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Anti-Obama Frenzy: The Case of Ronald Kessler

The Newsmax writer peddles the inflammatory statements by Barack Obama's pastor while he downplays or hides Obama's criticism of them.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 3/27/2008

Ronald Kessler despises Barack Obama.

In a Feb. 29 Newsmax video, Kessler told host Ashley Martella: "I just don't think people want a person with a radical agenda in the White House. I think the more they learn about Obama, the more they're going to be scared of taking a chance on someone with his ultra-liberal record." (In fact, Kessler's entire appearance is little more than a regurgitation of conservative talking points, despite being introduced by Martella as "one of America's premier journalists.")

In pretty much every other news organization, someone with such a demonstrated bias toward a subject would not be allowed to cover that subject. But Newsmax is part of the ConWeb, and like WorldNetDaily's Aaron Klein, who has expressed a similar hatred toward Obama, Kessler gets free rein to attack.

And attack he does. Kessler has proven himself to be obsessed with attacking -- and distorting -- Obama. For instance, in a a Dec. 31, 2007, column, Kessler claimed that "Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama last August voted against revising the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow NSA to continue to monitor calls by foreign terrorists without a warrant even if all parties are situated overseas" -- a repeat of a claim Kessler made two weeks earlier. In fact, as the New York Times reported, Clinton, Obama, and other Democrats who opposed the bill did not do so because they opposed revising FISA in the manner Kessler wanted; rather, the main point of contention was court oversight of the warrantless wiretapping program. Democrats wanted meaningful court oversight; Republicans didn't. Kessler didn't mention the court oversight controversy in either article.

Shortly afterward, Kessler started to devote particular attention to Obama's church, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, and its retired pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

A Jan. 7 article by Kessler attacked Obama's "racist church" because it claims to be "unashamedly black and unapologetically Christian" with a “non-negotiable commitment to Africa” and a "Black Value System." But Kessler ignored that Wright has stated that the church's philosophy does not "assume superiority nor does it assume separatism."

Kessler claimed by way of comparison: "Imagine if Mitt Romney’s church proclaimed on its website that it is 'unashamedly white.' The media would pounce, and Romney’s presidential candidacy would be over." He doesn't mention that the Mormon church has arguably been "unabashedly white" for a good part of its existence, with a history of anti-black racism.

As that claim suggests, Kessler was still in full Romney-fluffing mode at the time. In a Dec. 26 column, Kessler complained that nobody was buying his Romney puffery, adding that, unlike certain other Republican candidates, Romney hasn't "appointed a close friend as police chief who has since been indicted for dealings involving figures with ties to the Mafia," "has not been revealed to have a lazy streak," has not "commuted or pardoned 1,033 criminals, including 12 murderers" or "has not been found to have a vicious, out–of-control temper."

When Romney finished behind Mike Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses, Kessler claimed that Huckabee's win was a "fluke" and that Romney "ran into a perfect storm arrayed against his candidacy." After Romney lost in South Carolina, Kessler touted Romney's "new image" as a more expressive candidate, spinning away criticism of his previous image of being "cold, plastic, or just too perfect" was claiming that "Romney may have thought it was pandering to show too much emotion." Kessler tried desperately to counter the rise of John McCain, using a Feb. 3 column to bash him as a flip-flopper with a bad temper who was "largely a creation of the media" and "as liberal as a Democrat on many key domestic issues," ultimately reduced to saying, "While Romney changed some of his positions while he was Massachusetts governor or later, he has changed his position on fewer issues than did McCain."

Five days later, though -- when McCain's lead because unassailable and Romney had dropped out -- Kessler changed his tune, praising McCain for making "common cause with conservatives" at a big conservative confab, adding that "McCain’s honest approach, coupled with the specter of what would happen if a Democrat became president, were enough to convince the leaders I talked with at CPAC’s VIP reception and elsewhere to support McCain." And Kessler too, it would seem.

After a column peddling anonymous smears of Hillary Clinton, Kessler returned to of Obama:

  • In a Feb. 21 column, Kessler snapped: "The real Barack Obama is starting to emerge, and for those of us who are grateful to America for everything it represents, it is not a pretty sight."
  • A Feb. 27 column by Ronald Kessler claimed Obama "co-sponsored a Senate bill to spend at least $845 billion a year to fight global poverty." In fact, the bill in question -- which Accuracy in Media's Cliff Kincaid had falsely claimed "commit[s] the U.S. to spending 0.7 percent of gross national product on foreign aid" -- contains no spending requirement or tax. And Kessler couldn't even get the smear right: Kincaid's false claim asserted that the $845 billion the bill purportedly commits the U.S. to is over 13 years, not per year as Kessler claimed. Kessler also threw in the usual misleading conservative distortions of Obama, proclaiming, "Like a 6-year-old kid who wants to be friends with everyone on the block, Obama has said he would offer prompt negotiations with anti-American despots." 

Kessler then focused closer on Obama's relationship with Wright. In a March 5 column, Kessler claimed that Obama "dissemble[d]" in his denunciation of Louis Farrakhan, falsely suggesting that the only statements Obama has made on the issue of Farrakhan was one in which Obama said the decision by a magazine published by the church he attends to honor Farrakhan was "is not a decision with which I agree" and that it "showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community." But Obama has also said that he has been a "consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan, nobody challenges that" -- something Kessler didn't note.

Nowhere does Kessler mention that McCain had embraced the endorsement -- with McCain appearing on stage accepting the nomination -- of John Hagee, an evangelist who has made numerous derogatory remarks about Catholics, gays and women that would seem to call out to be denounced in the same manner that Obama has denounced Farrakhan.

Similarly, in a March 14 Wall Street Journal op-ed -- a retooled version of his March 6 Newsmax column -- Kessler selectively quoted a New York Times article to omit Obama's previous criticism of Wright's remarks.

Kessler tried to ramp things up further in a March 16 column, asserting that -- citing Newsmax correspondent Jim Davis as a source from a article he wrote last August -- contrary to Obama's suggestion that Wright "had not used such derogatory language in any of the church services Obama attended over the past two decades," Obama "was present in the South Side Chicago church on July 22 last year," when, according to Kessler, Wright referred to the "United States of White America" and that the "illegal war" in Iraq was "based on Bush’s lies" and is being "fought for oil money."

But there was a problem: As The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder pointed out when New York Times columnist William Kristol repeated the claim, Obama spent the day campaigning in Miami.

This resulted in a strangely passive-aggressive "clarification" being appended to Kessler's article:

Clarification: The Obama campaign has told members of the press that Senator Obama was not in church on the day cited, July 22, because he had a speech he gave in Miami at 1:30 PM. Our writer, Jim Davis, says he attended several services at Senator Obama's church during the month of July, including July 22. The church holds services three times every Sunday at 7:30 and 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Central time. While both the early morning and evening service allowed Sen. Obama to attend the service and still give a speech in Miami, Mr. Davis stands by his story that during one of the services he attended during the month of July, Senator Obama was present and sat through the sermon given by Rev. Wright as described in the story. Mr. Davis said Secret Service were also present in the church during Senator Obama's attendance. Mr. Davis' story was first published on Newsmax on August 9, 2007. Shortly before publication, Mr. Davis contacted the press office of Sen. Obama several times for comment about the Senator's attendance and Rev. Wright's comments during his sermon. The Senator's office declined to comment.

While the "clarification" made a point of detailing the church's service times that would have purportedly "allowed Sen. Obama to attend the service and still give a speech in Miami," nowhere did Davis or Newsmax state exactly which service Obama is purported to have attended that day, nor was it made clear whether Wright gave a sermon (or the same sermon) at all three services. Newsmax then blamed Obama's office for not returning calls to Davis before publication of his 2007 article.

In the meantime, Kristol retracted the claim based on Kessler's column:

In this column, I cite a report that Sen. Obama had attended services at Trinity Church on July 22, 2007. The Obama camapaign has provided information showing that Sen. Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.

Newsmax never told its readers that Kristol retracted the claim it was asserting as true.

Meanwhile, Jim Davis, the writer of the original Newsmax article making the claim, was defending himself over at the right-wing site Free Republic, where he posts under the name Philo1962. He swore the story was accurate, even though his notes for his story have long since been thrown away and he can't verify what he wrote -- then asserting without evidence that "there has been plenty of time to doctor the videos and the websites." Later, Davis claimed that Obama attended an early-morning service before leaving for a speech in Miami, concluding: "You have every right to ask these questions. Now I’ve answered them. If that isn’t enough, take a hike."

Then, things got even stranger: As TPM Media's Greg Sargent noted, Kessler was actively scrubbing references to the controversy off his Wikipedia page, claiming the "negative material" was "from a left-wing perspective."

After Obama gave a speech responding to the controversy, Kessler unsurprisingly gave it a thumbs-down:

In his eloquent speech in Philadelphia, Obama sought to distance himself from that record while retaining support from blacks who — as my friend Fox News commentator Juan Williams puts it — revel in looking at themselves as victims.

As in the past, Obama carefully parsed his words. Without specifically saying he heard these extremist comments, Obama acknowledged hearing comments by his longtime minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., that “could be considered controversial.”

“Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views?” Obama asked. “Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

In making that remark, Obama maligned the vast majority of clergymen who would never utter the kind of anti-American hatred that Wright spews forth on a regular basis.


Obama went on to malign the many black churches that would never condone featuring such hatred in their services.

Nowhere does Kessler address the conflicting claims over whether Obama attended the sermon Kessler claimed he attended.

Finally, in a largely self-serving March 20 column, Ronald Kessler touted his prescience in attacking Barack Obama's pastor before it was cool. In it, he cites a March 18 Washington Post column by Richard Cohen calling Kessler a "(reputable) anti-Obama columnist."

Really? With such an obvious anti-Obama bias -- to the point of distorting the truth -- Kessler, by definition, cannot be reputable.

Kessler even managed to find a way to work some of his trademark Bush administration fluffing into his attacks on Obama: by claiming in his March 26 column that Condoleezza Rice suffered more racism than Wright:

Yet while Wright, 66, no doubt had brushes with discrimination growing up in Philadelphia, it was nothing compared with what Condoleezza Rice faced — or, for that matter, what six million Jews who were slaughtered by Adolf Hitler faced.

In contrast to Wright, who attended an integrated school, Rice grew up in segregated Birmingham, Ala. Denise McNair, one of Rice’s friends and classmates, was one of the four girls who was killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Rice's Unbridled Courage

Rice had to sit at the back of buses. When more whites got on, the driver would move a “Colored” sign farther back in the bus, making less room for blacks. Rice could not eat at the same restaurants as whites unless the restaurant had a separate room with a separate entrance for blacks.

She was not allowed to use the same drinking fountains or public restrooms as whites.

At the base of all of this, remember, is Kessler's hatred for Obama. He clearly put it on display yet again when he concluded his March 20 column by sneering, "Now that the truth is out, the idea that Obama could ever be elected president is a joke."

That's exactly what Kessler wants to achieve. Let's not pretend that this is what a "reputable" journalist does.

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