When headlines and copy collide

thecultLast week ABC News’ Jake Tapper and Matt Stuart interviewed Mitt Romney, candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Their subsequent article dealt with his views on immigration and abortion — but also a bit about his views on whether it’s his job to respond to theological opposition to Mormonism.

Except that’s not how ABC News described it. The first headline to the story was “Romney Blasts Immigration Bill, Defends Mormonism Against ‘Cult’ Charge,” according to the Article VI blog. They later dropped that headline, but the story now includes a subhead of “Romney Rejects Description of Mormonism as ‘Cult.’”

Let’s see how Tapper and Stuart substantiate that:

Romney also addressed the continuing question of his Mormon faith and its role in the election.

Romney — who is trying to win support among conservative Christians despite their wariness of Mormonism — recently delivered the commencement address at the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

On the Web site of Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting News, Mormonism is repeatedly described as “a cult.”

Asked why he didn’t attempt to refute that rhetorical assault on his faith, Romney pushed back.

“I’m not running for pastor in chief and I’m not running as someone who defends my religion or explains my religion,” he said. “I’m running for a secular office, the presidency of the United States.”

In terms of actually addressing the Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University, Romney said, “You know if my church wants to respond, they’re certainly welcome to. But that’s not what I’m doing.”

The original headline and current subhead are just flatly incorrect. Romney did not reject the Christian Broadcasting Network’s description of Mormonism as a cult. Neither did he support the view, obviously. Instead, he articulated a different position entirely. He said, quite clearly, that he’s running for the secular office of president, not the theological office of pastor! Romney is saying it’s fine if certain Americans have theological differences with him but that such differences shouldn’t preclude voting for him for secular office. The opposite side of that coin is that Romney has significantly different theological views than, say, those who run CBN — but that he wants their votes just the same.

Romney is articulating a position that sounds like what Lutherans call the Two Kingdoms, referring to a division between the secular and spiritual. For Lutherans the secular realm is where the government action happens while the spiritual realm is where the church operates. With such a doctrinal view, one could prioritize doctrine in the spiritual realm and political wisdom and leadership in the secular realm. This view may not be popular among some American Protestants of various political stripes who tend to view politics and religion as inhabiting one big kingdom, but it’s not exactly unheard of either.

And yet ABC’s headline, subhead and contextual explanations of Romney’s view completely miss this rather basic notion that religious folks might see the secular and spiritual realms as separate. It’s symptomatic of the way the media seem only able to understand religion in a political context. It’s also why church bodies that refrain from constant political engagement are ignored or dismissed by mainstream media.

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  • http://abcnews.com Jake

    hey there –
    Jake Tapper here.
    You’re right about the headline, which neither Matt nor I wrote. As soon as I saw that misleading headline, I asked them to change it, which the editors did soon after.

  • Joseph Fox

    Romney’s position was common among Baptists 50 years ago and the basis was Mark 12: 14-17. It seems that scripture is interpreted differently today.

  • Micah Weedman

    there are plenty of roman catholics who reject the pop-lutheran two kingdom stuff as well.

  • http://mithras.blogs.com Mithras

    You’re right about the headline, which neither Matt nor I wrote. As soon as I saw that misleading headline, I asked them to change it, which the editors did soon after.

    And pssssst goes the outrage balloon.

  • http://www.lutheranzephyr.com Chris (The Lutheran Zephyr)

    And of course, we Lutherans believe that God acts in both Kingdoms. The government has a calling from God to maintain order, act justly, restrain evil, etc. etc.. The church has a calling to proclaim the Good News. They are different callings, but both are blessed. Luther himself wrote that a Prince need not be Christian to fulfill the office and responsibilities of a Prince. Same here – if a politician can fullfil the responsibilities of the office of the President of the United States, then there is no reason that person should be barred from serving.

  • Stephen A.

    And pssssst goes the outrage balloon.

    Don’t mock. Outrage often works.

  • http://mithras.blogs.com Mithras

    Outrage often works.

    Yes, I know. It’s called “working the refs“. But when you are all outrage, all the time, the only appropriate response is mockery.

  • Eli

    Have to second Stephen A.’s comment to Mithras. It’s just kind of rude and Tapper didn’t address the point of Mollie’s post up above: that it was taken out as the headline but still exists as a subheading – in bold. So if one just read what was in bold without fully reading the article they would still be misled. Seems Mollie’s “outrage” is *still* justified and curious as to why they continue to leave it uncorrected. Guess the balloon just filled itself back up again?

    But I also think Mollie brings up a very important point about the secular/spiritual division or Two Kingdoms idea and the MSM. In the postmodern world of journalism it’s all too common to see moral relativism held up as a metaphysical ideal as opposed to a fortunate or unfortunate base fact of everyday life. For example, there are people like Mithras who seem to lack the intellectual nuance and respect for various people’s religions, which people like Mollie seem to have, and as a result conflate the secular and spiritual realms leading to obtuse blunders like that seen in the ABC piece.

    And pssssst goes the mockery balloon….

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    One point of clarification here: Any worthwhile publication or website will set its subheads apart, whether in bold or italics or another font.

  • http://mithras.blogs.com Mithras

    Please, calm down. So some staffer responsible for headlines should have written “Responds To” instead of “Rejects”. Really, big whoop. This doesn’t require intellectual nuance; this requires getting a clue. Or treatment for a persecution complex.

  • Eli

    Nope. Wrong again. If you read his quotes, he specifically said that he’s *not* responding to the charge – so it’s neither “Responds To” nor “Reject”. I guess it is all about intellectual nuance after all, isn’t it? Psssst.

  • Eli

    Oh, and one other thing. I’m plenty calm. I just thought your comments deserved a little mockery.

  • Eric G.

    I agree that the headline is bad and doesn’t fit with the article.

    I’ve been guilty here of going somewhat off-topic into theological issues, but this time I’m going to go off-topic into journalistic issues.

    It’s one thing to not have a headline that isn’t supported by the story. But it’s another thing to write an article that isn’t supported by the interviews that the story was based on.

    What I’m saying, I suppose, is that this problem isn’t limited to matters of religion. And it happens even to writers who appear to have good credentials.

    I’m referring to this story, in which Bill Richards writes about ambitious plans for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to test a paperless version of the newspaper. I found it quite exciting, since I’d be among the first to subscribe to such a newspaper, and I grew up reading the P-I.

    The P-I quickly denied the story. But what makes this situation interesting is that Richards responded to the P-I’s denial (scroll about a third of the way down the page) by providing information about the interviews.

    It’s clear, at least to this journalist, that Richards didn’t have the interview statements to back up this story. There were so many qualifications in the interview excerpts he provided that it’s clear his story far overstated what actually is happening. But he apparently doesn’t see that (or he would have retracted or clarified his story instead of defending it).

    Sometimes, whether we’re writing headlines or writing up interviews, what we see isn’t necessarily there. Most of us have probably done that. But when we do that, we also shouldn’t hestitate to make a correction. That apparently wasn’t done in either case.

  • Eli

    Eric G. wrote:

    But when we do that, we also shouldn’t hestitate to make a correction. That apparently wasn’t done in either case.

    Why would we ever want to correct anything if there is, by definition, no “right” or “wrong”? Under this rubric we are now free to write or do anything we want. We can even have sub-headings that represent the complete opposite of what is supported by the story and mock folks that think this sort of thing is really dumb. Cool. Feels good to be an “urbane sophisticate”, no?

  • melissa

    When a headline is false, it should be changed. It isn’t about being angry or feeling persecuted. It’s Journalism 101. Be it a story or a headline, we shouldn’t print something false. If someone brings it to our attention that what we’ve printed is false, we need to correct the information.

  • Eli

    Melissa. I love you.

  • Gary

    I posted several days ago about the Lutheran and Reformed doctrine of the Two Kingdoms; but was ignored.