Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

belushi3.jpgShould journalists clean up the language of the people they’re quoting? No, I don’t mean “clean up” like Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich might need his language cleaned up.

But if someone has verbal tics, do you include them in your written story? Countless Americans, myself included, overuse the word “uh” and yet I rarely see “uhs” in print. Many of the people I interview use the word “uh” a lot and I remove them when writing up their quotes.

What if someone just plain misspoke and you know it? How do you handle that? Do you publicize their inadvertent gaffe for all to see or do you downplay or ignore their error?

It is my experience that publishing verbal tics or obvious misstatements are some of the most subtle but obvious ways that reporters betray bias for or against a source or person being quoted.

This weekend, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave a sermon that mentioned Dec. 7, a date that may or may not live in infamy. Here’s what he said:

“Today is December 7 — the day that this government killed over 80,000 Japanese civilians at Hiroshima in 1941 — two days before killing an additional 64,000 Japanese civilians at Nagasaki by dropping nuclear bombs on innocent people.”

Now this is clearly wrong. December 7 marks the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, when Japanese airmen attacked an American Naval base and killed over 2,400 men in a surprise raid. It was in response to this action that the United States entered World War II, eventually dropping the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here’s a Baltimore Sun story about commemorations of the day.

Now let’s look at this story from the Chicago Tribune‘s Manya A. Brachear about the Wright sermon, which was given in his former pulpit at Trinity United Church of Christ. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

At the 11 a.m. service, Wright belittled “baby milk believers,” who, he said, suffer a delusion that politics don’t belong in the pulpit. He noted that “Luke the evangelist, not Wright the radical” lambasted the oppressive policies of the Roman government in the Gospel story that recounts Jesus’ life.

“Any preacher who dares to point out the simple ugly facts found in every field imaginable is demonized as volatile, controversial, incendiary, inflammatory, anti-American and radical,” Wright said.

Noting the date, Dec. 7, which marks the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wright instead chose to focus on the thousands of Japanese civilians who died four years later when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Please look at that last paragraph. Is such a charitable rewrite of the sermon appropriate? I think it makes sense that Brachear’s story doesn’t focus on Wright’s history mistake but should it, well, rewrite history?

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  • Stephen A.

    No, the reporter should not have been covering for a pastor who clearly does not know the history of his own “G.D.” nation.

    But to point out how ignorant he is would be political incorrect – or even RACIST. Don’t you know that? (sarcasm)

  • Brian Walden

    In addition to whether or not a reporter should perform such a charitable rewrite, I wonder if Brachear would have done such a rewrite if it were, for example, James Dobson who made the statement instead of Rev. White?

    Misspeaking is one thing. If on December 7, someone had said today is “Today is Dec. 6 – the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” it would be pretty clear that he meant to say 7 instead of 6. But what can you do with a statement like Wright’s? Catch him after the sermon and ask him to clarify? Use it and state that the bombs were actually dropped on Aug. 6 and 9? Just don’t use it at all?

  • http://returntorome.com Francis Beckwith

    Apparently, charity is not the only thing that can cover up a multitude of sins.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Report what he said but then tell readers what the truth is. Newspapers should not spread misinformation. But why cover Wright at all? He isn’t Obama’s pastor anymore. Does he have a national following so that he warrants coverage by the big newspapers?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Wright is a major media figure in Chicago and has been for some time. So I think the paper’s interest is legitimate. It was his first return to the pulpit so the hook made sense.

  • Jerry

    It’s not an easy question – some are just innocent mistakes. But sometimes someone believes something that is totally false and that belief might have significant implications. On the black/white extremes, it’s an easy choice. But often the error is in the messy grey area. But, to me, dates are in the easily mis-remembered (or perhaps “Freudian” slip) area.

  • Brian L

    Reporters should ask themselves WWIWASP?
    (What Would I Write About Sarah Palin?)

  • FW Ken

    It’s an interesting problem. Of course, bias could be a factor, but I can see that had Brachear gone with Rev. Wright’s actual statement, it could have easily diverted attention from the substance of Wright’s comment to the fact of the gaffe. That shift of attention would have created an entirely different discussion: anti-Wright people would call him a moron, pro-Wright people could call the anti-Wright people petty, and neither side would address the substance of Wright’s own transfer of Japanese guilt to American guilt.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Isn’t it the MSM that goes bonkers and bezerk at even the hint of a cover-up in anyone else’s backyard. That re-write wasn’t just leaving out a few “uhs!”

  • Dave2

    Jerry, I’m sorry, but it’s hardly “easily mis-remembered” that December 7th is Pearl Harbor, and that the atomic bombings of Japan occurred in August. Launching into a heated condemnation of American war crimes because on December 7th because you’re so astonishingly out to lunch when it comes to world history that you think that’s when Hiroshima was bombed… that is truly comical, embarrassing stuff. That’s like Emily Litella territory.

    I mean, I’m no fan of America’s decision to deliberately slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians living under a fascist system they had no meaningful control over, but you might want to have a good grasp of the basic facts of the situation before starting the sermon.

  • Jerry

    Dave2, it may be my age, but every so often I make stupid mistakes of that class because my mental “google” that retrieves facts is on a coffee break. And I know many people who have only a very hazy knowledge of history and would have trouble finding Washington DC on a map. That said, FW Ken nailed it for me. The important thing is what he said (and meant) and not the stupid date mistake.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Maybe Wright was saying the telos of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the destruction of the Empire of Japan. Maybe Wright was trying to subtly say those who live by the sword will die by the sword. If that is what he meant to say it wasn’t a mis-statement at all. And the reporter goofed big time by changing not only what Wright Said but what he meant.

  • Stephen A.

    Mattk, way to speculate, and spin. Apparently exactly what the reporter did.

    If a person misspeaks like this, the obvious way to handle this is to approach him and say “Did you misspeak?” And if he did, note that “he later clarified…” in the story.

    And wait a minute… isn’t the BIGGER news that this “retired” and disgraced pastor is back in his pulpit?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I assume MattK was joking.

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    In clips from that same sermon, Wright, denouncing the media–from ABC to Hannity–used biblical language which, as far as Roman Catholic thinking is concerned, is highly inappropriate. [I don't know blasphemy from heresy,etc, so I am avoiding those words.] Wright considered the “upon this rock I will build my church” to refer to the Obama presidency. He also considered the media to represent “the gates of hell [which] shall not prevail…” Yes, I’d say he’s speaking metaphorically. Surely, a standard protestant theologian would find that inappropriate as well. I’d like to see that segment of his “sermon” analyzed in the press as well.

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    Newspaper’s are failing. This kind of “reporting” is the reason. On the television game show “Wheel of Fortune” one of the ads playing in the Los Angeles area is for the New York Times and features a game for Wheel viewers to play IF they take the paper. I would bet that the paper and the show have a no cost ad swap going on that promotion. Papers are desperate. Their content is the reason. The entire gaggle of Obama players will continue to get a pass. Get used to it.

  • bob

    Am I to understand the author of the revision of the sermon is a *Journalism School* graduate? It isn’t claimed, but let’s pretend. If something were written by an Engineering School, Medical School, Pharmacy or Nursing School graduate that showed such breathtaking ignorance and/or dishonesty, I would hope others in those professions would be quick to correct them. Do journalists ever correct another journalist? I’ve wondered this about “Artists” as well. When someone produces trash, whether on canvas, sculpture or with different kinds of noise that pass for popular music, it is just unheard of for a musician or painter to say so. The unwritten law seems to be that if someone has the guts to call something “Art” or “Journalism” it is sacred and above criticism. The “Journalist” would be very quick to say that blogs like this are a grave danger to the future of Real Reporting, however. Religion isn’t the only topic they botch up, but this is a great example.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “I wonder if Brachear would have done such a rewrite if it were, for example, James Dobson who made the statement instead of Rev. White?”

    Or Sarah Palin? Or Dan Quayle?

  • james degriz

    Wright has proven himself as both racist and ignorant. his true talent is being able to justify his hatred and violence as “christian”.

    dave2 is much more comfortable with his revisionist history that somehow makes America responsible for the Japanese unprovoked attack on pearl harbor.

    or should we forget the hundreds of thousands of chinese, koreans, filipinos, europeans and other innocent civilians who were slaughtered under the benign rule of japan’s east asia co-prosperity sphere?

    its a sad individual who can blame the victor of a war they didn’t start or want. wright isn’t the only ignorant one.

  • Dave

    James DeGriz, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not unprovoked. The US and other oil-producing countries had decided not to export oil to Japan, out of disapproval of what Japan was doing in Asia, exactly what you refer to.

    It was not a military provocation, but the attack came out of a clear blue sky only literally, not politically.

    That being said, I’m not trying to go revisionist on you. A military attack, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, that is not the result of a military provocation, is a unilateral act of war and merits retaliation.

    Mistaking Pearl Harbor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a clear blunder, and it’s not a reporter’s job to clean it up. It’s perfectly possible to link up December 7 rhetorically with the atomic bombings, but it takes a little more work than Rev. Wright put into it. Homiletics is part of his job.

  • Gregg Macklin

    Those people died because they STARTED the war thinking us cowards. Now they know better