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ABC has become the first major network to be duped into treating a right-wing smear of  Sen. Barack Obama as a non-political news story.

Despite his own prior reporting in an Aug 2000 piece--in which he deftly exposed the very same right-wing smear merchants behind the "Expose Obama" ad--ABC Senior National Correspondent Jake Tapper has just published a piece on that gives legitimacy to the blatant political agenda in the ad.

In order to succeed, right-wing political smears depend on mainstream journalists to treat their ad as factual, news stories to be evaluated on their merits, rather than smear campaigns that seek to defame political candidates and undermine political debate.

Seemingly aware of the shady politics behind the ad, Tapper's piece opens by telling readers that the new "ExposeObama" ad is the work of the right-wing smear merchant who made the infamous "Willie Horton" ad that smeared Michael Dukakis in 1988 and helped secure victory for President George H. W. Bush.  But this awareness seems to dissipate in the second half of the article, wherein Tapper then tells his readers that the ad is "factually correct."  He then goes on to explore the nuances of Sen. Obama's position on crime, the death penalty, gang violence, and African-American identity instead of laying out the full extent of the campaign to use racist propaganda to brand Sen. Obama as a potential violent threat to the American peopel.

Tapper concludes by suggesting that the error in the ad is simply that it leaves out some context in the broader discussion of death penalty legislation in Illinois and then stating:

It's clear that Republicans plan on painting gang bangers as "urban terrorists" and plan on connecting Obama to them. Clearly some of that will prey on racial fears.

Will it work? Will Obama's pushback be enough?


In reality, the question of Sen. Obama's positions on the death penalty are irrelevant to a discussion of this ad, which is merely the latest right-wing effort to frame the leading Democratic candidate for President as a supporter of "terrorism," used in this ad as a euphemism for urban crime committed by African-American gangs.

In prior smears, Obama has been falsely accused of being a covert Islamic terrorist and a supporter of domestic political violence against the federal government.

Journalist Ignores Own Prior Article on "Will Horton" Ad

In an article published on Aug 25, 2000, Tapper exposed at great length the purely political agenda of the "Willie Horton" ad made by Floyd Brown and his associates.  In examining that ad, which purported to be about then Gov. Michael Dukakis' position on certain criminal statutes, Tapper focused on the true purpose of the campaign:  to destroy the character of a Democratic candidate for president.    In addition, Tapper argued that the people who made the Horton ad were so politically shady that merely by associating with them could have brought negative political consequences for President George W. Bush.

Furthermore, in that 2000 piece, Tapper not only focused at length and described in depth the political motivations of the makers of the "Willie Horton" ad, but also presented a step-by step outline of the how the smear was launched.  This length passage from the  Salon article shows how effectively Tapper revealed the deceptive and racist agenda in the original ad from inception (emphasis mine):

To recap: "Weekend Passes" was produced by Carmen, and was broadcast in the fall of 1988. It featured the story of Horton, a convicted murderer granted a weekend prison furlough under then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis during which Horton escaped to Maryland and assaulted a man, Clifford Barnes, and repeatedly raped Barnes' wife, Angie. While then-Sen. Al Gore, who was a conservative Democrat and presidential candidate at the time, slammed Dukakis for his role in the Horton fiasco during the primaries, neither he, nor the original ad, mentioned Horton's race.

But almost immediately after it began running, as a Brown University study of the ad revealed, GOP consultant Larry McCarthy, who worked for National Security PAC, stealthily inserted a looming mug shot of Horton in a substitute version of the ad, revealing the convict to be -- ta da! -- an African-American. McCarthy said the photo of Horton used in the ad was "every suburban mother's greatest fear."

"Weekend Passes" meshed well with an official Bush campaign ad, "Revolving Doors" -- another spot critical of prison furlough programs. Produced by Bush media consultant Roger Ailes -- a former boss of McCarthy's -- with a helping hand from Atwater, the ad also portrayed Dukakis as soft on crime. But the official campaign ad never mentioned Horton's name; and, of the 19 "prisoners" making their way through the "revolving door" of the Massachusetts penal system, 16 were white, two black and one Latino.

Meanwhile, another independent, pro-Bush group, Committee for the Presidency, funded a $2 million speaking tour headlined by Clifford Barnes and Donna Fournier Cuomo, the sister of Horton's original murder victim, around the country. The Committee for the Presidency, formed by a Los Angeles GOP consultant with -- again -- no direct or provable ties to the Bush campaign, also broadcast two ads, one with Barnes claiming that "Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton changed our lives forever," the other with Cuomo saying that "Dukakis let killers out of prison ... Willie Horton stabbed my teenage brother 19 times." Though there was no evidence of any collusion between any of these independent groups and the Bush campaign, Atwater had told GOP officials, "By the time this election is over, Willie Horton will be a household name."

They succeeded in that goal, though the Horton ad soon became notorious for, in the words of Annenberg School of Communications Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson, creating "a black face for crime."


One can say, without reservation, that Tapper's above description of the "Willie Horton" smear ad--despite having been written 12 years after the fact--sets a very high standard for political journalism.  Not only does it lay out in plain sight the propaganda technique behind Floyd Brown's smear, but it states clearly that their goal was to create "a black face for crime" in order to scare white voters into not voting for Dukakis--and that it succeeded.

Fast forward eight years.

Another ad emerges, on virtually the same theme, made by the same smear merchant.

Tapper--now reporting for ABC news--treats it, arguably, with playful amusement. "Will it work? Will Obama's pushback be enough?" The ABC reporter--who so recently treated the smear campaign of this exact person as a political scourge in our political system, now treats the man's latest work as political entertainment.

What is missing from Tapper's ABC piece on the "Expose Obama" ad is precisely what made his Salon piece on "Will ieHorton" so powerful:  a sustained focus on the ad without being duped into evaluating the ad's policy claims on their merits.  Tapper's 2000 piece barely touched on Dukakis' positions, focusing almost entirely on the political danger the makers of the ad posed to the Presidential campaign of George W. Bush just by being associated with it. The story, Tapper explains, is not Dukakis position on crime, but the men who made an ad designed to whip up racist hatred to win an election.

Perhaps ABC has an article in the works in which they investigate the political candidates now benefiting from the racist, violent propaganda of Floyd Brown and his associates? One wonders.

For now, however, ABC has shown its willingness to reinforce the violent framing of the likes of Floyd Brown, rather than do their part to keep Floyd Brown's work from finding its way, yet again, to the nerve center of American politics.

For Jake Tapper's part, his reporting to date on the "Expose Obama" ad has fallen well short of the standard he once set for reporting on this subject for his former employer,  

Violent Rhetoric Watch
Previous posts of this DailyKos series:

  1. Violent Rhetoric Watch: "Obama Pals Around With Terrorists" (Coulter)
  2. Violent Rhetoric Watch: "Willie Horton" Ad Launched on Obama
  3. Violent Rhetoric Watch: Pundits Imply Obama Supports Terrorism
  4. Violent Rhetoric Watch: Framing Obama as Violent - Et Tu, ABC?
  5. Violent Rhetoric Watch - O'Reilly's 'Soros' Smear of Obama
  6. Violent Rhetoric Watch - Buchanan's 'Black Hustler' Slur
  7. Violent Rhetoric Watch: Help Wanted

Related Diaries:

Additional Resource:
Outright Barbarous by Jeffrey Feldman, serves as a companion to VRW, providing background information, context, and analysis for the most prominent right-wing pundits who consistently undermine American politics with violent language.

Help Wanted:
VRW needs your help!  To join the invite-only Google group for this project and help in the effort to push back against right-wing pundits,  send an email to vrw (at) frameshopisopen dot com (include your dkos handle and some quick way for me to verify that you are not a right-winger).  

Originally posted to Jeffrey Feldman on Fri Apr 25, 2008 at 11:52 AM PDT.

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