I'm glad that Good Morning America covered the connection between John McCain and Rod Parsley, the Ohio megachurch pastor who has said it is the United States' historic mission to see the "false religion" of Islam "destroyed."
But did ABC News' top investigative reporter, Brian Ross, have to swipe the story from us?
In the lead-in to piece, Diane Sawyer calls it an "exclusive Brian Ross investigation." Exclusive? How so? On March 12, Mother Jonesfirst reported that Parsley, whom McCain had recently campaigned with and hailed as "a spiritual guide," had written a book in 2005, Silent No More, in which he essentially called for the eradication of Islam and branded the entire faith as a satanic conspiracy. The article noted that McCain had accepted Parsley's endorsement and explained that Parsley is a key political player in Ohio, where he has registered and driven to the polls tens of thousands of social conservative voters. Many websites and blogs linked to the article.
Following up on this piece, two weeks ago, Mother Jones and Brave New Films released a video which showed Parsley railing against Islam "as an anti-Christ religion that intends, through violence, to conquer the world" and basically calling for its destruction. The video juxtaposed Parsley's extreme anti-Islam rhetoric with video of McCain hailing Parsley at a February 26, 2006 campaign rally (the same rally featured in Ross' report). The footage of an excitable Parsley came from the DVD companion to his Silent No More book that is still sold by his World Harvest Church. It took me about six weeks to obtain the version of this DVD set that included Parsley's extreme anti-Islam remarks. One version of the DVD collection does not contain the disc covering Islam, and his church's store (which does not ship by first class or any overnight delivery service) was very, very slow in sending out the full collection that did.
The MoJo/Brave New Films video quickly drew an audience. A quarter of million people watched it on YouTube in two days. MSNBC played a long chunk of it. Many bloggers and sites posted the video. If you do a Google search on "Parsley, McCain and Islam," the first two links that appear are this video and the original Mother Jones article on Parsley and McCain. If you're reporting on McCain and Parsley, it's hard to miss this stuff. In fact, the day the Mojo/Brave New Films video was posted, a member of ABC News' investigative team called me to ask where I had obtained the Parsley footage. I told him and graciously offered to help him out--and then never heard back from him.
Not surprisingly, the most wow-'em Parsley excerpts in the ABC report match the Mojo/Brave New Films video. Yet the ABC piece is presented in a look-at-what-Brian-Ross-found manner. Ross, though, did not discover any additional Parsley material. So where's the exclusivity of which Sawyer speaks?
Ross's three-minute piece was well done. He pointed out that McCain's relationship with Parsley has become an issue in the Arab media. He made the right point:
In dealing with what he calls the central threat of our times, Senator McCain says the U.S. has failed to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world. But if that is McCain's plan if elected, he seems to have already badly complicated it by recruiting the support of an evangelical minister now known in the Arab world as a hate-monger.
But did Ross and ABC--which plastered an "ABC News Investigation" tag on the report--have to present this story as if they had dug up this news? The word "exclusive" is widely overused and abused in the media. It's almost become a joke. ("Tonight, we have an exclusive interview with Presidential Candidate X...who just happens to have given five other exclusive interviews in the past two days to other media outlets.") But when you introduce a "news investigation" with the term "exclusive," the presumption is that you got it first.
Journalists at Mother Jones and other non-behemoth media outfits often hope that when they unearth a significant story it will end up on television sets across the nation. And the McCain-Parsley tale is an important one, precisely for the reason that Ross emphasized: it could prompt even greater suspicion in the Muslim world of U.S. actions and motives. It deserves network attention. But did the price have to be network expropriation?
UPDATE: Brian Ross called to apologize. He said that it had been wrong for Good Morning America to tag his piece an "exclusive" and that he had been unaware of my stories on Parsley. He offered to revise the written on-line version of the piece to note that Mother Jones had the Parsley story first.
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