Here we go again: That new normal on SSM coverage

At this point, I think it is safe to say — as our own Bobby Ross, Jr., has demonstrated numerous times — that many mainstream American journalists have decided that there is no need to cover both sides of gay-rights stories in a balanced and accurate manner. Many professionals in the mainstream press are now practicing a brand of advocacy journalism when covering religious believers whose religious/moral doctrines are not the same as their own.

Do we have former New York Times editor Bill Keller to thank for some of this, or is the mainstreaming of the values preached by the prophets of the 1970s “New Journalism” era simply a sign of the times?

The other day, the staff at The Philadelphia Inquirer served up a perfect example of what your GetReligionistas are talking about. The curtain rises:

PHILADELPHIA – It began with one pastor and two grooms. But after the vows had been exchanged, the other clergy moved forward from their pews.

About 50 of them filled the front of Arch Street United Methodist Church on Saturday. The closest rested their hands on the couple. The rest placed their palms on the clergy nearest.

“Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder,” they said in unison, blessing the same-sex union in defiance of church law.

This is the latest act in the ongoing drama of the the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., who is about to face trial — under church law — for performing a marriage rite for his own son and another man. Each of the ministers who stepped forward to endorse the rite at Arch Street United Methodist now risks being charged with the same offense.

So what are the essential elements that should be included in a story about this highly divisive issue?

* You need a brief summary of the historical facts about this conflict in United Methodism and the oldline Protestant world, in general. We are talking decades, of course.

* You need to know what the church’s Book of Discipline actually teaches.

* You need solid quotes from those who oppose the existing church law, quotes that explain why they believe that centuries of Christian doctrine on this topic must be changed.

* It would help to have a dash of color from the rite itself, with examples of how this rite differs from the language used in traditional marriage services.

* Readers also need to hear from one or more articulate defenders of the church law, offering responses to the views of those rebelling against the church’s teachings.

So, want to guess how many of these factors end up being included in the Philly.com story?

The pro-tradition church establishment is represented by one sentence from an anonymous spokesman from the Eastern Pennsylvania conference.

The rest of the news report is drawn from solid sources representing the gay-rights advocacy camp. All of it.

There is no history of the ongoing debates on marriage in United Methodist circles, especially the votes in recent years in which Christians from Africa and other Global South locations have helped defend the teachings of the church.

There is no mention of the denomination’s teachings — reaffirmed in Tampa in 2012 — that all persons are “individuals of sacred worth,” but that the denomination does not “condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” The General Conference also declined to approve a statement claiming that United Methodists are not of “one mind” on the moral status of sex outside of traditional marriage.

There is no mention, in fact, of the doctrinal details of the actual union rite. Instead, readers are told:

As Bill Gatewood and Rick Taylor walked down the aisle Saturday … no one mentioned those consequences.

“Your church, your pastor, those pastors who have gathered here today, clergy not only who are United Methodists but other faiths as well, say you are not only accepted but you are acceptable in the sight of God,” the Rev. Robin Hynicka, the church’s pastor, told the men as cheers from nearly 400 supporters echoed in the vaulted ceiling.

After the ceremony, Taylor, 55, and Gatewood, 70, said the traditional wedding — a blessing in front of the altar, an exchange of the same vows spoken by so many others, a reception in the basement hall — was all they ever wanted. The ceremony, however, was mostly symbolic because same-sex marriage is not recognized in Pennsylvania

“I’ve been wanting to do this all my life,” Gatewood said.

The words of the rite — the actual vows — were the same as a traditional United Methodist ceremony? In its own way, that one fact would be news.

But there is no need to details and facts in a story like this one, which is essentially a public-relations piece. Then again, that may be the new mainstream media normal.

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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.

  • http://revmhj.com/ Matthew Johnson

    Terry, I wanted to say how refreshing it is to read someone outside our denomination who researched the topic well enough to know what happened at General Conference 2012 and that Africa and others were a big part of those decisions. I wonder as a non-UM how difficult it was to chase down those facts as you wrote this? I suspect more difficult than not, but it probably wasn’t a gargantuan effort.

    • tmatt

      I online searched for United Methodist, homosexuality, Book of Discipline and the information was easily available in the first couple of items in the list.

      • Rathje

        Which just makes obvious that the reporter wasn’t even trying to look for the information.

        • Pudentiana

          Information was made available to the Inquirer, but as noted above, any statement of an opposing view was considered unnecessary, if not an offense to the fine sensibilities of the author.

          • tmatt

            How do you know the info was MADE available? Don’t speculate.

          • Pudentiana

            Because I made it available…

  • radiofreerome

    And now for the Nazi view of Passover…

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

    I am a proud anti-Judaic and anti-Catholic Methodist. Our God is a patriarchal hetero-sexist.

  • Pudentiana

    Today the findings of the jury were guilty on both counts. The location, an isolated Methodist campsite, was besieged by television reporters, newspaper reporters and official Methodist reporters. Early in the morning demonstrators from other denominations arrived with their rainbow “stoles” to join the Penna. contingent of activists to sing and hold their signs for the observing cameras. There were few others attending other than those with assigned duties (Staff) and those affiliated with the parties (guests or witnesses). Most people avoid these things like the plague…and why not? Seeing aging activists smiling at one another and frowning or worse at their “brothers and sisters” on the other side of the issue make quite a display. One rainbow draped woman in the crowd was overheard to say, “I want to shoot him” as the plaintiff spoke on the witness stand. Yes, so full of the Love of God…for their fellows, but spit and vinegar for those who stand in support of the Discipline. Only those who can stomach such nonsense and feel compelled to witness in support of the Discipline as it reflects the Creator’s plan for sexuality would bother to get up early, drive over an hour, stand in the cold and sit in silence, in prayer for the future of the Church. That is its own reward.


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