On Barack Obama’s inauguration day, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw was so overjoyed he thought of communist-overthrow metaphors: “It reminds me of the Velvet Revolution. I was in Prague when that happened. And Vaclav Havel was a generational leader and was in the square in Prague and the streets were filled with joy.”
In June, when Obama planned a Muslim-outreach speech in Cairo, Brokaw’s successor Brian Williams interviewed the new president and suggested Bush could never do such a thing: “It’s a speech that your predecessor perhaps could not have given constitutionally, given who he is, and could not have given because the attack came on his watch.” Obama rejected Williams’ premise: “I’m not sure that it’s true that President Bush couldn’t have given a speech in the Muslim world.” Both ignored that he did just that, speaking about Muslim democracy in the Muslim nation of Turkey on June 29, 2004. The networks barely acknowledged the speech near the Ortakoy Mosque and the Bosphorus Bridge, which links Europe and Asia.
Network personnel portrayed Obama’s Cairo address as certain to have a massive impact on public opinion in the Mideast. CBS correspondent Lara Logan previewed the speech: “Terrorists who are threatened by Obama’s popularity amongst Muslims do not want America’s president to succeed.”
After the speech Bob Schieffer raved: “This was a remarkable speech...The most remarkable thing to me was just simply that he made it...That he would go to Cairo and that he would speak with the candor he did...the fact that he was there, that Muslims got a chance to see him, to hear him, as he said, you know, he looks like them. This will have a great impact.”
CBS anchor Harry Smith found a powerful professor was talking: “Powerful, far-ranging speech this morning that President Obama has delivered in Cairo....He was not only presidential, he was also professorial. He was very much a teacher this morning. He was giving Americans and Muslims a history lesson.”
Over on ABC, Chris Cuomo proclaimed, “This is going to be a speech that is going to be talked about for a long time. The President has outlined, basically, seven major points which covers everything that has to do with American and Muslim and Arab relations. It has been very comprehensive. And very thoughtful and historic.”
CBS’s Lara Logan talked about the “excitement” in Cairo over Obama’s “historic” speech, and highlighted Obama’s personal popularity there: “This is a first in Cairo – the name of an American President on T-shirts and souvenirs on sale here. It’s a sign of Barack Obama’s personal popularity and how much is resting on his shoulders.”
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell crowed: “This was a transformational speech potentially, by reaching out to the Islamic world, by using the language, as Richard pointed out, by saying ‘As-Salamu Alaykum,’ he has transformed the view of America among 1.5 billion people, and that is potentially the biggest, biggest benefit of all. This could change the Obama presidency.”
So Much for Global Attitudes. In 2002, liberals at the Pew Research Center created a Pew Global Attitudes Project to underline with international public-opinion surveys the world’s dissatisfaction with President Bush.
On October 17, 2008, NBC reporter Dawna Friesen announced from Istanbul: “Polls show the image of the U.S. has improved slightly this year simply because President Bush is leaving. And, that if the world had a vote, Barack Obama would win in a landslide. Regardless of who wins, the world is clamoring for a new America in 2009.”
Friesen offered no statistic to back that up that obsequious claim, but used a Pew Global poll against Bush: “Much of the sympathy and solidarity that existed after 9/11 evaporated during the Bush years, especially in the Muslim world. A recent Pew poll found only 37 percent of Indonesians, 22 percent of Egyptians and 19 percent of Pakistanis had a positive opinion of the U.S. Even among traditional western European allies, approval is low: 31 percent in Germany, 33 percent in Spain, 42 percent in France.”
In 2009, Pew announced with great fanfare “Obama More Popular Abroad Than At Home, Global Image of U.S. Continues to Benefit.” But the 2010 survey found that when Pew sampled Egyptians to see if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the United States, just 20 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the United States, compared to 79 percent unfavorable. This wouldn’t reflect well on the Obama image after the Cairo speech.
Pew asked specifically if Egyptians had confidence in President Obama. It was still negative: 35 percent had confidence, while almost double that number, 64 percent, disagreed. By contrast, fully 75 percent of those surveyed had a favorable view of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. That doesn’t sound like the country full of Obama T-shirt-wearers Lara Logan promised on CBS.
This is certainly not the reception that media liberals and Pew pundits expected. They couldn’t imagine that perhaps people in other countries just have an anti-American animus regardless of the President. So the networks avoided them.
Ground Zero Mosque. Just before the ninth anniversary of 9/11, controversy erupted in New York over a proposed mega-mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. The proposal was unpopular: by a wide margin of 66 percent to 29 percent, the ABC News/Washington Post poll found the public was opposed. It was passionate: more than half (53 percent) told ABC News they are “strongly opposed” to building it near Ground Zero versus only 14 percent strongly in favor.
MRC analysts reviewed all 52 stories about the Ground Zero mosque on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from August 14 through September 13, 2010 – the first month after President Obama propelled the issue into the headlines with his remarks at a White House dinner The results show that the networks have tilted in favor of mosque supporters and against public opinion, with more than half (55 percent) of all soundbites or reporter comments coming down on the pro-mosque side of the debate, and just 45 percent for opponents.
The debate grew more aggressively tilted over time. During the first week (August 14-20), the networks actually provided more visibility to mosque opponents – 55 percent of soundbites, vs. 45 percent for mosque supporters. But in the following weeks (August 21 to September 13), the networks’ coverage lurched in the other direction, with mosque supporters receiving a 63 percent to 37 percent advantage.
On the August 23 Nightly News, for example, NBC’s Ron Allen picked up how “many Muslim-Americans insist this debate is more evidence of religious intolerance.” On the August 25 CBS Evening News, fill-in anchor Jeff Glor linked the stabbing of a cab driver to the mosque debate: “That alleged hate crime took place in the shadow of a heated and divisive debate over whether a mosque should be build near Ground Zero.”
Four days later, on ABC’s World News, correspondent Steve Osunsami cited “a string of recent incidents suggesting that many Americans don’t care for Muslims – the back and forth over the Islamic center near Ground Zero, the cab driver who was stabbed simply for being Muslim.” ABC’s Dan Harris chimed in on the September 5 World News: “Critics say all the rhetoric is fueling anti-Muslim violence.”
Parsing the numbers shows that there were two debates going on. Debate about the Islamic center real-estate project itself and/or its organizers was almost perfectly balanced (57 soundbites arguing against the project, vs. 54 soundbites in favor, or a 51-49 percent split). But the “debate” about whether opposition reflected Islamophobia was almost perfectly one-sided: 27 soundbites (93 percent) leveling that accusation, with just two soundbites (7 percent) offering a defense.
The coverage raises the question of whether the networks feel anyone should be allowed to question Islam or Islamic radicalism without being painted as racist or “Islamophobic.” This is certainly not the way the networks routinely treat anti-Christian attitudes.
Some anchors saw twin towers of intolerance. In her online commentary, CBS anchor Katie Couric editorialized: “It might be Islamophobia, Obamaphobia, or both, but when loudspeakers are blaring ‘Born in the USA’ and signs say ‘No Clubhouse for Terrorists,’ it’s clear we aren’t just talking about a mosque anymore. There is a debate to be had about the sensitivity of building this center so close to Ground Zero. But we can not let fear and rage tear down the towers of our core American values.”
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