Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny

Earlier today I mentioned some questions I have about this crazy “court-martial” story that blew up this week. The post is headlined “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize,” in reference to GetReligion reader Will Linden’s saying about how the same action can be described in different ways.

Much of the media coverage has been devoted to tamping down conservative Christian concern about whether Christians in the military will be court-martialed for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with fellow soldiers. And that’s a good thing, since the story was clearly overblown and mishandled.

I was reading Ed Stetzer’s piece “Some Thoughts on the Newest Christian Concern: Court-Martials for Evangelism,” in which he goes after Christians for hyping the story (and while we’re at it, here’s a great Warren Throckmorton piece with quotes from the actual regulations). The comments to his post were instructive, though. For instance:

I know I for one was in an uproar when I read the story on Breitbart, but not simply because I feared that our men and women in uniform could be facing court martial for being Christian and sharing their Christian faith. My indignation was over the administration’s willingness, and apparent desire, to bring in Mikey Weinstein as some sort of special advisor on the issue–a man who seemingly makes no bones about calling Christians who share their faith “monsters” and associating us with rapists. My contempt for this policy (and I’ll admit that I, too, rushed to judgment) was not simply about the policy itself, but the fact that Weinstein, among others, was brought in to advise the administration on this policy. He can call it freedom from religious persecution all he wants, but how can he justify advocating such a thing when he is clearly so hostile toward men and women like you and me–men and women who desire to see people come to Christ and experience the gift of salvation from sin and death that He offers to each and everyone of us.

and

I appreciate your desire to be the voice of calm and reason, but I’m not reading much in your post that re-instills my faith in the pure motives and direction of this administration. Their apparent willingness to meet with the character in the Breitbart report does nothing but build legitimate suspicion, especially when all of their other priorities are taken into account.

I definitely think tamping down Christian concern by reporting this story fairly is a great journalistic service, as The Tennessean did here. But I do wonder if reporters are missing this other huge angle: that Mikey Weinstein is a player in this story!

It might be worth noting that religion reporters have different types of sources. Compare how a source such as the Jesuit Father Thomas Reese is portrayed with how a source such as Pamela Geller is. What’s tricky about Weinstein is that he has a little bit of both attributes. Reporters love Reese because he is great at making journalists’ jobs easier. He’s always good for a helpful quote and he makes himself available to reporters. He is genuinely helpful and speaks in a quotable manner. It’s great. Geller is treated less favorably for many reasons, but her extreme rhetoric when talking about Islam plays a major role in that treatment.

Weinstein is great with public relations like Reese is — he makes himself nothing if not available to reporters and he pushes out hot-button stories on the religion beat. He (Weinstein) also speaks in the Geller manner about Christians and yet, unlike her, he gets used as a source and is treated neutrally or favorably by the media.

Back to the Religion News Service story we discussed earlier, it mentions that the controversy arose after Weinstein, the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, met with Pentagon officials:

Weinstein is known for his inflammatory rhetoric about religious believers and Christians in particular, and he didn’t disappoint this time: he told The Washington Post after the April 23 meeting that proselytizing in the military is akin to “spiritual rape,” among other things.

It’s good that the “inflammatory rhetoric” is mentioned but it might understate things.

National Review Online published a piece where author David French also disputes the court-martialing for evangelicals aspect of the story, saying he’s “not aware of any immediate or pending change in Pentagon policies regarding religious liberty.” However, he’s deeply concerned about the military’s involvement with Weinstein. In an article headlined “Are Military Leaders and the MSM Embracing an Anti-Christian Extremist?,” he quotes a handful of comments made by Weinstein. The first example:

Our Pentagon has been turned into a Pentacostalgon, and our DOD has been turned into an imperialist, fascistic contagion of unconstitutional triumphalism by people that want to kill us – or have their version of Jesus kill us if we don’t accept their Biblical world view.

He provides four other similar, but somehow much worse, comments (seriously, you must read them, they’re amazing) and adds:

I’m sorry, but these are just ravings. And he met with generals? And the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News and others treats him as a serious commentator on faith in the military? Substitute “Muslim” for “Christian” in any of these comments and the brass wouldn’t let him darken the Pentagon’s doors. Sally Quinn might write about him, but only as a Terry Jones–like threat to peace, as the fanatical equivalent of a Koran-burner.

Sadly, because he meets with generals – because the likes of the Washington Post take him seriously — he may very well exercise influence over the military’s religious policy. I have no problem with the Pentagon meeting with a wide vareity of credible voices as it formulates and refines religious policies, but this is a man who literally demands courts-martial for speech he dislikes, a man who declares that servicemembers exposed to Christian ideas are “spiritual rape victims.”

Even more troubling, this news comes hard on the heels of training slides that labeled “Evangelical Christianity” and “Catholicism” as examples of “religious extremism” literally alongside al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. An isolated example, yes, but intolerable nonetheless.

Mikey Weinstein meets with generals because the media give him power. Blinded by their own fear, ignorance, and hate, they give voice to an extremist they would condemn in virtually any another context. It’s pathetic and embarrassing.

Now first off, it’s wrong to ascribe motivations for why reporters have uncritically reported on Weinstein for years. Better to let reporters explain their own reasoning, particularly when there are less nefarious reasons for using him as a source (I’ve used him as a source and while it was for an opinion piece on which I was arguing a point, it wasn’t because I was motivated by fear, ignorance or hate but because he helped me make my point and I didn’t realize, many years ago, that his rhetoric was problematic).

Anywho, we’ve covered Weinstein coverage before. I thought I’d revisit some of it. I looked back at stories over the last seven years and it’s definitely true that the extremism of Weinstein is celebrated in a way that, say, the extremism of a Terry Jones-type is not.

One Los Angeles Times story back in 2005 based on Weinstein’s efforts to change religious practices at the Air Force Academy led tmatt to write “these reports are … one-sided, in terms of source material.” Also from that year, tmatt noted that stories neglected religious liberty concerns (imagine that!).

Later that year, I noticed the highly flattering media characterization of Weinstein left out a few details. More recently, Brad Greenberg complained about religion news stories about Paganism that ignored Pagans but mentioned Weinstein in eight of 20 paragraphs. He noted that “it appears the LAT reporter relied on [Weinstein] almost entirely to shape the tone and perspective of this piece.” Just last year we learned “the NBC article treats the assertions of Mikey Weinstein uncritically.”

And a few years ago, after Weinstein got Franklin Graham dis-invited from giving a prayer to the military on the National Day of Prayer, reader J.D. wrote:

With respect to journalism, I am surprised to see that Weinstein is granted credibility without critique by the media. I am also surprised that the media doesn’t question his assertions, nor quote those who critique him.

If someone said the same things about Judaism that Weinstein has about Christianity, the press would give them only a few lines before citing the host of others standing in line to hold him up for ridicule. Instead, everyone is talking about Graham, apparently legitimizing his critic without a second thought. No one is looking to see what Weinstein’s agenda is.

As a result, [the reader] above doesn’t seen the contradiction in Weinstein being free to address the military, despite his extremist views, while Graham is not. That one may parse their views a certain way is irrelevant; they are either entitled to free speech/free exercise, or they are not.

So on the big story, I think we’re seeing some helpful journalism clarifying that there has been no change in policy, but I’m not sure the story of efforts to change enforcement of that policy, and who is pushing those efforts, is being covered as well. And I think questions about media treatment of Weinstein are fair.

At the same time, as extreme as Weinstein’s rhetoric is, his group includes people who do not speak that way. Just to give one example of its reach, one of the men killed in that September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya was Glen Doherty, a “Dedicated MRFF Advisory Board Member and former Navy SEAL.”

The group is clearly a force within the military, has effected many changes at the service academies, in regulations and enforcement of same, and deserves to be taken seriously. (While writing this, I learned that Defense News lists Weinstein on its list of 100 most influential people in U.S. defense.) If this group is pushing for a change in how an existing policy is enforced, I wouldn’t pooh-pooh it at all. And some greater journalistic scrutiny of the rhetoric of the group’s president is in order.

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  • Darrell Turner

    How to describe an advocate whose rhetoric may be “over the top” is indeed a journalistic issue. And when, if ever, should people be described as “ultraconservative” or “ultraliberal?” I suggest that the best strategy is to describe someone as an advocate for or against a particular policy or issue and then give one or two examples of the person’s language. The readers can then reach their own conclusions.

  • The True Will

    Huh? Don’t you mean “When IS someone described as ‘ultraliberal’. ” Liberals are all ipso facto “moderate”, in my observation.

  • FW Ken

    Forgive me if I overlooked it but this editorial Weinstein seems to be relevant to the discussion and I don’t see that the link has been posted:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/michael-l-weinstein/fundamentalist-christian-_b_3072651.html?utm_source=StandFirm&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=link

  • dalea

    The link to Throckmorton does not work; it brings up a blank page.

    What I find myself wondering: does Weinstein speak like this all the time? Or are these isolated quotes? From what I have read of his works, he seems to be a serious and responsible crusader for what regards as religious liberty. But these quotes are disturbing. When, where and under what circumstances were they made? Do they stand alone or are they part of a longer article?

    One of the commenters at Ed Stetzer’s excellent site (thank you for introducing it) made a point. Weinstein is very inflluenced by the treatment his son underwent at the Air Force Academy, where he was harrassed for being Jewish. Frequently Jews are very sensitive on religious outreach and tend to have heightened concerns. I think the stories should have included this as background to better understand the issue.

    • Martha

      Here’s the link to the piece in “The Huffington Post”, which does seem to me to start off hyperventilating in tone and only goes up from there:

      “I founded the civil rights fighting organization the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) to do one thing: fight those monsters who would tear down the Constitutionally-mandated wall separating church and state in the technologically most lethal entity ever created by humankind, the U.S. military.”

      Whatever about his position on the SPLC as completely infallible when it comes to identifying what are “hate groups”, could someone explain to me what his position about the military is? After all, referring to your country’s defence forces as “the technologically most lethal entity ever created by humankind” and “the plethora of fundamentalist Christian outrages including, but not limited to, the “Jesus Loves Nukes”/”Christian Just War” and genocidal “Total War on Islam” presentations that MRFF has broken to international media in the past two years” sounds as if he’s not totally thrilled with the Department of Defence.

      And I would submit that “Christian Just War” theology is a very different matter from “Jesus Loves Nukes” (someone or some group honestly, genuinely said that, or is Mr. Weinstein only resorting to rhetoric?) but that may be because I’m Roman Catholic and a lot of “Just War” theology is based on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas building on St. Augustine.

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  • Jerry

    I went to that Defense News site and found he’s at down near the bottom. Who’s ahead of him? “Wall Street Money Men” for one. And why was he listed? http://special.defensenews.com/people/profile.php?pn=95 says:

    A former Air Force officer and White House lawyer during the Reagan administration, Weinstein is today a one-issue whistle-blower who has driven real change in religious policy throughout the military.

    Weinstein has fought a campaign against public prayer and proselytizing by Air Force officers, particularly at the Air Force Academy, his alma mater, where he says he and his sons experienced religious discrimination…he scored a major victory in 2011, when the Air Force suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers that used Bible passages and religious imagery in a PowerPoint presentation about the ethics of war…

    Based on those results, listing him seems reasonable to me and does not imply a sinister plot.

    And, oh yes, the DoD itself released a statement today http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119931 which basically said that the furor is based on lies.

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  • Brian

    I read the RNS piece linked above and was left wondering if RNS was a news service or an editorial blog.

  • Paulo Romano

    He talks like that all the time. Watch a previous interview when he attacks and demeans John MacArthur. Mikey has been disinvited and banned from some future interviews for his angry tirades at the other guests or callers. Ask Jim Villanucci from Albuquerque.

    What surprised me was his calm demeanor on OReilly last night. Mikey seems to have learned to control his vitriol a bit on national TV.

    Mikey is definitely a force. He has intimidated and sued chaplains and accomplished much through his persistent, pernicious pressure on military. One of his close allies is a fellow hyper-vigilant military lawyer.
    Don’t let his faith claims fool you. He’s an atheist through and through.

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

      Paulo Romano –

      Don’t let his faith claims fool you. He’s an atheist through and through.

      Because he advocates positions you disagree with? On what basis do you claim this?

  • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

    The military policy change/non-change tends to be the focus, but its notable to see people are actually starting to ask why the US military is talking to Weinstein at all. The Public Affairs officer said Weinstein “asked for and received” a meeting with the top JAG in the Air Force — though its unlikely any other average citizen would rate such a private meeting. The only thing Weinstein has done of note has been file four lawsuits, all of which failed to survive the first motion to dismiss. Does that equate to “credibility” on issues of religious freedom?

    As for background, Weinstein has also said he thinks American Christians are in “transition” from Plan A to Plan B, where Plan B is to institute a new Holocaust, after they take over the military. His recent speech is par for the course.

    Its worth noting the “influential people” vote was done by, guess who, a media group — and one that has been friendly to his cause at that.

    • Erp

      Weinstein is an Air Force academy graduate who served for many years as a Air Force JAG that could help explain why he could get an appointment with the top Air Force JAG over the legal issue of religious freedom in the Air Force. BTW serving in the Reagan White House as a legal counsel would also be something of note.

      • http://www.christianfighterpilot.com/blog JD

        There are thousands of former JAGs and clerks from the White House Office of Administration — which is where he was a “legal counsel.” That’s hardly substantial enough to justify a meeting with Air Force leaders.

  • Nate

    Good article; one comment.
    You compare Mikey Weinstein with Pamela Geller at one point. Both may be highly outspoken, but there’s a major difference between them: Ms Geller isn’t a liar.

  • http://ncronline.org/authors/thomas-reese Thomas Reese

    When mollie says I speak “in the Geller manner about Christians,” does that mean I am anti-Christian? Can she cite any examples? I am a Chrisitan!

    • mollie

      I thought it was beyond obvious I was referring to Weinstein there but I added a parenthetical in the case anyone else was confused.

      • Name

        Tom Reese: thank you.

  • Thinkling

    I wanted to point out this piece has made the front page of RealClearReligion, with the extraordinarily nuanced and subtle title “Mikey Weinstein hates Christians”.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I agree about not wanting to ascribe motivation Mollie, but it is valid to underline that there is a pattern here. Journalism’s mistakes on these issues (with some notable exceptions) occur in a fashion that would also occur if they were not mistakes but deliberate attempts to come down on a particular side.

    As has been noted, if what Weinstein says about Christians and Christianity were said by someone about Islam and Muslims or Judaism and Jews or atheism and atheists there is little chance that the media would report them so uncrittically or even favorably. And it is unlikely that there would be anything other than howls of journalist complaint that they were meeting with high military officials.

    In the end it comes down to what the journalist themselves believes is moderate or reasonable. And if they live in a little tiny bubble of opinion, then the smallest divergence (towards social conservatism and/or pro-orgainsed Christian religion) will be seen as significant, while much larger moves toward a radical social progressivism and/or anti-organised Christian religion will be seen as entirely reasonable and unproblematic from a journalist perspective.

    As long as they keep closing ranks and claiming that there is no bias problem in journalism the problem will continue. The only way to correct for bias is to operate with a hermeneutic of self-suspicion, and to assume that one’s own take on reality is quite possibly distorted. It is the self-righteousness of journalists that is ultimately journalism’s undoing – there’s a religious critique for you.

  • RayIngles

    If a story like this isn’t worthy of coverage, I rather suspect that Weinstein is ‘provocative’ simply to get any attention.

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