Reporter Molly Ball of the Las Vegas Review Journal scooped the national press on a major political story Sunday. While covering the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, Ball reported that a pastor endorsed Obama from the pulpit (Hat tip to Spiritual Politics):
Before he arrived, the pastor of the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, speaking from the pulpit, advocated for Obama, possibly breaking the law. Pastor Leon Smith told the congregation that “the more he (Obama) speaks, the more he wins my confidence, and … if the polls were open today, I would cast my vote for this senator.”
He urged them to do the same, saying, “If you can’t support your own, you’re never going to get anywhere. … I want to see this man in office.”
Some reporters might have let the matter end there. To her credit, Ball gave readers the appropriate context of the endorsement: it was likely illegal.
Under federal tax law, nonprofits such as churches are prohibited from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The Internal Revenue Service has ruled that the forbidden partisan activity includes speech from the pulpit that indicates the church favors a particular candidate.
The campaign said the pastor simply had made supportive statements about Obama’s record. The church could not be reached late Sunday.
My only complaint with Ball’s story was that the Review Journal downplayed it. Her scoop did not appear in the story until the sixteenth paragraph and is not mentioned at all in the headline or sub-headline. I don’t get it. A Christian pastor endorsed a leading presidential candidate from the pulpit, and the local paper doesn’t give the story top billing?
Of course, this criticism is relative. None of the major newspapers reported that the pastor likely violated federal law. Either Adam Nagourney or Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times attended the same church service as Ball, though it’s unclear if Nagourney or Zeleny was in attendance when the pastor made his remarks. The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, the The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe each failed to mention that Obama attended the service Sunday.
The national press’ silence on the likely church-state violation raises numerous questions. How did the reporters miss it? Were fewer reporters working the beat because it was a Sunday? Were the reporters uncertain or ignorant of IRS laws? Are conservatives correct when they claim that it’s OK when Democrats violate church-state regulations, but not when Republicans do?
As things stand, Molly Ball has written a major politics and religion story in 2008, and one that her own paper underplayed.