TV news ratings to be had in the day’s headlines.

About old news.

Which, the Obama campaign was ready to note, had widely been covered at the time:

On June 5, 2007, Carlson himself had reported for MSNBC: “Barack Obama was talking about a quiet riot today. And no, it was not a reference to a 1980s heavy metal band, unfortunately. The senator waded into the controversial waters of race during a speech Hampton University in Virginia. He said the Bush administration has done little to quell a brewing storm among some black Americans. He compared the current tension to what fueled the L.A. riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.”

FOX News’ Brit Hume also had covered the Hampton speech: “Senator Obama today said the Bush administration has done nothing to defuse what he calls a quiet riot among black Americans, a riot he suggests is ready to erupt. Obama said African American resentments and frustrations are building, especially, he said, because so many blacks from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still displaced 21 months after Hurricane Katrina. Obama warned against conditions similar to those in Los Angeles 15 years ago. ”

And lastly, the “mainstream media:” NBC News’ Brian Williams, in June 2007: “We begin with some unusually direct talk today from Democratic candidate Barack Obama on the issue of race, something he rarely focuses on in his speeches. But today, speaking to a primarily black audience at Hampton University in Virginia, Obama said the Bush administration has done little to address what he called a quiet riot of discontent and despair among blacks in this country, one that erupted in LA 15 years ago and has been building again since the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. ”

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