Where’s the beef? What the Chick-fil-A boss really said

So, did you hear about that wild quote that the president of Chick-fil-A didn’t say the other day?

Here’s a piece of a CNN report that is typical of the mainstream press coverage of this latest cyber-skirmish in America’s battles over homosexuality, commerce and free speech (sort of).

(CNN) – The fact that Chick-fil-A is a company that espouses Christian values is no secret. The fact that its 1,600 fast-food chicken restaurants across the country are closed on Sundays has long been testament to that. But the comments of company President Dan Cathy about gay marriage to Baptist Press on Monday have ignited a social media wildfire.

“Guilty as charged,”, Cathy said when asked about his company’s support of the traditional family unit as opposed to gay marriage.

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that,” Cathy is quoted as saying.

Now, one would assume — after reading a reference to the “comments of company President Dan Cathy about gay marriage” — that this interview from the Biblical Recorder in North Carolina (which was circulated by Baptist Press) actually included direct quotes from Cathy in which he talks about, well, gay marriage.

In this case, one cannot assume that.

While the story contains tons of material defending traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, the controversial entrepreneur never talks about gay rights or gay marriage. Why? Because he wasn’t asked about those issues in the interview.

This raises an interesting journalistic question: Is a defense of one doctrine automatically the same thing as an on-the-record attack on the opposite doctrine? In this case, is it accurate for CNN (and others) to say that Cathy made comments about gay marriage when, in fact, he did not speak words addressing that issue?

But wait, readers might say, everyone KNOWS what he was talking about! And, once his actual comments were quoted, kind of, in the mainstream press, it was then possible to quote many people who offered their angry reactions to his actual words because of their interpretation of them.

This is certainly true. It would have been easy to have quoted several of the tsunami of tweets, blog comments and other commentaries blasting Cathy for his defense of basic Christian doctrines. You know, those quotes that sound like this, drawing from the actual interview:

“We don’t claim to be a Christian business,” Cathy told the Biblical Recorder in a recent visit to North Carolina. He attended a business leadership conference many years ago where he heard Christian businessman Fred Roach say, “There is no such thing as a Christian business.”

“That got my attention,” Cathy said. Roach went on to say, “Christ never died for a corporation. He died for you and me.”

“In that spirit … [Christianity] is about a personal relationship. Companies are not lost or saved, but certainly individuals are,” Cathy added. “But as an organization we can operate on biblical principles. So that is what we claim to be. [We are] based on biblical principles, asking God and pleading with God to give us wisdom on decisions we make about people and the programs and partnerships we have. And He has blessed us.”

And the marriage thing?

The company invests in Christian growth and ministry through its WinShape Foundation (WinShape.com). The name comes from the idea of shaping people to be winners. It began as a college scholarship and expanded to a foster care program, an international ministry, and a conference and retreat center modeled after the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove.

“That morphed into a marriage program in conjunction with national marriage ministries,” Cathy added.

Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. “Well, guilty as charged,” said Cathy when asked about the company’s position. “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. …

“We are very much committed to that,” Cathy emphasized. “We intend to stay the course,” he said. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

So there is the context. It certainly would be easy for journalists to talk to the company’s critics and, thus, to establish a gay-rights context for this discussion, if that is the goal. But that isn’t my point, of course. That isn’t what CNN, and others, did in their reports. They reported that Cathy made comments, that he spoke words directly addressing gay-rights issues, that he delivered a series of negative, anti-gay remarks. In effect, Cathy is being quoted saying words that he said, as well as words that he did not say.

Thus, the author of the original Biblical Recorder story, K. Allan Blume, has since noted:

During a call-in radio interview Thursday (July 19) with WORD-FM in Pittsburgh, K. Allan Blume described his conversation with Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy as “very positive,” unlike how it is being portrayed in a variety of news reports. …

Many of those reports “turned [the original story] into a negative,” said Blume, adding the term “anti-gay” never came up in the June interview while Cathy was speaking in the Raleigh, N.C., area.

“He was not saying ‘guilty as charged anti-gay,’” Blume added. “[Cathy] never even brought up that subject. Everything he stated was on the positive side … He never stated anything negative.”

Picky, picky? Well, yes. It would have been so easy for the mainstream press to have reported Cathy’s remarks accurately and, then, to have accurately reported the comments of those who were more than happy to criticize the Chick-fil-A leader’s conservative views on marriage.

That equation is par for the journalistic course. But is it fair game to actually state, as fact, that the man said things that he didn’t say?

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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.

  • The Old Bill

    But is it fair game to actually state, as fact, that the man said things that he didn’t say?

    Well, if he’s a traditional religious sort, it’s OK. I mean, we know he meant to say those things.

    Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family.

    Does that mean the unnamed Some are opposed to the traditional family?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Please stay on the journalism issue, people.


  • Joe Mulvihill

    “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.

    Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

    ~ Matt 5: 11-12

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    It would have been so easy for the mainstream press to have reported Cathy’s remarks accurately…

    Just like it would have been so easy for the mainstream press to quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s actual document on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. But then that gets into a messy situation — you’re actually quoting what these “conservative” religious people say accurately and that…well, that just can’t happen. Why? I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not simply that the MSM “just doesn’t get religion,” but that they actually hate it — or what they judge to be the wrong kind of it. Maybe I’m wrong, but the evidence keeps pointing that way.

  • http://thedisplacedplainsman.blogspot.com LK

    This Atlantic editorial may not say things in the way you want, but it does have a balanced assessment of the fallout.

  • Mark Baddeley

    This is deeply reminiscent of how some of the Pope’s comments were handled more recently. It seems both journalistic and judicial interpretive philosophies feel free to appeal to a ‘vibe of the thing’ even if the actual words aren’t there that would normally be needed to actually say that vibe.

  • http://bibliocentric.com/ Josh Mann

    i think that Chick-fil-a came out saying this at the same time that Google came out wearing a gay pride t-shirt is fantastic. Its nice to know that there are still “christian Companies”.

    Josh Mann


  • Martha

    tmatt, this is just another example of why I don’t really see the difference between what is held up as traditional American journalism versus European-style advocacy journalism.

    Perhaps the American broadsheets hid their editorial inclinations better at the start, but I doubt any newspaper proprietor set up his organ of public opinion without, at the very least, intending “Well, we’re not going to be like the hacks on that rag.”

  • http://www.bedlamorparnassus.blogspot.com Magister Christianus

    Thank you for this. After all the dust up, I went in search of the Baptist Press piece to read it for myself and was stunned to find the innocuous comment that Mr. Cathy actually made. Apparently he did make some other comments against gay marriage several years ago, but those are not in the current piece. What all the hubbub must mean is that people realize traditional marriage as defined in the Bible is not a union of homosexuals. In that case, however, their opposition should be to the Bible, not to Mr. Cathy. I am glad you pointed this out, as no one else has.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I think there’d be an interesting story in how the American Family Association wants to boycott Google but encourage people to buy more Chick-Fil-A. Might be interesting to see how they interpret Cathy’s comments.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Picky, picky? Well, yes.

    Not to my mind; it’s a matter of basic honesty.

  • John Penta

    Passing By: But honesty is so…passe, apparently. After all, the truth is relative.

  • MJBubba

    I first heard of this dust-up when I saw this headline in the Google News Spotlight: “Chick-fil-A president says company opposes gay marriage”
    Since it came from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I figured, well, at least the local paper should be able to get the story straight, so I clicked on the link. They had the quote you provide from the Baptist Press, but did not provide a link. Then they had reactions from typical suspects, including this:

    One LGBT activist told the AJC she was surprised Cathy was “picking a fight” at a time when the furor over the restaurant’s conservative connections was dying down.

    “We’ve moved on,” said Heather Cronk, managing director of Get Equal, a national LGBT rights organization that has initiated previous boycotts of the chain. But Cronk added that while many in the gay community already choose not to eat at Chick-fil-A, the latest statements may influence “some of our straight allies who may decide to go somewhere else.”

    I thought that it seemed an overreaction, considering that it is obvious that Mr. Cathy was just answering a question about corporate policy, and had obviously not tried to pick any fight. It seems to me that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is the one that wants to pick a fight, calling the rabble-rousing suspects and saying “Let’s watch you and him fight.”
    I think the “American model of journalism” only lives in newspapers that do not make the list of top 50 circulation. I do not trust big media any more; I read their stuff, but I have to verify in the niche media.

  • MJBubba

    The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got what they wanted. Here is a follow-up post: “Chick-fil-A comments stir response.” Of course. http://www.ajc.com/news/chick-fil-a-comments-1481909.html
    And, here is the link to the article I spoke of in my comment #12: http://www.ajc.com/news/chick-fil-a-president-1481215.html

  • Suzanne

    I didn’t hear anything about his Baptist Press comments until after he’d made other comments, these on a radio show:

    “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” Cathy said. “I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”

    Read more at http://www.christianpost.com/news/chick-fil-a-president-says-gods-judgment-coming-because-of-same-sex-marriage-78485/#9H6j9lGsUXlgsQUl.99

    Seems to me that that’s pretty clearly anti-gay marriage.

    And when the BP interview slides him a softball about “traditional marriage,” what exactly is it that you think they’re asking him about?

    Get Religion seems to want to have it both ways. Abortion stories are supposed to have religious element, because abortion always has a religious element. But stories about “traditional marriage” aren’t necessarily about gay marriage, and sermons about “religious liberty” have nothing to do with the centraception ban because they didn’t say the words “contraception.” You guys are awfully coy about this sort of thing.

  • mdevlin

    If Dan Cathy’s positive statements about marriage and family can be construed as “anti” anything, anti-dirvoce seems the obvious choice, considering the quote about being married to their first wives. The framing of his words as anti-gay and nothing else just reveals what the mainstream media’s mindset is.

  • Suzanne

    Sorry, “contraceptive mandate.”

  • northcoast

    I was surprised to find this at Newsmax.com: “Mayor Vows to Ban Anti-Gay Marriage Food Chain From City.” People in Boston evidently have to travel out of town to find Chick-fil-A restaurants. Off the subject, maybe it should read “fast food chain,” since there in another meaning to “food chain.”

  • tmatt

    Get Religion seems to want to have it both ways. Abortion stories are supposed to have religious element, because abortion always has a religious element. But stories about “traditional marriage” aren’t necessarily about gay marriage, and sermons about “religious liberty” have nothing to do with the centraception ban because they didn’t say the words “contraception.” You guys are awfully coy about this sort of thing.

    Actually, comments that Cathy made in the past are totally fair game.

    Comments he made in reaction to this issue are fair game.

    My point is that people should simply be quoted accurately. Quote what people say. That applies to Cathy’s critics and it applies to him.

    Again, it’s a journalistic point, an issue of basic reporting and newswriting. That is all.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    An incident like this is why so many people have no respect for the mainstream media and do not trust its reporting. Making sure they are fair and accurate does not seem to be one of their major concerns.
    Yet if you call them out on their bias and/or incompetence, they react as if you are the biased one instead of doing some self-analysis.
    Sometimes it gets absolutely horrendous like the thoroughly false ABC News report connecting the BatMan movie massacre in Colorado with a Colorado Tea Party leader.
    But what I find totally hypocritical in the ABC News case is their refusal to allow anyone to go on the record with any comments or observations about their rotten story. Why isn’t the rest of the mainstream media picking apart ABC for remaining silent as it would pick apart anyone else for not answering pointed questions about how a horrendous mistake took place and whether those responsible will be fired–as, in this case, they should most surely be fired.

  • Mike O.

    Suzanne has it exactly right. Depending on how it’s said, stating that I am for X could have two meanings.

    In general, if I say I’m for X that doesn’t mean I’m against Y. I go to an ice cream parlor and ask for chocolate and they tell me they are out, that doesn’t mean I would decline ordering some vanilla.

    But if I say that I’m exclusively for X then I’m stating that I am against not X. If you say you are for people of their own race only marrying their own kind, then you’re anti-miscegination. You didn’t say those exact words, but entry-level logic clearly dictates that is what you meant. “Traditional marraige” is the term used for those who want marraige to be only between a man and a woman. And so it also means that being for traditional marraige means being against same-sex marraige. The reporter in the CNN article did nothing wrong.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    what exactly is it that you think they’re asking him about?

    What you think says more about you than Mr. Cathy. The comment about “first wives” suggests that he is talking about divorce and remarriage. But the media obsession today is about same-sex marriage, so any comment is automatically about that.

    The Christian Post article does not, it should be noted, include a quote from Mr. Cathy about same-sex anything, but the reporter tells us that’s what it’s really about.

    Here is a link to the business about the mayor of Boston fighting Chick-fil-a. So here’s my question: can a governmental entity discriminate against a business on the basis of their beliefs and/or politics?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MIKE O:

    The reporter in the CNN article did nothing wrong.

    Other than quote a man as saying words that he did not say.

    Did you read the post at all?

    The post notes that it would be easy to do reporting that, past and present, showed the gay-rights context OF THE DISPUTE. However, this does not require violating a basic journalistic premise, which is accurately quoting people.

    If someone does not say something, it is best not to quote them as saying it.

  • Martha

    Mike O, supporting traditional marriage can carry the connotations you imply. It can also mean trying to strengthen traditional marriage by going against the tide of cohabitation, no-fault divorce, childbearing outside of wedlock, men having children by different women and not being married to any of them, women having children by different fathers and not being married to any of them, promoting the idea that a two-parent family is best for children and that a married two-parent family needs help.

    The tone of the headlines makes it sound as if Mr. Carthy explicitly said “We (or I) oppose gay marriage as a matter of company policy” and whether you think it was a softball question or not, that’s not his actual words. If a newspaper had a big headline about “President Obama says he opposes working mothers” and it turns out he actually said, in response to a question, “I think my administration’s policy on paid maternity leave is doing a lot to encourage women who want to spend more time at home after giving birth before going back to work”, then I imagine it would be considered a big deal about attributing things he did not explicitly say to him.

  • Phil Steinacker

    It’s notable that pre- and extra-marital sex (cohabitation & one-night stands) has become so routine and commonplace that critics like Suzanne don’t recognize affirmative support for traditional marriage might NOT only mean taking a position against same-sex marriage but also against divorce, cohabitation, polyamory (beginning to surface here and there), and hooking-up and meat-markets everywhere. It can also be correctly construed as anti-herpes & anti-AIDS, and in a truly traditional setting, completely anti-contraception, anti-abortion, and against using women in any fashion for selfish reasons.

    The news report about Cathay’s support of trad marriage exploited a controversial climate created by the 1-2% of the population with same-sex attraction, and not all of them are on the warpath for SSM.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I’ve been poking around looking for confirmation that Chick-fil-a is doing well financially. It doesn’t seem to be part of the standard media template, but it appears there is some growth and other markers of business health seem in place as well.

    But just for context, if not for fun.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    Phil (#25) is right. There is a whole bouquet of pro-traditional marriage law and custom that does not mean only anti-homosexual marriage. It certainly includes it, but it also incudes resistance to no-fault divorce, concubinage, and the enforcement of alienation of affection laws.

  • MJBubba

    So just now a Google News search for “dan cathy” turned up 1015 hits. There has been plenty of reaction. The spotlight briefly included a link to an editorial at the Washington Post that makes it sound like Dan Cathy brought up the issue on his own to advance his position somehow, and, near the conclusion, includes

    Do what you like. Just don’t shove it down our gullets.

    As if Cathy was shoving anything.

  • dalea

    The fact that Chick-fil-A is a company that espouses Christian values is no secret.

    The problem I see with the above quote is that it confuses socially conservative Christian values with all Christian values. There are liberal Christians, and even moderate Christians. The article seems to give the impression that Christian equals social conservative, which is simply not true.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The results of such inability to quote accurately? Muppets is yanking their toys from Chick-Fil-A and donating the money they earned from the deal to the pro-gay lobby group GLAAD. And before anyone goes apoplectic about the sources cited, here’s the Muppet Facebook page making the announcement.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, I have spiked dozens of comments that have nothing to do with journalism issues covered in the post. I am closing the comments.