Washington Post frames Dr. Ben Carson as that Uncle Tom who lost folks in black pews

Having worked as both a copy-desk editor and as a reporter, I am well aware of the fact that the scribes who write news stories rarely get to write the headlines that, for many angry readers, define the heart of what the stories say.

However, experienced reporters do get to write the vast majority of their own ledes.

So that's what I was thinking the other day when I read the top of that Washington Post news feature about Dr. Ben Carson that angered several GetReligion readers, who sent me emails containing the URL. For starters, there is that headline: "As Ben Carson bashes Obama, many blacks see a hero’s legacy fade." The vague word "many" is always a bad place to start.

Raise your hands, cyber-folks, if you are surprised that scores of black Democrats are upset with Carson. Ditto, of course, for the leaders of African-American churches that march under the banner of progressive politics, progressive doctrines, or both.

Carson is a person who, in addition to his excellence as an world-famous pediatric neurosurgeon, is best understood in the frame work of his religious and cultural beliefs, rather than his political views, strictly defined. Yes, this is one reason that some people -- including some admirers -- think he should not be running for president (as opposed to running for vice president or a chair in the cabinet). Hold that thought.

It is significant, this time around, that the story's lede and summary material has the exact same tone as the headline:

The black man courting crowds of white conservatives doesn’t seem like the same guy that H. Westley Phillips once idolized. Phillips still relishes the day he heard Ben Carson inspire minority students at Yale University with his story of persistence. He can still feel the nervous anticipation he had while waiting in line to shake Carson’s hand.
After the speech, Phillips followed Carson’s path and began to study neurosurgery. ...
For many young African Americans who grew up seeing Carson as the embodiment of black achievement -- a poor inner-city boy who became one of the world’s most accomplished neurosurgeons -- his emergence as a conservative hero and unabashed critic of the United States’ first black president has been jarring.

Yes, can you say "Uncle Tom"? I knew that you could.

That's harsh, but that is precisely what I, and some readers, thought when they read that lede. This is precisely the framework for the story, a common approach in mainstream news reports about black conservatives. This morally conservative African-American -- Carson -- isn't simply appealing to conservatives and people in church pews, no, he is chasing whites by (starting with his 2013 National Prayer Breakfast address, above) bashing Obama, an African-American moral and political liberal.

Obviously, there "many" blacks who are upset about that. So, who are they? Here is the crucial material up top:

Carson’s personal accomplishments -- and the work he has done to help black communities -- still garner respect and pride among African Americans. Yet, while he has been a conservative for as long as he has been famous, many worry that he risks eroding his legacy in their community and transforming himself into a fringe political figure.
Some black pastors who were Carson’s biggest promoters have stopped recommending his book. Members of minority medical organizations that long boasted of their affiliations with him say he is called an “embarrassment” on private online discussion groups.
“Has he lost his sense of who he is?” said the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent black pastor in Baltimore, where Carson lived for decades when he was director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “He does not see he is the next Herman Cain.”

Now, who is Bryant? He is a very, very politically connected pastor in a city in which African-American progressives currently hold the reins. He is important, but saying that this mainline Protestant minister speaks for the whole black church when he talks about Carson is kind of like saying that the National Council of Churches speaks for all American Protestants. Yes, it would be the same as (mirror image) saying that black leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention or the Assemblies of God speak for the whole black church.

But the point is that Carson's fall from grace is important because blacks on the left used to admire him, as much as those on the moral and cultural right. Thus, readers are told:

The admiration many blacks have long felt for Carson differentiates him from past black conservative presidential candidates such as Cain, the former pizza executive who briefly rose in the polls during the 2012 primary season, Carson’s political supporters say. He has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by Republican President George W. Bush, and the Spingarn Medal, the top honor given by the traditionally liberal NAACP.
His stature, Carson supporters say, helps him combat the perception that the far right is exclusive and out of touch. Critics, these supporters say, underestimate Carson’s potential impact on the race at their own peril.

Part of the problem, for me, is that the story contains very little material about Carson as a religious believer and the impact this has had on his life and career. Late in the story, there is this, about the book that helped build Carson public persona:

“Gifted Hands” chronicles his unlikely journey into medicine. His mother, a devout Seventh-day Adventist, raised Carson and his brother alone. She taught them that they could be anything they wanted to be. Carson was the worst student in his class and suffered a debilitating anger after his father walked out on his family, he wrote.
The autobiography described how Carson’s mother barred television from the house and mandated her children read two books a week. He wrote that he prayed to God to cleanse him from his angry feelings. His grades soared, and he went on to graduate from Yale and then the University of Michigan Medical School. He became the youngest director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins and the first black person to hold the position.
Carson said his agent expected the memoir to sell about 14,000 copies. According to its publisher Zondervan, the Christian arm of HarperCollins, it has sold 1.7 million.

Religious leaders in the black community emphasized the spiritual overtones and recommended the book to their youth groups. Teachers saw the narrative of achievement and social mobility and taught the book in their schools. The legend of Ben Carson took flight.

This leads us to the Prayer Breakfast and his leap into the public square, in terms of politics. And for the Post that, in turn, brings us back to black church leadership. Once again, note the denominational affiliation of the leader the Post team selected for feedback.

The political turn was unexpected for many who knew him. The Rev. Frank Reid of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore found it “astounding.” When they were at Yale together, Reid said, Carson was universally regarded as brilliant and hard-working. Reid could not recall Carson participating in student activism because he was too busy studying with his future wife, Candy, in the library.
When Carson first promoted “Gifted Hands,” Reid invited him to his church so his congregation could hear the story. But if Carson were to speak today, Reid said he would ask him to come in for a “family session, with our leaders, behind closed doors, to find out what is really going on.
“I am hedging about what to say, because you cannot take away the impact that he’s had,” Reid said. “But before we turn on the brother, we have to hear him out. As shocking as some of the things he’s said are, I would rather have a discussion than attack someone who has done respectful work.”

The story ends with Carson receiving applause from a potentially hostile African-American crowd, when he returns to his old themes of achievement and excellence, and a mostly white crowd packed with people who line up to check him out as a rising political hero.

So what is missing?

Where is the rest of the black church? It's clear that the mainline Protestants are now nervous about Carson, if not hostile. But is that there the action is today in terms of grown and fire in the black church? Where are the black Pentecostal pastors? The new black evangelicals on the rise in megachurch circles? Maybe the recent African-American president of the giant Southern Baptist Convention? That would have been interesting, in light of the recent decision to drop the invitation for Carson to speak to the national SBC pastor's conference.

In other words, where is the other side of the religious and political congregation -- black and white -- who admire Carson and even share many or most of his current views? In terms of the crucial religious element of this story, why talk to one side, alone?

NOTE: It goes without saying that comments on this post should focus on the journalism issues linked to coverage of Carson and the black church, not on the feelings readers may have about Carson as a presidential candidate.

Please respect our Commenting Policy