Why journalists love Westboro Baptist

Actually, the headline on the top of this post should say, “Why so many mainstream journalists are biting their lips and showing reluctant support for the fundamentalists — self proclaimed, fitting Associated Press style — from Westboro Baptist Church.” But that wouldn’t fit very well in our format.

It goes without saying that there is too much coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court sessions about Westboro Baptist (surf this) to deal with in a single GetReligion post, especially one written quickly while I prepare to split town for a speaking gig.

Here is what I can do for you.

Strangely enough, I can point readers once again to an excellent Time piece on the core issues in this case that, sadly, is still not available in its entirety on the magazine’s website. I will continue to watch to see if and when the text is posted.

Ironically, the key element of that article, from my point of view, is its emphasis on secular issues, not religious issues. You cannot understand this case without grasping the fact that the members of the Westboro legal team — once again, a wave of folks related to the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. — have been willing to follow whatever laws local authorities throw at them, in terms of the locations of their protests.

These folks have a modus operandi and they know how to use it. They do legal protests that make a wide variety of people so mad (justifiably so) that they file lawsuits. The church then wins the lawsuits and collects the legal fees. Rinse, wash, blow dry. Repeat.

Phelps and his crew know that they will draw media coverage. For them, that’s the exposure that matters. They get to stand in front of cameras and shout, “God damn America” (as opposed to “God bless America”).

Thus, here is what I want GetReligion readers to do.

Go out in your front yard — literally, or digitally — and grab your local newspaper. Read the Westboro story that you will find there.

Then answer these questions. In addition to telling the story of the grieving family, which is essential, does the report in your local news source tell you (a) that the protests were moved to another location that was not in view of the church at which the funeral was held and that mourners did not need to pass the demonstration? Then, (b) does it note that the grieving father’s only viewing of these hateful, hellish demonstrations took place when he viewed news media reports or read materials posted on the church’s website? Those facts are at the heart of this case, when you are looking at the legal arguments from a secular, legal, even journalistic point of view. This is why so many mainstream news organizations are backing the church.

For my local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, this is literally a local story, for two reasons. The emphasis is, as it should be, on the family of the U.S. Marine from Maryland. Then there is the scene at the Supreme Court.

While members of Westboro Baptist Church waved a sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday thanking God for dead soldiers, the nine justices inside tried to define the line at which such public protests become personal attacks during arguments in an emotionally charged case prompted by the picketing of a Maryland Marine’s funeral.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was 20 years old when he was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, publicity-seeking members of the fire-and-brimstone Kansas congregation — all strangers to the Snyders — appeared at his family’s Catholic funeral service in Westminster with posters proclaiming sentiments like “God Hates America” and “Semper Fi Fags.” They later posted online a diatribe blaming Snyder’s death on the sins of the country and his divorced parents.

Snyder’s father sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and initially won, though the multimillion-dollar verdict was overturned on appeal. That series of legal decisions vaulted the Maryland case to the country’s highest court, where it’s testing the boundaries of the First Amendment and putting liberal free-speech advocates in the position of siding with fringe Christians. …

The case put several specific questions before the court — addressing the rights of private versus public figures, whether free speech is more important than freedom of religion and peaceful assembly, and whether a funeral constitutes a captive audience that needs protection from certain communication. But at its heart are issues of intellectual freedom and human decency.

Actually, the church believes that it’s religious freedom is at stake, too. So there are claims of religious liberty on both sides.

The Sun story covers most of the bases that must be covered (although, strangely enough, Pastor Phelps loses “The Rev.” in front of his name somewhere along the way).

Finally, toward the end, readers are offered this description of the actual event at the heart of this case:

Five days after Matthew Snyder was killed, the Phelpses sent out a news release warning his father and the authorities that they planned to picket the Westminster service at the “St. John’s Catholic dog kennel.” The funeral procession was rerouted, a SWAT team brought in, and a team of motorcyclists shielded the funeral-goers from viewing Westboro members.

But Snyder knew they were there, and later saw them on television and read their online diatribe, which the group called an “epic,” against his son.

While it is accurate to note that the “funeral procession was rerouted,” it is also crucial to note that the media-friendly demonstration was moved away from the Catholic church and that the Westboro activists honored that decision by civic officials. The family saw the protesters only in mainstream news reports — a big issue for defenders of freedom of the press.

Thus, there were only two ways to avoid the pain caused by the demonstrators — ban the protests, even on public cites chosen by civic officials, or ban media coverage of the protests. These are high hurdles for any justices who want, literally, to justify the silencing of these very bizarre religious believers.

So, what was in your local news? Did the reports tell you what you needed to know to understand this case? Once again, stick to the journalism issues.

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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.

  • http://bullschuck.blogspot.com Bull

    I noticed that the case was mentioned as a news story on a Catholic Radio station with no reference to Westboro Baptist by name (until the very end) and little about what they do. After mentally chastising them “But this is WESTBORO Baptist, aren’t they going to mention ‘God Hates the USA’ or something?” I realized that it was a conscious decision not to sensationalize the issue.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, this is not the place to leave death threats aimed at members of Westboro Baptist.

    This is not even a place to evaluate their truly bizarre beyond-fundamentalist theology.

    Stick to the journalism issues.

  • James

    I’ve often wondered at the ethics of “fringe” news coverage.

    We have this tiny church of 70 or so people, a few of which aren’t part of one big family, but the rest of which are really more like a kind of clan (in the literal, blood related sense) which have developed their own religious sect.

    There are other things which are also rather “fringe” but in other ways far more prominent. E.g., the NAMBLA, with a few hundred members, and activities which could be considered as quite controversial. Or the Fulsom Street Fair, which may be the largest LGBT gathering (and including a lot of hetero bondage / leather types), and which enjoys large multi-national sponsoring, where things also happen which could be considered as controversial and likely to make nice racy headlines.

    In general, most journalists, including those who work for Christian media, don’t write about NAMBLA or the Fulsom Street Fair. It’s generally considered that men advocating things that NAMBLA advocates, or men fellating one another in public with children present, are things which are likely to cause the public to develop inaccurate stereotypes regarding gay men, or LGBT people in general.

    A quick google search of, e.g., ChristianityToday.com for these terms makes this clear; and web searches for the keywords NAMBLA and Fulsom Street Fair turn up only rather “fringy” types of publications, and none of the mainstream Christian media.

    Mainstream gay media, on the other hand, can hardly get enough news of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist – take your pick of mainstream gay publications on the web, search for Fred Phelps or Westboro Baptist, and you find lots of articles. And general mainstream media isn’t far behind.

    If it weren’t for the behavior of mainstream media, few would know of what Westboro Baptist is up to, beyond Topeka, Kansas, and those who see them at protests. In fact, the protests might, given time, eventually stop altogether. Those folks probably aren’t going to continue to pay thousands of dollars in airfare to pay for each protest if merely a handful see them.

    Find the second-most famous congregation in the world, and I’m sure that you’ll find a few thousand times the number of articles on Westboro Baptist than this other congregation. Fred Phelps may well be, next to the pope, the second most-recognized religious leader in the world. No one knows the name of the chief executive of NAMBLA or the Fulsom Street Fair. No one cares.

    Another interesting comparison would be press coverage of Al Quaeda and Islam. Many Islamic sources, and some liberal Western sources, complain that the press is guilty of associating terrorism and Islam by its selective coverage of news. Given this general value, what might we say of the press’s behavior with regard to Westboro Baptist?

    What does this tell us about the mainstream media, about gay media, about Christian media, and about American culture in general?

  • James

    “homework assignment” for Belgium / Netherlands:
    Can’t do it – media in these countries seem totally uninterested. Google shows no articles in major newspapers for either .be or .nl during the past week.

  • Ed

    To be accuraate, it’s not FUlsom it’s FOlsom. Not that it matters all that much

  • Dave

    grab your local newspaper. Read the Westboro story that you will find there.

    The Cleveland Plain Dealer provided both fact (a) and fact (b), the latter of which was not on the PBS Newshour last night. PBS did give good talking-head coverage to Margie Phelps, who was sharp as a tack on matters both legal and theological.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Just a reminder that you should source some of these claims — links that substantiate the various statements about lack of coverage, size of these other groups, etc.



  • Jerry

    My local paper reprinted Adam Liptak’s New York Times piece http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/07/us/07scotus.html but the interesting thing to me is that there was a lot more text in my local version including this telling sentence:

    “Seven picketers,” she said, “A thousand feet away. Out of sight. Out of sound.”

    I have to wonder why the Times trimmed it for their paper.

  • James

    Here’s Google searching for NAMBLA over at Christianity Today: http://www.google.com/search?q=nambla+site:christianitytoday.com out of the 35,300 pages that Google indexes. All hits are in user comments (i.e., no mentions in the article or blog entry bodies). If you don’t know how to do this: you simply append site:christianitytoday.com to your query (with a space before site:, of course).

    “westboro baptist” site:queerty.com yields 229 results out of 21,500 pages total for queerty.com

    This alone is interesting – that Google indexes 35,300 of ChristianityToday’s pages and 21,500 of queerty – I would have expected ChristianityToday’s site to have about 100x the number of pages as compared to queerty, given the age and size of the organization. Some of it is paywalled. These queries contain subdomains.

    Mainstream media: in the last year, nytimes.com shows 2 hits for NAMBLA (both are by commenters, not article body content) and 40 for “Westboro Baptist” – all front page hits seeming to be in article body content. Nytimes.com has a very large archive; there have been more articles on NAMBLA in years past, while Westboro Baptist is a rather recent phenomenon, so it helps to limit the search scope to the last year, or at least the years that Westboro Baptist has been in the spotlight.

    I haven’t done research here, just looked things up at wikipedia – for whoever’s interested, Wikipedia has 1,100 as NAMBLA’s membership in 1997, based on a detective’s discovery. I’d imagine it’s lost members since then, but most likely still has at least a few hundred. Wikipedia has Westboro Baptist at 71 members in 2007, and Folsom Street Fair attracting 400,000 visitors each year.

  • Elijah

    Like many here, I understood the protesters to be “out of sight, out of earshot”. But this USA Today editorial by the national VFW Commander syas they were less than 300′ away.

    Question about “the Rev.” – from what I have been able to dig up, Phelps never finished Bible college, or seminary, and is recognized by no church body other than his own. Does he qualify for the “Rev.” just because he says he does?

  • Elijah
  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Elijah, according to this he was ordained at Bob Jones University. So “reverend” is correct.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I haven’t done research here, just looked things up at wikipedia – for whoever’s interested, Wikipedia has 1,100 as NAMBLA’s membership in 1997, based on a detective’s discovery. I’d imagine it’s lost members since then, but most likely still has at least a few hundred. Wikipedia has Westboro Baptist at 71 members in 2007, and Folsom Street Fair attracting 400,000 visitors each year.

    Apparently media-worthiness does not work on a body-count basis.

  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    I had the thought this morning as I heard coverage of this story on NPR, and forgive me if others have brought this up before… But why is their speech protected by the First Amendment anyway? Can this church prove that their protesting has anything to do with their religion? What are their religious doctrines in accordance with this protesting? Does my freedom of religion entitle me to say whatever I want, whenever I want, to whomever I want? What if their protesting is done only to appeal to prurient interests, and has absolutely nothing to do with religion? I don’t understand their religion, I guess, but it seems like they say these provocative things for the sake of being provocative. Does the First Amendment protect the rights of people wishing to perform death and burial rites? Has anyone examined that angle of it? I wish the news would raise these types of questions as well.

  • Passing By

    The Dallas Morning News ran the the Associated Press story and an editorial. Neither reveal that the father didn’t see the protesters, but the editorial writer did note that a procession could be re-routed (but that shouldn’t be necessary).
    The Fort Worth Star-Telegram website shows two articles, one from the AP, and another from the McClatchy Newspapers which did include the the fact that the father didn’t see protesters at the funeral.

    As a Catholic, I probably should make some snappy remark about the “St. John’s Catholic dog kennel”, but these people are just too pathetic. They don’t even rise to the label of “anti-Catholic”.

    Finally, am I the only one who hears echos of

  • Passing By

    bad me:

    Finally, am I the only one who hears echos of “God damn America” in “God hates America”? Of course, the underlying issues are different, but the final rhetorical result is pretty much the same.

  • Elijah

    Thanks Joel, but that article says he was “ordained” a Southern Baptist (the SBC doesn’t agree) and then Phelps returned to Bob Jones. Still raises a question for me as to who, exactly, ordained him.

  • Elijah

    So apparently in Baptist culture local pastors and/or congregations can “ordain” anyone who passes the Scripture test. Interesting to note, however, that no “Baptist” group that I can find wants anything to do with him.

    Almost every account of Fred Phelps I can find describes his education and “ordination” differently. Few note that Phelps is, however, a permanently disbarred lawyer.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Almost every account of Fred Phelps I can find describes his education and “ordination” differently. Few note that Phelps is, however, a permanently disbarred lawyer.

    Or a registered Democrat. Somehow that always gets overlooked, too. :)

    I doubt B.H. McAlister, who ordained him, had any inkling what he would become down the road. I gather that his ordination as a Southern Baptist was valid, but neither he nor they recognize him as part of the denomination now.