About that Times column on ‘Open Embrace’

For almost a quarter of a century, I have written the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Please note my intentional use of the word “column.” As a columnist, I write about subjects that are interesting to me and that I think are newsworthy. I strive to quote both sides in heated debates and I always strive for accuracy, of course. That’s simply journalism DNA.

However, I am a columnist, not a news-beat reporter. This confuses many readers, in large part because many newspapers across North America run my column with a regular byline, as opposed to using a logo that includes my photograph — a visual clue that this is a column with a personal angle to it. Also, I have never felt the need to write in first-person voice all the time (although I do so when needed, if I have a personal connection to a specific story or event), which means that my work tends to be rather newsy, rather than openly opinionated.

I bring this up because I have received several emails asking for my response to Mark Oppenheimer‘s latest “Beliefs” column in the New York Times, the one that ran under the headline, “An Evolving View of Natural Family Planning.” That’s the one that opens like this:

In August 1999, Bethany Patchin, an 18-year-old college sophomore from Wisconsin, wrote in an article for Boundless, an evangelical Web magazine, that Christians should not kiss before marriage. Sam Torode, a 23-year-old Chicagoan, replied in a letter to the editor that Ms. Patchin’s piece could not help but “drive young Christian men mad with desire.”

The two began corresponding by e-mail, met in January 2000 and were married that November. Nine months later, Ms. Torode (she took her husband’s name) gave birth to a son, Gideon. Over the next six years, the Torodes had four more progeny: another son, two daughters and a book, “Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception.”

In “Open Embrace,” the Torodes endorsed natural family planning — tracking a woman’s ovulation and limiting intercourse to days when she is not fertile — but rejected all forms of artificial contraception, including the pill and condoms. The book sold 7,000 copies after its publication in 2002 and was celebrated in the anticontraception movement, which remains largely Roman Catholic but has a growing conservative Protestant wing. As young Protestants who conceived their first child on their honeymoon, the Torodes made perfect evangelists.

That was then, this is now.

So what is the big twist, the news hook that struck many readers are the “good news” celebrated in this Times column about the “evolving” views of this celebrated couple?

In 2006, the Torodes wrote on the Web that they no longer believed natural family planning was the best method of birth control. They divorced in 2009. Both now attend liberal churches. Ms. Patchin — that is her name once again — now says she uses birth control, and she even voted for Barack Obama for president.

In other words, saith these readers, reason has triumphed over stupidity and all is right with the real world. The question people have been asking is whether this “story” is, well, good journalism.

The problem, of course, is that this is not a “news story” — it’s a column. It’s a column, even though it is basically written in news style and it focuses on half of a subject that could have been covered as hard news. It focuses on the half that is intriguing to the columnist and, one would assume, the kinds of people who read the New York Times.

As a column, it is not balanced. It does not quote people, especially women, who testify about the positive role that NFP has played in their relationships with their husbands. It does not even need to probe the deeper and unexplored questions raised in the piece, such as whether the marriage was in fact shattered by the practice of NFP or disagreements that grew out of it.

Where is the rest of the story? I understand that people want to ask that question, but it’s not a question that Times editors have to answer in this case.

Oppenheimer is a columnist. He gets to craft this sad parable the way that he wants to craft it. He gets to frame the debate to favor the views of the people that he views as intelligent and acceptable. And the Times gets to select who it wants as columnists (so does Scripps Howard).

The most frustrating moment for me is found right here:

“Open Embrace” also embraced the view that children stabilize marriage, for “with each child a couple has, their chances of divorce are significantly reduced.” So what went wrong for the Torodes, whose children now range in age from 4 to 9?

That’s a good question, one the column does not attempt to answer. Also, it’s fair game, I think, to note that the column does not offer a quote or two from any evidence that exists to prove that point — that children stabilize marriages, not destroy them. For a moment, a reader can glimpse a door into a larger subject. Then the door vanishes.

There are other moments that will grate at readers on the other side of this debate. This one hooked me.

Today, neither Ms. Patchin nor Mr. Torode is part of the anticontraception community, nor conservative Christianity. In Nashville, Ms. Patchin, who does accounting work from home, attends a church affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the most liberal of the Presbyterian denominations in the United States. Mr. Torode attends an Episcopal church with a female priest.

Once again, note that traditional believers are always “anti” something, not “pro” something else. It’s a frame that helps shape the picture.

Also, as a person who hangs out in Nashville quite a bit, I would note that a PCUSA congregation in that part of the world is not automatically “liberal” and, for all we know, the female priest at that Bible Belt parish may in fact be a charismatic. We don’t know, unless Patchin and Torode gave the columnist specific information that is not included in the piece.

The bottom line: This is a column, not a news piece. Readers have to deal with that.

The larger question for me — in a news business in which opinion is much, much, much cheaper than real news — is whether more editors are simply saying that religion is, as a subject in daily life in the real world, a matter of mere opinion and not news. In other words, why try to report facts when you are dealing with a subject that is built on, well, “Beliefs” and beliefs alone?

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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.

  • Jerry

    There are many different frames of reference that could be applied here. There is, of course, your point about columnists. Then there’s the lack of real reporting including religion reporting.

    Thirdly, there’s a compelling story that should be told because is says a lot about the human condition and what can happen when people try their best to live up to their ideals. There are many questions such as why they divorced rather than return to typical family planning methods. That question and many other might be more suitable for a book rather than a news article.

  • Elijah

    I quite agree that opinion is cheaper than hard news. But I wonder (seriously, now): is opinion cheaper when we are talking about people like Mark Oppenheimer? To what extent do you think NYT readers want opinion more than hard news?

    Years ago, I remember my college professors recommending the NYT because it was long on news and short on opinion. My how Times have changed (sorry).

  • http://Faith&Reason Cathy Grossman

    Was there any news peg to revisit the couple? They made their “news” — couple famous for one view changes their mind – years ago.
    Otherwise… a column is a column — a very different animal.
    Because my blog is displayed online and on smart phones in exactly the same format as my straight news coverage, I’ve taken to inserting a line that I hope clues people in that they are reading a blog piece.

  • Jerry

    Cathy, that’s a great point about reading items. I’ll read things both on my phone and my computer. Sometimes on my phone I see a “mobile” view of the story and sometimes the standard view. It’s easy to miss subtle clues about what I’m reading so being obvious is a help.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    I was amused that the Times thought it necessary to explain to us how the whole post-marriage-name-change thing works.

    Her last name was Patchin. And then she marries a man named Torode. And then, before you know it, Ms. Patchin has become Ms. Torode.

    That’s not sic. That’s not a typo. Don’t blame the Times. (She took her husband’s name.)

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    I really don’t have an objection to saying “anticontraception”.

    Also, I question calling this an opinion piece. It is certainly anecdotal, and I would like to know what the quit rate is for NFP-using couples to see how well this story epitomizes the lives of such families. But as a cautionary tale about making promises about one’s future, I don’t see a lot wrong with it.

    The real hidden bias in the story has nothing to do with this. It’s that Oppenheimer accepts without question the RC division between natural and unnatural methods. That distinction is highly questionable: there is nothing natural about the mechanisms used to support NFP methods.

  • Martha

    “Nine months later, Ms. Torode (she took her husband’s name) gave birth to a son, Gideon.”

    I love the parentheses; you can almost see the eyebrows raised in wonderment that, in this day and age, a woman should change her name upon marriage – good grief, how mediaeval!

  • Suzanne

    I had some of the same concerns when I read the piece — not just about balancing views, but providing context. How many people are believed to practice NFP? There weren’t even many details about how it’s done.

    And like Cathy, I was looking for a fresh news peg. I remember wondering whether maybe this was the divorce version of “Vows” — a sort of vignette about why people get divorced.

    I don’t believe the fact that this is a column lets the writer off the hook. I still expect columnists to go out and do the leg work — check statistics, let me know why this is important.

    It had some nice writing in it, but definitely fell short. And the headline was silly — an evolving view? Try 180-degree turn.

  • http://markoppenheimer.com Mark Oppenheimer

    Hi all–

    Always a treat to read feedback at GetReligion. For what it’s worth, The Times offers cues both online and in print that “Beliefs” is a column (the “Beliefs” bug being just one). Obviously, Terry’s post brings up lots of issues about balance and framing, which I’ll leave it to all of you to sort out. I do, however, think that one thing the “column” frame does is cue the reader that there is /not/ necessarily a news hook to the piece — that you might be about to read something that is not dictated by the haste of the 24/7 news cycle, and that might be more vignette-like. I certainly write my share of news pieces, too, so I think about this all the time. Regards, Mark.

  • joye

    “Evolving” does seem like a weird choice of words. It does seem to give a value judgment, that the previous, backwards, primitive belief is evolving to the progressive one. But I know writers often don’t write their headlines.

    At least the headline didn’t have a pun. NO MORE PUN HEADLINES, PLEASE.

  • JWB

    I thought that one interesting omission is that there was no mention that the Torodes’ path from “conservative” Protestantism to “liberal” Protestantism involved as an intermediate stage a period in Eastern Orthodoxy. I’m not sure if including that even in passing (which could have been done in a half-sentence stuck inside parentheses) would have enhanced the piece’s narrative or not.

  • Andy Crouch

    “Last year, [Mr. Torode] asked the publisher Eerdmans to stop printing copies of “Open Embrace.” He promises there will be no Kindle version.”

    As of today, Amazon is selling a Kindle edition alongside the paperback edition.

    Is a bit of fact-checking too much to ask?

  • john

    The NYT is losing readership not because people are reading less but because NYT is so overwhelmingly tendentious.

  • Chris Jones

    Martha (#7),

    It is not normally noted when a woman takes her husband’s name upon marriage (I believe the great majority of women who marry still do that). But Bethany Patchin changed her name twice: once on her marriage, and again after the marriage was over. That is unusual enough to be worth noting, particularly since Ms Patchin co-authored the book in question under her married name.

    Andy (#12),

    Mr Torode’s request to his publisher to stop publication, and his promise that there would be no Kindle edition, are not “facts.” They are statements of Mr Torode’s preferences, preferences that were evidently not honoured by his publisher. I don’t think there is any obligation to “fact-check” an interviewee’s opinions.

  • http://www.gracecamrose.ca dgosse

    The question people have been asking is whether this “story” is, well, good journalism.

    “good journalism” Isn’t that an oxymoron? I know, you folks are seriously trying to raise the bar, and I applaud your effort. But really, most of the journalists out there today haven’t received the benefits of an education – mainly they have received an ideology – and been taught to write at and 8th grade level by their “Journalism School”.

  • http://catholicradiointernational.com/ Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    What got me most about this column was the fact that Oppenheimer missed the obvious. The claim of NFP users is that NFP use lowers the rate of divorce to somewhere in the four to five percent range. The Torodes were using NFP, decided that it was too hard for them to handle and went to using a barrier method. Then they divorced. If they had divorced while they were using NFP, there might be something worthy of a column here, much like Tom Hoopes’ 2004 groundbreaking reportage on faithful Catholics who divorce, but they didn’t. They gave up on NFP, joined the millions of others who artificially contracept and then joined the millions of others in line at divorce court. That means this column really deserves ranking in James Taranto’s “Bottom Stories of the Day.”

  • Andy Crouch

    Chris Jones (#14), there’s a difference between, “Mr. Torode asked the publisher to stop printing copies” and, “He promises there will be no Kindle version.” How can he make that promise if there is a Kindle version available right now? Doesn’t that rather undercut the promise, not to mention raising the interesting journalistic question of why Eerdmans has not honored his earlier request? There is no way that any journalist who had actually checked on the sales status of the book would allow those two statements of “opinion” to stand without further comment. (By the way, neither of these are merely opinions or statements of preferences. The first is a statement of fact which could be fact-checked, e.g., by calling Eerdmans to confirm or by asking Mr. Torode for a copy of the relevant correspondence; the second is a promise.) It is especially disingenuous to let them stand in the next-to-last paragraph, where they provide such an appealingly punchy ending. Believe me, I know the columnist’s temptation here. That’s why we have–or should have–editors who make sure their articles are fact-checked.

    It’s a small matter, sure, but what always alarms me is how often I find that “small matters” I happen to be able to verify are misrepresented . . . which makes me wonder how many larger matters I am unable to verify have been misrepresented as well.

  • http://www.jlpowers.net Jessica

    The story in the New York Times isn’t actually about NFP so I see no reason why the reporter should quote women about how NFP has helped them. The story is about the Torodes and their disintegrated marriage. For that, it is perfectly balanced, as it quotes both parties to the marriage.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JESSICA:

    That’s almost funny. OF COURSE that column is about the alleged impact of NFP on their marriage. What else is it about?


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