Editing Reverend Wright's Wrongs

How the Networks Censored and Manipulated Jeremiah Wright Soundbites and Glorified Barack Obama's Race Speech

The Trinity Divorce

On April 29, Barack Obama denounced Wright without officially leaving Trinity United Church of Christ, but most reporters saw the remarks as a clean break, and a welcome one. On the NBC Nightly News, Tim Russert even suggested this break was a historic moment for Obama, who was forced into a painful corner. "We’ve had examples of eruptions where someone would have concern about a candidate, an old friend breaking with him or her, but nothing of this magnitude, Brian, where someone who is his spiritual adviser decided to take steps and perform, in the words of Senator Obama, in a way so destructive to Obama’s candidacy that he had to resort – Obama did – to a public divorce. That’s what we witnessed today, a public divorce between Senator Obama and his spiritual adviser. I think it’s unprecedented in American political history." Obama had to convince Democrats the issue would not be left to "haunt" Obama – as if the media would be doing any haunting.

Once Reverend Wright left the Press Club and left the spotlight again, the networks largely dropped the story in May and June. The Wright story re-emerged briefly at the end of May when Father Michael Pfleger, a close friend of Rev. Wright and another man Barack Obama praised as a spiritual mentor, mocked Hillary Clinton from the pulpit of Obama’s church on Sunday, May 25. To raucous applause and laughter. Father Pfleger impersonated Mrs. Clinton getting upset over Obama stealing the presidential nomination way from her: "Oh damn, where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!"

Wright5The story originated again on YouTube, not the networks. Days later, all three networks covered the story on May 30. Once again, it was newsworthy within a Democratic Party context, since it caused Obama a headache within his own party, complicating his attempts to wrap up the race against Mrs. Clinton and start working on winning over her supporters.

None of the networks noticed the other outrageous anti-American Wright-like notes in this 47-minute sermon, including Pfleger’s charge that America’s "been raping people of color" [see box]. The major networks found attacks on Mrs. Clinton much more upsetting than attacks on America’s recent record on race relations.

Within 48 hours, Obama’s campaign sent around a letter from Obama renouncing his family’s membership in Trinity United Church of Christ. On ABC, the Trinity-divorce story broke late on World News Saturday, and was called a "bombshell" on Sunday’s Good Morning America, although the show never devoted a full report to the news, but left it as an afterthought to Obama’s delegate counts. Saturday night’s newscast didn’t have a story by a correspondent. It was just anchor David Muir interviewing Stephanopoulos, who said:

"Well, we know that sources say Senator Obama was actually in discussions with the new pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Rev. Otis Moss, about cutting his ties to the church before this latest controversy with Rev. Michael Pfleger last Sunday...The decision was finally triggered by his realization, Senator Obama’s realization, that he would be held responsible for everything happening in the pulpit of that church, and that conversely, the church would be responsible for what was happening in his campaign, and that the intense media focus on the church has made it something of a circus every Sunday." There were no reactions from any other candidates or pundits, just Stephanopoulos, the helpful analyst, noting Obama made the break "so he could kind of wipe the slate clean going to the general election."

On This Week, Stephanopoulos pressed Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs: "In April [sic], Senator Obama said of Reverend Wright, ‘I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.’ Now he’s cut all ties to Reverend Wright and left his church. Was it a mistake to wait this long?" Gibbs said no, and that the decision was "a deeply personal, not a political decision."

Once again, the coverage was devoid of any criticism from conservatives or Republicans. The words of "critics" came from media pundits. On the June 1 NBC Nightly News, reporter Lee Cowan declared "Critics say he waited too long, that the damage had already been done and the move now looks largely political." But instead of a real Obama critic, CNBC political analyst John Harwood helpfully explained that Obama made the right decision: "Any time a politician acts to stem a controversy, some voters are going to conclude that it’s just politics. But for Barack Obama, that was clearly the better option than to open himself to more of these questions."

The same good-for-Barack tone emerged on the CBS Evening News that night. The only hint of a critic in the Dean Reynolds story was a brief snippet of the North Carolina Republican Party ad against Obama. Anchor Russ Mitchell wrapped up the story with Reynolds: "Dean, as someone who’s been covering this campaign, politically do you see any down side to Obama leaving his church at this point?" Reynolds replied: "Well, it will look like political opportunism to some people who are not inclined to support Obama. But clearly this was an issue that he needed to get rid of, if only to deny his opponents a weapon to use against him."