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Black pastors aren't saying 'don't vote'

By Roland Martin, CNN Contributor
September 21, 2012 -- Updated 1433 GMT (2233 HKT)
Obama supporters attend a voting rally at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2008.
Obama supporters attend a voting rally at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2008.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • AP article caused consternation by asserting black pastors urging flocks not to vote
  • Roland Martin says story did not back that up with real evidence or context
  • Martin: No pastor quoted in the story said he told congregants to stay home on Election Day
  • Martin: President's gay marriage stance is of concern, but vast majority of blacks support him

Editor's note: Roland Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for the TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."

(CNN) -- 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 attention-grabbing headline, "Some black pastors are telling their flocks to stay home Election Day."

The New York Daily News ran the story, along with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Newsday, and a host of conservative websites such as HotAir and NewsMax.

Roland Martin
Roland Martin

When I first saw the headline, I was stunned, especially knowing the blood that has been shed over the years by African-Americans and others to gain the precious right to vote.

I read the more than 1,300-word story by Rachel Zoll, with a contribution from Bill Barrow. The first line was "Some black clergy see no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports gay marriage, so they are telling their flocks to stay home on Election Day."

Nothing in the story legitimately backed up that first line. Anybody who had read the full article would know that.

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.

Politics: Is Obama taking black vote for granted?

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 a one said they were telling their members not to vote.

The only time this assertion that pastors are telling their congregations to stay home comes from a quote, lifted from another newspaper. The story quotes 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."

The reporters couldn't reach him to ask him about it, but going ahead and using the quote is suspect. The writers provide no specifics, no context, or anything else. Bryant said he was aware of this, not that he knew anyone. This is third-hand reporting. Unless you as a reporter know of specific pastors telling their congregations not to vote, it's wrong to make the assumption.

Bryant even tweeted the AP after the story ran: "WHEN did you contact @jamalhbryant <https://twitter.com/jamalhbryant> in order to get his statement on voting? you need to revisit this & be accurate."

Pastors recommending that their followers stay home on Election Day would be jeopardizing their 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. 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 could not have read the piece. If they did, they need to explain to their readers why they ran it.

When contacted about this story, the AP said it "stands by the version of the story that we distributed, separate and apart from versions that deviated from our own text."

But I believe AP should thoroughly examine its internal controls because that story has other fundamental problems.

It is clear that Zoll and Barrow chose to ignore compelling data that undercuts the article's general thesis. If you look at any polling data, it is clear that African-Americans overwhelmingly are going to vote for Obama. One recent poll says he will get 94% of the black vote. Surely, there are black Christians among that particular group.

Can AP explain why this recent 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 the president has participated in conference calls with them, including one on the day he announced his support for same-sex marriage.

Political ticker: Black pastors group launches anti-Obama campaign around gay marriage

Why didn't Zoll or Barrow make mention of that or try to reach out to them? That's Journalism 101.

Last, it's nonsensical to quote several black pastors who have misgivings about positions taken by Obama and Romney and conclude that "African-American Christians waver over vote," as the first headline provided by AP said.

No, maybe those individuals are wavering, but the evidence is clear that a super-majority of African-Americans, including Christians, are clear as to which candidate they are voting for 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.

Some would say this is internal journalism stuff. I disagree. This story has led to editorials blasting black pastors; caused some mentioned in the article to feel obliged to come out and state who they will endorse; and has led to consternation among the general public.

Our job in the media is to inform and enlighten, not confuse. Running such a confusing, unsupported story lacking basic context and perspective does not serve the public at all.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.

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