Editing Reverend Wright's Wrongs
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Barack Obamaâ€™s campaign for the presidency has always rested first and foremost on his biography: his biracial ancestry, his world-traveling childhood, his Ivy League education, and his gritty Chicago community organizing. The Obama campaign encouraged its volunteers to talk to voters about how they first found Obama to be an impressive personality with a fascinating life story, not the man who was right on all the substantive issues.
By that standard, inspirational figures in Obamaâ€™s biography should have been serious subjects of media scrutiny, including Obamaâ€™s self-described spiritual mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father, Obama describes the feeling he had when he heard Wright preach, a powerful revelation that changed his life story: "I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekielâ€™s field of dry bones. Those stories â€“ of survival, and freedom, and hope â€“ became our story, my story." At the age of 27, inspired by Reverend Wright, he became a Christian.
But what kind of church was Obama choosing? What did Obamaâ€™s long membership in the church say about his faith and his views on race and Americaâ€™s place in the world? For more than a year on the campaign trail, the nationâ€™s traditional broadcast TV networks found that a story not worth exploring in any depth. Then in mid-March, ABC uncovered Rev. Wrightâ€™s noxious recorded sermons suggesting that America deserved 9/11 and that the federal government created AIDS as a tool of black genocide. They were not difficult to find: the church sold the sermons on DVD. The vicious, screaming lectures were widely viewed on YouTube and discussed on talk radio and cable TV.
The media narrative didnâ€™t scrutinize Obamaâ€™s faith, but quickly synchronized with the Obama campaign line that the virulent video clips unfairly caricatured the minister (and by association, Obama himself.) PBS star Bill Moyers lamented that Wright was "assassinated by soundbites." Few journalists turned the question around and wondered if America was being unfairly caricatured and if Obama was too tolerant of the most vicious negative campaigning?
Did the nationâ€™s broadcast networks really play Wrightâ€™s remarks to excess? A Media Research Center study of ABC, CBS, and NBC news broadcasts from the beginning of the Obama campaign on February 10, 2007 through July 15 reveals that a viewer watching only broadcast TV news would have received a much more limited (and even censored) version of Wrightâ€™s sermons. The networks largely restricted guest lists on the subject to liberals and media professionals. The networks all handed over large gobs of time to candidate Obama on March 18 and 19 when he addressed Reverend Wright in a "race speech" hailed as "brilliant," "extraordinary" and "another great eloquent speech."
This study does not focus on the entirety of the broadcast networksâ€™ Obama coverage in this period of controversy. It focuses instead on a more concentrated question of how the campaign interpreted the sermons of Reverend Wright and tried to minimize their impact. Analysts focused on stories citing Reverend Wright by name, with special attention to stories which used his soundbites. What analysts found was a set of networks who were engaged not in a mission to investigate Obamaâ€™s biography, but on a mission to protect Obamaâ€™s political viability.
It could not be argued that the Reverend Wright story wasnâ€™t covered. But it was covered within the confines of a Democratic primary campaign. While it led to pundits wondering on air if Obama had a problem with white, working-class voters, the networks largely kept the squabble "in the family" and did not easily allow Republican critics of Obama to participate.
Democratic candidates did not make Wright an issue before the media discovered it. For her part, Hillary Clinton waited for the media to introduce the topic, and then waited weeks more to declare that she would have acted differently than Obama and left the church over Wrightâ€™s incendiary remarks.
Throughout this electoral cycle, as media pundits have celebrated Obamaâ€™s faith instead of scrutinizing it, glorified his fluency in challenging the religious right by discussing faith in the political realm, offering Democrats a chance to close a "God gap," the networks waited until almost the entire Democratic electorate had voted to wonder what kind of substance was filling the "God gap" in Obamaâ€™s own mind and heart. From the substance of Wrightâ€™s sermons, that gap was filled with hatred for America, unrepentant bitterness about racial divisions, and deep suspicion of an evil empire of a government Obama professed himself willing and ready to lead.