Carson's media performance raises questions

Does Ben Carson really believe the things he says about homosexuality?

On Tuesday, it was one step forward for Ben Carson as he announced an exploratory committee to run for president.

But Wednesday, it was two or more steps back for the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, as he called homosexuality a choice on CNN during an interview with "New Day" host Chris Cuomo.

Carson's performance on radio, TV and social media during a 12-hour period Wednesday — starting at CNN and ending with an apology on his Facebook page — was so contradictory that it raised new and serious questions about whether he has the media skills to be anything but an uber-fringe candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

"The spin on him, the sell, the narrative, is that he is not a politician; he is unpolished in a way that suggests purity, truth, sincerity," Cuomo said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun the day after his widely discussed conversation with Carson.

"I don't know if that is just spin, because, sure, he's not a politician, but what his people say is the 'unvarnished truth,' that works two ways," he added. "Sometimes it's good to have a lot of thought about what you believe before you just say it, especially if you want to be a leader."

That's the core of the problem with Carson's media image, analysts say: His comments in TV interviews, particularly when asked about homosexuality, are utterly at odds with his image as an esteemed and thoughtful person of science at Johns Hopkins.

Worse, after he makes such comments and the blowback arrives, he tries to walk them back with an apology not for the message itself but for his choice of words. It leaves some wondering whether he is cynically trying to appeal to a far-right audience likely to show up in several early caucuses and primaries, or he really believes the harsh and unscientific statements he's made.

That's what happened Wednesday on CNN, shredding any bump he might have gained from Tuesday's announcement.

When Cuomo asked Carson if he thought homosexuality was a choice, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon said "absolutely."

His evidence for that?

"A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight — and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question," he said to Cuomo.

The veteran newsman and interviewer said in the day-after interview with The Sun that he was "caught a little flat-footed by the prison comment," and, in retrospect, perhaps didn't pursue it as hard as he might have.

"But I didn't want to give any energy to something that absurd," Cuomo explained.

The 63-year-old Carson then went on Sean Hannity's radio show Wednesday afternoon and said he was through talking about homosexuality.

"I simply have decided I'm not going to really talk about that issue anymore because every time I'm gaining momentum, the political press says, 'Let's talk about gay rights.' And I'm just not going to fall for that anymore," Carson said.

But the topic is relevant, says Cuomo.

"A leader cannot ignore issues that are central to that leadership," he said. "I'm not asking him whether Sicilian or Neapolitan pizza is better. I'm asking him about something that matters to who we are as a people. Leaders go first."

By the end of Wednesday, Carson did talk about his views on homosexuality some more, issuing an apology for what he said that day on CNN.

"I realized that my choice of language does not reflect fully my heart on gay issues," Carson said in a statement on Facebook.

"I do not pretend to know how every individual came to their sexual orientation. I regret that my words to express that concept were hurtful and divisive. For that I apologize unreservedly to all that were offended," he added.

Carson added that science is uncertain on the issue of whether homosexuality is a choice.

The American Psychological Association, however, says that sexual orientation is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and is not a choice.

"He obviously does lack media training," Nsenga Burton, visiting professor in media studies at Clark Atlanta University, said of Carson.

"But what I find fascinating is that a man who has been so highly regarded for his entire career because of his brilliance in science is trying to appeal to voters with such an anti-intellectual message in his media appearances."

Burton said the Carson she sees on TV making statements like the one about homosexuality "seems desperate."

"And that's a characteristic I would never have associated with him," she said. "But his clear inability to apply logic to this kind of issue makes him, in my estimation, look like a bad candidate for any office."

Even analysts who say they respect him are critical of Carson's media performance.

"I like and admire Ben Carson, but I believe that the old [Richard] Nixon watchword 'experience counts' is operative in his case," said Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University.

"I was on a Fox panel with Dr. Carson, and I found him ingenuous," Vatz continued. "This is a good quality, but when it leads to insufficiently considered analogies and comparisons and non sequiturs, like the 'prison' statement on CNN, a potential candidate typically excites his supporters and then precipitously loses significant support."

Calling Carson's prison statement "incendiary rhetoric," Vatz said, "Political rhetoric is a complicated talent, and many amateurs think that sincerity protects them from the consequences of unacceptable verbal choices. It doesn't."

To me, the most troubling aspect of Carson's very bad media week was the pattern it suggested.

In March 2013, he made a similar incendiary remark about homosexuality, comparing it to bestiality.

After fierce blowback that included John Hopkins School of Medicine students threatening to protest a graduation speech Carson was scheduled to give, he apologized. But again, it was for the "choice of words" not the attempt to disparage gay Americans by saying same-sex relationships did not deserve to be called marriages.

And just as he did Wednesday, Carson again accused mainstream media of playing "gotcha" journalism and then bending his words to make him look bad — a charge Cuomo denied, saying he edited nothing out of the interview pertaining to Carson's remarks on homosexuality.

"He did this to himself," Cuomo said.

It is not surprising that Carson went Wednesday to Hannity, the prime-time Fox News host who showcased Carson on a regular basis after the retired surgeon's criticism of Obamacare at a National Prayer Breakfast in February 2013 — an event attended by the president.

Carson learned how to present himself on TV in the ideologically charged and polarizing caldron of Hannity's show.

At the time, I compared what Carson was doing to dancing with the devil. Fox could make him a political star through regular exposure on the highest-rated cable TV news shows in their time periods.

But what would happen to his reputation in the process? And what kind of media performer would he become under tutelage of Hannity and Fox?

"His media candidacy with moments like the one he had Wednesday is really undermining his legacy as a surgeon," Burton said last week.

"And I don't think it's working. He's trying to appeal to non-thinking people with statements like that. But he's not credible in doing it, because we know — or believe we know — that he's a thinking person. How else could he have accomplished what he did at Hopkins?"

Though Carson says he isn't going to talk about homosexuality any more, I think it is the duty of every interviewer and debate moderator to ask him about it — until voters know whether candidate Carson really believes the things he is saying or is just saying them to try and get votes by being divisive.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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