The ties between Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., now pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, were reported back on April 5, 2004, during Obama’s Illinois Senate race. On that day, the Chicago Sun-Times printed a story that, in various forms and media outlets, would reappear occasionally over the next four years. The piece—a narrative interview with Obama—traced his spiritual journey from conversion experience, answering an altar call at Trinity Church, to finding, in Wright, a close confidant. In 2007 and 2008, Obama’s links to Wright and this historically black church on the south side of Chicago would be revisited much more frequently.
Local press scoops the story
Considering that Obama is—politically—a native of Illinois, it is understandable that city’s two major dailies stayed ahead of the curve in reporting on the hometown presidential candidate, even well before he announced. Even while his intentions were still rumors, on June 29, 2006, the Sun-Times published a remixed version of the April 2004 story. A month later, July 25, 2006, the Sun-Times ran a second story, which focused on Obama’s relationship to Rev. Wright and other prominent African-American church leaders in the Chicago area.
It wasn’t until February of the following year (February 6, 2007) that the Chicago Tribune picked up on the characterization of Obama as caught between two worlds, both religious and racial. Obama had not yet formally entered the presidential race, and his relationship with Wright was not yet framed as a hindrance to his appeal with voters. Instead, the media suggested that Obama would have to work just as hard to win the African-American vote as he would the white vote. “Obama also faces his own challenges in dealing with race as he seeks to frame himself as a candidate who can bridge historic divisions not only of race, but class and religion as well,” reported the Tribune.
As for Rev. Wright, he had been attracting attention for decades—some of it national, but not necessarily negative attention. When Frontline (PBS) interviewed him for a documentary on the state of the black church in 1987, it was to include the voices of prominent leaders in the African-American church community—not to expose a radical fringe element. On April 30, 2007, The New York Times ran a major page-one story entitled “A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith.” And even if Wright was not a household name prior to Obama’s candidacy, his sermons were accessible—the two that were most heavily excerpted and replayed on network and cable television in March 2008 were delivered and recorded in September 2001 and April 2003.
From the start, however, race, ethnicity and religion were all intertwined in the story of Obama’s church background.
National press and the question of Israel
In early 2007, a new media angle emerged—that of Obama’s ties to Israel and its impact on his Jewish support. This media narrative was tied directly to Rev. Wright and some in the press saw it as an act of media sabotage by Rev. Wright himself. On March 6, 2007, The New York Times reported on the Obama campaign’s “disinvitation” of Rev. Wright to deliver the invocation at Obama’s formal announcement of his candidacy. The Times interviewed Wright for a reaction to the campaign’s move, and he explained himself thus: ““When his enemies find out that in 1984 I went to Tripoli” to visit Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Wright recalled, “with Farrakhan, a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell.””
The Chicago Sun-Times picked up the story two days later, interpreting the snubbed Wright’s comments to The New York Times as a clever way of retaliating against Obama by name-dropping Farrahkan and Qaddafi, thus inflicting damage to Obama’s image by letting the media carry the story. In reporting on Wright’s quote—and interpreting it—the Sun-Times may have done just that. The Chicago Tribune ran a piece a month later tracing the evolution of a rumor—how it snowballs and can cause lasting damage to a campaign. The case study was Obama, and how Wright’s comment about Qaddafi and the trip to Libya with Farrakhan was taken and misinterpreted by others outside of the media. The piece wrote of how it became a viral Internet scandal, not unlike other Web-based rumors—such as Obama’s secret life as a Muslim—which, while false, take root easily in the netherworld of cyberspace.
The association—even if by two degrees—with Farrakhan would continue to dog Obama, and broke wide open in early 2008 with Richard Cohen’s editorial in The Washington Post entitled “Obama’s Farrakhan Test.” Appearing on January 15, 2008, it raised the issue of exactly how far removed Obama was from Farrakhan, whose anti-semetic remarks in the past had wrankled many. Cohen pointed to the fact that Trinity Church’s magazine, Trumpet, had given its 2007 Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to Farrakhan. The editorial caused a stir in the media, with a splash of reports on January 16 and 17 about the editorial and what Obama should do from that point.
The focus quickly seemed to move from Farrakhan to Wright, however, with the January 18, 2008 edition of the New York Post running a story about “Barack’s Unrighteous Rev” and a Baltimore Sun page-one story focusing on Obama’s relationship with his pastor two days prior.
On February 5, 2008, The Washington Post’s Cohen again editorialized about Obama, but this time, his piece was an endorsement of Obama’s candidacy (even while he reiterated his disapproval of Obama’s “ducking” the issue of Trinity’s Farrakhan award).
On February 24, 2008, however, less than two months after Cohen’s original editorial about the Farrakhan connection, Farrakhan himself gave an address to members of the Nation of Islam in Chicago, at their annual convention. The Chicago Tribune, on the following day, was the first to cover the event, in which Farrakhan all but endorsed Obama. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page touched on the issue (February 25, 2008), but also noted that technically, Farrakhan did not endorse Obama. Within days, however, the media quickly began calling it an endorsement (February 27, Washington Post and the New York Daily News).
On Tuesday, February 26, 2008, Obama and Clinton held a debate that drew intense media coverage. Although health care, trade and the war in Iraq made most newspaper headlines the next day, this was also the famous “reject and denounce” debate, in which Clinton challenged Obama to more strongly distance himself from Farrakhan. And on February 28, 2008, the issue of Israel came up again. “Two controversial Chicago figures—Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Obama’s church—have figured prominently in the criticism of Obama,” reported The Washington Post.
The “inflammatory” videos of Rev. Wright’s sermon clips were first broadcast by ABC News and Fox News Channel on March 13, 2008. The excerpted and edited clips would appear all over the Web and other broadcast and cable news outlets in what was referred to by the press as a “constant loop.” Contained in them were some of Wright’s more controversial statements from the pulpit, where he used strong rhetoric to critique America’s treatment of race. Suddenly, the candidate found himself the target of questions about his faith background and also found himself sharing the stage with his former pastor.
Judging from most news accounts, the decision for Obama to give the speech was made quickly and in reaction to the dissemination of the Rev. Wright videos. On Monday, March 17, 2008, Obama spoke to reporters about how he needed to address the race issue (USA Today, March 18, 2008). The following day, he would deliver the address. The Boston Herald depicted the candidate in a rushed and reactive state: “The issue had the Democratic front-runner on the defensive over the weekend, and he reportedly was up until early yesterday morning working on today’s speech.” (March 18, 2008).
Columnist Dana Milbank described the Jeremiah Wright scandal as if Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric from the pulpit had been somehow intended to remain a secret: “Obama is in trouble because his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was caught on tape preaching such gospel as “God damn America” and accusing Israel of “state terrorism against the Palestinians” (The Washington Post, March 18, 2008, from “The audacity of chutzpah”).
Although the Jeremiah Wright media scandal had been buzzing for days, it wasn’t until March 18 that newspapers reported on Obama’s speech. There was no prior notice. But weeks before that, there were calls for Obama to address his relationship to Wright. The “reject and denounce” moment in the debate against Clinton drew attention to Obama’s relationships with controversial religious figures. The Obama campaign had known, at least since he formally entered the race for president, that Wright could be a political problem. Perhaps he had anticipated giving a speech for some time. But there is no denying the impact that the circulation of the Wright videos had on Obama’s timing.
Obama delivered his speech in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008, at the Constitution Center. Thirty-seven minutes in length, the address was given before a small audience and broadcast live.
Although Obama’s speech addressed issues of religion by explaining the black church tradition, his campaign billed it from the start as focusing primarily on issues of race. USA Today reported on March 18, 2008, that “Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will deliver what his campaign is billing as “a major address on race and politics” today…He told reporters Monday that he now wants to address “the larger issue of race in this campaign, which has ramped up over the last couple of weeks.” A number of other major papers that day reported on either Obama’s major “speech on race” (The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune) or “speech on race and politics” (Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, San Diego Union-Tribune, Rocky Mountain News, The Charlotte Observer).
A handful of papers did described the speech as one dealing with race and religion, including the Detroit Free Press, which reported the day after the speech (March 19, 2008) from the angle of Detroit area ministers reacting to the event. Other instances in which the address was described as dealing with “race and religion” include The New York Times (March 21, 2008), The Washington Post (March 23, 2008), The Oregonian (March 23, 2008), The Houston Chronicle (March 26, 2008), and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 23, 2008).
Comparisons to Romney’s December 2007 speech on religion appeared immediately. The Boston Globe quoted Ken Smukler, a democratic consultant, in a March 18, 2008, story on the speech. Smukler said, “This is what campaigns do when problems arise that do not go away. They give major speeches. To me, it’s Mitt Romney on religion: he had to give the big speech to frame the issue.”
The day after Obama’s speech, the analysis began to roll in. Tim Rutten wrote an editorial on March 19, 2008 for the Los Angeles Times entitled “Obama’s Lincoln Moment,” comparing Obama’s performance with Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. In the same editorial, however, Rutten made as many comparisons to JFK’s 1960 speech on religion.
The story, of course, did not end there. On April 25, Wright began what would be a series of media events to clear his name with a PBS interview by Bill Moyers. Following this, Wright held an event at the National Press Club on April 28. These events were interspersed with sermons and speeches, all in one way or another attempts to set the record straight on his own terms following Obama’s explanation of Wright’s preaching style and rhetoric.
Wright’s media blitz revived a story that had been waning in the previous weeks, and created a rift between he and Obama, who by the end of May, had resigned his family from the membership rolls at Trinity Church. At this point in the general election season, it is difficult to predict the extent to which the Jeremiah Wright controversy will impact Obama’s candidacy. But judging from the polling done throughout the course of March and April, the story is more likely to hurt than help him.