Westboro’s winnings

Westboro Baptist Church keeps popping up in GetReligion territory thanks to its ability to capture attention through protests and lawsuits. Of course, the news yesterday that the Supreme Court ruled in the group’s favor is impossible to ignore.

Assuming readers don’t necessarily know what Westboro is, it can be difficult to find a short headline that gets to the point. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times went with: “Supreme Court sides with churchgoers who picketed military funeral.” The descriptor “churchgoers” is about as vague as you can get. Print editions may have space constraints, but editors could consider search engine optimization and come up with clearer headlines online.

Most of the coverage focused on the Supreme Court decision, reporting the majority and minority opinions. Space is limited, but it would be nice if reporters would slip in a sentence or two explaining who Westboro is and what they believe. Barbara Bradley Hagerty gave a “peek” inside Westboro in her round-up for NPR.

The Phelpses and their church are isolated in more ways than one. Few news organizations have profiled them. One exception is Bill Sherman, the religion writer for newspaper Tulsa World. He visited them in their compound in an upscale neighborhood of Topeka. He found them polite, normal people–and a model of success.

“They’re college educated. They’re well-spoken. The daughter herself argued before the United States Supreme Court,” Sherman says. “They’re not what I expected.”

This took me back to Bill Sherman’s Tulsa World piece that explains how the congregation is mostly made up of Phelps’ own family.

Phelps, a Topeka civil rights lawyer during the 1960s through the 1980s, has 13 children. Eleven are lawyers, and nine are directly involved in the church and the ministry. Four of them practice in the law firm that Phelps founded.

Most of his children – as well as 56 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren – live in the compound or within a block or two of it. The school-age children attend public schools, where they make good grades. Most of the adults hold professional jobs. Some of Phelps’ children are estranged from the family and have spoken publicly against it.

The church is fenced and gated, but contrary to some rumors in Topeka, its services are open to the public, family members say.

Phelps still preaches a 45-minute sermon every Sunday to a congregation of about 70, nearly all of them related to him by blood or marriage.

This kind of context gives people a picture that this isn’t like your average church around the corner. Overall, it would be helpful to explain that Westboro is an independent congregation with no ties any Baptist conventions or networks.

When the arguments came before the Supreme Court, Terry noted that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news outlets filed friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church’s right to hold protests.

After yesterday’s decision, Poynter promoted Kelly McBride’s column on how to cover hate speech. She drew on earlier ideas when she wrote a planned Quran burning in Florida.

When you give hate speech too much attention, or the wrong kind of attention, you cause more harm than good. Here are some of the common negative affects of hate speech stories that miss the mark:

You alienate your audience and they turn away.
Like rewarding a toddler who throws a tantrum, you encourage the speaker to keep talking.
You embolden others to share their hate speech, so they too can get attention.
You create a climate, both virtual and real, that fosters screaming instead of civil dialogue.
You inadvertently pile harm onto innocent individuals who are the target of the speech.

Many of these points may be true, but they feel a bit too utilitarian when journalists can’t always try to predict the outcome of coverage. A basic question local newspaper editors should ask is, “Is this really news? Westboro protests at lots of funerals, how does this particular one make it different.” Westboro is considered outrageous by many, but it’s unclear is how McBride decides what consists of hate speech and who decides whether it’s worth covering.

We’ve looked at a few slices of the coverage, but feel free to let us know if you have come across particularly good or bad stories.

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  • Suzanne

    The problem of using the “is it news?” standard is that on a local level, it often is news when Westboro comes calling. In a smaller city where a soldier has died and they’ve come to protest at the funeral, it’s often the first time such a protest has been held in that community, so naturally, people will see it as news.

    My first job was in a small town in N. Ga. that was home to a fairly outspoken klansman. He organized marches downtown virtually every month, and we had standing orders to cover the march with a reporter and/or photographer, but not to print anything unless something unusual happened.

    But take the same klansman, and move him to the community in Illinois where I live now, and I can guarantee you wall-to-wall coverage, since that sort of thing never happens here.

    Because Westboro is always on the move, going to new communities, they guarantee fresh coverage wherever they go. It’s a savvy media strategy, and one I don’t have an easy answer for dealing with.

  • Dave

    The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran the New York Times story on the SCOTUS decision, and both the body and the headline referred to WBC as a church. The story did not go into details about WBC but that could have been in the NYT tail that the PD surely trimmed.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I can understand local media reporting on the Phelps’ antics. However, I wonder about how much coverage they really merit in the national media. Maybe it is the cynic in me, but I tend to think that these anti-Gay activists are so off the wall that their antics very likely will gain support for what they claim they are against and so the media gives them far more spotlight than they deserve.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Spiking away. This is your place to comment on the journalism issues in the coverage of the Westboro story — not to simply do the easy task of expressing your ire about the congregation, its ideas or its bank account.

  • Brian

    I don’t understand why so many headlines call these monsters “anti-gay” since I think that gives the reader a distorted image of the situation, and isn’t really relevant to the heart of the controversy. They’re showing up at funerals where they think they can get publicity and making jerks of themselves. Some (many? most?) of their signs are anti-gay, but I suspect that’s just because they know that that sort of thing is a way to maximize their press coverage. In general the funerals or other events they’re showing up at have absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality except for their idiotic signs.

    I’ve also never seen why the “fighting words” doctrine wouldn’t protect anyone who assaulted these cretins.

  • Jerry

    I heard the best coverage ever of Westboro today on NPR. They covered that they came from a baptist tradition, how independent various baptist churches are, how someone can be called to be a minister, their Calvanist (predestination) theology that says America is going to hell and that their purpose is not to convert or cause repentance but to bear witness to what is going to happen. And all of that was done within three minutes in the context of the first amendment story.

    I looked at npr.org and found a previous story but not this one.

  • freenarnian

    Jerry having spent time in Baptist and Presbyterian Churches I find that VERY suspect.

    Baptists are usually Arminian (free-will) NOT Calvinist. The independent variety are usually MORE free will than the mainline. Therefore take much more stock in moralism and are more into the culture war because the Kingdom of God is built by the hands of Man as it were. The altar call concept comes from Lawyer/evangelist Charles Finney, who had very little use for the Blood and forgiveness of Jesus. For him it was all a work of man. His primary tactic was preaching hell fire and emotional manipulation. Phelps seems more a disciple of Finney.

    Logically, (not that logic is employed in the case of Phelps) the MORE you believe in free will the MORE you believe it is the SINNERS FAULT that they do not come to God. Those who have a predestination outlook tend to believe we are ALL hopeless sinners, born that way and totally unable to Convert without the Blood and WORD of Jesus. Properly preached, predestination should lead one to an extreme humility, not the arrogance of PHelps.

    The idea that he would be Calvinist strikes me as VERY suspect. But at this point I suppose I have seen just about everything..

    I was VERY pleased by local press coverage of PHelps when he came to town preaching his antiSemitisms. THe Jewish writer gave his lawsuit abuse background AND totally GOT RELIGION. And a religion not his own, by pointing out, that when the Jews pointed out Phelps didn’t seem to have the forgiveness of Jesus, Mrs. Phelps broke into a screaming banshee fit.

    When it comes to the press getting Religion, IT CAN be done. But they have to hold up a pursuit of truth above personal agendas.

    This Jewish writer could have gone into a whole diatribe about how Christians have mistreated Jews in the past and he could have taken New Testament Passages out of Context to prove his case for the anti-semitic nature of Christianity. And again used Fred Phelps for the tired old pack mule for anti-Christian rhetoric that he is. But he cared about the truth.

    How is this for short News Ticker– Fred Phelps, Lawyer cult leader conned the Supreme Court into making an idol of free speech today, thereby turning law, yet again into a weapon against the rest of us.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    “I don’t understand why so many headlines call these monsters “anti-gay” since I think that gives the reader a distorted image of the situation, and isn’t really relevant to the heart of the controversy.”

    They’re calling them “anti-gay” because the basis of their Godforsaken ministry is their hatred of gays and a society that tolerates them. Without that, no protests.

  • Dave

    Brian, Margie Phelps was interviewed by PBS — the News Hour — when their case was first argued before the High Bench. She was very clear about the church’s stand: that America had been damned for tolerating homosexuality, that American soldiers had become targets for God’s wrath by putting on the uniform of a damned nation, and that pickets of death-in-combat military funerals are informational along these lines. I don’t know if all this is Biblical or not but it certainly is fair to call it anti-gay.

  • Brian

    Donald: Without them harassing mourners at funerals that have nothing at all to do with them, no news coverage. I maintain that it’s their particular actions, NOT their motivations, that drive both the coverage AND the outrage and should be the focus. If they held the same disgusting signs on some random street corner, it would still be despicable but wouldn’t get reported by anyone. I think it’s actually a fairly recent phenomenon that the “anti-gay” label has been featured so prominently in the coverage.

  • Julia

    Westboro is considered outrageous by many, but it’s unclear is how McBride decides what consists of hate speech and who decides whether it’s worth covering.

    Reading that caused me to look back at how McBride listed the effects of giving “hate speech” coverage. hmm Seems like those must be the similar justifications for giving very little coverage to the huge, huge Roe anniversary marches.

    Just like the S. Ct. said, the US has decided to put up with speech we don’t like so that we can all have free speech, but the press is still free to decide which free speech it wants to cover. The First Amendment doesn’t require the press to report everything. Looks like the anti-abortion protesters are deemed to be involved in “hate speech”, too. That explains a lot.

  • freenarnian

    Brian it is news. It was all over facebook when they came to our town. Christians were VERY upset. They felt their reputation was sullied by him. ANd God’s character misrepresented. No doubt the Jews also wanted to sue him and make him stop his racially charged remarks.

    Not a really sexy story–BUt I will summarize the Southwest News story as I remember it.

    Jewish and gay groups are advised to ignore emotionally unstable, disbarred lawyer with a history of lawsuit abuse and questionable theology and his followers throw a childish tantrum and walk away.

    I know journalists make the mistake of becoming social activists. Surely it is hard not to!! But the results here would have been disasterous.

    When the press acts as it did here and responds to its duty to INFORM, the people reacted appropriately and the insulted parties duly ignored him and there are no law suits and Phelps moves on to more ignorant/lucrative targets.

    Here the Reporter could have fancied himself protecting Judaism or sexual expression by muddying the waters with his pet issues. He would then have another story of Phelps making off with some emotionally distraught Jewish person’s retirement money.

    The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is in everybody’s best interests. It is the one thing that can unite us.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald


    “I think it’s actually a fairly recent phenomenon that the “anti-gay” label has been featured so prominently in the coverage.”


    The WBC became prominent in the first place became of its anti-gay sentiments, picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard back in 1998. Without its anti-gay sentiments, no one would have picked up on it. Admittedly the group gained its current prominence when it began picketing soldiers’ funerals, but even then, the anti-gay sentiments that drove the Shepard picketing remained the dominant elements. Well, that and the desire to stay famous.

  • carl

    [7] freenarnian

    Phelps is a Calvinist. Frankly, I wish he wasn’t because I am also a Calvinist, and I would prefer not to have that association, but there it is. I also wouldn’t trust NPR to be able to credibly explain Calvinism. The idea the Predestination has something to do with ‘America going to Hell’ is humorous, and if the NPR reporter did convey that idea, he simply demonstrates his lack of knowledge of the subject. The lack of doctrinal comprehension by a reporter is magnified sevenfold when the doctrine in question is so counter to the dominant cultural understanding of human autonomy.


  • freenarnian

    I agree with Donald. The anti-gay label is appropriate. That goes way back to his appearance on that Hair Spray girl’s talk show. What was her name?? Anyway he got alot of attention back then for his anti-gay comments.

    At that time he strutted around in a cocky fashion wearing stars and stripes on every inch of his body.

    Carl, I want to look at that NPR piece. But Jerry says it is gone. Anybody know where it can be found?

    The postmodern way of looking at words and redefining them to one’s liking REALLY muddles the waters for religion reporters. I don’t know how to deal with this other than asking LOTS of questions. (I truly sympathize with the reporters here.) Because nowadays people can say whatever they want about faith and redefine every term to their liking “They are the master of their tongues.”

    If you have basic understanding of Theology and Scripture there are MANY questions that arise when dealing with Phelps. It strikes me this understanding would give rise to a truly useful assessment of what is going on with the fellow.

    One who calls himself a Calvinist, but then acts like he can distinguish the wheat from the tares, seems to be utterly devoid of understanding the extent of his OWN depravity, and then refuses to preach the WORD, which is Christ Crucified, which every Calvinist KNOWS is our only hope of repentance and forgiveness. But instead resorts to crude emotional manipulation like a Free willer???

    One who calls himself a prophet but does not preach repentance, but only gloom and doom. Who hates those he is preaching too–hint hint there is a whole book about that one!! OOOH the rich irony there. THere used to be a Jewish ministry to repentant homosexuals called JONAH. Jews overcoming . .

    A prophet who profits from the law of MAN, not the law of God??

    Having a basic understanding of the topics at hand is essential. So is doing the arduous task of asking a billion questions.