So a reporter walks into a church (rimshot)

microphone smlThank you, thank you, thank you, to all of the GetReligion readers out there who sent me comments and emails last night about a hilarious correction linked to a Newsweek story by reporter Susannah Meadows entitled “Cut, Thrust and Christ: Why evangelicals are mastering the art of college debate.”

We will get to that punch line in a minute, but first you need to know the context. The subject of the story is the high-quality debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Read closely and it isn’t very hard to figure out that the seed for this sometimes snippy story is — surprise, surprise — changes at the U.S. Supreme Court and a change in the atmosphere there on issues linked to the usual moral and cultural issues linked to the sexual revolution.

The Liberty team is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, above Harvard (14th) and all the other big names. But for the evangelicals, there’s a lot more at stake than a trophy. Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty’s debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society. “I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans’ godly heritage,” says freshman debater Cole Bender.

Debaters are the new missionaries, having realized they can save a lot more souls from a seat at the top — perhaps even on the highest court in the land.

Heavens above, there is even a Karl Rove sighting in the article.

But this article will, I imagine, be remembered for the previously mentioned correction. It seems that, during the interview with Falwell, Meadows did not grasp one of the good reverend’s evangelical metaphors. Perhaps it was a bad phone connection or a bad audiotape. Thus, the online version of the story has this ending:

Correction: In the original version of this report, Newsweek misquoted Falwell as referring to “assault ministry.” In fact, Falwell was referring to “a salt ministry” — a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says “Ye are the salt of the earth.” We regret the error.

This, in turn, provided a timely ending for my Scripps Howard News Service column this week, which offered what I hope was a calmer, newsier take on my GetReligion post last weekend about the First Things blog item in which Father Richard John Neuhaus complains that the mainstream journalists that he meets from time to time are “not always the sharpest knives in the drawer.”

I still think that Neuhaus needed to be more careful before he clicked “send” on such a sweeping attack on journalists in general and those who cover religion news in particular. Nevertheless, he does have some points to make and some witty anecdotes for inclusion in what I called “the journalistic genre of ‘laugh to keep from crying’ miscues about religion.”

Now, Newsweek has added a great kicker. Anyone else out there have some favorite rimshot lines? Remember, keep ’em clean (this is a family friendly religion-news critique blog) and it helps if you can give us a URL or two for future reference.

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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.

  • Mike the Geek

    The best current one involves Rolling Stone. They quote Sam Brownbeck commenting on the acceptance of gay marriage and such things in various countries like Sweden. “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16)

    Rolling Stone seems to have assumed that “fruits” was an insult to homosexuals.

    Doesn’t the Church have some doctrines that revolve around the notion of “invincible ignorance?”

  • Andy

    This is a classic, from New York Times, May 30, 1993:

    Because of a transmission error, an interview in the Egos & Ids column on May 16 with Mary Matalin, the former deputy manager of the Bush campaign who is a co-host of a new talk show on CNBC, quoted her incorrectly on the talk show host Rush Limbaugh. She said he was “sui generis,” not “sweet, generous.”

  • brendan

    “Father Richard John Neuhaus complains that the mainstream journalists that he meets from time to time are “not always the sharpest knives in the drawer.”


    You mean the buxom blondes of Fox News were not hired for their stunning intelect and intuitive grasp of theoretical physics?

    The stunning red heads at CNN wern’t hired because of their MENSA membership?

    Gee, who’d a thunk that?

  • Avram

    Back in April of ’05, at JP2′s funeral, a reporter or photog at the Internat’l Herald Tribune apparently asked what that staff under the late pontiff’s arm was called, but didn’t ask how to spell it. The photo’s caption read: “Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

    (Source: Avedon Carol’s Sideshow weblog. The IHT link has expired, but I followed it at the time, and the acption really did say that.)

  • Greg Popcak

    The link Mike the Geek cited is an article that Jeff Sharlet (of NYU J-school and The Revealer religion and journalism blog fame) did. Now, here is a guy who actually claims to get religion. I know he’s posted here before. Perhaps he would care to explain what he was thinking?

    Thoughts anyone?

  • Molly

    Wait, transformation through debate?

    I suppose one could read Romans 12

    “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” CEV

    as a proscription to change the world through debate, but what happened to winning the hearts and minds of others by:

    “12When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13″You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” ~John 13 CEV

  • Dan Berger


    I think that the “crow’s ear” thingy may have been a problem with the copy editor as well as with Jeff. Any copy editor worth her or his salt should have sent that back with a “this can’t possibly be right!” even if they didn’t know the correct term.

    Note to reporters: you can’t trust your copy editor any more… except maybe at a really major newspaper. My local paper is so full of copy errors that I’ve thought of asking whether they haven’t thought of hiring a copy editor.

    A sample headline in the letters column (remember, this is Ben Roethlisberger’s home town): Hat’s off to Ben.

  • Dan Berger

    I should have added: copy editors are supposed to be backstops, right? Everybody screws up sometimes.

  • Greg Popcak


    I wasn’t the one who posted the “crow’s ear” comment. And as far as I know, Jeff didn’t write that article.

    I was referencing Sharlet’s article on Sen Brownback in which Sharlet misconstrued Brownback’s quoting Mt 7:16 “By their fruits you shall know them” as a slur against homosexuals.

    That wasn’t a copyediting problem, that was irresponsible journalism.

  • Denise McGill

    I don’t think there is a problem with reporters’ (or editors’) intelligence. I think the problem is they have had absolutely no education about religious history or issues. In the separation of church and state, they’ve had no Bible training whatsoever.
    With the lack of religion in schools, there is a whole generation or more with no knowledge of the Bible as literature or cultural reference.

    Another big area where journalists are painfully ignorant is military issues. Remember when the War on Terror started and there were alll those horrible gaffs in the media until reporters got themselves up to speed on the lingo and vocabulary?

  • Beth

    No rimshot here, but I got a kick out of the transcription error from Bono’s sermon at the National Prayer Breakfast today. Someone’s confused about the topic of Isaiah 58: “if you remove the YOLK from your midst…”

  • sharon d.

    This is a mild one, but it showed up our little world of homeschooling blogs, and was kind of annoying:

    [Christian homeschooler Rebecca] Hoard said, “I am taking the other side of the fence now, in that I know my kids better than anyone else – both strengths and weaknesses. I believe it is a responsibility I have. The Bible says to teach them when to rise up and when to sit down.”


    The reporter’s evident mishearing of Deut 11:19 (“when YOU rise up and…”) got played as evidence of how authoritarian Christian hs’ers are. Yeah, those kids don’t even sit down unless we tell them to!

  • http://none Mark

    One of the best sites for massive misinformation is They have the audacity to point out all the negatives and contradictions in the Bible while ignoring all the good points. Seems like they want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s always good for a laugh that people can see anything they want in the scriptures if the stretch their brains like silly putty. Mark