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CBS's Early Show Avoids Wright's Most Controversial Comments

By Media Research Center
March 18, 2008

On Monday's CBS Early Show, a total of over 13 minutes of coverage was given to the controversy involving comments of Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, but only 16 seconds was given to play video of Wright's comments, video which did not include some of the Reverend's most shocking comments that September 11 was caused by U.S. foreign policy or that the AIDS virus was part of a government plot against the black community.

     The coverage began with a report from CBS correspondent Dean Reynolds, who suggested the media were paying too much attention to the story: "For days now the news media have recycled Reverend Wright's sermons or at least their most inflammatory parts." That was followed by a relatively mild three second clip of Wright declaring: "Not God Bless America! God damn America!" Reynolds went on to explain: "Obama has denounced that and other anti-American statements, though the Senator says he never heard such comments before from the man who was his spiritual mentor." Reynolds never mentioned what those other "anti-American statements" were.

     [This item, by Kyle Drennen, was posted Monday afternoon on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]

     The conclusion to Reynolds' report seemed to say Wright's comments were normal and reflective of most black churches. An idea that set the tone for the rest of the coverage: "The question is whether the rhetoric is so remarkable, because at African-American churches pastors often seek to rouse their congregants to self-reliance by speaking harshly of the country's troubled racial past and the need to overcome it...Now, the church leaders over the weekend here put out a statement saying that Jeremiah Wright was a victim of character assassination. And the clear concern at the Obama campaign is that the candidate has been victimized as well."

     Following the report by Reynolds, co-host Russ Mitchell interviewed Reverend Calvin Butts about the controversy and asked: "When it comes to the African-American church, how surprised should people be when they hear a pastor from the pulpit giving a controversial statement using such strong language?" Butts replied: "Well, the strength of the language, of course, is questionable. However, the prophetic tradition of the African-American church has been such that we have had to criticize the nation that we love so dearly in order to win our human and civil rights. We've had to speak harshly about the injustices to draw people's attention to the real problems that we've had to face. The shock value is nothing new. The prophets used it in ancient Israel. The Disciples used it -- Jesus called the Pharisees 'white sepulchers,' 'white-washed tombs.' So, the shock rhetoric is not unusual in pulpits, black or white, but certainly in the black community because people have to have the point driven home, and they have to have made vivid. And sometimes the language can be awfully powerful."

     Mitchell never asked specifically about any of Wright's "strong language" and at the end of the interview Mitchell asked Butts: "Black congregants are reluctant, are they not, to criticize their pastor in public, even if the pastor says something as strong, as controversial, as what Reverend Wright says?" Butts agreed: "That's right. I'm very surprised at any congregant who would denounce his or her pastor...Well, because people love their pastors, and in the churches they understand the rhetoric. See, you shouldn't look at this as if people just walk into church and the pastor says something shocking and they immediately run to it. They understand what is, you know, radical rhetoric and what is the practical application of the love of God to everybody."

     Later in the 8:30 half hour, both Mitchell and co-host Maggie Rodriguez had a roundtable discussion with Mother Jones Columnist, Debra Dickerson, Bucknell University professor James Peterson, and Columbia University professor, Randall Balmer. Mitchell teased the discussion by wondering: "Will the situation have a lasting impact on Obama's campaign? Or has it been blown out of proportion?"

     Prior to the roundtable, another two brief clips of video of Wright's comments were played, for a total of only 13 seconds: "Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich, white people!..Not Bod bless America, God damn America!" Again, Wright's other comments were missing.

     Rodriguez actually did question how much Obama knew about Wright's comments: "Well, Barack Obama is pretending to be shocked. He says he's never heard this before. Do you think he's pretending?" Dickerson responded: "Yes. He's -- I think he's surprised because the things that get said in church tend not to, you know, sort of what happens in church stays in church. And we've never been called on the carpet before. We've never been at -- you know what it is, it was a vestige of racism. Nobody cared what we were saying in our churches unless it had sort of popular resonance, you know, when we were in the civil rights movement and that sort of thing. But the regular day-to-day Sunday sermons, this is not unusual."

     Mitchell then turned to Peterson and asked: "Well James, let me ask you, did Reverend Wright, in your mind, cross the line there by making some of the statements that he made?" Peterson said this: "I don't think so. I think we need to understand that the pulpit is like a rhetorical space. And so, If we put that back into its context and saw the sermon develop over time, I think we might have a different take on it now. And when you pull certain comments out, it seems very sensational. But, I would agree that the black church is a kind of a bastion of sort of segregated culture, and there's a way in which we just are not having access to that. But what the Reverend is saying fits into a certain kind of context. And I'm not defending it or not defending it, I'm just saying that we're pulling it out of its rhetorical context. The pulpit is someplace from which we have to persuade people. And sometimes, whether it's a black persuasion or a white persuasion, those words are going to be very, very strong, very, very powerful and their designed to incite, designed to make us have the kind of conversations that we're having right now."

     Rodriguez then asked Balmer if Obama was "guilty" by his close association with Wright. Balmer responded by saying no and finding a way to turn the discussion to President Bush's religion: "I don't think so. I -- I mean, I've been attending church for the better part of 53years. If I believed everything every minister ever told me, I'd probably be in analysis for the next 20 years. I mean that's just not a fair thing. And I think we're asking the wrong questions. The real questions should be to all of the candidates, how does your religious faith affect your policies, affect the way you govern. For example, eight years ago when George W. Bush declared that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, suppose somebody had followed up with a question 'Governor Bush, your favorite philosopher calls on his followers to be peace makers and turn the other cheek, how will that affect your foreign policy in the event of, say, an attack on the United States? Or how does Jesus' sentiment about expressing concern for the tiniest sparrow affect your environmental policies?' Those are real questions."

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