Overpromising, underachieving (updated)

ag medallionSo we all know that the mainstream media are gunning hard for salacious stories about Gov. Sarah Palin.

This makes sense. Some people have been following Palin for a while. Apparently this group doesn’t include any member of the media. As a result, they’re understandably desperate for information and the public — intrigued by her — is eating up anything they can get. Anyway, religious views seem to be the angle du jour (or du week). So I was very enticed by the headline for the top story on CNN.com:

Pastor: GOP downplaying Palin’s Pentecostal past

Well that’s pretty dramatic. The pastor is claiming that the Republican Party is downplaying Palin’s Pentecostal past? Great scoop, CNN! Too bad that, you know, your story doesn’t, um, substantiate that salacious headline. In any way. But we’ll look at that in a minute. First, let’s look at the front-page summary below the headline:

For decades, Sarah Palin went to church with people who spoke in tongues and believed in faith healing and the “end times.” Her former pastor says the Pentecostal past of the GOP vice presidential nominee may now be being downplayed to avoid misunderstanding. But the pastor, Tim McGraw, says he’s sure religion influences Palin’s policy-making.

Okay, so now we’ve gone from a statement that the GOP is downplaying Palin’s Pentecostal past to a statement that the GOP may be donwplaying the past . . . to avoid misunderstanding. But we do learn that Palin’s weird-sounding (tongues! faith healing! violent end times!) religion influences Palin’s policy-making. Sounds potentially scary. (On that note, be sure to check out this guide (and this guide to the guide) to what’s scary in Palin’s religious views. Before we get to the actual story, let’s look at one of the “story highlights” placed prominently above the story:

Speaking of the troops in Iraq, Palin says they were sent on “task that is from God”

Now, I know that the last “highlight” is factually incorrect because I read Sunday’s New York Times piece that had Palin’s full quote. She prayed that troops in Iraq would be on a task from God, not said that they were. You’re not inspiring confidence, CNN. Palin’s former pastor is one Tim McGraw who tells CNN a little bit about Pentecostalism. Then there’s this:

McGraw says Palin’s Pentecostal roots may be being downplayed for a reason: “I think there may be issues of belief that could be misunderstood or played upon by people that don’t know.”

Okay, if you’re going to have a large-type headline saying that Palin’s former pastor alleges that the Republican Party is obscuring some truth about Palin’s religion, if you’re going to make the claim (as headlines, by definition, do) that this is the most important piece of information about your story . . . don’t you have to have a better quote than, “I think there may be issues of belief that could be misunderstood or played upon by people that don’t know.”? I mean, what was that said in response to? Is that really all you have CNN? He could have been asked, “Why are Pentecostal Christians so distrustful of the media?” or “Why do the media always make Pentecostals out to snake handler-like cult members?” Without knowing the question, this quote should not be used as the hook and headline for the story, particularly to imply something about the Republican Party. And even if he was asked, “Why is the GOP downplaying Palin’s former Pentecostalism?” . . . well that’s a completely meaningless leading question, obviously.

I mean, really.

So what about the other main claim? That Palin’s views affect her public policy making? Let’s get the goods:

Palin’s former pastor says he has no doubt her religious beliefs will influence her decision making when it comes to government policy. Regarding her desire to build an Alaskan pipeline and explore for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, McGraw told CNN, “Sarah knows that in Genesis, God creates the world and it’s very good and that we’re supposed to be caretakers in terms of not destroying the environment, so there’s no way that Sarah is going to exploit or damage the Alaska tundra in the name of getting gas if she doesn’t have to.”

He also says Palin would be influenced by a Biblical worldview that says “God loves people, people can access him and he’s given us wisdom for living.” Um, I know we’re all desperate for information on Palin, but this isn’t really that worthy of the dramatic treatment, is it? Maybe I’m sensitive because I have 18 reporters emailing me their breathless fears that a Palin theocracy is upon us. Headlines, summaries and story highlights like these fuel that fire even if the underlying facts don’t. Here’s more about how Palin’s scary religious views might affect public policy:

He says Alaska has already seen Palin’s faith play out. As governor she passed ethics reform and took on what she’s referred to as a “good-ol’-boys network.” However, she has said she would not seek to impose her religious views on others.

“I think one of the most obvious ways it plays out is what you’ve seen — is being courageous enough to deal with deception and corruption,” says McGraw.

Another problem with the story is the way it uses “Assembly of God” in sentences. Palin used to belong to Wasilla Assembly of God church. That is, she was a member of a congregation associated with the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of congregations and nearly 60 million members. That such a large denomination is largely foreign to the American media is somewhat shameful, thought not surprising. Remember how unfamiliar they were with Barack Obama’s United Church of Christ congregation? Though much smaller, the UCC has been quite prominent in mainline Christianity for decades.

Anyway, throughout the article the reporter uses “Assembly of God” in the most clumsy fashion possible. For example:

Some Pentecostals from Assembly of God . . .

Six years ago, Palin left Assembly of God . . .

But the Assembly of God says she still returns . . .

Assembly of God issued a statement . . .

Clearly, the last three uses are trying to refer to the specific congregation and church — Wasilla Assembly of God. The first is a reference from the larger Assemblies of God denomination. In all cases, though, the grammar is wrong. Try replacing “Methodist” for “Assembly of God.”

It may seem like a small thing, but when a reporter can’t even get that right, it really makes you question the whole piece.

UPDATE: Check out this criticism of the article from Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News, featuring Weiss’ First Law of Religious Relativism.

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  • Jerry

    This is not about religion, per se, but just as a contrast between bad and good fact checking, look at the factcheck.org review of some of lies now circulating. There’s another so-called picture of Palin floating around which factcheck found is would you believe photoshopped.

    “Alas, people believe what they want to believe, especially in an election year, and this little exercise in Photoshopping is no exception.”

    I’d love to be able to tell the media: see, being a real reporter is possible if you care and if your boss is supportive. I suspect the problem is more structural, a media example of a “Milgram experiment” where reporters lose their moral judgment because of the situation they find themselves in. But, of course, I have no way of confirming that.

  • Brian Walden

    “Sarah knows that in Genesis, God creates the world and it’s very good and that we’re supposed to be caretakers in terms of not destroying the environment…”

    Isn’t this pretty much what all Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe. There’s definitely a sense of reporting as if the Wasilla Assembly of God Church is some sort of isolated tribe with a culture completely foreign to ours.

    All Christians believe in speaking in tounges, faith healing, and the “end times” (the square quotes come from the article) – they’re all in the bible. The Assemblies of God denomination puts a lot more emphasis on them than other denominations, but it’s not like those things are completely unheard of.

    When you report on a person or group of people as if they’re freaks in a carnival tent, they usually come off as freaks in a carnival tent to readers. It’s no wonder the GOP is worried about this type of spin being applied to Palin.

  • Brian

    “Speaking of the troops in Iraq, Palin says they were sent on “task that is from God””

    I heard this exact thing on one of the national network news shows last night (ABC?). This is getting far beyond rationalizing that “the press just doesn’t get religion.” Now it’s just lying, period.

  • http://areformedlaymansperspective.blogspot.com/ David Van

    In Slogan School 101 I suspect that the over-arching principle is this: “What ever is your most perceived weakness compose your slogan to promote the opposite. CNN: “The Mosted Trusted Name in News”.

  • Ken

    CNN always seemed a little to trendy and Manhattan elitist to me, but I started watching them during the primaries, since Fox and MSNBC are really noisy (too much yelling). I thought the analysts were reasonably well balanced and intersting, if a little predictable. So I turned to them for the Republican convention and they were incredibly one-sided. I did get tickled when the two women (Campbell Brown and someone else) basically told the men to lay off Gov. Palin as a working mother; it’s a woman-thing.

    There handling of Gov. Palin’s religion is bad and getting worse. So if you don’t like Fox, MSNBC and CNN, what’s to do?

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Egads! The reporter couldn’t at least google “Assemblies of God” and find their web site to get background on the church? And they wonder why newspapers and news magazines are losing readers. Well, that and the fact they ridicule the people they try selling their fish wraps to.

  • Stephen A.

    Obama is quoted today (in an AP article) saying religion is off limits in political discussions.

    He stressed that he’s a Christian and “so the fact that Gov. Palin is deeply religious, that’s a good thing.” He said poking around in her religion or saying it’s wrong is “offensive” and he wants to have a debate about the issues.

    “But don’t give people some sort of religious litmus test because I don’t want somebody to question my faith and I’m certainly not going to question somebody else’s,” he said.

    Obamesssiah said it. I believe it. End of story. ;-)

    And yet, the personal attacks from Obama and others continue and intensify…the same old politics.

  • str1977

    Brian Walden,

    “All Christians believe in speaking in tounges, faith healing, and the “end times” (the square quotes come from the article) – they’re all in the bible.”

    No, not ALL Christians believe in these things (and whether they are in the Bible is of no consequence).

    So, when reporting about the AoG pointing out these things is fair and dandy.

    But this is not about the AoG but about Sarah Palin. The real issue: yes, the AoG believe that – so what? What’s so scary about that, politically? The answer is: nothing!

  • Missy5537

    Wow. That Randi Kay from CNN was something else! When reporting on this story, she acted as if praying to God was like talking to martians! She seemed like she had never heard of many aspects of the Christian faith, things that are clearly written in the Bible!

    I guess I felt the same way, but towards Randy Kay! I couldn’t believe a so-called “American journalist” had such little concept of the God of the Bible and how we evangelicals interact with Him.

    In contrast, Greta VanSusteren, reportedly a scientologist, did an EXCELLENT job interviewing the pastors, Sarah’s family and others. She was truly on a fact-finding mission, and seemed just charmed with the different lifestyles and the people she met in Alaska. Greta always does an excellent job with interviews, and this one was no exception.