How did the New York Times get that blunt interview this week with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the preacher now in a very public dispute with Barack Obama?
According to the Times' piece, Wright, Obama's longtime friend and mentor, detailed how the senator privately disinvited him from the launch of his presidential campaign last month in Springfield, Ill. Wright told the Times that Obama had said, "You can get kind of rough in the sermons, so what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out there in public."
Great get, as they say in the newspaper biz. But to get it, the Times had to play by Wright's rules.
Wright's Chicago mega-church, Trinity United Church of Christ, imposes strict requirements on journalists who want to speak to the pastor. Reporters must sign two sets of legal papers on behalf of their news organizations before any interviews in order to be allowed inside the church.
The church has a list of what it calls "policies and procedures for use with outside media sources" or OMS for short. The paperwork states that the journalist will "fact-check the article" with the reverend's daughter, Jeri Wright, who is his media services director. The journalist also agrees to "give a full and fair idea of what to expect from the story." In addition, the journalist promises to give the church "any quotes derived from the interview process, prior to publication" and promises that all published quotes "are original quotes and will not be altered by the OMS in any way."
The second agreement, entitled "official waiver for use with outside media sources," states that "any infraction" of the church's OMS policies and procedures would lead to the reporter's "immediate removal" from the church and the confiscation of all interview notes and photos.
A church spokesperson told Newsweek the papers were designed to "protect our church and its pastoral staff and congregation."
Times reporter Jodi Kantor agreed to the restrictions and signed the papers. The newspaper's assistant managing editor Craig Whitney told Newsweek that Kantor did not consult with her bosses before cutting the deal. But he said, "What she signed was consistent with our standards on dealing with sources."
"Looking back on it, I think she didn't sign anything she should not have," Whitney said, "except the waiver." The waiver allows for the confiscation of interview notes, but Whitney said the reporter believed that applied to the legal papers.
(Newsweek also requested an interview with Wright, but declined to sign the papers. The church withdrew its cooperation.)
But even though the New York Times agreed to obey Wright's restrictive rules, it looks like the reverend still wound up regretting his decision to mouth off to the press about Obama. After the Times story appeared, Wright's staff said they are cutting off reporters, period. They said they will no longer grant interviews or answer any questions from journalists, contracts or not.