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Failing the Audition

CNSNews tries -- and fails -- to create an Obama controversy where there isn't one.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 2/5/2009

The ConWeb serves as a staging ground for right-wing news stories -- if it can make it there, it can move on to the next level of the conservative media machine. It's a role they like and were arguably created for -- indeed, Joseph Farah has touted how "hundreds of talk-show hosts" use WorldNetDaily as "an essential component of their show prep."

Sometimes the audition doesn't work out -- the story dies on the vine, despite multiple attempts to breathe life into it.

Such is the case with's recent attempt to create a controversy around President Obama where there isn't one.

It began with a Jan. 21 column by CNS editor-in-chief Terry Jeffrey claiming that Obama made a "declaration" in his inauguration speech that "We are a nation of … non-believers." Jeffrey also referred to "the 'non-believers' to whom Obama paid tribute in the heart of his speech."

But as the ellipses in the quote indicates, Jeffrey failed to offer to his readers the full context of Obama's words: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth." Obama, obviously, didn't "pay tribute" to "nonbelievers"; he merely pointed out the diversity of religious belief among Americans -- which also includes the right to not believe. Certainly Jeffrey wouldn't contradict that fundamental American belief, right?

Perhaps not. Over the next several days, CNS attempted to build a mountain out of this molehill.

A Jan. 22 article by Pete Winn sought the opinion of "conservative religious leaders" to Obama "mention[ing] “non-believers” in his inaugural speech," suggesting that it "signal a new role for secularists and atheists in the post-election world." Unlike his boss, Winn stuck to what Obama said, accurately stating that Obama merely "mentioned 'non-believers' in his inaugural speech"and putting Obama's full in-context statement at the top: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers."

The verdict? Those "conservative religious leaders" Winn interviewed weren't taking the bait. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention is quoted as saying, "It struck me as accurate. ... We are a nation of Christians and Jews, and Muslims and Hindus, and Baha’i and agnostics and atheists – although proportionally the vast majority of Americans claim some kind of affiliation with a Christian faith."

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Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, is quoted as saying: “I think he’s acknowledging the reality that America is a very diverse culture that is not defined by a doctrinal creed. ... I take no offense at that. The Second Vatican Council acknowledge the reality of unbelievers. In fact, Catholics, every Good Friday, have a whole litany for – to use the phrase that we use -- 'those who have not yet come to believe.'"

With the story fizzling out, CNS sought a new angle, seizing on Obama's repetition of the remark in an interview with the Arab TV network al-Arabiya.

Winn ran with that in a Jan. 29 article, digging up right-wing "expert on Islamism" Walid Phares, who claimed that "the typical word Arabic translators would use for the term 'non-believer' is 'kaffir' – a word which means 'atheist' or 'infidel.'" But Phares undercut his own argument by noting that the network did not use the word "kaffir" in its translation -- in fact, it was translated as "nonbeliever," which would seem to make the whole discussion moot. Phares then tried to recover by calling that decision "politically correct."

Winn failed to note Phares' background, which includes penning articles for right-wing publications like American Thinker and FrontPageMag, as well as serving as a defender of President Bush's actions to fight terrorism. Winn does note that Phares is a "senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies," but not that the group is also right-leaning.

Even with that bias, Winn still ended up quoting Ahmad Dallal, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, who said the TV network, in not translating "nonbeliever" as "infidel," was simply reflecting the “diversity” of opinions on religious belief currently found in the Arab world.

Seemingly undaunted despite being continually frustrated in trying to building this non-controversy into a story someone might be interested in, CNS took one more stab at beating this dead horse. In a Jan. 30 article, Penny Starr asked Sen. Joe Lieberman "how Obama’s reference to non-believers might be perceived by Islamic extremists who espouse the belief that killing non-believers is justified." Like pretty much everyone else CNS has pushed this story on, Lieberman didn't bite either:

I think what the president was saying is we are a very religious nation,” said Lieberman, who spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “We have Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and we have people who don’t believe in anything. They are part of us too.

“Maybe that’s what he was saying,” Lieberman said. “Not to the extremists, but to the people in the Muslim countries that may not be believers themselves, that we represent a totally inclusive form of government.”

Earth to Terry Jeffrey and CNS: This story is dead. Can you please stop wasting your (and your interviewees' and your readers') time by pretending it isn't?

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