When The Post Was Late to Church

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Post -- and some others in the news media -- came late to reporting on the controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Barack Obama's former Chicago pastor. The story, long there for the picking, touched raw nerves -- racial, political and religious -- among readers.

The Post did next to nothing on Wright and his Trinity United Church of Christ before March 15, and editors turned down a reporter's requests to do a story before the controversy broke. Other candidates' spiritual beliefs and religious supporters merit scrutiny as well.

The power of Internet video clips drove the Wright story. Readers wondered why The Post wasn't doing a story after excerpts of his fiery sermons were all over the Internet and cable television on March 12. In fact, there were several other stories about him, published months, even years, before that, just not in The Post.

A March 15 front-page Post story said that Obama had removed Wright from a campaign committee and that Wright "has been a source of controversy for Obama for months because of the inflammatory words and themes of some sermons."

Cynthia B. Cohen of Garrett Park wrote on March 17: "I had expected to read a detailed story giving background about Obama's pastor . . . in today's Washington Post after the extensive coverage given to the Rev. Wright's sermons elsewhere by the media in the past few days. At least five shocking video clips with excerpts from his sermons that were hate-filled . . . have appeared online. . . . News stories about these diatribes have appeared in other papers. Why is The Washington Post not covering the story?"

The Post's Eli Saslow did a much fuller story on March 18, also on Page 1, that quoted many people defending Wright. Some readers thought that the story was lopsided in his favor. Royal S. Dellinger of Rockville wrote: "When [the story opens] with: 'The Rev. Jeremiah Wright spent 36 years teaching this congregation how to recognize injustice, and his parishioners sense it all around them now,' one has to wonder if any 'injustices' were 'perceived' or 'alleged' or if he was even wrong occasionally. . . . Perhaps his racism [and] religious bigotry . . . provide a unique focus that allows him special insight into 'injustice.' I doubt it, though."

Saslow's story was needed to put Wright in the context of African American churches and theology. The problem was that The Post hadn't told readers much about Wright in the first place, so the story seemed only a defense of the minister.

The New York Times and the Associated Press had detailed accounts of the relationship between Obama and Wright about a year ago; Religion News Service wrote about it in a 2005 story. (The Post subscribes to RNS, and I used to supervise it.) But before March 15, Wright had been in only one substantive Post story -- a Feb. 28 piece about Obama trying to reassure Jewish leaders about his support for Israel. Wright has been a strong supporter of the Palestinians. A Chicago Tribune story about the church's theology appeared in The Post on Jan. 28, 2007, but only in an early Sunday street-sales edition.

Wright has been both admired and controversial for many years. Before he retired, he was pastor of the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ; Obama's first book mentioned him prominently. It's natural to want to know about him, his church and his importance to Obama, who said Wright brought him to Christianity 20 years ago, performed his wedding and baptized his two daughters.

Had anyone suggested doing that story at The Post? Religion reporter Michelle Boorstein pitched it twice and was turned down by editors on the Metro and National desks.

Joe Davidson, assistant city editor and Boorstein's editor, wrote: "At the time Michelle suggested the story, before the latest revelations about Wright's comments, there was little that was new. I didn't see what it would add that was significantly different." Tim Curran, deputy national editor for politics, wrote: "I am pleased that we were able to present Eli's very thorough and thoughtful piece on Wright and his relationship with Obama, an article we had set in motion well before the situation came to a head, in such a timely fashion."

The Rev. Andrea Brown, associate pastor of Grandview United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pa., asked: "Why are the words (and actions) of Hillary Clinton's pastors not being similarly scrutinized? McCain's spiritual leaders?" John McCain has been supported by conservative ministers who also have said some controversial things. And The Post hasn't reported in print that McCain has repudiated some views of supporter John Hagee, an evangelist, that were perceived as anti-Catholic. Clinton is a Methodist, and that church's governing body is considering divesting itself of investments in Israel; that's another story.

Brown also asked: " The question becomes, do we want a president who has spiritual leaders who say challenging things to them? My vote would be, 'Amen to that!' " That brings up another idea. Further stories could be done on whether people in religious congregations are affected by their clerics' theology or would follow a dictum on whom to vote for.

One other thing: This story should bury for good the canard that Obama is a closet Muslim.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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