So here are the basics about that tense drama that unfolded yesterday at the U.S. Capitol, in which a protestor pulled a gun and was shot by police.
The protestor was an African-American pastor who leads a small congregation in Nashville that is highly involved in a specific political cause -- to the degree that it's website includes a video appeal for funds to help him travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby for this cause.
So here is the question you need to ask as you look at the mainstream coverage of this story: What was the cause that, according to this pastor, brought him to the U.S. Capitol? Why wasn't this information included in most of the coverage?
You can look, without success, for that information in The New York Times, in a story that does not even identify the Rev. Larry Russell Dawson as the elder of his church. Ditto for The Los Angeles Times, which did include a brief reference to an incident last fall in which Dawson (no reference to him leading a church) disrupted work in the U.S. House of Representatives by shouting that he was a "prophet of God"? But what else was he shouting about?
The Associated Press "Big Story" report that will appear in most American newspapers included a few additional details, but, once again, omitted the man's church ties and information about the cause that kept bringing him to Washington, D.C.
According to court documents, Dawson was arrested at the U.S. Capitol in October after he stood up and shouted Bible verses in the gallery of the House chamber. An online court record says he was charged with disorderly and disruptive conduct on the grounds of the Capitol and assaulting, resisting or interfering with a police officer. He was also ordered to stay away from the building and grounds.
Dawson did not return for a scheduled hearing in November. In a letter filed with his case, he says he will "not comply with the court order, nor will I surrender myself unto your office."
"No longer will I let myself be governed by flesh and blood, but only by the Divine Love of God," he wrote, adding four exclamation points.
The Washington Post coverage (which did identify Dawson as a "minister") included the full quotations from that earlier declaration:
After failing to show up for a hearing in November, he wrote the court in January, saying: “I have been called chosen and sent unto You this day. I am not under the Law! . . . Therefore, I will not comply with the court order, nor will I surrender myself unto your office.”
The letter adds: “For sin shall not dominion over you. For you are Not under the law, but under Grace!!!” It concludes, “No longer will I let myself be governed by flesh and blood, but only by the Divine Love of God!!!!”
The Post story also stated that it "was not clear why Dawson was at the visitor center Monday."
It is strange that a man who was clearly the leader of a small, independent community church was not granted -- following Associated Press style -- a simple title in front of his name, as in "the Rev." For some reason, as I have noted in the past, this only seems to happen with African-American clergy.
The Tennessean coverage included many legal details in this man's complicated past, including an incident in which -- he was a school-bus driver at the time -- he wrote a letter to an under-aged girl claiming that "that God had told him to have sex with her."
But here is the key material, for those seeking information about this latest incident at the U.S. Capitol. I would note that this information was placed way down in the body of the news story:
Dawson is listed as the pastor and elder on St. Luke’s Community Church’s website, which does not link the church to a particular denomination. According to filings with the secretary of state, the church has had several other names in recent years.
The church’s mission is described as having a foundation of the word of God: “We are building the kingdom of God on the preaching and teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
In a video posted on the website, words flash requesting donations for a trip to Washington D.C., and Dawson is shown holding a sign advocating for the minimum wage to be raised.
An effort to raise the minimum wage appears to be a key part of the church’s ministry, referring to it as “the movement.” Text and a video on the website also asked for donations for trips to D.C. to advocate for increasing the minimum wage.
“The movement now is to get the U.S. Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.00. I have been to Washington, D.C. three (3) times this year pushing for a raise in the minimum wage,” the website said.
So what was the cause that drove Dawson to the U.S. Capitol multiple times?
The answer: Appeals to raise the minimum wage.
So here is the big journalism question: Why was this relevant fact, openly posted on his church's website, not featured as a crucial element in mainstream news coverage of this event?
Do you think that this man's church and his cause would have been included in the coverage, or given a more prominent role in the case of The Tennessean and USA Today, if he had been protesting (a) gay marriage, (b) abortion or (c) some combination of cultural issues that most would call "evangelical" or even "fundamentalist"?
By the way, it is also interesting that, at no point in the mainstream coverage that I saw, did journalists attempt to pin a political or theological label on Dawson.
Personally, I think this is a positive thing. Why not let news consumers read about this pastor's words and actions without attaching a bunch of labels?
That is, this approach would work if journalists had bothered to cover the specifics of his words and his actions.
Why did news organizations, in this case, ignore the "why" question in this story?
FIRST IMAGE: From the website of St. Luke's Community Church in Nashville.