By now Alessandra Stanley's condescending, vicious attack on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright on the front page of yesterday's New York Times--neither news nor fit to print--has become a scandal in its own right.
Why a television critic, of all people, gets to carry the heavy political water at the Times these days raised more than a few eyebrows yesterday, though you also have to wonder exactly which Kool-Aid Times editors were knocking back as they thought about sticking her rant on the front page. Was it the "we can show we're just as tough as Fox News" flavor? Or the taste of "we haven't displayed our Olympian condescension on the front page lately"? How about the "let's show how we can dis a serious African-American preacher under the guise of TV criticism so we can avoid being called racists" flavor? I would have thought that last one must have done the trick, but there's one more I haven't seen talked about: it's called zest of "let's show Jeremiah Wright what a mistake he made in attacking one of our reporters a while back." It's sometimes called, more simply, essence of "payback."
Here's the backstory. A little over a year ago Rev. Wright gave an interview to the Times' Jodi Kantor, unde the impression she was writing a "spiritual biography" of Barack Obama. She used a very small snippet of the interview, in this piece about Barack Obama disinviting Wright to speak when the Senator announced his candidacy for president.
A few days later, Wright wrote an open letter to reporter Kantor, that was widely circulated in African-American and United Church of Christ (UCC) circles, in which he strongly objected to having given her so much time, only to have a tiny sound-bite used in the piece. Here's what he wrote:
As I was just starting to say a moment ago, Jodi, out
of two hours of conversation I spent approximately five
to seven minutes on Barack's taking advice from one of
his trusted campaign people and deeming it unwise to
make me the media spotlight on the day of his
announcing his candidacy for the Presidency and what do
you print? You and your editor proceeded to present to
the general public a snippet, a printed "sound byte"
and a titillating and tantalizing article about his
dis-inviting me to the Invocation on the day of his
announcing his candidacy.
In late march, BET.com posted Wright's open letter on its website. Soon, a Times editor responded, defending the paper and the reporter. Both can be found here
It's one thing for an editor to back up a reporter. It's quite another to publish a hatchet job on the front page. The Times really takes care of its own.
How dare the Rev. Jeremiah Wright object to his treatment by the paper of record! This is a man who has preached prophetically, against the "principalities and powers" for decades, and built a tiny church on the South Side of Chicago into an 8,000-member powerhouse, the largest church in his denomination. Widely known as one of the finest prophetic preachers in the denomination, and according to many one of the finest African-American preachers in the country, Wright is biblically astute, witty and persuasive, committed to representing God's love in the world. How dare he push back against a reporter for the New York Times!
Long after Stanley's television criticism has faded from anyone's memory, and her editors have gone on to greener pastures, Trinity United Church of Christ will remain a vital institution serving the Gospel and thousands of Chicagoans. No thanks to the New York Times.