When most Americans met Jeremiah Wright, he was a caricature, rendered in the blurry lines and crackling tones of buffered video bites: a seething figure in vaguely African garb, preaching fire and fury, waving his hands, glaring at no one in particular, and questioning the goodness of America. He yelled. He pounded his fist. He indulged in his anger. And in the news, his story played out as one of his sermons: in climbs and drops and loops and twists, a roller coaster of rhetoric so fast and furious and jarring and breathtaking that the only possible reaction to it all was to go, unthinkingly, along for the ride.
Only when the story was ending—when it was too late to be rectified, which is generally the time we in the media choose to recognize our mistakes—did we begin to feel the whiplash. We had, in attempting to encapsulate both a man and a religious tradition in a series of seconds-long video clips, shortchanged our audiences even as we tried to enlighten them.
Then Barack Obama delivered his speech on race in Philadelphia, giving context to Wright’s anger and calling, on a national scale, for empathy, reconciliation, conversation. “It was like ripping the Band-Aid off,” Chris Matthews put it. It was “game-changing.” It was “transformational.” The Great Conversation about Race in America—the one older than the country itself, the one that has been waged in fits and starts for nearly four hundred years—was again upon us, this time with new voices and renewed urgency. This was our moment. From now on, things were going to be different. We, the people—guided by a press ennobled and invigorated by the opportunity—were embracing our pivotal historical moment to transcend history itself, to confront and, perhaps, finally exorcise our demons by engaging in that most fundamental of American pastimes: an open-minded and frank conversation.
Except, of course, we weren’t. They didn’t. It couldn’t. All our lofty talk of Reconciliation was interrupted—and quickly revealed as hopelessly ironic—when Jeremiah Wright reemerged on the scene last week. You know the story. The interview with PBS’s Bill Moyers, in which the pastor claimed the incendiary video clips that had defined his media portrayal were taken—as they generally tend to be when a portrayal is negative—out of context. The “fiery” speech to the Detroit NAACP. The “inflammatory” appearance at the National Press Club. Of course the Conciliatory Conversation fizzled in our faces. How could we focus on all we have in common when Reverend Wright himself seemed so focused on division? How could we owe our Transcendent Discourse to a man so clearly uninterested in transcendence? “If there’s any coherent message to be gleaned from the hypocrisy whipped up by Hurricane Jeremiah,” Frank Rich put it this weekend, “it’s that this nation’s perennially promised candid conversation on race has yet to begin.”
That is an understatement. And the fact that it’s so is only partially the fault of the political press. There are, after all, two Jeremiah Wrights. There is Wright the political figure—Wright the corollary, and potential liability, to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign—and there is Wright the cultural figure, the community leader who speaks, if not for the African American community as a whole, at least for the subset of that community that is justifiably angered about historical injustices that are by no means yet consigned to history. In that sense, Wright represents a quandary for the media: Which identity, if either, is more worthy of coverage? Can the two even be disentangled? How, given the constraints of time and space and style inherent in news stories, do you convey one identity without slighting the other? How do you balance the high-level discourse of social-service journalism with the political discourse of daily reportage?
The media treatments of Wright have focused—nominally, at least—on the political Wright, on the reverend as both agent and victim of political controversy. And they are justified in this. The pastor’s immediate news value lies, after all, in the impact he has had, and will no doubt continue to have, on Barack Obama’s historic campaign for the presidency. As far as hard news goes, that role is where Wright’s import both begins and ends.