Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama gave journalists throughout the United States a challenge in his press conference Monday, where he "forcefully" broke with his ex-pastor the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In his short 5-minute opening remarks, Obama said that Wright does not represent the black church in America. Is this true? Obama also made some interesting comments that may be worth a thorough journalistic fact-check: is the Wright we have seen over the last few days the same person that Obama met 20 years ago? If this is true, and there is no reason to doubt it until proven otherwise, how has Wright changed and why?
The newspaper best positioned to write these stories, particularly the ones about Wright, would be The Chicago Tribune. Here is Mike Dorning in the newspaper's Washington, D.C., bureau covering Obama's press conference:
Obama, appearing visibly pained, did in a hastily called press conference what he had been reluctant to do since controversy initially erupted more than a month ago over Wright's sermons, repudiating not merely the words but the world view of a clergyman who had once been a close spiritual counselor and by Obama's account inspired him to embrace Christian faith
Obama was confronting distracting media coverage of Wright's fiery appearance Monday at the National Press Club, in which the minister reaffirmed his view that the U.S. government may have initiated the AIDS epidemic to wipe out racial minorities and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as one of the most important voices of the 20th and 21st centuries.
"When I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything I am about and who I am," Obama said, adding that Wright's comments "end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.
It's interesting that Dorning would say that Wright was once a "close spiritual counselor because it seems to contradict what Obama said in the press conference Monday. "One thing that [Wright] said that was true was that he was never my quote unquote spiritual advisor, he was never my spiritual mentor." Obama also said that Wright was merely his pastor, who married him and his wife Michelle and baptized his daughters. He also said Wright prayed with him when he announced his plans to run for the presidency.
The challenge for journalists covering this story is that not much has changed over the last few days in terms of our knowledge of the black church in America and how religion plays into Obama's life and world outlook. Wright does not and cannot represent an entire religious group and cannot be the sole or even primary source for knowledge and insight into Obama's soul. But it's still part of the story.
It is easy for journalists to simply follow the pack and direction of the cable news networks in covering the inflammatory words of Wright, but what else is there to learn from him? The real story is going to be determining whether America believes Wright's version of what America is all about or Obama's hope for what American can become.