By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008 8:54 AM
Jeremiah Wright's complaint -- and Barack Obama's as well -- has been that the media have been distorting the reverend's message through sound-bite snippets and missing the full context.
The more I hear the full context, the more I think the Illinois senator has a growing problem.
For one thing, Wright seems to be savoring the limelight -- Moyers on Friday, the NAACP on Sunday, the National Press Club yesterday -- meaning that the cablers and the pundits are debating black liberation theology, not Obama's jobs plan.
In yesterday's appearance, Wright demonstrated that he is smart, well-read, funny at times and a master rhetorician. But once he got to the journalists' questions, he came off as smug and arrogant. He repeatedly demanded to know whether the questioner had read such-and-such and to suggest that the queries were ill-informed or dumb.
As for context, Bill Moyers played a long clip from the post-9/11 "America's chickens are coming home to roost" sermon. Wright said that America had taken its land by terror from the Indians; had enslaved Africans; had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki (weren't we in a death struggle with Japan, which had attacked Pearl Harbor?); had bombed Iraq, Sudan and Panama; and had backed state-supported terrorism against the Palestinians.
Moyers's question after this diatribe: "When people saw the sound bites from it this year, they thought you were blaming America. Did you somehow fail to communicate?"
Thought he was blaming America? Where did anyone get that idea?
"You cannot do terrorism on other people and not expect it to come back on you," Wright said yesterday. For good measure, he also defended Louis Farrakhan.
I sure wish Moyers had found time during his hour to ask Wright why he's pushing the lie that the government created the AIDS virus to kill blacks.
Wright is obviously entitled to defend himself. But I have the distinct impression that he doesn't care whether he ruins his former parishioner's chances of winning the White House.
Which raises this question: Why does Obama keep carefully calibrating his answers about the man? He said yesterday that Wright doesn't speak for him. He said the other day that some of Wright's comments were "objectionable." Every word is so measured. Will there come a point where the senator will have to go beyond this balancing act and cut the reverend loose?
"The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons as Democrat Barack Obama's former pastor set off a political firestorm last month, told reporters yesterday that he has been 'crucified' by the media and that attacks on him are really slams on the black church," the Los Angeles Times says.
"With eight days to go before the Indiana primary, as Illinois Sen. Obama tries to convince white rural voters in Indiana that he shares their values, campaign officials acknowledged that the appearance by Wright may hurt his candidacy."
Chicago Tribune: "The latest Wright eruption renewed questions about how long the story will remain in circulation and whether it is -- or should be -- an issue Obama must address for the rest of the presidential campaign. The Wright story presents potential peril for Obama, increasing the urgency for the campaign to shift the focus."
New York Post: "Barack Obama's worst nightmare, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, yesterday delivered his most brutal wallop to his pal's campaign as he hailed hatemonger Louis Farrakhan and accused the United States of committing terrorism."
The reverend himself is not exactly getting rave reviews. "Mr. Wright revealed himself to be the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention," says Alessandra Stanley in the NYT.
Joe Klein: "I've been to dozens and dozens of African-American church services over the years, including the investiture of one of my friends as an AME minister two years ago, and I have very rarely, if ever, heard the kind of rants that are part of Reverend Wright's canon . . .
"Wright's purpose now seems quite clear: to aggrandize himself -- the guy is going to be a go-to mainstream media source for racial extremist spew, the next iteration of Al Sharpton -- and destroy Barack Obama."
CBN's David Brody: "Jeremiah Wright did Barack Obama no favors. Pastor Wright's appearance at the National Press Club started out as a great opportunity to explain the importance of the black church experience. Instead it turned into a circus atmosphere and ensured that the Wright controversy is not going away and has the potential to single-handedly take down Obama's campaign . . .
"His important message got lost because he seemed to relish taking on the media who he clearly has 'issues' with."
Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has one telling sentence: "On Rev.Wright's revenge tour, there's not much to say, other than that he seems to very much enjoy the attention, seems to believe that he's been the victim of a massive, racist conspiracy, seems to equate criticism of him with Jesus's crucifixion, and seems not to care about Barack Obama's politics or aspirations anymore."
Salon Editor Joan Walsh says Wright didn't exactly help himself with the Moyers sitdown:
"I was profoundly depressed by the conversation between PBS's Bill Moyers and Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, broadcast on PBS Friday night. I found myself thinking this race might be either too short, or too long, for Obama to win the presidency. It's too long because already, for some people, the thrill is gone, the honeymoon is over, even Obama's media fans are starting to ask tough questions. It's too short because the 'national conversation on race' we all keep promising to have has barely begun, and it would take longer than November to hash out how much Wright's role in Obama's life should mean to voters. But the Moyers-Wright interview had to be troubling to anyone who cares about race relations, American politics or the Obama campaign. Now there are new and longer taped excerpts from Wright's incendiary sermons, and Obama's pastor will also be at a press conference in Washington, D.C. Monday morning. Clearly the Wright story isn't going away.
"As Wright described it to Moyers, America would seem to be all about dispossessing the Indians, enslaving blacks, interning the Japanese and now killing Iraqis. He said nothing about Americans who fought any of that (and nothing about white ethnic groups who also faced WASP prejudice). Note that, in his defense, Wright didn't say: 'Hey, I'm a guy who also talks a lot about the promise of American democracy, and the way Americans of every race have worked together to try to make the country live up to that promise. Here's a sermon about the heroes of the civil rights movement! Even some who weren't black!' (I'm not saying Wright never gave any sermon like that; maybe he did, but that's not what he pointed to in self-defense.) He used his hour with Moyers to argue that his thoroughgoing critique of American evil is, well, true."
But entrepreneur and HuffPoster Dave Winer says Wright is getting a bad rap:
"I think the silence comes from the fact that there still is some humanity in the press and in the blogosphere, and those who watched Moyers and really listened to Wright, realized that he's not a liability to Obama, he's an asset. At least some of the polish, the quiet confidence, self-respect, intelligence and grace we see in Obama must have rubbed off this man.
"Watching Wright gave me pride in being an American, and shame at the same time, for coming from a country so willing to objectify and [vilify] this person before checking out whether the characterization was accurate."
National Review says Wright is absolutely fair game and chides John McCain for objecting to a state party ad about the reverend:
"Obama's relationship to Wright is relevant to his judgment, character, and -- in his explanations of what he knew and when about Wright -- his honesty. Are we to ignore all this because Wright is black? Are only videos of white pastors damning America fit for airwaves? It's not Wright's race that matters, but his racist and anti-American rantings.
"We understand McCain's desire to steer well clear of any racial foul-play, but there's none in the ad and he's foolish to be pushed into the position of speech cop for every other Republican in the country. It's unclear what McCain's principled standard for criticism of Obama is. The Illinois senator has a closer relationship to Wright than former terrorist William Ayers, but McCain has seen fit to condemn the latter association. From now until November, any Republican criticizing Wright will be accused of playing the race card. It's a way to shut down discussion of Wright's poisonous worldview, and of what it says about Obama. These rules stack the deck and stifle legitimate debate. Republicans must reject them."
Andrew Sullivan questions the saturation coverage:
"Isn't it a relief, by the way, for the MSM to have a presidential campaign in which no issues are actually discussed? This Wright-stuff is amazing to me. It's all the MSM seems to care about. Even coverage of McCain is now about his attitude toward an unhinged black pastor from Chicago. Hey: it beats discussing war, debt, the economy, torture, and terrorism. Because it enables America to return to the classic boomer racial-cultural wars that are all the MSM truly knows how to cover."
On another front, Hillary Clinton and Obama have finally weighed in with criticism of the Pentagon's program of enlisting military analysts to push the administration's line, the Nation reports.
Arianna Huffington has picked a fight with me (or maybe it was the other way around) over what she calls the "self-loathing media" hiring prominent conservatives. The result is that I am "either very naïve, very disingenuous, or willfully ignorant." What a choice!
She wants the media to reflect liberal viewpoints, the way her Web site does. I'm not an ideological warrior, so I'm interested in fairness and balance.
She has, to put it generously, clarified her position. Of course she has no problem with the media hiring conservatives, just not the particularly awful conservatives that have gotten jobs lately. She'd have no problem with Arianna-approved conservatives.
I'm not going to defend the records of Karl Rove, Tony Snow and Bill Kristol. Rove, to take one example, was involved in telling reporters about Valerie Plame and avoided indictment. My point was that Newsweek hired Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos at the same time as Rove. But this is unacceptable to Arianna, because one is good and one is evil.
Kristol's sin, according to her, is that he was repeatedly wrong about the war, while Snow defended an untruthful administration as press secretary. Again, I can pick apart their records. I didn't like the way Snow sometimes challenged the motivation of reporters, but he was widely respected by the White House press corps. The question is, if you're going to exclude them from the commentariat, what about all those who got their hands dirty working for the Clinton and Carter administrations?
James Carville, Paul Begala, Dee Dee Myers, George Stephanopoulos, Mike McCurry, David Gergen, Sid Blumenthal (Clinton). Chris Matthews, Hendrik Hertzberg, Walter Shapiro (Carter). For that matter, Tim Russert (Moynihan and Cuomo) and even Bill Moyers (LBJ). I'd be happy if the revolving door slowed down, if politicos didn't show up as TV commentators five minutes after leaving their administrations and campaigns. But as long as that's the case, the media ought to allow both sides a voice, and shouldn't give either side's water-carriers a solo platform. I hardly think Newsweek, CNN and the New York Times op-ed page have suddenly become bastions of conservatism.
Let's seek refuge at the water cooler, where Miley Cyrus is saying she's embarrassed by the Vanity Fair photos of her. Jamie Lee Curtis, who's actually been accused of appearing topless (posing for AARP magazine, no less), says:
"Apparently young Ms. Cyrus has apologized for something she was told would be artistic and now feels embarrassed about. I feel for her. Of course she is embarrassed. She is a young girl. She shouldn't have to deal with any of this. I don't feel that she was duped. I know the integrity of Ms. Leibovitz and the magazine and I know there were people present at the shoot that should have been looking out to make sure that this didn't happen. In the offending photo she looks tousled and soft and vulnerable and yes . . . even sexy.
"She is fifteen after all, and the word sex is starting to come up. I seem to remember a fourteen/fifteen year old Brooke Shields commenting that nothing came between her and her Calvin'. There would be no problem if Ms. Cyrus doesn't represent something that is counterintuitive to that image."
Jeff Jarvis jumps in with the traffic-generating headline, "Graydon Carter, Child Pornographer":
"I blame the adults around Miley Cyrus for exploiting her: Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, Annie Leibovitz, her agents, and her parents. She's just a kid with a sweet show that millions more kids -- including my daughter -- love. She didn't go out . . . on a Lindsay Lohan bender. She did was she was told. The photos are not the scandal that the press is making them out to be nor as shocking as various prudish parents' associations will think as they, too, exploit young Miley. But Carter and Leibovitz knew damned well that they would cause this fuss."