By Roland S. Martin
A story this week by the Associated Press has caused quite a stir, especially among African-Americans, when multiple news outlets ran it with the following headline: “Some black pastors are telling their flocks to stay home Election Day.”
The New York Daily News ran that headline, along with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Newsday, and a host of conservative websites such as HotAir and NewsMax.
When I first saw the headline, I was stunned to see it, especially knowing the blood that has been shed over the years by African-Americans and others to gain the precious right to vote.
Then I read the 1,340-word story by Rachel Zoll, with a contribution from Bill Barrow.
And as I read, it was clear that none of the news outlets that ran that headline actually bothered to read the story. In fact, the original headline on the AP story was changed to reflect something entirely different.
When I finished, I called a former staffer at the Associated Press who sent me the original headline that accompanied the story. It read: “African-American Christians waver over vote.”
The longer subhead read: “African-American Christians and pastors weigh religious concerns in looming vote for president.”
In reading the piece, Zoll and Barrow quote or mention pastors A.R. Bernard, Jamal Bryant, George Nelson Jr., Floyd James, and Howard-John Wesley, Lin Hill and Dwight McKissic.
Not a single one of these pastors was quoted as saying they have or plan to tell their congregations not to vote in the presidential election. Not one.
Several expressed misgivings about President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage, and others had negative thoughts about Mitt Romney being a Mormon or the effect of his policies on their congregants. One said he hasn’t decided whom he will vote for, and McKissic said he’ll go fishing on Election Day. But not one said they were advocating telling their members not to vote.
The story quotes Pastor Bryant as telling the Washington Informer, “This is the first time in black church history that I’m aware of that black pastors have encouraged their parishioners not to vote.” They couldn’t reach him, but even using that quote by AP is suspect because it has no specifics, no context or anything else. Unless you know of specific pastors telling their congregations not to vote, it’s wrong to make the assumption. He even tweeted the AP after the story ran: “WHEN did you contact @jamalhbryant in order to get his statement on voting? You need to revisit this & be accurate.”
In fact, these pastors would be jeopardizing their 501c3 status with the IRS if they made such a statement to their congregations. A pastor can say whom he or she is personally supporting, but directing their congregations not to vote for a candidate would be a violation of federal law.
So these news outlets that ran the story under the grossly incorrect headline need to explain to their readers why they didn’t read the piece and why they chose to ignore the original AP headline.
The Associated Press should investigate whether one of their staffers altered the headline in later versions to say something entirely different from what was in the piece.
In fact, the Associated Press should do a real examination of its internal controls because there are some fundamental problems with the story itself.
It is clear that Zoll and Barrow chose to ignore compelling data that undercut the general thesis of their story. If you look at any polling data, it is clear that African-Americans overwhelmingly are going to vote for President Obama. One recent poll says he will get 94 percent of the black vote and Romney will get none. Surely, there are black Christians among that particular group.
Can AP explain why such polling was missing from this story? Surely the facts could put their story in perspective.
Second, the Obama campaign has an extensive faith-based outreach among African-American pastors, and he has participated in conference calls with them, including one on the day he announced his support for same-sex marriage.
Why didn’t Zoll or Barrow make mention of that or try to reach out to them? That’s Journalism 101.
Lastly, it’s nonsensical to quote several black pastors who have misgivings about positions taken by President Obama and Romney and conclude that “African-American Christians waver over vote.”
No, maybe those individuals are wavering, but the evidence is clear that a super majority of African Americans, including Christians, are clear as to whom they are voting for or that they will be voting in November.
There is no denying that Obama’s same- sex marriage position caused tremendous discussion in the Black community, and I have heard from a handful of folks who say that has changed their view of him and dampened their enthusiasm to support him for a second term. But I would never offer up a sweeping claim that it is as widespread as Zoll and Barrow suggest.
I know for a fact that the Associated Press has an editor who specializes in such stories, and it begs the question if the news service even used her.
Sonya Ross is the race, ethnicity and demographics editor for the Associated Press and was appointed to the job in October 2010. I’ve had the former AP White House correspondent on my TV One Sunday morning show, Washington Watch, and know her to be an impeccable journalist with a keen eye to spotting such glaring mistakes.
If she was never consulted on the story, that is an epic fail by the Associated Press and calls into question their internal systems.
Some would say this is internal journalism stuff. I disagree. This story has led to editorials blasting black pastors. It has caused some in the piece to have to come out and state whom they will endorse and has led to consternation among the general public.
Our job in the media is to inform and enlighten, not confuse. Changing the headline of the AP story was dead wrong, and the culprits should be identified. But running such a confusing story lacking basic context and perspective was the biggest problem of all.
Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN analyst and author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as Originally Reported by Roland S. Martin.” Please visit his website at RolandSMartin.com. To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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