Got spin? Winds of change

tornado-1Anyone who knows anything about the work of the conservative journalist and historian Marvin Olasky knows that he loves the old-fashioned advocacy journalism of America in the early 19th Century.

In other words, he liked the days — before the growth of the “American model” of the press that stressed balance, fairness and the goal of objectivity — when newspapers printed their point of view right on the masthead. A pro-labor newspaper said it was a pro-labor newspaper, a Christian newspaper called itself a Christian newspaper, etc. This approach is often called the “European” model of the press and, in the United States, you see it used most often in journals of news and opinion, such as National Review, The New Republic, The Nation and, in religious circles, World and nonNewsweek.

With that in mind, click here and check out a recent Olasky essay — headline “Remarkable Providence” — about that timely tornado that hit Minneapolis during the much-publicized convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You may recall that oceans of ink were spilled about that gathering because of the vote to ordain as clergy gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are living in lifelong, faithful, monogamous same-sex unions.

Olasky notes that:

No severe weather warnings were in place, and no tornado had come into downtown Minneapolis for a long time — at least 90 years, according to one archivist. Nevertheless, as delegates met, a tornado damaged the roof of the Minneapolis convention center where they were meeting and knocked the cross off the host church next door.

Doing a quick media survey, Olasky notes that there were three journalistic options in writing about the tornado and the vote in the ELCA gathering. Please note that these are journalistic options within, let’s say, liberal and conservative approaches to “European” journalism and the more neutral “American” model.

So what are the three options?

Right: It is acceptable to say that God sent the storm to express displeasure with the ELCA gathering and its unorthodox actions.

Center: In order to stay neutral, journalists should have reported what people on the scene said, on their own or in response to questions about the tornado. You then needed to print both sides so readers could make up their own minds.

Left: Since it’s clear that God does not act in such a manner (if in fact there is a God who can act in creation), and since it’s clear that the ELCA’s vote was a good thing, journalists should ignore the tornado — going so far as to ignore what was said about the storm during the meeting itself.

church_tornado-thumb-250x445So who did what? A local pastor and author named John Piper took the conservative option, noting that this is precisely the kind of connection that believers would have made in the past (and Olasky would note that this viewpoint would have been assumed in some newspapers).

Toward the middle of the spectrum, Olasky said:

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the news and noted one interpretation, with a raised-eyebrow “even”: “Some conservatives even saw signs of divine anger when a tornado touched down on the Minneapolis Convention Center just hours before the vote.” The Associated Press also reported the incident, but in a more sardonic way: “A few jokes about God’s wrath proved inevitable. ‘We trust that the weather is not a commentary on our work,’ said the Rev. Steven Loy, who was helping oversee the convention.”

Another question: Were there no conservative Lutherans at the convention who mentioned the tornado in public remarks or in interviews?

On the left, the Minneapolis Star Tribune said that, “The storm largely escaped the notice of the 2,000 Lutherans involved.” Oh really? Olasky noted that Julia Duin of the Washington Times reported that “inside the center, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson read the 121st Psalm — which talks about God’s loving care — to the nervous assembly.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times failed to even mention the tornado in its two stories on the ELCA vote. Did Olasky miss a reference in a later report?

Of course, Olasky is on the opposite side of the advocacy aisle. But even his theological viewpoint is nuanced.

… God controls the winds, so any tornado is a warning to all of us that we do not control even the next hour of our lives. We need to be careful about citing tornado hits or misses as proof of God’s specific disfavor or favor: Episcopalian prelates who approve sin should not rest easy because their conclaves have not caved in. In WORLD we avoid stating as fact that which cannot be proven from the Bible or from careful observation, but we do not follow the Times in ignoring remarkable providences.

The issue is not whether one agrees with Olasky’s interpretation of the event, since he is openly using a conservative advocacy approach. You are free to disagree with his view.

But I am left with this troubling question: What is the journalistic justification for using a liberal advocacy approach on this story, one that would require omitting the actual discussions of the storm that took place during the event that was being covered?

Interesting.

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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.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “What is the journalistic justification for using a liberal advocacy approach on this story, one that would require omitting the actual discussions of the storm that took place during the event that was being covered?”

    This leading rhetorical question is throwing red meat to this conservative.

    The answer lies within the question itself. …

  • Dave

    Any journialist going beyond the fact of the storm and the discussion of it on the convention floor should include some background on meteorology, in particular how frequently an unpredicted storm of this sort occurs. The fact that the storm was not forecast is not unprecedented; weather forecasting is an inexact science. This is outside Olasky’s right-center-left layout of the possibilities.

    Within the “right” option, the divine-displeasure narrative is weakened by the fact that the storm did not in fact wipe out the convention.

  • Jerry

    when newspapers printed their point of view right on the masthead. A pro-labor newspaper said it was a pro-labor newspaper, a Christian newspaper called itself a Christian newspaper, etc. This approach is often called the “European” model of the press

    The new American model is to be an advocacy outlet but not admit to being one, such as Fox on the right.

    Left: Since it’s clear that God does not act in such a manner (if in fact there is a God who can act in creation), and since it’s clear that the ELCA’s vote was a good thing, journalists should ignore the tornado — going so far as to ignore what was said about the storm during the meeting itself.

    To me that is a classic straw man argument with a seasoning of snark.

    Misreporting what was going on was, of course, an error deserving a correction. But being nervous about a storm and praying about it is something that even conservative Christians might do.

    Maybe people on the left should start saying that anything going wrong with someone on the right is divine vengeance?

    And of course, maybe those on the right would like to admit to the possibility that some of those on the left are as religious but maybe have a different view of how to interpret scripture. But that would mean admitting that not all on the left have the same view of God.

  • carl

    It is always – always – problematic to attribute divine intent to events like this tornado. It makes a great metaphor for an argument, but it seems presumptuous to extend the metaphor to the point of reading the mind of God. What God has revealed, He has revealed. The purpose of the tornado in question hasn’t been revealed. This to me is not dissimilar from all the “prophesy” books that relate the Iraq war to the outworking of eschatology. This isn’t even good theology let alone good journalism. It may make sense. It may even be true. People may privately come to that judgment. But to state it definitively is a bridge too far.

    So as much as it kills me to say it (and it does hurt, believe me) it would seem to me that Olasky has gone beyond the bounds of Journalism, and that the NY Times is more rr … rri … rrrri … more not wrong in this matter than Olasky. This idea should not be reported as fact, and at best should be mentioned as an impression of some of the delegates.

    carl

  • http://pterandon.blogspot.com Greg M. Johnson

    Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson gave some remarks during the assembly that I took as his commentary on interpreting divine intervention in the winds. After the tornado, he said he had spoken to one of the pastors who had suffered property damage. The pastor had said everyone was okay and the tornado’s effects were largely to remove unwanted trees “that were already slated for removal.” There were a few guffaws from the crowd in response to the metaphorical news.

    I’m neutral on which way to spin the tornado, but just note that it was spun both ways.

  • Lymis

    … It is all well and good to say that it is a valid way of reporting to simply quote what the people are saying, but once you start doing that, where is the responsibility to get a sampling of all the possible things people are saying? I can even accept (while disagreeing) reporting what the church leaders or the event planners had to say, but not random people chosen specifically because their quotes further a specific agenda. Given that a majority voted in favor of the new standard, it is hard to believe that a majority of people talking about the storm had that convervative vengeful-God spin to their comments.

    Similarly, if a discussion of this should include a brief synopsis of meteorological theory and history, at a minimum, if you are reporting theological interpretations, shouldn’t it include a statement of Episcopalian doctrine on such things?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks:

    We are not discussing the theology of either side. We are discussing the journalistic question of why not to cover the actual discussions AT THE EVENT.

    I don’t care if you agree with Olasky and other storm theologians. That’s not the point. The point is coverage of what people said at the convention and coverage of the storm itself.

  • Stephen A.

    Actually, the “traditional” way of reporting this (I mean WAY BACK) would be, by default, to attribute the storm to God’s displeasure.

    However, Olasky is correct in his analysis of at least three of the current reporting standards on how to portray this issue, and I’m dumbfounded that anything but the “center” or “neutral” way is being considered.

    It’s obvious that conservative media venues will likely mention the storm as a possible act of vengeance, and that the Left-leaning way would be to totally ignore the storm because it MAY be interpreted as the religious conservatives intend it to be, and that amount of PC censorship is disturbing, but all too common.

    Reporting that someone BELIEVED it to be a direct act of God is certainly well within the bounds of fair and accurate reporting. How could it NOT be seen as such?

  • Dave

    The left-leaning approach would be to mention the storm because some of the convention delegates referred to it. No self-censorship involved. The delicate part is whether this comes across as straight reporting or as poking fun at the pre-lightning-rod beliefs of these churchmen and -women.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Olasky’s essay and this post makes me wish that he and Getreligion would do just the tiniest bit of reporting before commenting on a story. How hard would it be to call or email a reporter and ask them why they omitted certain details.

    It’s not that hard to do- and would lead to some intelligent conversation rather than uniformed speculation about motivation.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Terry– that comment probably came out a little ruder than I meant. I do think that follows to reporters would yield more fruit.

  • Bill

    just for fun
    who was speaking the moment the torna:o hit?
    someone in favor or opposed to motion?

  • Andy

    In the interest of accuracy, Piper didn’t say God sent the storm to express His displeasure with the ELCA specifically.

    What he actually said was that when disasters happen, we need to remind ourselves that none of us will escape God’s judgment (referencing Luke 13:1-5).

    Piper concluded, “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.”

    His original post is here and a followup post clarifying this point is here.


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