Media outlets falsely claim Obama contradicted himself regarding Wright statements

››› ››› KATHLEEN HENEHAN

Several media figures have falsely claimed that Sen. Barack Obama contradicted previous statements when he said during a March 18 speech on race: "Did I ever hear him [Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor] make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes." In fact, Obama previously asserted he had not been present for particular statements Wright made that were repeated by various media outlets and that spurred the recent controversy. He did not claim to have never heard Wright make "remarks that could be considered controversial."

On March 18 and 19, several media figures falsely claimed that Sen. Barack Obama contradicted previous statements he had made when he said during a March 18 speech on race: "Did I ever hear him [Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor] make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes." For example, on March 19, Politico chief political columnist Roger Simon wrote that during his speech, "for the first time, Obama admitted what he previously had denied: that he was present when Wright had made some of his outrageous comments." In fact, Obama did not admit during his March 18 speech "what he previously had denied"; he did not reverse himself during the speech on the issue of whether he had been present when Wright made specific comments that have received widespread attention and sparked the controversy to which he was responding. Rather, Obama said during the speech that he had been in church when Wright made "remarks that could be considered controversial." By contrast, in a March 14 column for The Huffington Post, Obama wrote that he had not been present for the particular statements that had become "the cause of this controversy." Obama has made similar assertions on numerous occasions, as Media Matters for America documented.

From Obama's March 14 column in the Huffington Post:

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. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments. But because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community, where I married my wife and where my daughters were baptized, I did not think it appropriate to leave the church.

Let me repeat what I've said earlier. All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country.

Nonetheless, several in the media in addition to Simon have accused Obama of reversing himself on the issue of whether he had been present when Wright made the comments that have been the subject of media attention and controversy. For example, Fox News correspondent Major Garrett claimed on the March 18 edition of Fox News' Special Report that during his speech, Obama made "a notable recalibration of [his] statement to Fox on Friday as to whether he ever witnessed the words from Wright he now so strenuously condemns." In doing so, Garrett contrasted video clips from Obama's March 18 speech and Garrett's own interview with Obama that aired March 14 on Fox News:

OBAMA [from March 18 speech]: Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.

GARRETT: That's a notable recalibration of Obama's statement to Fox on Friday as to whether he ever witnessed the words from Wright he now so strenuously condemns.

OBAMA [from March 14 interview]: None of these statements were ones that I had heard myself personally in the pews.

Similarly, on the March 19 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy aired the same two video clips that Garrett aired on Special Report in an attempt to highlight what Doocy called "a 180 from what [Obama] said on Thursday night [sic: Friday] here on the Fox News Channel." After airing the video clips, Doocy commented, "There you go. Last week he said, 'No, never heard it,' and yesterday he said, 'Yep, I was sitting there and I heard it.' "

But during the March 14 interview on Fox, Obama did not claim to have never heard Wright make "remarks that could be considered controversial"; rather, he referred to specific remarks by Wright that have been repeatedly quoted in news reports. Obama said:

OBAMA: When I saw these statements, many of which I had heard for the first time, then I thought it was important to make a very clear and unequivocal statement.

None of these statements were ones that I had heard myself personally in the pews. One of them I had heard about after I had started running for president, and I put out a statement at that time condemning them.

The other statements were ones that I just heard about while we were -- when they started being run on Fox and some of the other stations. And so they weren't things that I was familiar with.

Several other media figures have also falsely claimed that Obama admitted in his most recent speech having heard the Wright comments that have sparked the controversy:

  • Discussing Obama's speech on the March 18 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, host Bill O'Reilly stated:

O'REILLY: He clearly said today for the first time, because he had denied it in the past, that he sat there and he heard Reverend Wright say anti-American comments. This was the first time he said that, but I'm willing to give him a pass on that because I'm not a gotcha kind of guy.

  • During the March 19 edition of ABC's Good Morning America, Fox News analyst and NPR contributor Juan Williams claimed:

WILLIAMS: Barack Obama's campaign has been in crisis over the statements made by Reverend Wright, damning America, suggesting that the government spreads AIDS among black people, really outrageous statements.

And initially, you know, he said he wasn't in the pews. Yesterday, he said, "You know, I did hear some of these statements to be honest with you."

  • On the March 19 edition of Fox & Friends, conservative radio talk-show host Michael Reagan claimed:

REAGAN: I've been going to church for a long time. Yes, I've disagreed with my pastor on biblical scripture and interpretation, but my pastor's never stood up and said, "Let me tell you about black people. I hate black people. Let's go out and do something against black people," like his pastor has done. And now, of course, he says that in fact he was at the church and heard these things, when in fact a week ago he's saying, "I never heard them. I'm so surprised by these things."

  • A March 19 ABCNews.com article by chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross and reporter Avni Patel wrote:

[Obama's] initial reaction to the initial ABC News broadcast of Rev. Wright's sermons denouncing the U.S. was that he had never heard his pastor of 20 years make any comments that were anti-U.S. until the tape was played on air.

But yesterday, he told a different story.

"Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes," he said in his speech yesterday in Philadelphia.

Obama did not say what he heard that he considered "controversial," and the campaign has yet to answer repeated requests for dates on which the senator attended Rev. Wright's sermons over the last 20 years.

From the March 14 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

GARRETT: Were your two daughters baptized there, and did Reverend Wright preside over the baptisms?

OBAMA: That is correct, Major.

GARRETT: Very good. I wanted to talk to you about your statement released this afternoon, because earlier today when I contacted your campaign and I asked them if there was any way the campaign felt the need to add further context, add further distance between yourself and the statements of Reverend Wright, the one-word answer I received was "no."

Then late this afternoon, you have a statement that says, "I vehemently disagree, strongly condemn." I'm trying to understand the evolution between this morning and this afternoon. And I'd like to know specifically, senator, what you vehemently disagree with and what you strongly condemn.

OBAMA: Well, Major, I gotta confess that, you know, as you know, I was voting in the Senate all day yesterday. So I wasn't following this story as carefully as I could have been. And then I flew back to Chicago.

When I saw these statements, many of which I had heard for the first time, then I thought it was important to make a very clear and unequivocal statement.

None of these statements were ones that I had heard myself personally in the pews. One of them I had heard about after I had started running for president, and I put out a statement at that time condemning them.

The other statements were ones that I just heard about while we were -- when they started being run on Fox and some of the other stations. And so they weren't things that I was familiar with.

Once I saw them, I had to be very clear about the fact that these are not statements that I'm comfortable with. I reject them completely. They are not ones that reflect my values or my ideals or Michelle's. And that, had I heard them, had I been sitting in the church at the time that they were spoken, I would have been absolutely clear to Reverend Wright that I didn't find those acceptable, and obviously --

GARRETT: Sir, would you have -- would you have quit the church had you heard them personally?

OBAMA: You know, I guess -- keep in mind that, just to provide more context, this is somebody who I had known for 20 years. Pastor Wright has been a pastor for 30 years. He's an ex-Marine. He is somebody who is a biblical scholar, has spoken at theological seminaries all across the country, from the University of Chicago to Hampton. And so he is a well-regarded preacher, and somebody who is known for talking about the social gospel. But most of the time, when I'm in church, he's talking about Jesus, God, faith, values, caring for the poor, those -- family, those were the messages that I was hearing.

And so, you know, I think that the statements that have been strung together are compiled out of, you know, hundreds of sermons that he delivered over the course of his lifetime. But, obviously, they are ones that are, from my perspective, completely unacceptable and inexcusable.

And if I had thought that that was the tenor or tone on an ongoing basis of his sermons, then, yes, I don't think that it would have been reflective of my values or my faith experience.

GARRETT: So quick yes or no: If you had heard them in person you would have quit?

OBAMA: If I had heard them repeated, I would have quit. I mean, obviously, understand that -- understand that, you know, this is somebody who is like an uncle. If you have -- to me. He's somebody who helped me find Christ. And somebody who always talked to me in very powerful ways about relationship to God and our obligations to the poor.

If somebody makes a mistake, then obviously, you recognize -- I make mistakes. We all make mistakes. If I thought that that was the repeated tenor of the church, then I wouldn't feel comfortable there.

GARRETT: Senator --

OBAMA: But, frankly, that has not been my experience at Trinity United Church of Christ.

From the March 18 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: Welcome to Washington. I'm Brit Hume. Only days after saying he never heard Reverend Jeremiah Wright's most incendiary comments in church, Barack Obama conceded today that he had, indeed, heard many Wright statements he strongly disagreed with in church. But in an attempt to douse the Wright firestorm, Obama sought to place it all in a much larger context. Correspondent Major Garrett reports.

[begin video clip]

GARRETT: Barack Obama faced the Reverend Jeremiah Wright firestorm indirectly and racial tensions in America directly. The urgent political question, the one on which the fate of Obama's campaign may rest, did he say too little about Wright and too much about race?

To a packed auditorium of supporters and reporters, Obama went farther than ever before in admitting that he listened in the pews to sermons from Wright that many might find objectionable.

OBAMA: Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely.

GARRETT: That's a notable recalibration of Obama's statement to Fox on Friday as to whether he ever witnessed the words from Wright he now so strenuously condemns.

OBAMA: None of these statements were ones that I had heard myself personally in the pews.

GARRETT: Obama said walking away from the reverend is not an option, regardless of the political pressures or consequences.

OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.

From the March 18 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

TANYA ACKER (political analyst): I'll take issue with the notion that he is somehow being disingenuous by having his daughters sit in this pulpit listening to this guy preach. We have no evidence Senator Obama has suggested that it's not the case that every Sunday was some anti-American diatribe. I take Senator Obama at his word on that.

O'REILLY: Well, he clearly said that. Wait, wait, wait, wait. He clearly said today for the first time, because he had denied it in the past, that he sat there and he heard Reverend Wright say anti-American comments. This was the first time he said that, but I'm willing to give him a pass on that because I'm not a gotcha kind of guy. [unintelligible]

But wait a minute, Tanya. You got a 9-year-old and 6-year-old. You're telling me that this kind of stuff that Wright throws out there is suitable for a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old? Is that what you're telling me?

ACKER: Well, no. What I'm saying is, I don't think that there's evidence that this was the bulk of this guy's --

O'REILLY: It doesn't matter whether there's evidence. Wright says this stuff all the time. You take your kids to that church, he could say it whenever, whenever, Tanya. You don't know what he's going to say. Are you telling me Wright's anti-American sentiments are OK for a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old girl to hear? Are you telling me that?

From the March 19 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): First off, Michael, how did Barack Obama do yesterday?

REAGAN: Well, you know, he gives great speech. But if you really sit there and listen to it, he threw everybody he knows -- including his grandmother -- under the bus, and said, "Listen, they're all in the same bus; everybody does this. Why are you getting mad at Jeremiah Wright?" He threw my dad under the bus, his grandmother under the bus, white people voting for John McCain under the bus, Geraldine Ferraro under the bus, pastors and priests under the bus. I mean, and basically said, "Listen, we all do it, so what's the problem?"

I've been going to church for a long time. Yes, I've disagreed with my pastor on biblical scripture and interpretation, but my pastor's never stood up and said, "Let me tell you about black people. I hate black people."

KILMEADE: Right.

REAGAN: "Let's go out and do something against black people," like his pastor has done. And now, of course, he says that in fact he was at the church and heard these things, when in fact a week ago he's saying, "I never heard them. I'm so surprised by these things."

KILMEADE: Clark Judge, do you have a different take on this?

CLARK JUDGE (speechwriter for President Reagan): Well, I thought it was -- politically, it was a smooth speech. He went in there with the question being what did he know and when did he know it about what his pastor said, and had he been candid about it. He came out with a very different subject. I think Michael's right that he was using -- he was balancing off white racial examples against Jeremiah Wright's.

[...]

DOOCY: Yesterday Barack Obama made that big speech down in Philadelphia. Interestingly enough, he said something that was a 180 from what he said on Thursday night here on the Fox News Channel. Let's go ahead and play both sound bites, and you be the judge. First up: Thursday night:

OBAMA [video clip]: None of these statements were ones that I had heard myself personally in the pews.

OBAMA [video clip]: Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes.

GRETCHEN CARLSON (co-host): Uh-oh.

DOOCY: There you go. Last week he said, "No, never heard it," and yesterday he said, "Yep, I was sitting there and I heard it."

CARLSON: An interesting email from one of our viewers, saying that one thing that Barack Obama did not say in his speech was that the double standard has to end. In other words, that this emailer believes that a black preacher can say some of these things and get away with it, but if it were a white preacher, they would not be able to say the same, similar things.

From the March 19 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

CHRIS CUOMO (co-anchor): Now, Juan, what is your baseline understanding of this, what do you think the impact is for him politically, and if there is any impact, on a larger level? What did you think?

WILLIAMS: Well, Chris, I think the politics are very important here because obviously Barack Obama's campaign has been in crisis over the statements made by Reverend Wright, damning America, suggesting that the government spreads AIDS among black people, really outrageous statements.

And initially, you know, he said he wasn't in the pews. Yesterday, he said, "You know, I did hear some of these statements to be honest with you." And then he said, "It was like a crazy uncle at one time," then he had to acknowledge, "You know, it's been a 20-year association with Reverend Wright." Now yesterday, you know, he said some things that were inspiring, as Peggy said. I mean, he really did speak beyond politics about the kind of stalemate, as he called it, between black and white America, over everything from the O.J. Simpson case to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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