CNN failed to note Dole “Godless” ad's voiceover controversy

CNN anchor Kyra Phillips presented a report by correspondent Joe Johns on an ad in which Sen. Elizabeth Dole accused Democratic opponent Kay Hagan of taking money from “a leader of the Godless America PAC” at “a secret fundraiser” and that included a woman's voice saying, “There is no God,” while a picture of Hagan appeared onscreen. But while Johns and Phillips noted that Hagan has indicated an intention to file a defamation lawsuit, they did not note that in accusing Dole of defamation, Hagan cites the ad's false suggestion that the voice is Hagan's.

A November 3 CNN Newsroom report on Sen. Elizabeth Dole's (R-NC) “Godless” ad, in which Dole accused Democratic opponent Kay Hagan of taking money from “a leader of the Godless America PAC” at “a secret fundraiser,” failed to present the part of the ad that included a woman's voice saying, “There is no God” while a picture of Hagan appeared onscreen. A Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer fact check stated that the ad may lead viewers to believe “that the unidentified female voice at the end of the ad is Hagan's.”

While anchor Kyra Phillips and CNN correspondent Joe Johns noted that Hagan was filing a defamation lawsuit over the ad, neither reported that in her notice of intent to sue, Hagan asserted: “The voiceover, clearly presented to appear to be Plaintiff's [Hagan's], was an intentional attempt by Defendants [Dole and her election committee] to deceive the citizens of North Carolina and malign the Plaintiff and subject her to contempt. Plaintiff has never made such a statement. Despite knowing this, Defendants purposely made it appear that she did.”

By contrast, several media outlets reporting on Dole's ad and Hagen's suit mentioned that the ad included an unidentified woman saying, “There is no God,” while Hagan's picture is onscreen.

From the 1 p.m. ET hour of the November 3 edition of CNN Newsroom:

[begin video clip]

JOHNS: It's been called despicable, a sign of desperation.

ANNOUNCER [video clip]: A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor.

JOHNS: With time running out in her tough re-election bid, Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole went up with a sledgehammer of a television ad against her Democratic opponent, Kay Hagan, an ad tailor-made to put religious conservatives, always a force in North Carolina, on red alert.

ANNOUNCER [video clip]: Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras, took godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?

JOHNS: Hagan is screaming foul and says she is filing a lawsuit, claiming damage to her reputation.

HAGAN: I don't have a relationship with this group. I've never even heard of it until Elizabeth Dole put a press release out about it. Never heard of it.

JOHNS: So what's the truth of it? Keeping them honest, let's start with the facts. It's true that Hagan attended a fundraiser on her behalf, at the Boston home of a guy named Woody Kaplan, who is a member of the board of advisers of a group called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee. But the fundraiser was not sponsored by the Godless Americans PAC. Rather, it was sponsored by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, and something called the Secure our Senate Majority Host Committee. According to Hagan's disclosure forms, Kaplan, in his own name, has donated a total of $2,300. Hagan says she has received no money from the Godless Americans PAC itself. Her campaign says the fundraiser was not secret, and she wasn't hiding from the camera. OK, so the ad stretches the facts a little, but is it despicable?

STUART ROTHENBERG [Rothenberg Political Report]: I think this is actually standard political theatre.

JOHNS: And there's a money trail.

ROTHENBERG: You go to a fundraiser, take a check, you're going to have to answer for that. Doesn't mean she can't answer, but it's not such a crazy issue to bring up for the Republicans.

JOHNS: Hagan has come out strong. She and others see a larger problem with the ad. It implies she's anti-Christian, even though she says she's a Sunday school teacher and an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

HAGAN: I want people to know who I am. I am a strong Christian and I believe in my faith. And I am appalled that Elizabeth Dole would stoop this low.

JOHNS: Democrats have a lot riding on this race. Getting to a filibuster-proof majority could depend on it.

ROTHENBERG: Senator Dole's state is crucial because she's one of the nine seats that the Democrats need to get 60. If they can take her out, they still have a chance to get to 60. If she wins, it's an awful hard fight for them.

[end video clip]

PHILLIPS: Well, Hagan is now suing Dole for defamation and libel. Joining me from Chicago with his insight on this nasty Senate battle, CNN political contributor David Brody. It always gets nasty in politics. He's also the Christian Broadcasting Network senior national correspondent. So I'm curious, what do you think of the ad - Dole's ad?

BRODY: Well, I mean, I think by all accounts, most people would say it's pretty over the top. I mean, look, anytime you start to, you know, in essence condemn someone else's, you know, faith walk, if you will, I mean, then you're going into real dangerous and uncharted territory. You know, I have to say, Kyra, it reminds me a little bit, though, of the broader issue going on in this country between Democrats and Republicans and the faith issue. Because Democrats have been trying for a long time to kind of break down that wall that separated them a little bit on the faith issue between them and voters, their party and voters. But now, all of a sudden, Republicans are a little bit on the defensive when it comes to faith, because the Democrats have obviously made inroads in this area, especially in the South, running a lot of pro-life Democrats and a lot of pro-faith Democrats, if you will. And that has put the Republicans back on their heels quite a bit, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. So at the end of the day, how important is religion to a person's vote?

BRODY: Well, I think it's very important. I mean, if you look at surveys across this country, you can look at 75, 80 percent of folks talk about their belief in God, but I think it goes beyond that, Kyra. I think what we're talking about here is this emotional connection, you know, if you will, between a candidate and voters. What do I mean by that? What I'm saying here is that, you know, when you talk about faith, when you talk about God and values, you really are able to connect with voters at that emotional level. Because, let's face it, most folks, though policy is important, they do have to have this emotional connection with the candidate. Look at what's happening with Barack Obama and what he's been able to do with his faith outreach team. That has really helped him a lot in the last year or so.