Obama’s pastor vs. NY Times

JeremiahWright 01It is rare that we get to hear someone on the left side of the church aisle tee off and blast a major media institution, accusing it of being unethical and, yes, biased.

Well, here’s one.

The seed for this explosion was the New York Times article focusing on the decision by Barack Obama to withdraw his invitation to his some-would-say controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., to do the invocation at the public event announcing the senator’s decision to seek the presidency. The Times noted:

But Mr. Wright said Mr. Obama called him the night before the Feb. 10 announcement and rescinded the invitation to give the invocation. … Some black leaders are questioning Mr. Obama’s decision to distance his campaign from Mr. Wright because of the campaign’s apparent fear of criticism over Mr. Wright’s teachings, which some say are overly Afrocentric to the point of excluding whites.

Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said the campaign disinvited Mr. Wright because it did not want the church to face negative attention. Mr. Wright did however, attend the announcement and prayed with Mr. Obama beforehand.

That leads us to the following letter. Click here to read the whole text (the original begins on p. 10 in this PDF from Wright’s church), but here is the first half:

March 11, 2007
Jodi Kantor
The New York Times
9 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036-3959

Dear Jodi:

Thank you for engaging in one of the biggest misrepresentations of the truth I have ever seen in sixty-five years. You sat and shared with me for two hours. You told me you were doing a “Spiritual Biography” of Senator Barack Obama. For two hours, I shared with you how I thought he was the most principled individual in public service that I have ever met.

For two hours, I talked with you about how idealistic he was. For two hours I shared with you what a genuine human being he was. I told you how incredible he was as a man who was an African American in public service, and as a man who refused to announce his candidacy for President until Carol Moseley Braun indicated one way or the other whether or not she was going to run.

I told you what a dreamer he was. I told you how idealistic he was. We talked about how refreshing it would be for someone who knew about Islam to be in the Oval Office. Your own question to me was, Didn’t I think it would be incredible to have somebody in the Oval Office who not only knew about Muslims, but had living and breathing Muslims in his own family? I told you how important it would be to have a man who not only knew the difference between Shiites and Sunnis prior to 9/11/01 in the Oval Office, but also how important it would be to have a man who knew what Sufism was; a man who understood that there were different branches of Judaism; a man who knew the difference between Hasidic Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reformed Jews; and a man who was a devout Christian, but who did not prejudge others because they believed something other than what he believed.

I talked about how rare it was to meet a man whose Christianity was not just “in word only.” I talked about Barack being a person who lived his faith and did not argue his faith. I talked about Barack as a person who did not draw doctrinal lines in the sand nor consign other people to hell if they did not believe what he believed.

Out of a two-hour conversation with you about Barack’s spiritual journey and my protesting to you that I had not shaped him nor formed him, that I had not mentored him or made him the man he was, even though I would love to take that credit, you did not print any of that. When I told you, using one of your own Jewish stories from the Hebrew Bible as to how God asked Moses, “What is that in your hand?,” that Barack was like that when I met him. Barack had it “in his hand.” Barack had in his grasp a uniqueness in terms of his spiritual development that one is hard put to find in the 21st century, and you did not print that.

As I was just starting to say a moment ago, Jodi, out of two hours of conversation I spent approximately five to seven minutes on Barack’s taking advice from one of his trusted campaign people and deeming it unwise to make me the media spotlight on the day of his announcing his candidacy for the Presidency and what do you print? You and your editor proceeded to present to the general public a snippet, a printed “sound byte” and a titillating and tantalizing article about his disinviting me to the Invocation on the day of his announcing his candidacy.

I have never been exposed to that kind of duplicitous behavior before. …

You get the picture.

This is a very interesting look at the Times from a liberal leader on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. Toward the end, Wright even accuses the newspaper of conservative bias because of its early take on the Iraq war and its acceptance of some Bush arguments — or its straightforward representation of White House arguments as part of a debate with the left. I am sure that many conservatives will read this part of the letter in amazement, trying to imagine a conservative slant at the Times. Can the right feel Wright’s pain?

tower ball and chainIt also seems that Wright sounds rather hurt, perhaps because of his assumption that this particular newspaper would not spin quotes from a liberal leader in a direction that “hurts” him. Certainly a theocratic leader, Dr. James Dobson perhaps, would not go into an interview with the Gray Lady assuming that the newspaper would treat him well. No way.

Finally, there is another side to this encounter.

Click here to read a fascinating post by Newsweek‘s Richard Wolffe on Wright’s church and its attempt to control the access of the press. Oh my, it appears that press paranoia exists on the left and the right.

Check it out! Can you imagine major newspapers accepting this kind of ball-and-chain arrangement at, let’s say, a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention? To land an interview with Billy Graham? Holy PR! Did The New York Times really agree to this stuff?

Wright’s Chicago mega-church, Trinity United Church of Christ, imposes strict requirements on journalists who want to speak to the pastor. Reporters must sign two sets of legal papers on behalf of their news organizations before any interviews in order to be allowed inside the church.

The church has a list of what it calls “policies and procedures for use with outside media sources” or OMS for short. The paperwork states that the journalist will “fact-check the article” with the reverend’s daughter, Jeri Wright, who is his media services director. The journalist also agrees to “give a full and fair idea of what to expect from the story.” In addition, the journalist promises to give the church “any quotes derived from the interview process, prior to publication” and promises that all published quotes “are original quotes and will not be altered by the OMS in any way.”

The second agreement, entitled “official waiver for use with outside media sources,” states that “any infraction” of the church’s OMS policies and procedures would lead to the reporter’s “immediate removal” from the church and the confiscation of all interview notes and photos.

Has anyone seen a reaction to all of this by Obama?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dennis Colby

    Wright’s hardly alone on the left in regarding the New York Times as conservative. Although I’m sure it would shock people on the right, many on the left aren’t fans of the Times.

    Those hoops for reporters to jump through, though, are fascinating. Has any newspaper actually gone through all that? I can’t imagine any editor I’ve ever worked for agreeing to any of those preposterous conditions.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net/ Deborah

    Well, let’s see: the “preposterous” conditions of the first agreement require (a) checking facts with a knowledgeable source close to the interviewee; (b) being honest and up-front about the article’s intended angle; and (c) checking quotes for accuracy before publication. Yeah, I can see how that would constitute gross violations of journalistic ethics.

    Seriously, while both agreements are a bit much (esp. the second one), I don’t doubt they’re born from hard experience with the press. The many get punished for the sins of the few. It happens.

    But Wright’s righteous indignation is almost comic, especially the “I’ve never seen such duplicity in my life” line. (Surely anyone who’s been in public life for as many years as Dr. Wright has seen some pretty ugly human behavior.) And that “one of your own Jewish stories” crack is unworthy of a Christian minister, no matter what his theology is.

    All he can realistically expect is the right to publicly respond to whatever inaccuracies he perceives, and he has done so in his own words. And as one wise Man put it, “From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

  • Stephen A.

    As someone who has been a journalist and has worked in PR, let me say that I know reporters and editors don’t like to be told what to do, and how to “slant” a story. Furthermore, I have told clients that with a news story, they have very little (if NO) control over how the subject will be portrayed – unlike a paid ad, in which you have nearly 100% control. Reporters are free and MUST be free to take articles in any direction they go, and are duty bound to balance it with opposing views or at least mitigating factors. The church’s restrictions, however, are aimed at controlling the story (hmmm, just who gets to define “fair,” in this case? The subject of the story?)

    My editor, on my first day as a reporter, made it known that NO quotes – or any part of the story – would be reviewed by story subjects in advance of publication, as is demanded here. That’s pretty much the industry standard.

    These preposterous rules associate the idea of undue secrecy and maybe a touch of paranoia to a congregation and pastor of which there already is a sneaking suspicion of radicalism. Not a good move on their part. I would expect this behavior from a cultish or from a racist group, but not from a “mainstream” church.

    It’s clear that the church and the pastor have a very poor understanding as to how the media work. If they don’t want to give interviews because they’ve been “burned” (exposed?) simply stop giving interviews.

  • danr

    “…simply stop giving interviews”

    Well, apparently that’s what they’ve done. Wolffe’s piece ends with:
    “After the Times story appeared, Wright’s staff said they are cutting off reporters, period. They said they will no longer grant interviews or answer any questions from journalists, contracts or not.”

    The question remains, whether this new silent strategy will work in their favor. If you’ve already said a mouthful, “no (further) comment” still speaks volumes. And the larger question, whether Obama will be able to keep the same vow of silence. As ministers and churches are rightly or wrongly seen as influences/advisors for their congregants, Obama will henceforth be asked for his agreement or disagreement with the statements and policies -which will be exposed one way or another- of the church he joined and where he remains. “Judge my policies, not my beliefs or those of my church” just doesn’t work anymore in this country on either end of the political spectrum.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Having been on both sides of the pen (I was an elected city councillor in a large city with a daily newspaper and later wrote a weekly local interview and color column for a daily
    newspaper) I can sympathize with both sides of the problem. However,the media always unfairly plays it up as their interviewee wanting to control what is published in order to cover up warts and make himself look good–BUT, Damn, reporters far, far too frequently get facts and quotes all wrong. I can still remember us councillors privately discussing the coverage of a hot issue at one of our meetings. We all agreed there was no slant to the coverage (a rare thing among pols)–but we also all agreed that none of the media coverage got anything right. The most common comment was: “Were we at the same council meeting they were at??” So I can clearly understand from bitter experience why some in the media spotlight want to set strict rules for media interviews–especially with regard to fact checking and quote checking.

  • Gary Aknos

    If you are going to rip off a story from another blog, you should give them credit… UCCtruths.com

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Glad to know that that’s where it started. I saw the letter several different places and did not know where it was first.

    That’s for the reference.

  • Eric W

    As one who has been screwed twice by reporters, once being a work-related incident that then took a couple of us a weekend to do damage control over (and all along I thought I was helping the reporter, and did not realize that he was setting me up so he could use my words to try to cause an altercation with one of our clients), and the other being a personal story which the reporter got wrong, despite my having spent, like Mr. Wright, 2 hours with the reporter discussing the story, I will never speak to a reporter again without having full rights to fact-check the story and see the copy before it goes to print. I fully sympathize with the church, and only wish more churches and organizations would demand such accountability from reporters. If they did, then maybe we all could trust the press more. E.g., having seen the way a leading Christian magazine butchered and edited my letters to the editor before printing them (in one instance, they did not print the most significant paragraph in my letter; in the second instance, the editor’s obvious ignorance of church history made her edit of my letter read like I didn’t know what I was talking about), I don’t even trust the letters to the editor – there is no way to believe or trust that what the people wrote is what the paper or magazine printed.

    There. Now I feel better.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet

    I thought this was worth a link, too, mainly because Wright’s a fascinating guy. And I love to see the NYT get blasted. But as much as I wanted to sympathize with Wright, he’s wrong. Kantor did her job. Two hours? Who cares? That’s hardly a long interview. Sounds like he gave her a lot of boilerplate and she plucked out the most interesting detail. I would have done the same.

    The thornier ethical issue was how Kantor represented what she was doing. A spiritual profile of the church, when clearly she was interested in the politics of it. Again, I say fair game. Her six, his half dozen. I interviewed J.C. Watts once about Clear Channel. Only, that’s not how I pitched it to him. I said to his flack, I want to talk about media and democracy. Which I did. I just didn’t give a — for his blather about how he thought democracy was just grand. When he called the public “dogs,” though, and Clear Channel’s product “dogfood,” my ears perked up. That attitude was news.

    Same principle here.

  • Michael

    Liberals and progressives have long accused the NYT of bias; minority groups (including African Americans and gays) have a long list of grievances against the NYT. Just take a look at the liberal media gadfly Media Matters list of complaints just over the last week about bias against liberals.


    In short, everyone likes to complain about the NYT. I’m sure it’s a surprise to conservatives that the NYT isn’t beloved by liberals and progressives, but everyone has an axe to gring with the NYT.

  • Dan

    I tend to agree with what Jeff Sharlet wrote but I am nonetheless sympathetic to claims of unfair treatment by the press. The principle that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” applies to the press more than any other modern institution. The press can be grossly unfair to someone and the unfairly treated person has virtually no recourse. There is no appeal from an artful hatchet job. What’s worse, hatchet jobs make for entertaining reading. Given this, and given that there are no practical constraints on the press short of a defamation lawsuit (which is a very limited and notoriously ineffective remedy), unfair hatchet jobs are all too frequent.

  • http://postwatchblog.com Christopher Fotos

    The thornier ethical issue was how Kantor represented what she was doing. A spiritual profile of the church, when clearly she was interested in the politics of it. Again, I say fair game. Her six, his half dozen. I interviewed J.C. Watts once about Clear Channel. Only, that’s not how I pitched it to him. I said to his flack, I want to talk about media and democracy. Which I did. I just didn’t give a — for his blather about how he thought democracy was just grand. When he called the public “dogs,” though, and Clear Channel’s product “dogfood,” my ears perked up. That attitude was news.

    Thank you for confirming the stereotype that reporters will say and do anything to get a story, including deceiving the subject.

  • Deboraj

    The press should investigate the truths behind the “dark” attitude against Obama. There is much that they are doing to him that needs to apply to the caucasians in the race.

    The slave thing? Where does Hillary, Bush, McCain the rest fall into the line of slave owner, slave catcher, etc…

    Does Hillary even attend church or is it as some say the circle of the “witch” that moves her religiously.

    No matter how reporters and others spin it, America is on to the corporate racism and BS out there set up to destroy any good candidate, Edwards and Obama especially.

    While Hillary runs the Right Wing Conspiracy syndrome, I believe it to be ignorance, racism and the Clinton machine in combination with the corporate machine that are so afraid of Obama they would sell their mamas soul, or baby to the next buyer if they think they can take him down.

    However the only thing happening, NYT is losing credibilty and the racists in this country are exposing themselves, their ignorance while the American public is watching.

  • Stephen A.

    I don’t know what’s more bizarre, Michael trying to say the NYT is a conservatively biased paper or Deborah saying that race shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to the first credible black candidate for president.

    Oh, and I love politics as much as the next guy, but political bias isn’t really the reason for this blog, is it?

    As for deception by reporters, c’mon. Investigative reporters almost always decieve their subjects, at least at first, and always, if they are hostile to the media. And since this is such a popular wing of journalism these days (about 80% seem to be “investigative reporters”) that’s bound to happen.

    However, I do think that erodes trust, and this church is probably feeling “burned” right now. However, if they had told the truth about their racialist views and race-based political extremism which seems to lurk just beneath the surface, deception probably wouldn’t have been necessary.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I can’t add anything of substance to Jeff Sharlet’s comment. So I won’t. Or as they say in another conext: Ditto.

  • James Davis

    Jeff, that surprises me a bit. It’s one thing to change the focus after you get something surprising in an interview. We’ve all done that. It’s another to deceive — dare we say, lie? — about the gist of a story when asking for the interview. That amounts to burning a source, burning all his/her friends, and burning every journalist who will ever try to interview them.

    I should add that I separate that issue from that of quoting sources to their own satisfaction. As Jeff Sharlet noted, sources like to pile up “boilerplate” content to make themselves look good. I compare it to the filler in parcel posts. It’s not the important part of your shipment; it’s simply meant to make the real contents rattle a bit less.

    Neither do I buy the ridiculous claim that you need to let a source read a story before it runs. Aside from the usual objections about freedom of the press, it would be an intolerable burden for an indepth piece that quotes a dozen sources.

    But the question of deceptiveness in landing interviews, I believe, is a real deal-breaker in many readers’ eyes. It’s not very far from there to the kinds of inventions that turned up in Jayson Blair’s articles. With newspaper readership falling through the floor, we don’t need to invent more ways to make ourselves unwanted.

  • Michael

    I think it depends on the source. J.C. Watts and Jeremiah Wright are savvy individuals very used to dealing with the media; neither is shy about seeking media attention. If someone said, “I want to talk to you about Clear Channel” you aren’t going to get an comments. But if you ask about other things and see what they ultimately say, that’s totally different. Same with Wright. This is a man whose church seeks out media attention; he’s not naive. The NYT isn’t interviewing him because they are interested in his church; they are interviewing him because it’s Obama’s church. Wright knows that.

    I think it’s wrong to deceive the average Joe on the street who doesn’t have a media flak and who hasn’t done 100s of interviews in their careers. It’s quite another to be vague about your intentions when interviewing the media savvy.

  • Str1977

    “It’s quite another to be vague …”

    And still another thing to lie. Which is wrong, regardless to whom. That’s what equality actually is about.

  • Stephen A.

    Having said above that some journalists sometimes lie about the topics of their stories to the Subjects of those stories, I have to add that much, much more often, reporters seem to simply change focus once new information is discovered or, in some cases, volunteered by the subjects themselves.

    As we’ve read about in this case, changing the focus of the story wasn’t “allowed” under the strict rules of the church being interviewed here (a preposterous stand, which shows a lack of understanding of the news media.) Therefore, any change of focus could be seen as lying to get the interview by church officials, whether it was or not. It was likely not, but I can’t read the reporter’s mind on this one.

    Perhaps the promised “spiritual biography” of Obama proved a bit less interesting (and perhaps unattainable, without the sugar-coating) once the control-freak nature of this congregation and it’s leaders was exposed by the restrictive media interview practices and perhaps even the body language of the interviewees.

  • str1977


    the church’s stance might not be very useful and realistic but to call it preposterous …? Does this church have every right to define its own conditions? Isn’t a reporter free to accept it or reject it? No agreement – no interview. Hardly preposterous.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    … Deborah saying that race shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to the first credible black candidate for president.

    Just for clarification, even if it is just a typo on Stephen A.’s part … comments 2 and 13 have different authors. I didn’t write #13.

  • Stephen A.

    Yes, Deborah, my mistake.