MSNBC gave free airtime to new RNC attack ad Republican William Cohen called "overtly racist"


MSNBC provided free air time for a new Republican National Committee (RNC) ad attacking Tennessee Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. that critics, including an NAACP spokesman and former Republican Sen. William Cohen, have called racist.

During its October 24 midterm election special Decision 2006: Battleground America, MSNBC provided free air time for a new Republican National Committee (RNC) ad attacking Tennessee Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. The ad, which was released October 20, features a scantily clad white woman, posing as someone who "met" Ford "at the Playboy party" -- a reference to a report that Ford once attended a party hosted by Playboy magazine -- who invites Ford, an African-American, to "call" her. As the Los Angeles Times noted, "Critics said the ad ... plays on fears of interracial relationships to scare some white voters in rural Tennessee." Former Republican senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, on the October 23 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, called the ad "overtly racist," and NAACP Washington Bureau chairman Hilary O. Shelton also has denounced the advertisement. Yet during Battleground America, MSNBC gave the ad prominent airtime throughout the day, despite MSNBC host Chris Matthews's statement that "we probably shouldn't be showing it." Further, as the weblog Talking Points Memo noted, while interviewing RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, NBC host Tim Russert failed to challenge Mehlman's assertion that he doesn't "have the authority" to stop running the ad.

During the special, MSNBC aired the ad in its entirety at least four different times. By contrast, MSNBC aired Ford's response to the personal attacks on him only twice throughout the day and never in its entirety. Matthews repeatedly acknowledged giving the ad "free" air time, at one point stating "we probably shouldn't be showing it, but let's take a look and you can judge for yourself, everybody who's watching right now." Political analyst Chuck Todd dismissed criticism of the racial undertones of the advertisement, stating to Matthews: "I think there are some racial overtones here. But this race has always been about -- this is the South, OK? Race is always an issue in the South."

Russert challenged Mehlman repeatedly on the racial aspects of the ad, asserting that the ad "us[ed] race as a wedge issue." Russert asked Melman such questions as, "Will you take that ad down?" and why "the whole idea of having a blond white woman winking at a black congressman, the notion of interracial sex is not, in your mind, racist?" But Russert failed to challenge Mehlman's repeated assertions that he "do[esn't] have the authority to take it [the ad] down" because it is being produced by an "independent expenditure." The advertisement is paid for by the RNC and the ad concludes with an announcement that "the Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertisement." Russert did not ask who, if Mehlman does not have the authority, would be able to stop running the advertisement, since Ford's Republican opponent, Bob Corker, has called for the ad to be taken off the air.

According to The American Prospect's Greg Sargent, "law expert David Donnelly of the nonpartisan Public Campaign Action Fund ... says that Mehlman's argument is 'weak.' " While Mehlman appears "right in the narrowest legal sense" that the "independent expenditure" group which created the ad "decides on ad content and placement independently," as head of the RNC, Mehlman appears to be responsible for the hiring and firing of the individual running the "independent expenditure" organization.

Also, during the October 24 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, White House press secretary Tony Snow claimed that if Corker wanted the ad pulled, "he can get it pulled."

By contrast, during the October 24 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer extensively questioned Corker about both the content of the ad and who has the authority to pull the ad. Blitzer stated to Corker, "I know this is not your ad, but if you really, really wanted to get it lifted you probably could"; Corker denied this was true. Continuing, Blitzer asked: "Have you called Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican Party, and asked him to pull it?" Corker replied that "[o]ur campaign officials have talked to people at very high levels there and asked that this come down. I don't know who specifically has talked to who." Noting that Corker did not answer whether he had directly contacted Mehlman, Blitzer followed up: "Have you made a call to the RNC; have you made a call to the White House and told Republicans, 'You know what, I think this is hurting the state of Tennessee, hurting this debate, and I would like to see it go away'?" Corker again hedged on whether he has made any direct contact with any Republican officials to request the ad be removed from the air.

As Media Matters for America has previously noted, MSNBC and other cable news outlets also essentially gave another RNC ad, titled "Stakes," that features clips of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists making threats against the United States, free airtime to engage in fearmongering.

From the October 24 edition of MSNBC's special Battleground America:

JOE SCARBOROUGH (MSNBC host): You know, Tennessee is a must-win state for the Democrats if they want to reclaim the Senate. And that's where Democratic Congressman Harold Ford is virtually neck-and-neck with Republican candidate Bob Corker. There's a new, tough ad out. It's being run by the RNC, and it's causing a stir.

[video clip of ad]

SCARBOROUGH: Even the Republican candidate says that this ad should be taken down. For more on that and the race we turn to MSNBC's chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell. She's in Knoxville right now. Norah, I, like you, I've known Harold Ford for quite some time, and when I heard that he was going to run for senator in the state of Tennessee, I was thinking it was a mistake. And yet, here we are a few weeks out, and he's in a dead heat. What's going on in Tennessee?

O'DONNELL: Well, as you know, Congressman Harold Ford is a rising star in the Democratic Party, and he has put on a very strong challenge here in the state of Tennessee. That latest poll shows him down by two points to the Republican candidate, and that ad you just showed, Joe, shows how personal and how nasty this Senate race has gotten. In fact, Harold Ford is so angry about it, he's confronted the Republican about it. He's even got his own television ad out, responding, saying, "Bob Corker has been going personal. ... If I had a dog, he'd probably kick him too." So, that's how tough it is here in Tennessee. But it's also a sign, too; given how the Republicans are running that ad, Republicans know they have to win here in Tennessee if they hope to hold the Senate.


O'DONNELL: And Joe, you know, it's interesting, we talked about how nasty and personal this race has become. I've learned something very interesting, because the Republican candidate, Bob Corker, is calling for that Playboy ad to be pulled, but the RNC says they don't have any control over it because what the RNC is doing this election cycle is they have put tens of millions of dollars into an independent expenditure unit. There's been a firewall between the RNC and that independent expenditure unit. So that independent expenditure unit is responsible for that ad, and what I'm told is that it will not be pulled, so it will still be running until Election Day. Joe?


BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): Our own Norah O'Donnell is in Knoxville for us today, and Norah, two things. Number one, when one candidate storms the press conference of another, and number two, when an ad comes out like the ad that came out that I guess I first saw Saturday afternoon, that's all the sign you need this has turned personal and turned nasty.

O'DONNELL: That's exactly right, Brian, and the reason is because this race is so important and has such national significance. Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia -- those are the three seats the Democrats would have to win, two of the three, in order to retake back the Senate. The Republicans know they have got to hold on to Tennessee. If they lose here in Tennessee, they're likely going to lose the Senate. So this race, in the final two weeks, has turned especially nasty, especially personal. I want to show you some of the ads that are playing here in the state of Tennessee to give you a flavor. You mentioned that one ad which includes -- talk about Playboy parties and has scantilay clad women in the ad, and then show you Congressman Harold Ford's response. Take a listen.


O'DONNELL: It is a very interesting set of ads, and, of course, the reason Congressman Harold Ford has made this such a race here in the state -- remember, there hasn't been a Democrat elected in Tennessee since 1988 when Al Gore was elected senator. And, even Al Gore, remember, lost this state in the 2000 election, his own home state.


O'DONNELL: So he's been trying to run to the right of his Republican opponent. That's why the Republican National Committee is airing that ad essentially questioning the values, the morals of Congressman Harold Ford. One interesting thing, Brian, I've learned. I've covered Senate races for 10 years; what is so noteworthy about this year's elections is this is the first time that the Republican National Committee or the Democratic National Committee in the midterms is using an independent expenditure unit. So, that Playboy ad that we showed you, that even the Republican in this state says is a nasty ad, they can run that because the RNC is sending tens of millions to an independent expenditure unit party -- with Republican money. They run that ad, and neither the committees nor the campaigns can then tell them to pull down the ad once it is on the air. So, we're told by sources that it will run its course, which could mean through Election Day, and have an effect on this race, which is very tight. Brian?


RUSSERT: Ken Mehlman, you're the chairman of the Republican National Committee. I want to show you an ad that your organization has on the air in the Tennessee Senate race between Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford. Let's watch.


RUSSERT: Ken Mehlman, the Republican candidate in Tennessee has asked that you take that ad off the air, that it is over the top. Former Republican Senator William Cohen says [of] it, quote, "overt racist appeal." Will you take that ad down?

MEHLMAN: Tim, I don't have the authority to take it down or put it up. It is what's called an independent expenditure. The way that process works under the campaign reform laws is I write a check to an independent individual, and that person is responsible for spending money in certain states. Tennessee is one of them. I'll tell you this, though. After the comments by Mr. Corker and by former Senator Cohen, I looked at the ad. I don't agree with that characterization of it. But it is not an ad that I have authority over. I saw it for the first time the same time they did.

RUSSERT: As Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP, has criticized this ad, and he said, Ken Mehlman, that you went down to the NAACP in July of 2005 and apologized for the "Southern strategy" of Republican candidates under Richard Nixon and using race as a wedge issue, and that -- this ad does exactly that.

MEHLMAN: I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Shelton. I don't believe that ad does that. I will tell you this. I'm very proud of that speech I made. I think there is nothing more repugnant in our society than people who try to divide Americans along racial lines. And, I would denounce any ad that I felt did. I happen not to believe that it does. But as I said before, I don't have the authority, the legal authority to take that ad down. It's an independent expenditure. I looked at it and I just disagree with what Mr. Shelton said about it.

RUSSERT: Well, it is not only Mr. Shelton. Former Senator Cohen, Vanderbilt professor John Green said it makes the Willie Horton ad look tame, that it's filled with racial polarization.

MEHLMAN: Yeah, I don't -- I just don't agree with that at all. I showed to it a number of people when the complaints came out about it after it was put up. And African-American folks, Hispanic folks and myself, we all looked at it. All of us are very sensitive to that, and we did not have that same reaction to it. So I completely disagree about it.

RUSSERT: The whole idea -- the whole idea of having a blond white woman winking at a black congressman, the notion of interracial sex is not, in your mind, racist?

MEHLMAN: I think that that ad talks about a number of people on the street talking about things that Mr. Ford allegedly has either done or proposedly has for the future. I think it's a fair ad. As I said, we didn't have anything to do with creating it. I just think that those criticisms of it are wrong.

RUSSERT: And so the NAACP Washington director, an organization that you tried to court, is denouncing the ad, and it doesn't seem to faze you.

MEHLMAN: Well, the Washington director of the NAACP and I happen to disagree about this. I was proud of that speech I made. I took some heat for saying it. It was the right thing to say. I'm proud of the fact that our party under this president and under my leadership has made an incredibly aggressive effort to reach out to African-Americans. I'm proud of the increased number of African-Americans are running. I believe there is nothing more important we can do than bring people together. I just happen to disagree about that, the characterization of this ad, and more importantly, there is nothing I can do about it because it not an ad over which I have authority or control. This is an independent expenditure.


RUSSERT: And we are back. Joining me now, Mark Leibovich of The New York Times, Eugene Robinson, op-ed columnist for The Washington Post. Welcome. How big of an issue, Eugene Robinson, do you think this Harold Ford issue is? You just heard me talk to the chairman of the Republican committee who's paying for the ad. Several people said it had racial overtones; he says absolutely not. Mr. Mehlman did go to the NAACP last July and say, "I want to reach out, I apologize for the 'Southern strategy' in the past, the Republican Party." Is this an issue?

ROBINSON: It -- I think it has racial overtones when Isee it. I mean, it's this equation of, you know, the black male candidate with sexuality in the South. You know, it's designed, I think, to evoke a certain reaction among white voters. Now, it's not Willie Horton, it's not what was done to Harvey Gantt. It's not the worst I've ever seen; in fact, it's an amusing ad. Does it cross the line? In my opinion, it probably does. It will be interesting to see how voters react to it and whether they are repelled by it or actually, you know, if it influences the race. I'm not sure. [ad plays in background]


MATTHEWS: Let me get right to Chuck Todd. That Tennessee race, we're going to be talking about that with Norah O'Donnell, who's out there in Knoxville right now, but that ad I've been watching all afternoon, and we probably shouldn't be showing it, but let's take a look and you judge for yourself, everybody who's watching right now. What do you think of the ethnic aspect of this ad?


MATTHEWS: Chuck Todd, who's that ad aimed at?

TODD: Base Republican voters. I think --

MATTHEWS: White guys?

TODD: Well, yeah. But base Republican voters. Corker has never unified the Republican base down there. He had a rough primary. He never -- he's not a believable conservative. He's more like a [Sen.] Lamar Alexander [R-TN], [former Sen.] Fred Thompson [R-TN], sort of -- one of those business Republicans. And he wasn't a base social conservative Republican. It's not about swing voters. You know, anybody that --

MATTHEWS: You're being clever. You're using the word "base Republican voters." What do you mean by that?

TODD: I mean, I mean, probably white males. I think rural white men --

MATTHEWS: I'm just looking at numbers here. Look at the numbers here.

TODD: It's not just the --you talk about white --

MATTHEWS: Men -- Corker's leading among men, white men, 48-42. Women, a slight edge for Ford. I'm not sure women would be as offended by that ad as white men who would say, "Look there's this gorgeous, sexy white woman there making a date on her own volition with this guy who's African-American." That, to me, is incendiary.

TODD: Look --

MATTHEWS: Well, maybe I'm wrong. Is it incendiary? Let me make it a question.

TODD: I think there are some racial overtones here. But this race has always been about -- this is the South, OK? Race is always an issue in the South. And if you're looking at a demographic area, or a geographic area, this is about white, conservative Democrats on the western part of the state who have never liked [former Rep. Harold] Ford Senior [D-TN] and have wanted to try to separate Junior from Senior, and maybe this is the RNC's way of trying to trying to make this happen.


MATTHEWS: Anyway, around the country we're examining the hot races ahead of these midterm elections; two weeks from today, they're going to be held. Let's go down to Tennessee, where in the Senate race, the Democratic Representative Harold Ford Jr. is in a tight race with Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga. The latest poll shows here a pretty dead-heat race. MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell is now joining us from Knoxville, a great town to be from. Norah, we were talking earlier, you and I were on the phone about this TV advertisement. Why don't we take a look at it one more free time, we'll all take a look at this ad. It's been put out by an independent group on behalf of the Republican candidate. But it is an independent group. Let's watch. Oh, we don't have it. OK. Well, we saw the ad earlier; we'll see it again. Norah, I'm told that if the Republican chairman were to make a statement on television for the independent group to remove it and to furthermore say if you don't remove it you can forget about getting more money from the RNC, that that would work, that they'd have to take it off the air?

O'DONNELL: Well, that's exactly right, Chris. Let's set the table here because this is a very important race here in Tennessee. If Republicans want to maintain the majority in the Senate, they're going to have to win here in Tennessee. Our latest poll shows, of course, that the Republican is up two percentage points. But you mentioned that this race has turned personal, it has turned nasty. There are now questions about whether the Republican National Committee is once again employing the "Southern strategy" with a new ad being run out of their independent expenditure unit, which essentially raises questions about whether Congressman Harold Ford has visited Playboy parties. Here's a part of that ad from the RNC, and also the new response by Congressman Harold Ford in a TV ad.


O'DONNELL: Well, there you see, Chris, part of what's going on in the airwaves here in Tennessee. But you asked specifically about that Republican National Committee ad, and what is so different about this year's midterms is that the Republican National Committee, for the first time ever, is using money to spend independent expenditures on Senate races, in part because they've not been happy with what the national Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has been doing, so they have been doing this particular ad. Now, the Republican candidate here, Bob Corker, has asked for this ad to be pulled. I spoke with him just yesterday here in Chattanooga, and here's what he had to say about the ad.

[begin video clip]

CORKER: I think it's distasteful, and I think it ought to come down. It doesn't reflect well on our campaign. We have nothing whatsoever to do with it, but it needs to come down.

O'DONNELL: Well, don't you find yourself, then, in a convenient position where you can call for it to come down --

CORKER: No, because I think it --

O'DONNELL: -- but it'll still be on the air, and it may benefit to some degree?

CORKER: I don't think it benefits at all. I really don't. I think ads like that, that are tacky in nature, take away from us. And so, I want it down. It doesn't help us at all.

[end video clip]

O'DONNELL: So you hear there the Republican candidate, Bob Corker, calling for this ad to be pulled down. The RNC, interestingly enough, today is defending the content in that ad, saying there's nothing inaccurate about it. In fact, one RNC official saying to me if Congressman Harold Ford doesn't like it, that's his problem. This ad is expected to run its course, which could mean it's on the air up until November 7. The key thing with this ad is it raises questions about Congressman Harold Ford's values. And it also, some believe, it has a racial undertone to it because it includes white Payboy bunnies in it, if you will, and Congressman Harold Ford is black. And so some are speculating that the Republican Party is once again employing the "Southern strategy," even though Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman has said his party would not do that. Chris?

MATTHEWS: Well, Norah, it sounds like Bob Corker, the Republican candidate, agrees, and by the way, Ken Mehlman has refused to even ask for it to be taken down. He's defending it. And, by the way, I can only ask viewers to make their own judgments. If you don't think that little flirtatious "I'll call you later" line isn't going to inflame a lot of white sensitivities about a black senator, I don't think you've been paying attention to American history. Anyway, thank you, Norah O'Donnell, down in Knoxville. We'll be back, by the way -- Norah's gonna be back at 5 Eastern on Hardball again with us, with Congressman Ford to join us. We're back with Chuck Todd. Chuck, what's your assessment?

TODD: Look, I think Tennessee, in an odd way, is not part of the national climate. It is a race about Harold Ford, and it is a race about whether --

MATTHEWS: About race, too.

TODD: And it's about race. And it's a, well -- but more importantly, it's about whether you believe you're voting for Junior or you believe you're voting for Ford [Senior]. I mean, this is also about that Ford family machine, they kind of want to remind people of that, too, in Tennessee --

MATTHEWS: But isn't there somebody down there saying that he's a member of the [Congressional] Black Caucus, raising that issue?

TODD: It was that radio ad; that one was done by a way-out-of-bounds kind of group. It didn't get a lot of --

MATTHEWS: But still, it stirred the water up.

TODD: It's all -- look, this is the South. Anybody I -- anybody who has grown up or spent time in the South knows race is everything in the South, so of course, race was going to become a factor. Look, Harold's either going to win this race by five points or lose it by five points. It's not going to be a close race. Either they're going to buy into the fact that Harold is not his father or not going to buy into that fact.

From the October 24 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: All right. I know this is not your ad, but if you really, really wanted to get it lifted, you probably could.

CORKER: No, that's not true. We actually have been on national TV as we are now. We've asked senators to call. These are independent expenditure groups. We want it down. We do not believe that it -- certainly does not represent our campaign. We have nothing to do with it. We believe that it's tacky and has no place in this race.

BLITZER: Is it -- you say it's tacky, but is it racist?

CORKER: I, you know, it's tacky and certainly has no place in this race.

BLITZER: But do you see why some are suggesting, including former Republican senator, former Defense Secretary William Cohen here in The Situation Room yesterday, that it's certainly almost like playing the race card?

CORKER: Well, again, I have seen the ad one time on a computer. I've never even seen it on television. I don't like it. I've asked for it to come down. I don't know what else we can do. I know many people are calling the RNC on our behalf to see what can be done to get it down, but we have nothing to do with it.

I'm out campaigning all across the state of Tennessee, giving my message of making sure that we're safe and secure, making sure that we leave within our means, making sure we pursue economic growth and preserve those great traditions that have made our state and country great. And I feel nothing but positive energy. Really, I don't hear anything about this except from the media. Obviously, we've demanded that it come down, but we're out campaigning --

BLITZER: Have you --

CORKER: -- tremendous positive energy.

BLITZER: Mr. Corker, excuse me for interrupting. Have you called Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican Party, and asked him to pull it?

CORKER: Our campaign officials have talked to people at very high levels there and asked that this come down. I don't know who specifically has talked to who, but I know it began --

BLITZER: What about you --

CORKER: -- the very first day they --

BLITZER: -- have you made a call to the RNC? Have you made a call to the White House --

CORKER: They are -- they are --

BLITZER: -- and told Republicans, "You know what, I think this is hurting the state of Tennessee, hurting this debate, and I would like to see it go away"?

CORKER: Everybody at the RNC from the top down knows that I want this down. There are senators who are my friends, some of which are inside, that are making calls that do the same. Everyone knows that we want it down. And look, I'm out here campaigning. We have nothing whatsoever to do with the ad.

As a matter of fact, I wish that my opponent would join me in asking that the ads that are being run by the DNC would come down. Both of them have no place in this race. And we are very proud of the things that we ourselves are doing. The momentum shift in this race has been substantial over the last two or three weeks. We've built a lead, and we're going to win this race if we just keep doing what we're doing on the ground. We do not need that type of activity in our race.

From the October 24 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. I'm just asking you to comment from the White House. We've asked the -- and the RNC is saying -- they were on our network today. They said Ken Mehlman said he's fine with the ad. Corker, the Republican candidate in that state -- I don't know whether it's a good-cop, bad-cop thing going here -- he's condemning the ad. He wants it pulled.

SNOW: Well, then, he can get it pulled. That ought to take care of it.

MATTHEWS: But that's not taking care of it. It's still running.

SNOW: Well, again, I'd like -- I have no control over whether these things run. The point I'm making is, duke it out over the issues. We think we're going to win.

Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, Norah O'Donnell
The Situation Room
Propaganda/Noise Machine, 2006 Elections
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