Nativity wars update: How not to cover a religion news story

palmsWhen we last visited the Palm Beach soap opera about the Menorah and the Nativity scene, the church-state experts at the Palm Beach Post had concluded that this was not a case that hinged on U.S. equal-access laws. No, it was about — cue drum roll — two uppity Christian ladies who were guilty of “recidivist anti-Semitism.”

The case led to an election in which anti-Nativity scene forces soundly defeated the pro-Nativity scene rebel alliance.

In the next act, the Palm Beach town council members bailed out of the holiday decorations business altogether, vowing to take down both the government-owned Menorah and the “holiday tree” located between the iconic rows of 60-foot Royal Palm trees on the world-famous Royal Poinciana Way. Holiday decorations of various faiths and non-faiths would henceforth be tucked away — equal access at last — in a public park.

Now, the Post has offered its readers a glimpse into what may be the final act of the drama. The details of the story are pretty straightforward:

The town council and two town residents settled their lawsuit Friday over whether a cr�(r)che should adorn the street median alongside a town-sponsored menorah. … The town apologized for not considering the women’s request sooner and agreed to pay each $1 plus $50,000 attorneys’ fees, under the consent order that was to be filed in federal court. … The town did not admit it violated the women’s constitutional rights.

All in all, the Palm Beach Post offered its readers a wonderful case study in how not to cover religion news. Assuming that fair or even balanced coverage of both sides is the goal, then here is what a newspaper needs to do in order to botch this kind of sensitive, complex story.

(1) When dealing with a legal issue, make sure not to call national-level authorities to discuss the facts. In this case, ignore the details of the equal-access laws updated by that well-known Religious Right regime led by Southern Baptists Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Instead of calling national experts on both the left and the right, accept the viewpoints of the local lawyers as gospel.

(2) Scream charges of anti-Semitism on page one, then cover the out-of-court settlement in the local pages. When wrapping the case up, ignore the role that the newspaper played in creating the controversy.

(3) Make sure that you let government officials keep bashing away at their critics, even as the case is settled. In this case, Mayor Lesly Smith was able to lash out with one final quote: “Even if the egotistical plaintiffs had a case — which the United States Constitution would argue they did not — it was moot when the town council decided in January to place all religious displays at Bradley Park.”

Gosh, there’s that pesky U.S. Constitution again. Does everyone agree on this interpretation? Are there two sides to that debate?

(4) Speaking of which, the newspaper’s editors should make sure that they do not quote a lawyer representing what certainly appeared to be the winning side of the case until the very last sentence of the story. Here is what this crucial final step looks like, in practice:

Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, said that during last week’s six-hour mediation session, the women refused to back down even when the town said it would attack them in court.

That’s interesting. There was a six-hour mediation session? Can we hear some more about that? The pro-Nativity women refused to back down, even when attacked by city officials? What does the word “attacked” mean? Gosh, that might lead to some interesting follow-up questions.

Sorry, but that’s the end of the story. Over and out.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.xanga.com/branthansen Brant

    It’s stunning to read this entry, precisely because I read the Post on a daily basis. And have followed this story, and until this blog entry, had no clue what actually happened.

    Which kind of makes your point.

    As an aside, it’s my hope that someday, somehow, the Post finds a talented local opinion columnist. As a friend of mine once told me: either be informative, or be funny — both if you can — but be at least one. The Post strikes out.


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