LATimes on Chick-fil-A: Where’s the journalism?

A long, long, time ago — almost a decade, in fact — there was a Los Angeles Times editor who wrote a letter to his section editors in which he defended solid, old-fashioned American journalism. You know, the kind that strives to accurately quote informed voices on both sides of controversial issues, perhaps even in a way that promotes informed, balanced, constructive debate and civic life.

The editor’s name was John Carroll. His famous memo started like this:

I’m concerned about the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, “politically correct” newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring “so-called counseling of patients.” I don’t think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it “so-called,” a phrase that is loaded with derision.

It was clear that most mainstream scientists were, at that time, discounting the abortion-breast cancer link. The issue, for Carroll, was that his staff made no attempt to talk to mainstream scientists who did support this stance. Of course, there were scientists — then and now — who believe they have evidence for this stance.

Instead of talking to scientists about science, on the pro-life side of the debate, the Los Angeles Times team elected to go in other directions. Carroll wrote:

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story’s lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he “has a professional background in property management.” Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn’t we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views. Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.

But why does this matter? What’s the point? For Carroll, the ultimate journalistic goal was to produce coverage that accurately and fairly represented the views of stakeholders on both sides of the debate. His bottom line?

We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I’m no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

I am well aware, obviously, that Carroll no longer edits the Times and that there have been many changes in that newsroom in the years since then.

Still, I would like GetReligion readers to think about the points that Carroll made while reading the following Los Angeles Times report about the decision by Chick-fil-A executives to go silent on issues linked to centuries of Christian teachings on marriage and family. As you read the story, search for representative, informed voices speaking for religious traditionalists — in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. — who would be troubled by this decision.

You do remember the case, right? Here’s the update:

Chick-fil-A will no longer donate money to anti-gay groups or discuss hot-button political issues after an executive’s controversial comments this summer landed the fast-food chain in the middle of the gay marriage debate.

Executives agreed in recent meetings to stop funding groups opposed to same-sex unions, including Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage, according to Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno.

Earlier this summer, Moreno became a key critic of Chick-fil-A after the Atlanta company’s president, Dan Cathy, said in an interview that his business was “guilty as charged” of supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

When you click the “comment” option, please avoid several non-journalistic issues. We are not here to discuss the newspaper’s use of the term “anti-gay” to describe the nondenominational groups that received money from this foundation. Also, it is clear that pro-gay rights groups had every right to protest the religious beliefs and activities of Chick-fil-A leaders. The corporation’s leaders had every right to respond to the resulting media tsunami in the way that they did.

No, the purpose of this post is to ask if the current Times team produced a journalistic product that attempted, in any way, to take seriously the views of stakeholders on both sides of this debate. Find the conservative voices in this piece and compare their offerings, in size and serious content, to those of the gay-rights supporters who are asked to discuss this decision.

In light of the Carroll memo, what kind of news story is this? How seriously does this take the serious religious and legal arguments on both sides?

Good luck with that.

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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.

  • Kodos

    Since I’m the first one off the mark, I’ll make a brief observation that the LA Times story is odd because of what it *doesn’t* tell us. The single source for this news is Alderman Moreno. And even he “wouldn’t release the full contents of the letter,” which is an immediate piece of bait for me to want to know what was in the letter. If I was a reporter I would want to nail this down before I wrote anything in print, especially since this isn’t news that has to get out right now, today, ASAP.

    And I’d be asking myself why Chick-Fil-A doesn’t want to talk about it or release a statement. If they’re standing on their July statement, that’s fine… but that statement doesn’t say anything about funding, which is what this LA Times story is largely about.

    So much to know, so few facts, so few sources, and so little shoe leather worn out on this story. I suspect there’s more to it than the triumphalist narrative we’re getting. But we won’t find out, will we, if the only people the reporter is talking to are gay rights supporters, and meanwhile the two major opponents in this Chick-Fil-A battle are only issuing carefully worded (with chess-like precision) statements.

  • deiseach

    If it’s coming out of the mouth of a Chicago politician, I want to see the source documents. Could it possibly be that the company told Mr. Moreno they don’t donate to the National Organisation for Marriage, or only did so once, and he’s touting this announcement as a triumph of political action?

    And before you think I’m being unfair to Chicago politicians, I worked in the student grants department of a local education authority, and we regularly had local politicians (from councillors to national parliament representatives) asking us to send them letters stating that Johnny X or Mary Y was getting a grant – solely so that they could then pass those on to the parents of Johnny X or Mary Y, in order to intimate that it was their intervention that got the grant awarded – which was never the case, since that kind of canvassing was illegal and would have disqualified the applicant, and the grants were already awarded on the merits of the application before Councillor Person made the enquiry.

    So that’s why I am a bit hesitant to accept this story at face value.

  • FW Ken

    Count me in as one concerned not just for the lack of balance, but the lack of verification. Not that a politician would ever stretch the truth, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

  • tmatt

    I know that Chick-fil-A is stonewalling on questions. However, that’s not my point. There are all kinds of people — legal, academic, parachurch — with insights and views on what is going on. Where are the other voices? Look at the voices in the story on the cultural left. Where are their counterparts?

    • Crews Giles

      To answer your question, the dialogue becomes a monologue as soon as a pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-faith, pro-men’s rights, and so on, become labeled “hate groups.” We are left with two monologues in our increasingly polarized ideologies. Media in both camps play to their perceived audiences which tactic usually sides closer to extremes rather than center.

      Try find a men’s rights group (one of my issues) that has NOT been listed as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center– and then find a liberal media that does not consider The Southern Poverty Law Center to be the only “reliable source” for defining hate groups. And if you want to know where the counterpart to civil rights is for Christians and males– your guess is as good as mine.

      It has simply become popular to disparage men and disparage Christianity, while fear of being demonized, boycotted, or otherwise marginalized silences the counterpart.

      The moderate voice is not heard, and the moderate conservative is not only unheard– but disparaged by being tied to the extreme right; whereas extreme liberalism is the pattern for the day– moderate and extreme left are cause-oriented, not value-oriented– opening the door wide for “means being justified by the ends.” Or so it seems to me.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    tmatt, I’m more concerned about plain old accuracy. To me, it’s just a matter of course that the LA Times is only going to quote the cultural left. That’s what they do with triumphalist pieces.

    But the reason it’s triumphalist is because a Chicago alderman says he won the arm-wrestling match with Chick-fil-A without a referee or any other outside observers. And then the Times swallowed his claim (to change metaphors) hook, line and sinker. The Times’ journalistic failure here is that not that they didn’t contact people from the other side, but it’s the even more basic consideration that they did not verify the claims. They may as well have spared the effort to contact anyone — friend or foe — and just printed the entire press release from the Alderman’s office.

  • tmatt

    THOMAS:
    You are making my point for me, again. If Chick-fil-A will not confirm, that makes it even more important to contact the kinds of groups that would be linked to the case in other ways — such as conservative religious-liberty groups, the relevant parachurch groups, etc. I am talking about the ground work journalists have to do in ORDER to verify claims, especially when a PR office is working so hard to make the story go away.

  • tz

    Two observations:

    1. The term ‘Legacy’ (polite for ‘obsolete’) media applies.

    2. Buffy the vampire slayer was a model stake-holder.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Chick-fil-A “sets the record straight,” or at least issues a new statement: http://www.citizenlink.com/2012/09/20/chick-fil-a-sets-the-record-straight-2/#.UFuk89fWXss.twitter

  • b.

    Okay, I’ll bite, here’s my analysis:

    Copious quotes from Moreno et al…

    LGBT advocacy group Equality Matters contributes data from a report… For instance: “from 2003 to 2009, Chick-fil-A donated more than $3 million to Christian groups that oppose homosexuality.” Should the LA Times check in with these Christian groups and ask if they oppose homosexuality, or more specifically same-sex marriage, and is there any daylight between the two? I’m Catholic, so I know there is daylight…

    Chick-fil-A document called “Who We Are” is indirectly quoted, presumably through Moreno’s office. And spokesman Jerry Johnston is quoted as “not offering any response.”

    LGBT advocacy group Civil Rights Agenda is quoted…
    Campus Pride is quoted being encouraged that Chick-fil-A’s future direction will uphold “their values of dignity and respect for all.” But, some folks think “dignity and respect for all” is best achieved by maintaining opposite-sex marriage. Like, Catholics think that. Could they have gone out and found a Catholic Pride group? Catholic Newman Society?

    Quote from a branding expert on how the controversy has helped raise Chick-fil-A’s profile…
    Quotes from social media; one tweet positive, one tweet negative…
    Final quote is from Moreno’s.

    Tally: no quotes from people who support opposite-sex marriage, except to repeat Dan Cathy telling us he is “guilty as charged.” And bonus information putting Cathy squarely into the ranks of fat cats. No word on how many people Chick-fil-A employs at 1600 locations and how much is payroll.

    One “ghost” is the constant refrain that companies, and their owners, should stay out of social and political debates. However, there are many rich businessmen who contribute to same-sex marriage advocacy groups, and many businesses have come out waving the rainbow flag because it seems like it will be good for business.

    The premise of the reporting seems to be that there is no use checking in with opponents because the debate is over; it’s unreasonable to oppose same-sex marriage.

  • MJBubba

    The LATimes’s paragraph about charatible giving is just wrong:
    “A report from LGBT advocacy group Equality Matters found that from 2003 to 2009, Chick-fil-A donated more than $3 million to Christian groups that oppose homosexuality. In 2010, the fast-food company gave nearly $2 million to such causes, according to the report.”
    This old misinformation was corrected in an article by Dan Gilgoff for CNN that was posted on August 3:
    “WinShape spends the vast majority of its money on internal programs like its [Christian marriage enrichment] camps, which cost $5 million to run in 2010, and foster homes, which cost $3.2 million that year. By comparison, the organization gave $1,000 to Family Research Council in 2010 and $1,000 to Exodus International, a group that for years promoted so-called conversion therapy for gays, though the group is now reassessing that stance. “The WinShape Foundation and Chick-fil-A’s corporate giving is focused on supporting youth, family and educational programs,” said Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s executive vice president for marketing, in a statement to CNN.com, responding to questions. “WinShape provides camping programs for more than 13,000 girls and boys annually and 14 foster homes caring for more than 100 children,” the statement continued. “In addition, Chick-fil-A has awarded more than $30 million in Restaurant Team Member college scholarships to hourly employees.’ ”
    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/03/chick-fil-a-controversy-shines-light-on-companys-charitable-giving/comment-page-27/

  • MJBubba

    I meant to add “and youth” to my parenthetical modifier describing the camps that WinShape supports.

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  • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

    Having ‘liked’ the Chick-Fil-A Facebook page, I was one of a couple hundred thousand who received a message from them with this link to the FULL version of the CFA statement: http://cot.ag/Sa2Sac

  • Charles

    LA Times also failed to include sufficient legal analysis of Moreno’s actions or the NY city council leader’s actions getting C-f-A off NYU’s campus.

  • MTMajor

    Sorry Terry, but wasn’t your point rhetorical? LA Times reporters doing groundwork to source ‘conservative’ balance in a story? C’mon, really?

  • http://magisterialfundies.blogspot.com Rick DeLano

    Reformed Catholic:

    Thanks for the link.

    The LA Times story is completely bogus.

    Which is sort of like saying “this morning the sun rose in the east”.

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  • Kodos

    Thanks Bobby Ross Jr. for the link to Chick-Fil-A’s statement yesterday. It seems clear now that Alderman Moreno was speaking out of his nether regions (pardon my French). Any chance we’ll see a MSM report clarifying Chick-Fil-A’s response with a follow-up interview with Moreno? I doubt it.

    This LA Times story will stand as it is – a “we won anyway” narrative, filed just long enough after the original event in August for readers to forget that customer support for Chick-Fil-A was overwhelming, and the LGBT “kiss in” was an abject failure.

    But let me question Chick-Fil-A’s use of what seems to be doublespeak:
    “A part of our corporate commitment is to be responsible stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. Because of this commitment, Chick-­?fil-­?A’s giving heritage is focused on programs that educate youth, strengthen families and enrich marriages, and support communities. We will continue to focus our giving in those areas. Our intent is not to support political or social agendas.”

    Isn’t “strengthening families” a social agenda?

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