- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. has not lost his touch as a pastor.

His words can be visceral. They kick-start public discourse on race and politics and resonate with friends and foe alike, particularly after appearances on the Public Broadcasting Service and at the National Press Club in the past week.

But Mr. Wright has become a media and cultural force all his own.

The clergyman has bested Bill Clinton in the press derby, garnering more than twice as much coverage as the former president, according to a study released yesterday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Mr. Wright was the “leading newsmaker” in 7 percent of all campaign stories in recent days; Mr. Clinton garnered 3 percent. Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, weighed in with 17 percent.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois triumphed, however. He was showcased in 70 percent of the stories, press interest driven in part by “the return of racial issues” on the public’s radar, much prompted by Mr. Wright’s commentary, the study said.

The former pastor’s public image is a study in contrasts. Mr. Wright was deemed “a go-to mainstream media source for racial extremist spew, the next iteration of Al Sharpton,” by Time magazine’s Joe Klein yesterday. But the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called Mr. Wright “the hottest brother in America” after he attended the organization’s fundraiser Sunday night.

The public’s take-away message also has polarities.

“Some people really object to Reverend Wright’s charged language, but he has raised the concern that racism is very real in American life. His speeches are an opportunity for growth, for Americans to study issues that plague the nation. We can try to recognize our democratic ideals — or the ways we’ve fallen short of them,” said Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University.

Others see him as a dangerous anachronism.

“As a religious figure, Reverend Wright is a joke. He is a monumental narcissist who has done nothing for African-Americans. His speeches only help him be a media star,” said Roger L. Simon, a screenwriter, chief executive officer of PajamasMedia.com and a 1960s-era civil rights worker in South Carolina.

“This is not the racist society it once was. Reverend Wright is playing to a 30-year-old recording and may just pull the racial discussion backwards. Both his livelihood and stardom depend on things being bad,” Mr. Simon said.

MSNBC has reported that a book deal for Mr. Wright might be in the works. If so, it will be his fifth.

The presence of Mr. Wright in the public forum could offer Americans a broader perspective of black religious traditions beyond the black Protestant church or Martin Luther King, Mr. Pinn said.

“People are acting like Reverend Wright created this whole mess. That is not the case. His comments were originally pulled from old sermons, then packaged and fed to Americans and repeated ad nauseam,” said Ronald Walters, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland.

“It is accurate for Reverend Wright to consider a personal attack on him to be an attack on the black church as well,” Mr. Walters said, noting that he just attended a conference of more than 400 black clergy and theologians at Shiloh Baptist Church in the District.

“They supported Reverend Wright. They were closing the wagons in a circle, so to speak,” Mr. Walters said. “I hope this situation helps Americans understand more about black churches, and why Reverend Wright said what he did. One look at commentators on cable networks and it’s clear they don’t have a clue. People interpret the black church without knowing what’s really going on.”

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