Pro Tip: Use Google to avoid embarrassing mistakes

The Associated Press ran a religion story about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ restatement and clarification on political neutrality toward candidates and parties. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, is Mormon. So are former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, both candidates for the Republican nomination for president.

The write-up seems pretty good at the beginning:

In a letter sent June 16, church president Thomas S. Monson and his senior counselors said lay leaders with full-time church responsibilities and their spouses should not participate in political campaigns, including “promoting candidates, fundraising, speaking on behalf of or otherwise endorsing candidates and making financial contributions.”

The letter was sent to the highest officers of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including general authorities, general auxiliary leaders, mission presidents and temple presidents — those whose positions are visible highly visible both in and out of the church and who could be seen as acting on behalf of the church.

Full-time church employees and part-time leaders, such as those who hold local or regional congregational duties are exempt from the policy.

The article mentions that the church does get involved in political activism on moral issues:

That would include the faith’s involvement in the 2006 ballot initiative Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California and its efforts to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

This is your first clue that attention to detail may not be this reporter or her editor’s strong suit. Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, passed in 2008, not 2006.

Which brings us to the concluding paragraphs:

But some political experts say no one should read too much into the church statement — although it may not have previously publicly stated in this way.

“I do not think there is anything new about this statement in terms of its substance. It is consistent with an LDS understanding of politics and the common good as well as the limitations of engaging in partisan politics placed on religious organizations by (Internal Revenue Service) regulations,” said Francis J. Beckwith, a Mormon who is also a professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University. “What I think the LDS church is doing here is articulating in greater specificity what it’s always held in more general terms.”

What? Francis Beckwith became a Mormon? Talk about burying the lede!

Beckwith, author of Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft; Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic and To Every One An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, became Mormon? After all of those books he also wrote critical of Mormon teachings and how they differ from traditional Christianity?

The same Beckwith who made national news when, as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, he converted to Catholicism?

This is certainly news.

Oh wait, nope. Not at all.

Beckwith is not “a Mormon.” He’s still Catholic.

It’s one thing for a religion reporter to not know who Beckwith is or what his claims to fame are. But this reporter, Jennifer Dobner, is on the Mormon beat (On that note, I should mention that this story is significantly better than some of the other ones we’ve looked at in years past). Beyond all that, though, this has to be one of the most easily Googlable facts about Beckwith out there.

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  • http://www.patheos.com Timothy Dalrymple

    Hi Mollie. We flagged this too and Dr Beckwith sent a note. A correction is supposed to have been made by now — I presume it has. That would indeed have been quite the story! :-)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I don’t know if they did run a correction but the error remains at USA Today (and probably many of the other papers that ran the AP story). Very difficult to correct stories that go out on the wire.

  • Mindy

    I used to work as a copy editor at a Utah newspaper, and we were always having to correct Dobner’s stories for inaccuracies, usually about the LDS Church, which you think she would know a lot about since it was her regular beat. I don’t know how this woman is still working for the Associated Press.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Mindy,
    That’s interesting. Our previous looks at her stories have found serious problems, too.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    There’s nothing wrong about mentioning the church’s role in Prop 8 or even to reaching back into the ’70s to mention the ERA as examples of the church’s political stands. But why not mention the issue that the church has most recently taken a stand on and which is actually relevant to the 2012 presidential campaign, immigration?

  • Martha

    Francis Beckwith is now (or has he always been?) a Mormon – quick, somebody offer this woman a job at “Newsweek”! :-)

  • Ryan K.

    Just curious for those of you who have worked in newsrooms and professional journalism careers. What is the consequence when a journalist writes an article with an error like this?

    I mean in every career there is a consequence for making mistakes, which range from just a general feeling of embarrassment around the office, to colleagues poking fun, or the more severe of a formal warning or possible suspension.

    Just really curious about the functional accountability structure’s that exist in the journalism field for errors like this.

  • Bram

    Ryan K.,

    Apparently, there *are* no consequences and no accountability structures for journalistic errors where religion is concerned — thus the need for a site like this.

    “Standards, we don’t need no stinking standards — not where those fundie sumbitches are concerned.”

  • Jerry

    Thanks for this topic. You can find a number of topics where I was able to fill in missing pieces with 5-10 minutes of searching on the internet. Of course, in this day of cut, cut, cut, such luxuries as editors and fact checkers are done away with in the name of economics.

  • http://blogs.chron.com/believeitornot Kate Shellnutt

    I think sometimes reporters assume if a scholar is deemed an expert on a religious tradition that it’s their own tradition. I’ve learned not to do this. Yes, sometimes I feel like an idiot asking an Indian-American who’s talking to me about Hinduism if they’re a Hindu, but hey, you never know. Once I interviewed the secretary of a Jewish school about an event there and she ended up being Christian. It’s better to ask and be sure than to get it wrong, obviously.

    P.S. – Funnily enough, I was looking to talk with an expert on Mormonism, and someone recommended Beckwith, but when I did my Googling, I found the story of his re-conversion. I though they’d given me the wrong name!

  • Esther Rappaport

    Miss Dobner thinks all gentiles are the same. What does she know from different brands of goyim!

  • http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-06-29-mormon-politics-29_ST_N.htm Francis Beckwith

    It’s been fixed. Just click my name.

    Frank

  • Bruce Cooke

    Wow they pay her for these continues inaccuracies, screw ups, and bad journalism. Why?

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    If you want an “expert on Mormonism” you might check with–the Mormons! Not only the LDS Church HQ has an active public affairs office, every regional LDS church organization has someone called as a public affairs liaison, and Church HQ can connect you to them if you want some local Mormon aspects to illustrate a story.

    If you want a Mormon with academic expertise to comment on a story, there are loads of them, too, not only at BYU, but also at Claremont Graduate University (historian Richard Bushman), at the University of Richmond in Virginia (Literature professor Terryl Givens), and University of North Carolina, Asheville (Chinese history and literature professor Grant Hardy). All of them have written books about aspects of Mormon belief and history published by major non-Mormon publishers like Oxford. You can find a bunch of them at MormonScholarsTestify.org, an independent web page.

    Incidentally, while the LDS Church has no career clergy system, the people who are called to the most senior international leadership positions are full time, salaried workers for the Church and have given up their former careers in law, medicine, academia and business (where they often made a lot more money than they do now). So it would be misleading to call them “lay” people. It is true, though, that all other positions in Church leadership, including senior leaders in countries outside the US, are filled by part-time unpaid workers who are called for limited terms of about 5 years (as Mitt Romney did leading Mormons in Boston while he was establishing his own company).


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