Pod people: Bubba, Mitt and the tie that binds

So, what do Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin and Bubba Watson have in common?

Now — in terms of journalism — what do those guys have in common with Mitt Romney?

Believe it or not, that’s the rather strange question that, rather to my surprise, surfaced near the end of this week’s “Crossroads” GetReligion podcast.

Well, all four of these men are religious believers and they are all in the news — for sure.

The first three are superstar athletes whose faith have put them front and center in the mainstream press. In each case, they have climbed to levels of success that made them all but impossible for mainstream journalists to ignore.

Thus, journalists have hit them with some heavy words, in today’s tense public square. You know the ones — “devout” and “evangelical” (if not the f-word itself, “fundamentalist”).

Now, it helps that none of these sports guys are hiding their beliefs, from reporters or anyone else. In fact, as I noted the other day, that deep-fried Masters champ Bubba is sticking his evangelistic efforts in front of the world on Twitter. Thus, in a discussion of ESPN coverage of the champ, I wrote:

Perhaps the quickest, most concise way to describe this man is the ready-made soundbite he posted as his bio on his Twitter page. That would be this:

“@bubbawatson: Christian. Husband. Daddy. Pro Golfer. Owner of General Lee 1.”

… Once again we see a basic issue in mainstream news coverage of religious believers in public life: When describing what makes these people tick, isn’t a good thing for journalists to include their own voices as part of the coverage?

In other words, I thought it was strange for journalists to try to write about Bubba Watson THE MAN without including some of his own words on the topic that he himself says is the defining thread that runs through this life — linking his family, his charity work and his golf career.

But there has to be more to this kind of story than one person’s unchallenged voice. Journalists are not audio recording devices that store words and then serve them — public-relations style — to the public. The voices of the people in the news are an essential ingredient in the coverage and it’s bizarre when they are missing.

So, what else links these guys?

That’s where you have another crucial piece of the journalism-coverage puzzle. All too often, we journalists seem to forget — especially when covering athletes (hello Michael Vick) — that, while it may be hard to get inside someone’s head and probe the full content of their beliefs, it is actually rather easy to seek out some of the key facts linked to how believers live their lives.

It would interesting, for example, to know where that Tebow fellow plans to go to church in or around New York City. I would predict that he has already given it some thought. Yes, and he probably is being forced to make privacy and security a part of that equation. I predict that he picks one and that he is an active member. I would imagine that the pastor hopes Tebow is a tither.

My point is that religious lives have public components that can be reported. People rarely sit in pews alone. Pastors and other church leaders may be willing to discuss some aspects of a believer’s life on the record. It is possible to discreetly visit forums in which people share their thoughts and convictions — right out in the open. Once upon a time, reporters learned a lot from listening to a Baptist named Jimmy Carter teach his Sunday School classes (Note to Barack Obama: Even while Carter was living in Washington).

Which brings us to Mitt Romney. Now there’s a man who is unlikely to be tweeting verses of scripture anytime soon. I would imagine that he is not anxious to talk about his own theological convictions, these days.

However, it is valid to ask factual questions about his religious pilgrimage. There may be speeches and Q&A interviews from the past. Mormons, as a rule, tend to have highly detailed (and amazing) track records in terms of philanthropy and public service. Check out this Pew Forum link on that subject.

In other words, it is possible to seek out Romney’s voice and then to probe what one might call the “faith facts” linked to his beliefs. Follow the money. Back up a few decades and follow, so to speak, the event planners of his previous work. Seek journalistic facts, not labels. You are seeking, in the words of the old hymn, not the classic Bruce Springsteen song, the ties that bind (as in “Blessed Be The Tie That Binds”).

By the way, the same approach would work with Obama — past and present. Seek the voice. Seek the public facts about his religious walk. Report the results.

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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.


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