Small Atlanta gig, big media results

072804sharptonAccording to the Los Angeles Times website, the desk in the newspaper’s Atlanta bureau is currently “vacant.” This, for me, makes it even harder to understand the following story by reporter Jenny Jarvie. I predict there is a story behind this story somewhere.

The topic is clearly newsworthy, although the event is a long, long way from Los Angeles. It seems that the leaders of a gay-rights group called the National Black Justice Coalition decided, in response to GOP efforts to reach out to morally conservative African-American voters, to hold a conference. The long, long headline describes this effort as “Black Clergy Tackle Homophobia — A summit put on by a gay rights group gathers Christian leaders to explore attitudes toward homosexuality.”

It’s interesting that the top paper of the West Coast elected to staff this event in distant Atlanta, which drew 100 “pastors and theologians.” Some would say a “mere” 100, although that is a judgment call. It certainly would be a newsworthy event for newspapers in the region. However, the organizers certainly did their homework, since this small meeting also drew the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and other major media. The New York Times reports that 150 people attended, which I assume does not include the reporters and camera crews.

The event was held at the First Iconium Baptist Church, but most of the quotes in the story come from leaders on the religious left. Here is a sample from Jarvie’s piece:

“We may not all agree on gay marriage, but at the very least we can say that every child of God deserves to be affirmed in the family of God,” the Rev. Kenneth Samuel, senior pastor of Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., said in an interview.

Once a Baptist who condemned homosexuals from the pulpit, Samuel now is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which welcomes gays and lesbians.

The story is a familiar one. Sexuality is a tough subject in many historically black denominations, where a basically conservative approach to moral and social issues collides with politically progressive stands on other issues and a rock-ribbed loyalty to the Democratic Party. Thus, Republican efforts to woo black voters have centered on issues that, in most black pulpits, tend to evoke quotations from the Book of Romans rather than the Democratic National Committee.

For the political left, this is bad, bad news. Ask Democratic leaders in the state of Ohio. Let’s go back to the Los Angeles Times report:

“We have sat back and allowed the right wing to shape the political agenda,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who addressed the summit. “Now it is important that the black church break the backs of those who are trying to use homosexuality as a political weapon.”

Rather than asking pastors to change their beliefs and condone homosexuality, Sharpton appealed for greater tolerance: “If we can forgive adulterers, why do we allow the right wing to attack homosexuals?” he asked.

So a political hook inspired this theological gathering (something that happens on the right, too). I found it interesting that almost every person quoted in the article had, in changing their views on sexuality, found their way out of traditional, doctrinally conservative Christian pulpits and pews and into progressive Christian or even Oprah-esque, “unity,” universalist-style church settings.

This, of course, is exactly what conservative black church leaders would have predicted would happen. Interesting.

And one more thing. Read the whole article and then ask: Where are the voices on the other side of this issue? Is the Los Angeles Times piece, in its own way, a piece of evangelism or, perhaps, an analysis piece that should have been labeled as such?

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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.

  • Daniel

    I guess it does raise the question what stories need “the other side” to be discussed. If the Southern Baptists were meeting with Karl Rove, for instance, would there need to be quotes from the other side? If Concerned Women for America held a summitt, would there need to be quotes from the other side?

  • http://www.joe-perez.com Joe Perez

    Don’t just read the LA Times article with tmatt’s question in mind, “Where are the voices on the other side of this issue?,” read all four he links to. None of the journalists found it necessary to interview a homophobic minister for this story (though the NYT did devote a paragraph or two to the homophobic black Rev. “Boycott Microsoft” Hutcherson). Perhaps every journalist at the LA Times, NYT, AP, and SFC is biased in favor of the radical homosexualist agenda, as tmatt seems to think. Or perhaps tmatt just wishes they’d pursue his agenda, not their own. You know, interview a pro-gay Christian and you’ve got to interview an anti-gay Christian, too. Funny how tmatt doesn’t seem to think you have to interview an atheist to debunk the belief in God of every story where you interview a God-believer. In any case, maybe it’s in the interest of fairness that leads tmatt to be the only journalist writing about the event to put the word “small” in the headline to belittle, I mean describe, the conference. (And to imply by contrast to the “big media presence” that the whole affair is much ado about nothing.) Why can’t all journalists be as objective and unbiased as our own tmatt?

  • http://www.streetprophets.com pastordan

    What are you talking about? The leading Democratic candidate for governor in Ohio is ahead in the hypothetical matchups, and Democrats have an opportunity to not just pick up a couple of seats in the US House, but also to defeat Mike DeWine.

    Your crack about “‘unity,’ universalist-style church settings” is absolute nonsense. The UCC is a full denomination, as I’m sure you know, with some of the oldest roots in the United States. The Baptist churches are in the standard Baptist alignment, which is to say piecemeal. Or perhaps you meant the pastors who made their way to the MCC, which has a loose congregational polity?

    As for whether or not the LA Times should have provided some “opposing” perspective, I think Daniel and Joe Perez have answered that adequately.

  • Jacob

    On the opposing perspective issue:

    Suppose that a report was given on a major meeting between the Southern Baptists and politcial leaders. Say 500 attended and it got big news.

    It is hard for me to imagine the MSM would ever print an article about such a conference without a comment from political opponents. Whether or not they are obligated to is another question.

  • Stephen A.

    Terry, are you kidding? If five pro-gay pastors hold a news conference in Nome, Alaska, it’ “important” “significant” and their condemnations are splashed on the front page of every liberal paper in America.

    You want balance? Are you ill? Don’t hold your breath waiting. When there’s a liberal agenda to push, that is.

    And Joe, thanks for the chuckle. Of course there’s no bias here. Frankly, they’d just go out and interview the worst, foulest bigot they could find to represent the other side (i.e. the other 95% of the nation) anyway, so it’s just as well they didn’t make the effort.

  • tmatt

    The UCC’s theology these days is pure “Universalism” in the sense of all faiths leading to the same salvation. Pure and simple.

    Yes, on bitterly controversial events reporters must strive to balance their coverage and I would, and any open-minded reader of this blog would know this, say PRECISELY the same thing of MSM hard-news coverage of a conservative event.

    Hmmmmm…. Let’s see if these major papers interview anyone on the pro-abortion-rights left in their coverage of tomorrow’s March for Life. I predict that they do. What do you think, Joe, Daniel and Avram?

    And they should interview the left as well as the right. That’s the point of American Model of the Press journalism.

    Joe, you should be ashamed of your comment above. Read it again. I will gladly accept an apology.

  • Daniel

    Well, a pro-life march in the nationa’s capitol during a Supreme Court confirmation process and plenty of counter-protestors would seem to justify opposing views.

    An event held by an advocacy group in Atlanta doesn’t necessarily seem to require opposing views since it is a report on the event, not a larger story on the “issue.” Admittedly, it’s tougher call.

    Comparing the two is apples and oranges.

  • Daniel

    While I am not convinced the opposing view was completely necessary on the story, it probably would have been a good idea. These kinds of stories create a dilemma for journalists because there is also a pressure to wonder whether every gay story needs an opposing voice. I think this story would have been helped by an opposing voice or at least do what the NYT did which at least have a voice to the opposition, even if there wasn’t a quote.

    OTOH, at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, finding someone to say “God doesn’t approve of homosexuals” may have seemed rather perfunctory on a fairly straight-forward story where the conflict was acknowledged and there was no need to hold the story another day just to get a minister or professor to give voice to an opinion everyone is more than familiar with.

  • FCL

    Covering a Christian group advocating tolerance of homosexuality IS THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY. This is especially true given the MSM template of Christians= anti-gay and secular progressives= pro-gay. It was precisely the novelty of a group of progressive Christians gathering that gave the story its novelty in the eyes of the MSM. It strikes me as a good thing that at least parts of the MSM are beginning to realize that Christianity is not monolithically right wing.

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/YoungHomemaker shari

    There should have been an other side. Sharpton said that homosexuals are being attacked by the “right wing” I am a black conservative and I do not attack homosexuals. I think the problem is this is a national story but it should have given a response from the black “conservative” church. I have never voted and I don’t have a partisan view. Gay marriage is a political issue because soon it will bring a debate on polygamy.

  • http://www.anotherthink.com Charlie

    As long as opposition to the gay-rights party line is labeled “homophobia,” there isn’t going to be any serious discussion about opposing views to the liberal gay political agenda, certainly not by the MSM. GLB politics is one of those social issues in which MSM coverage closely follows the personal sympathies of the MSM reporters, and so shall it always be.

  • Michael

    As long as opposition to the gay-rights party line is labeled “homophobia,” there isn’t going to be any serious discussion about opposing views to the liberal gay political agenda, certainly not by the MSM.

    I think this is true. On the same token, as long as the opposition says “the Bible says homosexuality is wrong,” the press is in a bind. You have two absolutes–justice and religion–in conflict.

    It would be naive to suggest the MSM isn’t “pro gay” on issues like this. Whether it’s a liberal bias or journalism’s natural impetus to favor the underdog against the establishment, there is no doubt coverage of gay issues has improved and become more positive and sympathetic. That’s a challenge for religious conservatives–as the establishment–since their views are more likely to be questioned or dismissed.

    I think that’s what underlays the coverage of the event in Atlanta. It was an event of people challenging the establishment. Just like the gushing stories about Episcopalians challenging the larger church, a story about a small group challenging the Aftrican American church establishment–and the religious status quo–is an attractive story.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez

    tmatt:

    Not sure what you think I should be apologizing for. I do think you were right to raise the question of bias, as a professor might in a classroom, to get his students to think critically. But I don’t think the answer you expect is the right one. You apparently find bias in the four writers covering the story; I find bias on your side. Not because you want an opposing opinion on homosexuality inserted into a piece on a leadership conference among black church leaders. As commenters including shari above noted, there could very well have been a quote from a conservative black church member, and it might have added to the piece. But I find the absence of a homophobic black pastor’s sentiments to be about as troublesome as the absence of a quote from a rabidly anti-Christian atheist to balance out a report on a leadership summit of Boy Scout troop leaders. Instead, I find a tinge of bias in your own reporting on the reporters: the belittling contrast in the headline of “small gig… big media.” And the choice of ultra-left-wing Al Sharpton to accompany the piece.

  • tmatt

    JOE:

    This site defends the American model of the press. You, apparently, are a defender of the European model of the press — advocacy journalism. You accused me of being you and I was offended by that.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez

    Okay, tmatt. Maybe my judgment is more European than American on this, I don’t know. You could be right. But I wonder if by your logic the reporters should have interviewed the KKK, too, to see what they think about the “race issue” and the “homosexuality issue.” And why not get in a quote from Pat Robertson, too. And next time the Boy Scout troop leaders have a leadership summit, I’ll be waiting for you to take all the reporters for task for not interviewing ex-Scout atheists to give the “other side of the issue.” That would be the American journalistic way of doing things, I suppose.

    Balance is good, but I’m not persuaded that this particular piece, about a summit of religious leaders, needed balancing in the peculiar way you think it did.

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/YoungHomemaker shari

    saying that homosexuality is wrong sexual behavioru just as fornication, bestiality polygamy, divorce, ect is not comparable to the KKK and how they felt about black people and jews . some seem to think that the church is obsessed with sex. we are not we are responding to a culture which is saying that two men together is the biblical model when Jesus spoke of marraige he didnt say two people who felt god abotu one anotehr he said a man and a woman. also a phobia is an irrational fear. i am not scared of gays. i think their behavior is abnormal. the catholic priests who molested boys were obviously gay, MSNBC did a report last night on a gay rapist and murderer who targeted gay clubs, MSNBC’s report on online predators were about adults men who wanted to sleep with a boy, gay aids teacher raped a student, as well as a gay teacher in massachusets raped a student. I am not saying all gays re sexual predators but we have to be able to say what we feel about sexual behaviour without being attacked.

  • Susan

    Joe, are you saying that if the Boy Scout leadership were having a conference about atheism, you would not expect the MSM to interview an ex-Scout atheist? I belive that would be considered mandatory in the US press. You have failed to make your point.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez

    shari: No comment

    Susan: Well, if there is ever a Boy Scout conference on atheism, we may be able to test your very interesting hypothetical, won’t we?


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