Inventing homophobic bogeymen

A couple of weeks ago, The Observer (U.K.) ran a brief editorial arguing that the Anglican Church “must not be complicit in gay persecution in Africa.” The editorial began with the doctrinal statement “Homosexuality is not a sin or a crime.” Normally we don’t concern ourselves too much with the house editorials but this one is different.

The piece quotes an Anglican bishop of in Nigeria saying that homosexuals are “inhuman, insane, satanic and not fit to live.”

Only problem? He never said it. The quote, which originated back in 2007 with the News Agency of Nigeria, was widely distributed by United Press International. At the time, the bishop strongly denied having said it. And the reporter admitted that the quote was false. The News Agency apologized and UPI pulled the story off the wire.

So when the story appeared in this 2010 Observer editorial, folks around the world alerted them to their error. It’s what happened next that boggles the mind. The readers’ editor concedes that the reporter said the quote was false. And he concedes that the bishop denied making the statement.

But then he says that this does “nothing to clarify a confused situation.” The readers’ representative says the story stands.

How, can you ask, is this possible? Well, a blog called “Akinola Repent,” which opposes the former Anglican Primate of the Church of Nigeria (the Most Rev. Peter Akinola), speculates that the confession might have come at gunpoint or something. So if you believe that conspiracy theory, and if the bishop was lying when he denied the statement, and if you did precisely no other research on fairly accessible paper trails and interviews from the time of the brouhaha, well, then, you might let the story stand, too. But is this appropriate journalistic practice for Stephen Pritchard, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, and a readers’ editor since 2001?

In his note, he also makes it seem as if the bishop is somehow to blame for being misquoted:

So the bishop apparently denies calling homosexuals “insane”, but appears to stop short at issuing a full-scale condemnation of the sentiments expressed in the disputed statement. And this is where the problem lies. Until such a statement is made, the UPI piece will still be quoted all over the internet by those wishing to expose homophobia in the African church. Consequently, it is still accessible to reporters and leader writers trying, in a hurry, to make sense of this disturbing story.

Unbelievable. Before I even get to any substantive critique, can I just laugh at the line “trying, in a hurry”? This whole brouhaha went down in September 2007. The editorial appeared in May 2010. The alleged comments were refuted in a matter of hours and days, not months or years. What rush could Pritchard possibly be talking about? I suppose we should be glad that they didn’t attribute the made-up quote to Akinola, as half of the internet subsequently did.

Besides, this “blame the victim” retraction isn’t even correct. Pritchard alleges that the bishop merely denied the “insane” portion of the quote. But The Living Church News Service did some actual reporting on the ugly quote when it first surfaced. Here’s what they found through their top secret reporting method of asking questions of key players:

A spokesman for the Church of Nigeria, Archdeacon Akintunde Popoola, told The Living Church the quote attributed to the bishop was false.

The Bishop of Uyo “denied making such a statement,” Canon Popoola said. While the bishop’s address to his diocesan synod did speak to the issue of human sexuality dividing the Communion, and the Church of Nigeria’s position on these issues, “he did not say that [gays and lesbians] are to be hated, nor that they are insane or unfit to live.”

In fact, the bishop in question responded immediately after the false report. The Nigerian Church’s press release is still online here:

Also, speaking on the recent publication on the internet about an homophobic statement attributed to him in his recent synod address, Rt. Revd. Isaac Orama lamented over what he called a false statement published on the internet and called on the media to desist from publishing wrong statements for public consumption.

According to him, what he said was that CANA is the offshoot of the Church of Nigeria’s response to the unbiblical agenda of the Episcopal Church of United States of America in supporting same sex marriage and consecrating in the year 2003 the publicly acknowledged gay priest V. Gene Robinson as bishop.

And if you read his actual synodical address, that’s exactly what he said. That address is long but even a quick scan — or, heck, a keyword search — would hopefully give pause to any reporter (or readers’ representative) worth his salt.

You see, Orama is a real man and his reputation has been horribly harmed. This is not something to take lightly. This is not good journalism.

I worry that this is what happens when folks in the media don’t even bother to understand the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality. It makes it easier to assume that the only possible opposition to homosexuality is based in homophobia.

What we have here is an extreme example of a journalistic sin that few would (we hope) even attempt to defend, but it happens on a smaller scale all the time. Often, accurate statements of traditional Christian teachings on this matter are kept out of news stories, not given the space they need to be clearly explained or reduced to caricature.

But hopefully, no matter what one’s position on homosexuality or other contentious issues, we can agree that when reporters mess up a quote or some other key fact, the error should not be compounded. Mistakes are mistakes and should be corrected.

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  • http://revjph.blogspot.com/ MadPriest

    The current Anglican primate of Nigeria is not the Most Rev. Peter Akinola. It is
    The Most Revd. Nicholas Dikeriehi Orogodo Okoh and has been since March.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Thanks, MadPriest!

  • Frank

    Also, Peter Akinola gave his support for a law which criminalized free speech that advocates civil equality for gays and lesbians with long jail sentences. It’s hardly necessary to invent a bogeyman, when Akinola volunteered for the position. Your article seems to say the whole issue was fabricated, but Akinola not only gave his support for long imprisonment over issues of conscience, but maintained the support of American Evangelicals while doing so.

    Mollie, rather than publishing your comments as a correction, you published this as an attack on anyone who criticized Akinola’s extremism as inventing a bogeyman.

    You demonstrated your lack of personal and journalistic integrity.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Frank,
    Then shouldn’t the journalism be based on actual quotes, rather than fabricated ones?

  • http://badvestments.blogspot.com Carl Vehse

    But is this appropriate journalistic practice for Stephen Pritchard, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, and a readers’ editor since 2001?

    Well, it does follow in the footsteps of Dan Rather’s “fake, but accurate” journalistic standard.

  • Dave

    I worry that this is what happens when folks in the media don’t even bother to understand the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality. It makes it easier to assume that the only possible opposition to homosexuality is based in homophobia.

    I daresay a lot of journalists think the traditional Christian teaching in this area is homophobia. This makes the mis-attribution a problem of reflecting the degree of homophobia involved, not the fact of it — in that worldview.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Frank:

    You are misquoting MZ. Cease. Her post is about the fabrication of a quote.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Frank,

    If people disagree with Akinola, that’s fine. They should just use things he’s really said instead of fabricated quotes. That is so basic you learn it even before Journalism 101.

    Carl,

    My original headline was “Fake, but accurate?”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    I’m not quite sure what you’re saying.

  • Dave

    Mollie, I’m proposing that, in the minds of many journalists, there is no bright and shining line between traditional Christian teachings on homosexality on the one hand and homophobia on the other hand. A bad quote should be corrected but may not appear as urgent if a bright line isn’t crossed.

    Which I not to say that I agree with the paper’s ombusdman backing the story. A misquote is a misquote.

  • Martha

    Frank, so if I circulate a story in which a quote attributing to you, oh, let’s say the sentiments that Africans are backwards, primitive, superstitious bigots who can be bought off by chicken dinners, and then you deny ever having said such a thing –

    - and I refuse to retract or correct my story because you never denied every single word of the spurious quote

    - you would find that acceptable?

  • Martha

    Oh, and just for your information, Frank, the backwards chicken dinner bit? Sentiments floating around the more ‘enlightened’ end of the ‘progressive’ Anglican spectrum when the Global South primates expressed their opposition to the prophetic new thing TEC was doing.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    This is so egregious I can’t help but laugh.

    It’s basically blackmail — we will continue to attribute this fake quote to you, knowing that it is false, unless you ….

    Isn’t there a law against that?

  • http://www.mrc.org/profiles/rather/crisis.asp Carl Vehse

    Carl, My original headline was “Fake, but accurate?”

    No, Stephen Pritchard’s journalistic practices follow in the footsteps of Dan Rather’s “Fake, but accurate” journalistic standard.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Dave,
    So, if the Pope says that homosexual attraction is “intrinsically disordered,” then under the new journalism, it is fine to use a quote attributed to him that “homosexuals are insane,” because the reporter doesn’t see a big difference?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Perpetua and Dave:

    And don’t forget, the reporter gets to call the pope a fundamentalist, too, even though that’s a term from Protestant history, but, oh, nevermind.

  • Dave

    Perpetua, I didn’t anywhere say misquotes were fine. I said it’s understandable that some misquotes are taken more seriously than others. (IMHO it would be OK to say that the Pope is using pre-scientific hokum to comment on a serious subject, but that’s another matter.)

    Tmatt. I agree: never mind.

  • Passing By

    Me, I’m lost in all the usual words:

    homophobia – gay friends over the years (and I’ve read it in a couple of places – the gay mag This Week in Texas for one) have told me that people are “afraid” of homosexuals because they are afraid they are one themselves. I’ve actually met a couple of folks like that. I’ve also met a couple of folks who were afraid of homosexuals from having been aggressively hit on at an impressionable age. I’ve also known many folks who simply consider same-sex acts to be a sin. To call these folks “homophobic” is simply slander used to gain power.

    homosexuality – is it the attraction? Embracing the attraction? Acting on the attraction? All three?

    gay – I’ve known men who say “I’m homosexual, but not gay”, meaning they don’t accept the social role based on their sexual attractions. Some are sexually active, btw. What do people mean by “a gay priest”? Is it a priest who experiences same-sex attraction, whether he considers it a disordered affection or not? In other words, is he “gay” even if he doesn’t consider such attraction to be normal, and at least tries to live a chaste life? Here’s an interesting take on that question:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/us/05beliefs.html

    Journalists use these words and quote people using them without adequate definition or critical examination. Even Molly did so in this post, though I know it wasn’t malicious. :-)

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Frank,
    Whether or not it is necesary to invent a bogeyman, the claim that any bishop in Nigeria made such statements is totally false.

    The bishop in question clearly stated that the actions of the Episcopal Church were unbiblical. He did not even directly make any statements about why they were unbiblical, just mentioned briefly what they were.

    So Frank, are you saying that if someone advocates a law which you disagree with it is acceptable to spread any type of false of malicious statement about them which you wish to do?

    Thinking back, this seems to be the route cause of some other claims in this perspective. When Latter-day Saints object to false and malicious attacks on them, they are told “you entered politics, so expect to be attacked”.

    This seems an un-ethical standard. If someone does something you dislike, you can lie, lie and lie against them to destroy their reputation, their good name and maybe even incite a lynch mob.

    This is clearly not the type of logic we want newspapers to apply. Even in an editorial stating an outright lie should not be tolerated. In reporting the news, lies should be avoided dilligently. A reader should clearly be informed if donations were made by members of a church or by a church itself, especially since if political donations are from members of a church they are not tax exempt.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Dave,
    I think we know that you do not agree with the media misquotes.

    So let us go back to the Pope quote. I actually think it is a very good example, and I am sure we could find an instance where it almost happened.

    One of the other problems in these discussions is code shifting. The report says “such and such a group supports the boy scout’s ban on gays, even though the group does not condemn being gay, only acting on it”. Well, as far as I can tell the boy scout ban only is against people who are not morally straight. For that matter, as a boy scout I never had to affirm that I was not gay at least not in a way that I fully realized it, maybe committing to being morally straight was, but liberals mock that interpretation all the time.

  • dalea

    The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association addresses the meanings of the words gay, lesbian, homosexual and homophobia in their style book [warning PDF]:

    http://www.nlgja.org/resources/NLGJA_Stylebook.pdf

    The definitions in English are on pages 4 thru 9. Since I have never figured out how to copy from a PDF, check it out.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Passingby, you have a really good point about journalists misusing terms.

    To began with, many of us still are not fully reconciled to the stealing of the word “gay”. I once read a review of a work where it was pointed out that the author had used a mention to “gay New York” in a 1916 paper to try to prove someone was a homosexual.

    I have also come across arguments that men in prison who rape other men there are not gay. According to some, it is not homosexual activity if a 50-year-old man has sex with a 16-year-old.

    Thus when people say “the Catholic priest problem involves homosexuals” the other side comes back and says “no it does not”.

    The first “openly gay” member of congress came out publicly that he was gay because he was having sex with his 17-year-old male intern. He was re-elected to congress many times after that.

    So, when it suits the homosexual lobby’s intents, an adult man having sex with a 17-year-old is gay.

    From the standpoint of attraction, 18 is not the point but puberty. In Michigan, inder certain conditions, sex between an 18-year-old and an adult is counted as statutory rape.

  • Dave

    So let us go back to the [fictitious] Pope quote. I actually think it is a very good example, and I am sure we could find an instance where it almost happened.

    We are so off the journalism topic.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Yes, I’ve just come back from the Strasburg MLB debut to find a thread straying from a focus on journalism.

    This is not the place to debate linguistics or homosexuality. Keep focused on journalism, please.

  • Passing By

    Mr. Lambert,

    I didn’t mean to address the “misuse” of terms, but their ill-defined and uncritical use. I suppose a type of misuse, but these terms carry ideological freight, and, like all such terms, should be used with care.

    The link to the NLGJA stylebook (thank you, dalea), for example, defines “homophobia” as:

    Fear, hatred or dislike of homosexuality, gay men and
    lesbians.

    Yet the term is used – in this post and comments – as applicable to people with various objections to same-sex practice, which exist apart from emotional states such as “fear”, “hatred”, or “dislike”. Interesting that in the definition, “homosexuality” is used, but there is not an entry for that term in the stylebook.

  • Passing By

    My apologies. I didn’t imagine that a discussion of word usage was not applicable to journalism.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    It can be — it just needs to be focused on the journalism issues. Otherwise we can get far afield pretty quickly. Particularly on topics related to homosexuality!

  • dalea

    Passing by,

    The definition of homosexuality is on page 6, directly after the definition of homophobia.

    homosexual: As a noun, a person
    who is attracted to members of the
    same sex. As an adjective, of or
    relating to sexual and affectional
    attraction to a member of the same
    sex. Use only if “heterosexual”
    would be used in parallel constructions,
    such as in medical contexts.
    For other usages, see gay and
    lesbian.

    Mollie, are the NLGJA style recommendations similar to the AP style book ones?

  • Passing By

    dalea -

    I saw the definition of “homosexual”; “homosexuality” is clearly a noun that refers to … something … but it isn’t a person. They are two different words.

  • Passing By

    It occurs to me that I should apologize (again)for continuing the linguistic line, but “homosexuality” is used constantly in news stories and commentary, so I should think its meaning would be a journalistic issue.


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