CNN, NBC blame Obama “opponents” for smears advanced by media

Anderson Cooper, David Gregory, and Soledad O'Brien have all asked Sen. Barack Obama about smears leveled against him, purportedly by his political “opponents” or “enemies.” But in each case, they did not name any of these “opponents.” Indeed, by framing their questions in terms of political “opponents,” they ignored the media's role in promoting these smears, and in some cases originating them.

In recent interviews, CNN host Anderson Cooper and NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory both asked presumptive 2008 presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) how his political “opponents” or “enemies” would attempt to use his middle name, Hussein, against him. Cooper also asked how Obama's “opponents” would use Obama's “father's religious background.” Additionally, Cooper, Gregory, and CNN host Soledad O'Brien all asked Obama about the discredited smear that as a child Obama attended a madrassa -- a radical Muslim school. In their questions, Cooper, Gregory, and O'Brien did not name any of these “opponents.” Indeed, by framing the questions in terms of political “opponents,” they ignored the role of the media -- including CNN and MSNBC -- in promoting these story lines and, in cases, even originating them.

“Barack Hussein Obama”

MSNBC host Chris Matthews -- not a Republican operative -- was apparently the first to mention Obama's middle name as a possible political issue. On the November 7, 2006, edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Matthews said: “You know, it's interesting that Barack Obama's middle name is Hussein. That will be interesting down the road, won't it?” Following that:

  • On November 27, 2006, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson referred to nationally syndicated radio host Bill Press as “a true member of the Barack Hussein Obama fan club.”
  • During the November 28 edition of Hardball, Republican strategist Ed Rogers referred to “Barack Hussein Obama.” On December 13, Matthews teased another interview with Rogers by describing the strategist as “the one who just loves Barack Obama's middle name Hussein.” Matthews then criticized Rogers for insisting on referring to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama,” saying, "[T]he only time we start using three names for a person is when they're an assassin."
  • On the December 5 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, senior political correspondent Carl Cameron told viewers: “Though he's written two books about himself already, most people know very little about Barack Hussein Obama Junior's uncommonly privileged life.”
  • CNN senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield said on the December 11 edition of CNN's The Situation Room: “Now, it is one thing to have a last name that sounds like Osama and a middle name, Hussein, that is probably less than helpful.” On December 12, Greenfield explained on the CNN website that he was making “a joke” when, during the same segment, he compared the similarity of Obama's “business casual” clothing to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's “jacket-and-no-tie look,” but did not note his “Hussein” comment. As Media Matters for America noted, CNN correspondent Jeanne Moos also said on December 11: “As if that similarity [between ”Obama" and “Osama”] weren't enough. How about sharing the name of a former dictator? You know his middle name, Hussein."
  • On the December 14 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio program, Rush Limbaugh suggested calling Obama “Barack Hussein Odumbo.” In a December 11 weblog entry, Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet wrote that Obama had “chided” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd “in a kidding way -- for a comment in the 12th of 14 paragraphs in an Oct 21 column. She wrote that Obama's 'ears stick out.' ” A December 15 entry on the blog The Radio Equalizer, discussing Limbaugh's comments, asked “Is Senator Barack Hussein Obama (D- Ill) now so accustomed to fawning press coverage that even the slightest bit of criticism can send him racing toward the offending party in a state of sheer anger?”
  • On the December 14 edition of Hardball, NBC's Mike Viqueira announced “a man named Barack Obama, whose middle name, incidentally, is Hussein, running for president.”
  • A January 2 Associated Press article about a CNN on-screen graphic labeling Osama bin Laden “Obama” said of Obama: “If he does enter the race, his middle name might also prove troublesome. Republican operatives are already referring to him by his full name: 'Barack Hussein Obama.' ”
  • On the January 14 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, co-host Sean Hannity asked: “Now, if his middle name is Hussein, what is wrong with people that bring up his middle name?”
  • On the January 16 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Limbaugh called Obama a “half-minority” and said that “the media ... are in the midst of Obama-gasms” because “Barack Hussein Obama” has formed a presidential exploratory committee.
  • On the January 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report, host Brit Hume referred to “Barack Obama -- Barack Hussein Obama.”
  • In his January 19 column, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote: “That Sen. Barack Hussein Obama Jr. chose the day of the 'American Idol' season premiere to launch his presidential exploratory committee is nicely symbolic” because Obama is “mostly a blank slate on which others can write what they choose.”
  • On the January 20 edition of Fox News Watch, host Eric Burns referred to Obama as “Senator Obama,” “Barack Obama,” and “Illinois Senator Barack Obama.” Media writer Neal Gabler referred to Obama as “Barack Obama” and “Obama.” However, moments later, Newsday columnist Jim Pinkerton referred to “the questions about a fellow, as Cal [Thomas] alluded to, named Barack Hussein Obama are waiting to be asked.”
  • On January 23, Boston Herald columnist Virginia Buckingham wrote that the Democratic Party's nominee “will not be Barack Hussein Obama ... [T]here's the unfortunate name, which shouldn't matter but will.”
  • In a January 23 unsigned posting, asked about Obama: “If he was raised in a secular household (as he claims), why does he have -- or retain -- Muslim names, Barack and Hussein?”
  • On January 24, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter wrote that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) “is probably the real front-runner based on: (1) the multiple millions of dollars she has raised, and (2) the fact that her leading Democratic opponent is named 'Barack Hussein Obama.' ”

Obama's father

In his interview with Obama, Cooper asked about the political effects of his “father's religious background.” As Media Matters noted, Obama described his father in an April 5, 2004, Chicago Sun-Times article as “agnostic,” and the article described his stepfather as “a non-practicing Muslim.” However, members of the media have suggested that Obama's father may be a political liability because of his Muslim heritage:

  • In a December 18 column headlined “Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim, Always A Muslim,” right-wing pundit Debbie Schlussel argued that because Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) middle name is Hussein, his late, estranged father was of Muslim descent, and he has shown interest in his father's Kenyan heritage, Obama's “loyalties” must be called into question.
  • On the January 19 edition of KSFO's Morning Show, co-host Lee Rodgers asserted that “Thomas Lifson at the American Thinker, valuable website, easy to find on the web -- the American Thinker -- raises a question about Senator Obama that needs to be answered if he is going to run seriously for president, and it's this: He was born, as I said, to a Muslim father, which is -- that's the reason for his first and middle names -- Barack and Hussein, which is his middle name, are Islamic names. According to Islamic scripture, this is what Islam teaches its adherents: One who is born to a Muslim father is a Muslim. Forever. It's like being Jewish descends from the mother, but you can always convert out. Islam? Uh-uh.” Lifson cited Schlussel's column as the basis for his speculation.
  • Juan Williams, National Public Radio senior correspondent and Fox News contributor, said on the January 21 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday that Obama “comes from a father who was a Muslim,” adding that “given that we're at war with Muslim extremists, that presents a problem.”

Madrassa posted an article on January 17 alleging that "[s]ources close to [a] background check ... conducted by researchers connected to Senator Clinton" told the website that Obama “spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia.” The article used similar language to that used by Gregory and Cooper, describing the “researchers connected to Senator Clinton” as “political opponents within the Democratic Party.” The article bore the headline “Hillary's team has questions about Obama's Muslim background.”

On the January 19 editions of their radio programs, conservative talk-show hosts Melanie Morgan, Lee Rodgers, and Rush Limbaugh, forwarded the accusation that Clinton's team was responsible for spreading the smear about Obama, as did Fox News' John Gibson on that day's edition of The Big Story. As the blog Think Progress noted, on the January 19 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends First, hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, and Gretchen Carlson focused an entire segment on the allegation.

However, on the January 22 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN reporting debunked what media critic Howard Kurtz called the “bogus charge” that Obama attended a madrassa. Kurtz also noted the attempt by and others “to blame this rumor-mongering on the rival campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

In a January 20 New York Post article, Obama strategist David Axelrod denied that Obama attended a madrassa: “He was not raised as a Muslim, and he did not go to a madrassa. It is a complete contrivance, and its purpose is clear.” Axelrod added that he did not “believe ... for a second” the idea that Clinton's camp was behind the allegation. The story also quoted Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson saying, “We have no connection to this story.”

Despite the complete lack of substantiation of's smears against Obama and Clinton, media reports after the article repeated them:

  • On the January 19 edition of CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck, Beck stated that the source of the story “is a conservative blog” and that “the odds of this being true pretty darn close to zero,” but nevertheless said that “if you live in Chappaqua, New York, and you hear a strange grinding noise coming from the Clinton estate, it could be Hillary Clinton sharpening her knives in the basement.”
  • On the January 19 edition of his radio program, Limbaugh uncritically repeated parts of's madrassa story.
  • In his January 21 Chicago Sun-Times column, columnist Mark Steyn wrote that Obama “was raised in an Indonesian madrassah by radical imams” and that "[t]he madrassah stuff was supposedly leaked to Insight Magazine by some oppo-research heavies on Hillary Rodham Clinton's team."
  • In her January 23 Herald column, Buckingham wrote: “Everything there is to know about John Kerry's record is known. Obama? Well, for starters, we're just hearing a bit about the senator's early education at a madrassah in Indonesia. Yes, the source is Insight Magazine, run by the Moonies, but I haven't heard a strong denial from the Obama camp. What else will we learn about this Democratic 'rock star'' in the YouTube era?”
  • On the January 23 edition of KSFO's Morning Show, Morgan and Rodgers repeated the claim that Obama “went to a Muslim school, a madrassa they call it. ... [T]hose things are funded by Saudi Arabia.” They also cited a report alleging that the story came from the campaign of former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC). Morgan claimed the new charge originated from U.S. News & World Report's “Washington Whispers,” but Media Matters found no such article on the weblog or in the magazine. Rodgers reiterated comments he made January 19 on the Morning Show, during which he suggested that Obama may be a “death target” because of the revelation that he was born the son of a Muslim. On the January 23 show, Rodgers said: “If your father is a Muslim, you're a Muslim, and as far as Islamic law is concerned, you are a Muslim forevermore. ... And Islamic law says: 'You try to get out, any Muslim has not only the right but the duty to kill you.' ”
  • In his January 23 column, Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden cast doubt on the veracity of's accusation that Obama attended a madrassa, but he never denounced the second, baseless part of the story -- that Clinton's camp was responsible for spreading the rumor. Pruden also wrote that “maybe Obama himself was behind such a 'leak,' to get the story out where his spinmeisters can cut off the story's legs now, while there's time and opportunity.”
  • On the morning of January 25, on the front page of ABC News' website, a headline read: “Madrassa Madness: Was Hillary Behind Obama Smear?” below pictures of Clinton and Obama, despite the fact that the article to which the headline links notes that the accusation that Clinton is responsible for the smear “remains unproven and unsubstantiated.”
  • On the January 25 edition of the Morning Show, Morgan and Rodgers continued their discussion of the accusation. Rodgers acknowledged that the story had been “discredited” by CNN but in turn purported to discredit CNN by claiming that the network is “the propaganda mouthpiece for the political left. They're the Democratic Party's Al Jazeera.”

From the January 23 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

COOPER: In recent days, a conservative magazine published rumors that were picked up by another cable news channel that you attended a madrassa as a child in Indonesia. CNN did its own investigation. We sent a reporter to the school, found out it's a public school; it's not a madrassa.

Do you think this is a sign of things to come? How much, I guess, did your middle name, your father's religious background, how much do you think that's going to be used against you by your opponents?

OBAMA: You know, when I ran for the United States Senate, right after the -- I won the primary, there were some political operatives that put up a website that superimposed my face over bin Laden. And, you know, full with the beard and the turban. We ended up winning that race 70 percent to 30 percent.

From the January 24 edition of NBC's Today:

GREGORY: You've seen in just the first week of your campaign some of the ugly side of politics, a report surfacing this week that you attended a radical Islamic school in Indonesia. Reporting has since emerged that that school was no such thing. I wonder how you think your political enemies will try to capitalize on your background overall, including, quite frankly, the fact that your middle name is Hussein.

OBAMA: Well, you know, when I was in Illinois running for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama is not your typical name, and everybody questioned how voters would respond. And we ended up winning 70 percent of the vote.

From the January 24 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a question about your personal -- throwing your hat into the ring to be president. As you know, another cable channel ran with the story that you attended a madrassa in Indonesia. We sent a reporter to Indonesia, turns out it was a public school there. Curious to know where you think stories like that are coming from. Who is generating those?

OBAMA: Well, you know, it's very hard to say. I mean, keep in mind, when I was running for the United States Senate, after I won the Democratic nomination, there was an image of me superimposed over a picture of bin Laden. I think that people like to play with my name. I'm accustomed to that.