The Baptist pastor said WHAT!?

Confession time: I live in Oklahoma City, but I don’t read a whole lot of news stories about my local city council’s meetings.

I try to pay my municipal water and garbage collection bill on time. However, I don’t tune in on Tuesdays to see the council debate zoning issues, flood retention ordinances or tax incentive districts. Blame my lamentable lack of interest on too many mind-numbing hours spent in bureaucratic government meetings in my early years as a reporter.

In other words, I’m still overcoming the trauma (kidding, kidding).

However, a friend’s tweet about a council meeting this week caught my attention. The post linked to a story by The Oklahoman on the Oklahoma City Council passing a sexual orientation measure and mentioned an inflammatory statement by an opposition pastor. Apparently, the pastor claimed gay people commit more than half of murders in large cities.

Intrigued, I clicked on the story link to see exactly what the pastor said. I was disappointed that the newspaper did not provide a direct quote. Here is the version that appeared in today’s newspaper:

Pastor Tom Vineyard, of Windsor Hills Baptist Church, cited a New York judge in saying more than half of murders in large cities are committed by gay people.

Vineyard received the longest standing ovation of the day after his remarks.

That’s it!? With that kind of statement, don’t readers deserve to know the specific, unedited words that the pastor used? By the way, I am sure that flocks of Southern Baptists would have appreciated the newspaper noting that this is a totally independent and self-proclaimed fundamentalist congregation.

Meanwhile, even more to the point, shouldn’t the reporter have provided some context on the New York judge and what the judge said or didn’t say? Is there any evidence to back up what the pastor claimed, or is the statement as outrageous as it seems on the surface? Was any consideration given to the actual practice of journalism related to this statement?

Given that I had already clicked on the link, I went ahead and read the rest of the story. Now I remember the real reason why I don’t read a whole lot of council stories. If this particular report is any indication, I’m saving myself much weeping and gnashing of frustrated teeth. Speaking of mind-numbing experiences, here’s how the story boils down the arguments for and against the measure to protect gay and lesbian Oklahoma City employees from discrimination:

In general, speakers against the measure cited religion and opposition to adding a class not protected by federal or state law to the city’s policy as their reasons.

Speakers in favor of the measure generally spoke about a desire for fairness and equality.

Ah, religion. That generic collection of cultural systems, belief systems and worldviews that causes speakers to show up at city council meetings and oppose nondiscrimination measures. No other specific information needed, right? (Please excuse me for a moment while I bang my head against a brick wall.)

The entire story contains not a single direct quote, although the report links to a sidebar of random quotes from speakers, including an inflammatory one from Vineyard but not the one cited in the main story.

Strange, strange.

Image of a city council meeting room via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://blogs.steeplesoft.com Jason Lee

    Hey! I’m in OKC too (Edmond-ish, to be exact), and I missed this too. I also don’t get the Oklahoman, this being one of the many reasons. :)

  • Will

    If I recall correctly, past posts on this sight have implied that because Westboro Baptist is not affiliated with any national “Baptist” organization, one can impugn their claim to be “real” Baptists, and criticized the press for not doing so.
    So, why is this consideration not brought in for this “totally independent” church? Are some independent churches more Baptist than others?

  • Stan

    I am not sure exactly what you are criticizing about this story. Can you be more specific? Had the reporter said that this pastor lied about a judge in New York City saying that gays are murderers, wouldn’t you be criticizing him for “spinning” the story. What kind of context do you think the reporter should have provided?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Will,

    In general, we try to focus on the one or two or even three most egregious sins in a particular story. In this case, the total lack of information or context about the content of the statement itself alarmed me most.

    But certainly, in a city with a plethora of Southern Baptist churches, you make a relevant point concerning the “Baptist” affiliation (or not) of this particular church.

    In fact, your comment reminded me that I had written a previous post about a story involving this same church.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Stan,

    I can try to be more specific. I am criticizing the newspaper throwing a “factual” statement out there and making no attempt to verify it or refute it.

    I want the newspaper to do more than serve as a stenography service. If this quote is important enough to put in the newspaper, then surely it merits some investigation. Did a New York judge, in fact, say that? If so, what exactly did he say? Did he have any facts to back it up? In what context was the statement made?

    Had the reporter said that this pastor lied about a judge in New York City saying that gays are murderers, wouldn’t you be criticizing him for “spinning” the story.

    The reporter doesn’t have to decide whether the pastor lied or not. The reporter can print what the pastor said and print what the judge said and I can decide for myself, as a reader, whether anyone is lying and whether there is any basis in fact in what either one of them said.

    Does that help?

  • Stan

    Thanks, Bobby. What you wrote helps, but it seems to me that you are asking a great deal of the reporter. If as I suspect, the pastor simply made up this judge, how is the reporter supposed to quote what the judge said. How do you fact check a statement that was probably never made?

    I am all in favor of fact checking. I agree that there is too little of it. As I mentioned on another thread, I think reporters should have challenged the Catholic Bishops’ allegation that their “religious liberty” is being threatened or that the state has forced them to close down adoption agencies. Both those statements are demonstrably untrue, but I suspect that had the reporters done what I think they should have done, they would be accused of being “anti-religious” or “anti-Catholic.”

    In addition, doesn’t it put a burden on a general news reporter to know more than most reporters know?

    In any case, I think someone should contact the pastor and demand substantiation for such a comment. I don’t know if there are grounds for suing him for libel, but there may be.

  • Dave

    Bobby, don’t bang your head against a brick wall. Use drywall; then the damage is to the wall and not your head. ;-)

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Stan,

    Yes, I am asking a lot of the reporter (or the bare minimum, depending on one’s perspective). But even moreso, I am asking more of the newspaper. The reporter, undoubtedly, is providing the kind of story that his editor(s) expects and/or tolerates.

    How do you fact check a statement that was probably never made?

    I’d start by, as you said, asking the pastor to provide a source. Beyond that, there’s always Google, although my quick search turned up nothing on this claim. Otherwise, maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t know what purpose it serves to throw this statement into a major metropolitan newspaper. Is that responsible journalism? What purpose does it serve?

  • Jon in the Nati

    Could not agree more with Bobby.

    If you feel it is important enough to put in the article, then it is important enough to follow up on and find out if it was actually said, if there is a factual basis for it, and to substantiate it. Unless, of course, you don’t care whether it is true or not precisely because it is so inflammatory, which may be the point.

  • GZeus

    It took me all of 15 minutes to find the name of the Judge. There is a letter Vineyard wrote to the City right on their website which mentions Judge John Martaugh, Chief Magistrate of the New York City Criminal Court, stated, “Homosexuals account for half of the murders in large cities.” (Kaifetz, J. “Homosexual Rights Are Concern for Some,” Post-Tribune, 18 December 1992.) Article can be found here…but I did not follow through on getting free trial to read it.
    http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1N1-1084EFB63B34FBC6.html

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    GZeus,

    Thanks for the detective work.

  • Stan

    I think the source may be from this “Believers home page,” which is full of libels. Here is the url:

    http://www.believershomepage.com/homosexual_stats.htm

    Of course, it begs the question as to how one would verify such “facts.” Many of these people think that if a lie is repeated often enough it somehow becomes the truth. Some right-wing blogs create a “facsimile” of scholarship and keep quoting bogus articles as though they were real. I think the Southern Poverty Law Center has had something to say about that.

  • Tim

    It is sad that these so-called “Christians” misrepresent the faith by boldly lying in public. Isn’t there a commandment against that kind of thing? I know that Paul the apostle constantly called for the Christian population to be truthful and not lie. Obviously, Vineyard disregards those words and uses his church to brainwash gullible people into believing his crap. Now he is branching out to the gullible int he entire city.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Tim,

    Is there some part of your comment related to journalism and media coverage? This really isn’t the place for general rants.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    WILL:

    You are wrong or missed our point.

    Westboro is an independent Baptist Church. We simply have noted that it is clearly not Southern Baptist and that it holds beliefs that are anathema to the majority of Baptists, even most independents.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Stan:

    In my experience, these sins tend to be committed by highly partisan blogs on left and right.

  • chris

    I was directed to this story from facebook. I’m a gay man with a baptist family, and a baptist pastor for a cousin…so I understand each church can be led in different directions from the perspective/motives of their pastor. I was always raised to believe God is love, God only wants us to be happy, God wants us to create light in our lives through learning to give without personal gain (killing that little selfish primal voice in our head).

    But I digress. I found your article on this site and must agree. While I may not agree with it, pastors are not held to a journalistic standards so they can say whatever (unfortunate as it is) … “gays are evil…so are the jews and arabs”… whatever everyone is entitled to their beliefs and many religious leaders have learned the prime motivator for their sheep is FEAR!!!

    I agree that the journalist could have done some research to actually make a valid point.

    [soapbox] If homosexuals are responsible for half the murders in large cities, I better start keeping an eye on my husband. On the flip side I don’t understand how this could be because we tend to increase property values and are well know for our gentrification of neighborhoods.
    More murders vs. Higher property values… choose wisely.

    Thank you!

    wishing you peace and love

  • Stan

    tmatt: no doubt that is true.

    As Bobby mentioned in his critique, the newspaper quotes the pastor in a sidebar: ““Many homosexuals openly admit that they are pedophiles because they cannot actually reproduce. They resort to recruiting children. … Folks, you’re making a decision that will bring down God’s judgment on your city if you vote in favor of this.” — Tom Vineyard.”

    Do you think they should have included this quotation? It is a direct quotation, so presumably there is no problem with attribution, but it is also a lie and a libel.

    The story opens with the reporter saying that city officials believed the anti-discrimination ordinance was unnecessary because homosexuals had “de facto” protection. Shouldn’t that have been unpacked? I don’t know what that means. Do you?

    The reporter does not seem very interested in doing anything more than recording what people said.

  • Dave

    The reporter does not seem very interested in doing anything more than recording what people said.

    Possibly from beating his head against a brick wall?

  • Will

    Stan: not just “right wingers” and not just blogs. What about the claim “X per cent of our senior citizens are living on dog food”, which was repeated over and over without fact checking? I remember reading that when a reporter finally traced it back to the original asserter, he was surprised that he was even expected to back his “figure” up. (I just checked snopes.com, but was unable to find an actual citation)

  • Stan

    Sorry, Will, I did not mean to imply that only bloggers and right-wingers are guilty of manufacturing “facts.” But in terms of spreading libels about gay people, right-wing groups who have been labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center have been especially guilty of these tactics. That is why any journalist should be very wary believing anything these people say.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I’m with Bobby here; sourcing this quote is the bare minimum I would expect of a reporter and certainly the bare minimum I would expect of a metropolitan newspaper. Some random citations are innocuous enough they can stand alone but this one is far too incendiary to do without some background.

    Given the large number of Southern Baptists in our area, it also wouldn’t be wrong to ask an official with the regional office of that denomination what the denomination’s stance on the matter might be — a question which might have led to the information about WH’s unaffiliated status. It’s also not out of line to wonder why the only non-council people in the quote sidebar identified by occupation are clergy (both pro and con). Mr. Kimball dropped the ball, as did the editorial staff who let this go and who didn’t have the sense to assign the religion reporter assist him with the piece. And I say that knowing some of these people personally.

  • Karl

    I wouldn’t compare this church to the Westboro Baptist Church. IFB churches distinguish themselves by separation from modern culture and non-IFB churches. Westboro is a primitive baptist church that takes certain extreme positions that other primitive baptists don’t take. Primitive baptists are similar to Reformed baptists but take peculiar positions. For instance, they deny the “free offer of the Gospel,” practice foot washing, and use only a cappella singing in church music.

  • Daniel

    Stan,
    This is kind of silly! If the reporter had contacted the pastor, who had given the judge’s name, and the quote were inaccurate, what you and Bobby have said would come down to the same thing. One of the possible arguments you have used is that the pastor could have lied. The other is that the judge could be found out, and that the information from the judge could be checked. Anyway it is still the paper’s job to check whether there is such a judge and whether he is misquoted. This does nothing to make the pastor’s statements less inflammatory. In fact, if the judge could be found, and his statement verified, if the pastor could be found to have misquoted the judge, if the judge is using bogus methodology, or, as you pointed out, if it is asserted that in fact there is no such judge, the pastor comes off looking even more nutty! Nothing is lost by substantiating, verifying, or contextualizing a statement. Two of the main disservices that newspapers perform are printing unchecked and inaccurate quotes, and brushing over the warts of our heroes such as Margaret Sanger. The fact that a job is hard is a poor excuse for not getting it done. The existence of objective truth: Who, how, where, when, why? seems to be a 19th century newspaper assumption. It seems that the 21st century newspaper assumes that objective truth does not exist and cannot be verified. For instance, Stan, you may be imaginary. The pastor may be imaginary, I may be imaginary, and Bobby may be imaginary. If objective truth does, in fact, not exist, what are we talking about? And why are we talking about it? Non-opinion journalism can’t really be differentiated from opinion pieces if there is no objective reality!

  • Stan

    Daniel, I don’t disagree with you (or Bobby, for that matter). But I can guarantee you that if the reporter had said the pastor invented this absurd story, he would have been attacked by many readers (and perhaps some critics here for not being objective). I am interested in whether the equally inflammatory quotation from the pastor that is included in the sidebar should have been included. Is that also bad journalism? It is equally libelous as the quote about gays being murderers. Is it the reporter’s responsibility to fact check that or is it sufficient to simply attribute it to the pastor?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Stan,

    Since you’ve mentioned “libel” several times, it might be helpful to read up on what libel actually is. Here’s one link I came across:

    Libel is published defamation of character, as opposed to spoken defamation of character, which is slander.

    Moreover, if the newspaper is reporting accurately what was said at the council meeting, that’s protected:

    Accurate reports about official proceedings – anything from a murder trial to a city council meeting or a congressional hearing – cannot be libelous.

    Legally defensible, of course, is not the same thing as journalistically responsible. And it’s been 20-plus years since I took media law in college, so I’m no expert.

    As for the other inflammatory quote, I wouldn’t have used it either without more context and response from those accused. Most of the other quotes in the sidebar are people’s opinions pro and con, as opposed to this pastor making a factual claim.

  • John

    That ‘statistic’ about gay murderers has been used by the anti-gay forces for at least 33years. David Estes used it in his S.O.M.E. Fact Sheet during his failed attempt to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Seattle in 1978. The anti-Gay initiative was defeated with 64% of voters opposed to it. There’s no mention of the source for his stats in the article:

    The Hour-August 9, 1978

  • http://www.ikerose.com Ike Rose

    It seems this lie has been around for a long time.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2011/11/16/a-good-lie-for-jesus-is-immortal

    But interestingly, Judge John Martaugh, the alleged “Chief magistrate of the New York City Criminal Court” (there is no such title) was last a judge in the 1960′s. He was the Judge in Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial.

    So a web search for him, and you just find a lot of fundamentalist websites spreading that same lie – but no informati0on about the judge.

    BTW, you can search the NYC Court website – he ain’t there.

    http://www.nycourts.gov/index.htm

  • Stan

    Thanks, Bobby, for the information you provided above.

  • JWB

    According to the N.Y. Times’ archives, Justice Murtagh died in 1976. He was apparently not an independent Baptist or Vineyard type, because the NYT coverage reported his funeral mass was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Here’s a reminiscence from a few years ago by his son and namesake about the night in 1970 their house was firebombed by the Weather Underground while the judge was presiding over a trial involving the Black Panthers. http://www.city-journal.org/2008/eon0430jm.html. That son is still around and just lost his bid to become mayor of Yonkers in last week’s election. Some enterprising journalist could track him down and get his reaction to this alleged quote from his father that’s supposedly been floating around the internet for so long, although that might have been above and beyond the call of duty for a beat reporter in Oklahoma.

  • Frank

    Bobby, did it ever occur to you to criticize reporters for NOT challenging a religious source who makes up childish lies about gays? Isn’t that bad journalism, too?

  • John D

    The site JoeMyGod notes that a reporter for Gay City News tracked down the source for Vineyard’s claim.

    “It turns out the claim is from a 1957 book and the claim was about suicides not murders. (The suicides number is wrong, too.)”

    Certainly the reporter should have pressed Vineyard on this issue and pointed out that he was misreading an old, debunked source.