An appetite lost over Chick-fil-A and food ethics

The entire Chick-fil-A mess was one of the most depressing stories of the summer.

Really, Syria’s a mess, people are recovering from mass shootings, some of us are trying to appreciate international beauty in the Olympics, but instead the nation (based on my unscientific observations of Google searches, Facebook, and Twitter trends) appears pretty wrapped up about a fast food restaurants views on marriage. It was mind boggling, everything from how it started to how it was perceived to how mayors reacted to how fans reacted to how everyone and their mom just had to have an opinion. I just want to be able to eat without it saying something. Is that really possible anymore? It’s honestly really unclear. Would you like fries and a side of politicized rage with that?

Anyway, I committed to reading nothing more about CFA unless it was actually revealing something new and fresh about the human condition and how we think about food, religious freedom, mayoral power, the free market, why people feel so strongly about a fast food restaurant, or something. Mostly, though, I just covered my ears, shielded my eyes, and tried to shut my mouth.

Then my eyes almost popped out of my head after reading a brief post from Jim Romenesko about the New York Times‘s Mark Bittman, a food journalist whom I read and generally admire. I think it does reveal something about unfiltered blogs, how we treat people after death and a paper’s duty to ensure ethics across the board. For background purposes, earlier this week, he posted this (which was later edited):

Sysco is the latest food giant—it’s the largest food distributor in the country—to come out against gestation crate confinement of pigs. The National Pork Producers Council’s communications director was quoted in the National Journal saying: “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets…I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.” Really.

Speaking of pigs, the VP of PR for Chick-fil-A dropped dead of a heart attack the week after the chain’s latest homophobia/anti-gay marriage scandal. Here’s an obit, and here’s more about him. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A had record-breaking profits after its President, Dan Cathy, drew a line in the sand over same-sex marriage.

I’ve learned a lot from people like Bittman about food ethics and journalism, why what we eat and where it comes from matters. Based on the reporting Bittman and others have done, I’m a wanna-be local food, fair-trade, organic vegetarian but I’m not quite there. In fact, I ate a fast food something yesterday (ducking). Authors like Bittman seem to take ethics very seriously, and I appreciate how they bring a set of careful thinking into the food we consume.

But since when is it okay to call someone who has died a pig?

Okay, maybe Bittman wrote it with a glass of wine in hand, a brief lapse in judgement. Here’s his brief update:

In a recent blog post, I used an inappropriate phrase to refer to the late VP of PR for Chick-fil-A. My choice of words did not rise to either my own standards or to The Times’s, and the phrase has been removed from the post. I regret this lapse.

Not to be all picky, but I don’t see an apology anywhere except that he seems afraid for his job and platform. But, ultimately, since when is it okay for the New York Times to leave that blog post published for four days?

Frank Lockwood, from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commented:

At most reputable organizations, this would be cause for dismissal. Certainly, if Mr. Bittman had directed this kind of venom at, say, the ACLU or the Kennedy family or the spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, he’d already be in the unemployment line.

As I’ve said before, social media and blogs help us see real people behind the media, identifying biases in reporter’s unfiltered, unedited postings. On one hand, it’s interesting and helpful. On another hand, it’s a little scary. There is a reason why editors are so essential to the media process. At their best, editors filter content through a journalistic, ethical lens. They also make sure you don’t say pubic instead of public, but really, editors are the gatekeepers the internet doesn’t seem to value when it comes to traffic goals.

It’s unclear what the standards are at the Times for blog posts, since they vary from publication to publication. For instance, does Bittman publish straight to the web and then his posts are overseen by someone later who can flag something that isn’t per the Times standards? Something like that would never go into print, which is filtered through many, many layers. The problem is, people on the internet can’t necessarily tell the difference between edited and non edited when it’s under the Times banner.

Let’s look at the post again. I’m not shocked that Bittman, in his view, would believe that a man who endorsed and publicized such views as marriage as between a man and a woman would be bad, since he would apparently go directly against Bittman’s beliefs about the way the world should work. I’m also not shocked that Bittman would portray him as homophobic, since if you hold certain beliefs about marriage that don’t include gay marriage, that’s how you might get painted. Is it fair? Is it accurate? I don’t think so. Are people who oppose gay marriage really homophobic or against gay people at large? If so, that would represent a pretty wide range of people, from Muslims to Mormons to Catholics to, well, a lot of religious and even nonreligious people. We have to be precise and fair in our language.

Questions about word choice are so important to religion coverage because it’s so important to characterize even people we disagree with in a way that is journalistic and ethical. It’s not rocket science. If you’re going to talk about food ethics, you have to start with a basic ethic of how we should treat one another and how it applies to journalism, even on your little blog.

The beauty of the internet is that you can have longer headlines, you can have longer stories and phrases that flesh out someone who opposes gay marriage instead of just calling them “a pig” or “homophobic.” There is no reason why a blog post, with the infinite space, could not be more careful and thoughtful. And there is no reason why the Times could not have hit delete earlier.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Crude

    I’d also add, it’s strange to describe what transpired as a “scandal”.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Good point! The scandal was that it was a scandal?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I would like to see more hard data to show real consequences to people on either side of the Chick-fil-a debate. There was an ugly incident in the Dallas Police Department; was it the only one? The only other stuff I found on a google search was invective and name-calling. Any facts out there?

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    I was puzzled by the distaste (pun intended) for the coverage of this story. The question goes to the heart of a simmering controversy that DOES envelope the nation right now…same sex marriage….outlawed by 36 states, I believe, and imposed by judicial edict or thinly-approved legislative action in six(?) states and DC.

    “Oh, everyone’s for it!” Well, not quite true, as it turns out, based on my observations of a record Chik-Fil-A sales day…no, actually, all that WEEK. It would appear that some folk (self included) are tired of being pushed into a “homophobic” corner because we won’t uncritically support homosexuality as a normative experience.

    What Truett and Dan Cathy are quoted as saying reflects good CHRISTIAN behavior. They support real marriage. They had NOTHING to say about gays. As it turns out the gay response was pathetic, but patiently, kindly endured by the thousands of well-manned and well-regarded employees of the chain, who treat gays……………..surprise, surprise, just like they do straights.

    But, on the other hand, we do realize First Amendment speech is allowed to EVERY citizen, don’t we? I say, don’t we?

  • John D

    You said:

    Are people who oppose gay marriage really homophobic or against gay people at large? If so, that would represent a pretty wide range of people, from Muslims to Mormons to Catholics to, well, a lot of religious and even nonreligious people. We have to be precise and fair in our language.

    Or maybe we need some articles interviewing those people who aren’t anti-gay, yet oppose same-sex marriage. They seem a pretty elusive bunch.

    The problem is that whenever a journalist interviews someone opposed to same-sex marriage, the underlying reason seems to be that they are against gay people. Inevitably we get statements that God is opposed to gay people.

    On the comment above, Deacon Jim Stagg characterizes opposition to same-sex marriage as “good CHRISTIAN behavior.” So, I guess we can assume that Christians who approve of same-sex marriage are…bad Christians? And what does this say of rabbis? Do we expect them to be good Christians too? Do Baptist ministers get to veto whether Reform rabbis get to perform a legally binding ceremony? Something isn’t right there.

    I think it is incumbent on journalists to scrutinize the motives of those opposed to same-sex marriage. No one seems able to make a convincing claim that they are all for gay rights, but have a non-discriminatory reason for opposing same-sex marriage. It always comes down to “I’m opposed to gay people.”

    Everyone should be asking themselves these questions, and journalists should be explicitly asking their interview subjects.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.


    Here is an obit on Donald Perry that we ran in The Christian Chronicle.

  • Sabrina Messenger

    The Chick-Fil-A story was just stupid, plain and simple. If someone doesn’t agree with the CEO, just don’t eat there. Plain and simple. No sense in making a big fuss and wasting precious newsprint or bandwidth over it.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Well, I would say it is scandalous that a Chicago city council member thinks he can use his authority as a government official to block people from conducting business in the city because he disagrees with their political opinions. However, I do not think this is what the NYT thinks is scandalous.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for weighing in. Please keep ideas and comments to how the media should and shouldn’t cover the debates.

  • John D

    If a group of clergy contended that left-handed people should not be issued drivers licenses and that those that have been issued, should not be honored, we would expect journalists to treat those claims with extreme skepticism. We would question why this group felt that their views should be applied to society at large. When they announced that tolerating the evil of left-handed driving was an infringement of their religious beliefs, we would be looking at clergy with the opposing viewpoint.

    I suspect that most journalists, including those who blog here, would have no sympathy with a sect that called for reduced civil rights for left-handlers, women, or just about any other group.

    Then we get to gay people, where in the name of religion, it’s okay to to believe in reduced rights and not be thought a bigot. Face it, when someone says that he is “for traditional marriage,” it means he is against same-sex marriage. Should Dan Cathy’s views of gay people be probed after a statement like this? Only if journalists seek to be honest reporters and not partisans.

    Same-sex marriage is not popular on this blog. There does not seem to be a writer from a liberal religious tradition. But honest journalists have to acknowledge that there are religious groups out there that see support for same-sex marriage as a moral imperative. And as no religious group in the US could be forced to perform same-sex marriages, it is the side opposing it for all that gets the greater scrutiny.

  • Richard A

    Well, John D, thank you for your illuminating analogy. Illuminating, that is to say, about the attitude that assumes that anti-same-sex-marriage is simply and solely equatable to hostility to homosexuals per se.

    No rational person – yet – thinks that handedness has a moral component at all, let alone one as significant as marriage’s. Your analogy is obviously, probably deliberately, absurd. You continue to advance the perspective that opposition to homosexual behavior is as irrational as opposition to left-handedness would be. It’s not the same thing, and you are unjust to suggest that it is.

  • sari

    John D and Richard A–

    Civility should not be contingent on where one stands on same sex marriage or any other issue. For a journalist to call someone a pig (or worse) for adherence to an opposite viewpoint is unprofessional at best and polarizing at worst. Does no one teach their children how to agree to disagree anymore, to present a logical case without denigrating anyone?

    Sarah said: “I’m also not shocked that Bittman would portray him as homophobic, since if you hold certain beliefs about marriage that don’t include gay marriage, that’s how you might get painted. Is it fair? Is it accurate? I don’t think so. ”

    John D replied: “No one seems able to make a convincing claim that they are all for gay rights, but have a non-discriminatory reason for opposing same-sex marriage. It always comes down to “I’m opposed to gay people.”

    I think both of you are asking why journalists ignore the middle, why few explore the institution of marriage and what it means to different groups of people. Is it a religious construct, a civil institution, or both?

    Many, many religious people like myself have no problem with a civil union that confers all the benefits of the marriage, but we balk at the using the word marriage because the word has religious connotations. We are not anti-gay in that we don’t discriminate socially or in business, nor do we believe that secular government should have different sets of rules for different groups of people. The government might need to get out of the marriage business altogether by extending civil unions to any couple who desires to register. Marriage before G-d could be relegated to those religious institutions whose followers feel the necessity. If y’all think about it, that’s already the practice in many places, where the state (or county) issues a license that effectively renders the couple married prior to the ceremony.

    Where are the people who think outside the box to consider win-win strategies?

    John D (and others who subscribe to the anti-gay marriage must be a homophobe mantra)–I find it offensive to be lumped into a group and judged with no care for the way I actually behave. Just as Bittman’s words were offensive, so, too, is offensive to be called a homophobe for adhering to the strictures of my faith. Denigration rarely leads to positive results.