Hell Freezes Over - Ombudsmen at NYT & PBS Hit Wright Coverage

In what must be a sign of the coming Apocalypse, the public editors of both PBS (Michael Getler) and the New York Times (Clark Hoyt) issued rather scathing -- for them -- reviews of their respective media outlet's recent coverage of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama.

In The Ombudsman Column at PBS.org, Getler looks at Bill Moyers' interview of Reverend Wright, and asks Too Much Reverence for the Reverend? From the column we can gather that Moyers' soft-ball interview with Wright resulted in quite a few outraged letters to PBS, wondering why Moyers didn't ask any tough questions. But I also got the feeling that Getler was more upset about the mocking of PBS that was done in friendly papers like the Washington Post than he was with the interview itself.

On the other hand, as ombudsmen often say, this came across to me more as a conversation among theologians than it did as a truly probing interview with a truly controversial person who had said some truly inflammatory things and had become deeply inserted into a tight, hard-fought and historic race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

While I don't endorse the language or the broader criticisms below, I do feel that there were not enough questions asked and some that were asked came across as too reserved and too soft, considering the volatility of the charges. For example, after replaying at length a Wright sermon delivered the first Sunday after 9/11 - in which Wright invoked America's role in slavery, taking the country from the Indians, bombing Grenada, Panama, Libyan leader Gaddafi's house, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Iraq, plus state terrorism against Palestinians and black South Africans to conclude that the 9/11 attacks were "America's chickens are coming home to roost" - Moyers asked: "When people saw the sound bites from it this year, they were upset because you seemed to be blaming America. Did you somehow fail to communicate?" As Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post afterwards: "Thought he was blaming America? Where did anyone get that idea?" It would be hard to formulate a more delicate way to put a question to Wright about that sermon without challenging any of its content.

Perhaps the reason why Moyers wasn't "challenging any of its content" was because he shares some of those same views with Wright? I guess Getler didn't want to upset the famed journalist by asking that question.

Apparently, the fact that the way that the New York Times dealt with Reverend Wright's media blitz last weekend with a front page article by Alessandra Stanley, their television critic, didn't go over too well with Times readers either. Clark Hoyt, in his column titled The Preacher's New Pulpit, notes first that the NYT's web reporting on Wright was, in his opinion, "aggressive", but then lays into how the editors of the paper dealt with the story - with a little prodding from some readers:

Carol Hebb of Narberth, Pa., spoke for many when she wrote that she found the newspaper's initial coverage "very strange." If editors did not think Wright's remarks were newsworthy enough to be on the front page, she asked, why did they put the review by Alessandra Stanley there? "I was very surprised that her piece was not accompanied by a 'factual' article reporting the content of Mr. Wright's comments more completely and perhaps adding some meaningful context."

Stanley's review called Wright "the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention." The pastor, Stanley wrote, "doesn't hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice." Virtually the identical opinion could be found that same day on the Op-Ed page, in a column by Bob Herbert, who said Wright was "living a narcissist's dream." The ink-on-paper Times did not deal with Wright's discussion of the "multilayered and rich tapestry of the black religious experience" or his theology of liberation, transformation and reconciliation until today, elsewhere in this section.

Peter Weltner of San Francisco wrote that he wished The Times had examined what he said were falsehoods in Wright's remarks - like the claim that blacks and whites learn with different parts of their brains - instead of "merely guessing why Mr. Wright said it."

 I'm with Hebb and Weltner. For a newspaper that showed great enterprise on the subject last year - breaking the story that Obama had disinvited Wright to deliver the invocation at the announcement of his presidential campaign, and publishing a deep examination of their relationship before most Americans had heard of Wright - it was a performance strangely lacking in energy at a potential turning point in the election.

The amount of column space that Hoyt crowds with his praise for the NYT's coverage of Wright before the Stanley incident shows just how much the ombudsman hated writing this piece. As is shown by the "crazy old uncle" theory proposed by Stanley in her column, the Times was trying its best to cover for Obama and Wright on this one (as was Moyers in his interview over on PBS), and Hoyt knows it.

One wonders if either rebuke would have occurred had Barack Obama himself not denounced his friend Reverend Wright last Tuesday, but at least it's a start. Perhaps the NYT should next devote a front-page article explaining the views of what was at the foundation of Reverend Wright's ministry at Trinity United Church of Christ -- black liberation theology - and if Barack Obama, after his enriching 20-year experience as a member of that church, shares those views.