Westboro worthy of newsprint?

The Westboro Baptist Church must be the most objectionable Christian community in the United States. You know them from their “God Hates Fags” and “God Loves Dead Soldiers” posters and from their inability to find communion with pretty much any other Christians. They are a fringe organization, not simply “fundamentalists,” with less followers than countless minority religious groups spread across the country.

I can’t remember the last time I saw an article about Jainism, or even Buddhism, so when should journalists spill ink on the Westboro Baptist Church?

That’s a question Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear, who chose not to pay any attention to Fred Phelps and his Westboro congregation when they showed up in Chi-Town to blame Jews for killing Jesus, asked at her blog, The Seeker. Brachear doesn’t actually answer the question, but, in a blogging style that is more reportorial than most, she speaks with a few rabbis and the head of Religion News Service about whether Westboro is worthy of newsprint:

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom in Chicago said members of the congregation faced the same “tough decision” I did and decided shouting back would give the group too much legitimacy.

“There are lots of different and creative ways to protest,” Conover said. “But the more we do to get press coverage for them, the more we do a disservice to religion in general.”

Kevin Eckstrom, president of the Religion Newswriters Association, said “you can’t not cover them. The question is how much coverage do you give them.”

“The best way to cover them is to put them in perspective,” he added. “Say they’re radical, fringe, outside the mainstream and let their rhetoric speak for itself.”

I tend to agree with Eckstrom, though I think Westboro only needs to be covered when they are actually making news. (See: the lawsuit that followed their protest of Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s funeral.) But at the same time reporters should be mindful that when they devote one of a finite number of daily news stories to a single church notable only because of the noise they make, that inevitably means there is that much less news space for more significant religion stories.

Not to extol the reportorial balance of Michael Moore, but in this video a skinnier Moore invites Phelps onto a very unholy bus

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  • http://www.gettingdownwithjesus.blogspot.com Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Phelps and his merry band are still hassling people, eh? I covered him back in the early ’90s, I think.

    As reporters, I think we still ought to cover what they’re doing, but balance it with Truth. Even so, let’s relegate it to the inside pages.

    So glad to have come across your blog. A pastor friend, and former radio reporter, in northwest Iowa referred me.

  • Nicholas

    Objectionable? To most professing Christians, perhaps, since it can be argued that their exegesis is incorrect or not consistent with what is widely understood to be a Christian position on gays, soldiers, or anyone else.

    Doubtless, though, there are some “Christians” who feel that the Phelpses at Westboro are saying what they themselves are thinking. They are hardly alone, as yet another Baptist pastor (Pastor Steve Anderson) is on record as saying that America is run by (vile anti-gay slur) and praying for the death of President Obama. http://www.faithfulwordbaptist.org/page2.html

    Journalistically, they rate ink because of the perfect storm of:

    1) Christianity which seems to contradict the teachings of Christ.
    2) Cartoon-like behavior.
    3) Testing the limits of the First Amendment.
    4) Overt hatred towards a minority group which is vociferously demanding – and incrementally getting – social parity.
    5) Dramatic disruptions of sacred rites such as funerals.

    Of course, the coverage affords Christians who are moderate (or less conservative) on gay issues the opportunity to distance themselves from Westboro and its ilk.

    Most have, to one degree or another. Even the SBC has kicked Westboro out. However, since anti-Phelps protesting seems to be confined to those of a liberal bent, some ink should also be devoted to why that might be.

  • Davis

    It seems like the harder question is how do you cover slightly -less fringe organizations or people (and who gets to decide who is fringe) whose raison d’etre is making news. How much ink should Lou Sheldon and the Traditional Values Coalition get? How about Bill Donohue and the Catholic League, are the American Family Association? or Al Sharpton?

    There are people largely without a constituency who still end up in the center of religion stories.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    That’s a great point, Davis. As a cub reporter, I made the mistake of lending way too much credence to Sheldon, who was always available for a comment.

  • MichaelV

    They are 15-20 people, aren’t they? I’m not sure they needed to be covered more than once. The only reason to cover them now is that they have been covered in the past. They went from being a few yahoos to being a few vaguely famous yahoos, and now they apparently need to be paid attention to because of that.

    If stories are going to be written about them, I’d like to see their smallness shown in context – not just raw numbers about them but also the extent to which there are others who share their views. I think there are a lot of people who think that this is what all Fundamentalists believe or even what all Evangelicals believe.

  • dalea

    I think there are a lot of people who think that this is what all Fundamentalists believe or even what all Evangelicals believe.

    For many years business brought me to the Sunflower Center in Topeka, KS. The event was always picketed by Westboro Baptist, every event was picketed: cat shows, tractor exhibits, family reunions, civic groups. Westboro has a unique way of picketing. They spit on people, they shove signs in your face, they scream obscenities, they make life unpleasant.

    And then they go over to Topeka Blvd with their act. There they continue on. I have personally seen cars pull over and give them money. The coverage in the Topeka papers does point out the covert support Westboro receives from sympathizers.

  • Jerry

    I was glad to read that blog post. It’s a classic example of how blogs can be helpful. Given the tiny amount of space and time there is to cover everything that is going on, I think it’s important to not always go for the sensational outrages of a tiny handful of people.

  • Suzanne

    When I worked at a paper in North Georgia, we would occasionally have a small group of klansmen who’d kick up a fuss in the town square, misspelled signs and all.

    Our instructions from our editor: Go, watch what happens, make sure nobody gets shot, then come back to the newsroom and work on something else.

    Seems like a reasonable approach for this bunch, too.

  • Dave

    I propose that Westboro get just enough ink so people who want to know what the organized haters are doing can keep track of them.

  • http://doodiepants.com Doodie

    Good post! A lot of people I’ve spoken with have still never heard of this church and it’s activities.
    Besides the obvious negativity that this group spreads, the saddest thing is the kids that are involved in this church. They may never get to actually choose their own spiritual path. They’ve been totally brainwashed by this twisted 2 dimensional version of Christianity.

    I wrote something up about the church as well and threw up a couple videos of them and a picture of a toddler holding a sign that says “you will eat you babies”