Hey Kurtz: We’re mad about journalism

PalinPortrait LargeHere we go again, again, again and again.

Yes, your GetReligionistas are about to jump on Charlie Gibson and ABC News — again — about that serious error that took place in his interview with Gov. Sarah Palin. Actually, we also need to jump on one of Gibson’s defenders, which would be the all-powerful Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. I should stress that I am a huge fan of Kurtz and there are probably more of his books in my Washington Journalism Center course bibliographies than any other mainstream writer. I do not enjoy knocking one of my favorite mainstream journalists.

I know that there are readers out there who thing this blog has become a bit obsessive about this matter.

Grupetti says:
September 14, 2008, at 11:47 pm

Terry, GetReligion seems to have become a one-note Samba regarding this one mistake by Gibson. . . . Do you really want to keep up your image as a strictly partisan endeavor?

Yes, we will keep on dancing, when it comes to complaining about this error (thanks, by the way, for noting that Gibson made a mistake). Words matter. Mistakes matter. For that matter, doctrine matters. For us, this is about journalism, not partisan politics. With that in mind, let’s look at the latest from Kurtz.

But when Palin seemed puzzled by a question about the Bush Doctrine — which has several possible meanings — Gibson explained what he meant without making it sound like a gotcha moment. Earlier, however, he did follow up on her answer about not hesitating to become McCain’s running mate by wondering: “Didn’t that take some hubris?”

Some conservatives criticized Gibson for raising religion by asking Palin whether she considers the Iraq conflict a “holy war.” But how can it be unfair to ask about her own words, in a church, that “our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God”?

Apples and oranges, there.

Gibson did ask many perfectly valid and hard questions. Amen. Bravo. His handling of the “Bush Doctrine” subject verged on being unfair, because the term is so vague anyway, but the line of questioning was more than appropriate. His latest column also raises some interesting points about sexism and MSM coverage of, well, her physical appearance.

It was also more than appropriate to go hard on her, when it comes to Iraq. I would argue that it was also fair to ask her what she meant, during her remarks at the church. But — again — as many have noted, it is not fair to actually tear her words out of context (YouTube video here) and have her say the opposite of what she, in fact, said.

missthebullseyeKurtz is still missing the mark. He apparently does not know what he is talking about, when it comes to traditional Christian theology about prayer and the will of God. The same goes for whoever wrote that script for Gibson.

Once again, here is Steve Waldman of Beliefnet.com — who nails it.

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, “Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.” Are we fighting a holy war?

PALIN: You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.

GIBSON: Exact words.

Well, no. Palin asked members of the church to pray “that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.” That’s very different. She’s asking them to help insure that the war is part of God’s plan, not declaring that it was. …

This is a journalism issue. I would feel the same way of GOP spinners were cutting off the first half of a Barack Obama quote to make him say the opposite of what he actually said, on some point where doctrine intersects public life.

We still need a correction from ABC News. The same goes for the original Associated Press report.

Now, I think, we need a correction from Howard Kurtz, who could do so much to clarify what is happening in this case. He is an excellent reporter and writer. Kurtz needs to get this one right.

CARTOON: Posted at the conservative Culture and Media Institute.

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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.

  • Jay

    Verged on being unfair? It was actually an inept attempt at a “gotcha”, as documented by a Washington Post column Saturday by Charles Krauthammer — the man who invented the term “Bush Doctrine”. Here’s the money quote:

    There is no single meaning of the Bush doctrine. In fact, there have been four distinct meanings, each one succeeding another over the eight years of this administration — and the one Charlie Gibson cited is not the one in common usage today. It is utterly different.

    See it all http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/12/AR2008091202457.html

    So while it is clear that as the first reporter to interview Palin, he wanted to administer a test of her knowledge of foreign policy — as you say, a reasonable line of questioning — he actually knew less about the subject than he claimed.

  • Steve Newton

    Clearly Palin was praying THAT the mission be from God, not claiming that it was from God. That is a crucial distinction and many in the media seemed to have missed it (as I noted before, Juan Williams commenting during Morning Edition did the same thing as Kurtz).

    I would also suggest that Palin’s prayer nevertheless did reflect a much more casual view of the mysteries of God’s will than Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Lincoln was warning against the idea of identifying any policy with God’s will whereas Palin’s prayer was a petition to find the “right” policy. Lincoln clearly thought of slavery as wrong but interpreted the tremendous suffering involved in fighting the war as evidence that God had deeper and more inscrutable purposes than just being for or against slavery.

  • FW Ken

    Partisan or not, keep it up. As the first interviewer, Gibson should have held to a high standard of accuracy and basic fairness. He failed on both counts.

    And, while I do agree that Gov. Palin’s religious views are fair game, I don’t think we should be forgetting that we are electing a president, not a theologian-in-chief. I don’t expect her to be any more theologically astute than Sen. Obama or Pres. Bush, who have both made religious pronouncements that made me sigh.

  • http://christiantheology.wordpress.com/ Neiswonger

    Yes, Gibson showed that he either lacked a basic understanding of the issues, or an intent to mislead. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt with the former, but if his ability to grasp theological nuance is really that sparse he should have veered away from “God” questions altogether.


  • http://www.natemccallum.com Nathaniel McCallum

    What I think would be some *good* journalism is if someone actually covered what Christians think about war. For instance, these two questions could be raised:
    1. When is war God’s will?
    2. If a war is not God’s will, is it evil?

    Then, Palin’s *actual* words could be placed within a backdrop of what Christians think about war. This could, I think, be a very interesting article.

  • Jay


    When you say “Christians,” do you mean “various denominations” or “various individuals”? It’s not like there’s one guy (or gal) you could interview to report a view on war that everyone would agree to.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    t. matt–please keep on dancing. Even to critiquing comments that come on your site. We all(except the very perfect among us) need fraternal correction once in a while to give us info that will make us more able to correctly state or defend our positions (like learn to save articles we can cite that will back up a strong point we make–or don’t use the point.)

  • http://www.natemccallum.com Nathaniel McCallum

    Jay, its easier than you think. You just need to do a bit of *gasp* research. There have only been a handful of thinkers on this topic throughout the last 2000 years. A single google search (10 seconds?) turned up these two articles, which are at least representative of 2000 years of Western Christian thought (they are results 1 and 3 for the search “theology of war,” respectively).


    So lets say that those articles were used as a jumping point and an hour or two of research were done. Then, in the context of reporting about a certain event or person (for instance Palin), you can try to place what that person is saying in the context of what you have learned. Furthermore, you can *ask* them about how they stand against the backdrop of historic Christian thought. I’m not saying someone should go get a degree in a topic before they report, but in an hours worth of research you can at least get enough info not to be vapid.

    Further, lets pretend that a reporter knows NOTHING about Christianity. The two questions I posted above (When is war God’s will? If a war is not God’s will, is it evil?) are *perfect* follow up questions when interviewing someone about the statement: “let’s pray that this war is God’s will.”

    Don’t you think hearing the answer to these questions would be far more informative than anything else we have heard reported?

  • Harris

    The question of holy war is actually rather pertinent, particularly if one has been around on conservative Christian boards. Not only do Evangelicals represent one of the key constituencies supporting the war effort, but they can also be heard referring to the conflict in ways that in fact suggest a holy war. One hears it framed as a Reformed antithesis, or more often as a clash of civilizations (with appropriate demonization of Islam to boot).

    Now if the above represents how many Evangelicals think (as I believe it does), then the question of holy war becomes strikingly germane. It becomes another way of assessing which camp of Evangelical is she in? Is she safe or not safe?

    As a matter of theology, I might also question whether this really is such a clear and easy question about praying to do God’s will. What if the war is fundamentally unjust? What then does it mean to participate? One of the mistakes in much of conservative religious thinking about the war is to assume that the terms of engagement and participation are sufficiently clear. The terms may be far muddier than we let on.

  • FW Ken

    While I don’t frequent conservative Christian blogs that discuss the Iraq War, the loose and suppositional linkages Harris gives us are, in my opinion, about as valid as hauling out the old Ouiji board to learn what Gov. Palin thinks about this or that. The desperate search for What It Really Means has swallowed journalism-as-reporting and regurgitated journalism-as-social analysis. Which isn’t a completely bad thing. But aren’t there limits?

    Harris, read the woman’s statement, remembering that she’s no more a theologian than Sen. Obama or Pres. Bush. Or most reporters, by the way. It’s not a treatise on Just War Theory, and, simply read, asks her listeners to pray that there’s a “plan”. If the Iraq War is not within the parameters of a just war, her prayer might certainly allow for God to have stopped it.

    Everyone: quit over-interpreting every word said. On both sides.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Your questions are valid, I guess. They have nothing to do with the journalistic issue that I raised, however.

    Please stay on topic.