Pod people: How not to write an attack piece

On one long winter workday in camp, as I was lugging a wheelbarrow together with another man, I asked myself how one might portray the totality of our camp existence. In essence it should suffice to give a thorough description of a single day, providing minute details and focusing on the most ordinary kind of worker; that would reflect the entirety of our experience. It wouldn’t even be necessary to give examples of any particular horrors. It shouldn’t be an extraordinary day at all, but rather a completely unremarkable one, the kind of day that will add up to years. That was my conception and it lay dormant in my mind for nine years.

– From the foreward of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Arkhipelag Gulag 1918–1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniia. Sokrashchennoe izdanie, ed. N. D. Solzhenitsyn (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 2010).

Should fallacious news stories be allowed to stand unchallenged? If you wrestle with a tabloid, will you not merely smear yourself with more mud? In the latest edition of Crossroads, a GetReligion podcast, Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed my article “A Scottish tabloid libels the Churches of Christ” — my critique of a story that appeared in Glasgow’s Daily Record.

I was unsparing in my appraisal of the Daily Record article about the outreach activities of a Church of Christ congregation in East Kilbride, Scotland school. I wrote the article was written:

in a style reminiscent of Der Sturmer. Substitute “Jews” for “Church of Christ,” and with this article alleging secretive sects seeking to destroy the pure Scottish race through their pernicious doctrines, you have a story straight out of 1930?s Germany.

And …

Yes, it is only the Daily Record, a disreputable tabloid, but this article is libelous, malicious and evil — it is a disgrace to journalism.

Todd pushed me to explain why I believed it was necessary to counter such stories. I noted there were two issues here — the wrong done to the members of the volunteer program at the Church of Christ and the wrong done to the art — to the craft and aesthetics of journalism. My response was directed by my love of newspapers. It was irrelevant to me who the target of the Daily Record‘s bile might have been. An attack by a newspaper against Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians, or the Churches of Christ (but perhaps not the Church of England) would have elicited a similar response.

Some commentators on my original post did not believe such a distinction should be made. They believed the Church of Christ’s actions to be malign and its “missionaries” — to use the phrase placed in scare quotes by the Daily Record — were a bad lot. The newspaper’s attack was justified because of the doctrines of the Church of Christ were objectionable to their sensibilities.

I responded to one critic by stating this was not what newspapers are supposed to do. By singling out the Church of Christ for abuse, manipulating photographs and misconstruing the story I wrote that I believed the Daily Record had breached the code of ethical conduct expected of newspapers.

This is not about what the CoC believes or does not believe. It is about shoddy journalism. You forget state schools in Britain teach religion. Banning groups that are anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-evolution would ban Muslim groups from offering religious materials to schools. Do you believe the Daily Record would have run this story if it those helping at the school were Muslims? Would the Daily Record have made the same remarks about the Koran .. Sura 5:6, that Jews are the descendants of Apes and Pigs? This is not about the CoC. This is about a newspaper behaving badly.

The stated the Daily Record story was guilty of the sins I enumerated in my first piece — and frankly they were dopes who did not know their job.

Hyperbole in news reporting is a sign of the amateur — the hack who does not know his craft. Let the story tell itself, and if the facts justify outrage, then the reader’s response will be outrage. Spin a story of “extremist” cultists coupled with pejorative descriptions, one-sided and incomplete sourcing, manipulated photographs and the like and an intelligent reader will pause and ask, “What is going on here?” The true believers, those predisposed to hate the values and the members of the suspect minority will lap up what you have to say. But others will question the integrity of what has been set before them.

Over the weekend I opened a few book boxes I had placed in the attic some years ago. Russian novels kept since my college years. Flipping through my tattered copies of Dostoyevsky,  Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Gogol, and others, I remembered why I loved literature and journalism.

The power of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came not from its adverbs or adjectives — but from its simplicity. If there were an evil tale to tell about the Church of Christ in East Kilbride, then a recitation of the facts coupled with a statement of the views of both sides would have been sufficient. The Daily Record instead engaged in a hissy fit, a bigotry-laced tantrum that served only to discredit itself, not the target of its animus.

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  • http://outofthedepths.blogspot.com/ steve

    The title of the article no longer uses the word “cult”. So evidently they have responded to some criticism. They stopped censoring comments too. I wonder what else they have changed in the article? I wonder what else they should have said? Thanks to the Christian Chronicle, a Church of Christ news org, I learned a respected sports journalist, Bill McMurdo, over there came to their defense. See http://billmcmurdo.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/4299/

    Perhaps they could have given a history of the group and shown it’s Scottish roots, as McMurdo did who gave an example of a well known and important person, David Lloyd George, who came from that tradition. They might have discussed that a major formative experiences of one of the progenitors of the tradition, Alexander Campbell, was his year at the U. of Glasgow where he came into contact with the Scottish Enlightenment and which was to be reflected in the movement he started. Perhaps they could have indicated that the CofC was part of a movement that branched in several directions but all reflecting Campbells high view of reason. One being the Disciples of Christ who can be almost as liberal as the Unitarians. They could have said that the CofC is congregational in polity with beliefs varying widely across the globe. They could have said, as one will determine by comments at the Christian Chronicle site, that CofC members are divided about the propriety of what the Scottish church did, wishing our fellow brethren good will but also that they were not so sectarian or pushing junk science.


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