Boy Scouts, Mormons and CNN’s tabloid-style ‘reporting’

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Let’s face it: Most of the mainstream media coverage of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to delay a vote on possibly accepting gay Scouts and adult leaders was pretty ho-hum.

Here’s how The New York Times boiled down Wednesday’s development in a 65-word lede (sorry, I could not resist counting):

The Boy Scouts of America, which confirmed last summer its policy barring openly gay people from participation, then said last week that it was reconsidering the ban, announced Wednesday that it would postpone a decision once more, until May, as talk of gay men and lesbians in the ranks has roiled a storied organization that carries deep emotional connection and nostalgia for millions of Americans.

The Times and other major media (such as The Associated Press and The Dallas Morning News) relied heavily on a three-paragraph statement issued by the Boy Scouts:

For 103 years, the Boy Scouts of America has been a part of the fabric of this nation, providing its youth program of character development and values-based leadership training. In the past two weeks, Scouting has received an outpouring of feedback from the American public. It reinforces how deeply people care about Scouting and how passionate they are about the organization.

After careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the Scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organization, the volunteer officers of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Executive Board concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy.

To that end, the National Executive Board directed its committees to further engage representatives of Scouting’s membership and listen to their perspectives and concerns. This will assist the officers’ work on a resolution on membership standards. The approximately 1,400 voting members of the National Council will take action on the resolution at the National Annual Meeting in May 2013.

Over at Religion News Service, national correspondent Adelle M. Banks noted:

The decision by Boy Scouts of America to postpone any change in policy about gay membership was fueled by an “outpouring of feedback.” Much of that reaction came from a sector with strength in numbers: the religious groups that comprise the majority of the Scouts’ chartered organizations. …

There is simply no denying the influence of religion in the Boy Scouts, a group that includes “my duty to God’’ in its oath. According to the BSA, religious organizations comprise 70 percent of its sponsoring organizations. Mormons, United Methodists and Catholics — the three largest groups — sponsored more than 1 million of the current 2.6 million Scouts in 2011.

Alas, it seems that only one news organization snagged the real story. And trust me, it’s much less ho-hum than the scripted Boy Scout statement and predictable quotes from gay-rights supporters and religious conservatives on which the other media depended. Of course, the same might be said of the reporting in the Weekly World News.

Congratulations go to CNN, which managed to grab the scoop without revealing any sources (or presumably, interviewing anyone) at all — always an accomplishment among “journalists.”

Click this link for the full report from CNN’s Erin Burnett, but here’s the story in a nutshell:

A major announcement from the Boy Scouts today: As I said, they’re delaying a controversial and highly anticipated vote to lift a ban on gay membership.

The question tonight: Does the long history between the Mormons and the Boy Scouts have anything to do with the announcement today?

Check out the connection between the two groups, and it really amazed us. This is really stunning. Mormons represent 15 percent of the 2.7 million registered Boy Scouts.

That is the single biggest group in America. They pay dues. They also jointly own land together, and their departure could leave a gaping hole in the Boy Scouts’ organization, which has seen its membership overall decline by a third since 1999. So as the organization has gotten smaller, the Mormon influence has gotten bigger.

Who is asking that question? CNN doesn’t specify. What land do the Mormons and Boy Scouts jointly own? CNN doesn’t say. How exactly has the Mormon influence gotten bigger? CNN provides no details.

CNN is correct that the Mormons have the highest number of Scouts — roughly 421,000 — among the Boy Scouts’ faith-based charter organizations. But what would be interesting in a “news story” with a bit of actual reporting would be to ask why the Mormons purportedly have so much more influence than the United Methodists (371,000 Scouts) and the Roman Catholics (284,000 Scouts)?

For the record, the Mormons issued an official statement on the Boy Scout decision (or lack thereof).

Am I suggesting that the Mormon connection to the Boy Scouts is not a newsworthy peg? Not at all. Am I contending that CNN’s approach to that peg is better suited for a supermarket tabloid? Of course.

If the choice is CNN’s sensationalism vs. the rest of the media’s fact-based coverage, I’ll choose ho-hum any day.

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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.

  • CarlH

    I think it’s worth noting that it seems pretty clear that the LDS Church’s statement is responding to (or anticipating) the kind of angle that CNN (and other even less “careful” commentators) chose to take (as well as some who presume to either know what the LDS Church’s position is/will be, or even to speak on its behalf), with these final sentences:

    “We caution others not to speculate about our position or to assume that individual Latter-day Saints inside or outside the Scouting movement speak for the Church. Neither has the Church launched any campaign either to effect or prevent a policy change.”

  • Darren Blair

    I’ve mentioned earlier that not only am I an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I got “volunteered” to be part of the local public affairs board.
    That being said –

    This very matter was brought up in the monthly meeting this past Sunday.

    The church’s official stance on the matter is, at present, “We will wait and see what the BSA says”. The church has no intentions of doing anything until it knows for sure just what the BSA has planned and what those plans will entail. As such, articles like the above are so much hype and misspent energy.

    As far as the Church’s ties with the Scouts go –
    The Scouting program is used as the (would extra-curricular be the appropriate word?) activity of choice for the boys in the church, with the younger boys going into Cubs and the older boys going into Scouts; the girls in the church have their own in-house program going for them. Thus, every Mormon congregation with a minimum number of youth will have a BSA unit or three. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why so many Scout troops are Mormon.
    As far as the “shared property” goes, I would like to know what CNN means by that. To my knowledge, the average Scouting unit meets within the church come activity night barring an event scheduled elsewhere, and so there are no separate buildings. And if they’re talking about camp sites, barring the state / national parks and the odd KOA all of the camp sites around here are owned by either the Scouts or the US Army.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks for your comments, Carl and Darren.

    • Darren Blair

      Not a problem.

      (For personal reference, although I was active in Cub Scouts, I fell off during Boy Scouts. One of the hazards of belonging to a congregation that serves a military base is the fact that the service members in the congregation frequently come and go, either due to training, deployment, or reassignment. The scout masters were almost always active-duty military, meaning that they never lasted very long. After a while, it just got too frustrating for me to continue making the attempt since we’d lose each scout master just as we were starting to get things cohesive again.)

  • Chris Bolinger

    CNN’s new tagline: Enquiring minds want to know.

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    The LDS church put a lot of money into the Proposition 8 fight in California,and is thus thought to have a strong interest in gay rights issues. That assumption may be incorrect, but it’s not just random prejudice.

    • Darren Blair

      Actually, the church didn’t put up as much money as people think.

      As the LA Times noted, the “No” crowd *always* had the edge, both in total $$ and in total amount of $$ donated from out of state:
      http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-moneymap,0,2198220.htmlstory

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      The issue is not random prejudice. The issue is bad journalism.

      • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

        The two generally go together.

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