Pod people: LA Times cheers for United Methodist ‘reform’

If readers want to know where The Los Angeles Times stands on the issues the loomed over the United Methodist Church trial of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, all they have to do is read one summary passage in a recent update.

Schaefer, GetReligion readers will recall, was on trial for violating his ordination vows, in which he promised to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” of his local, national and global church. He broke his ordination vows by performing a marriage rite for his son and another man.

Thus, the crucial Los Angeles Times passage:

… Schaefer’s United Methodist Church does not tolerate same-sex marriage, and Schaefer has become the latest poster child in the fight between reformists and traditionalists, who after learning of the wedding took Schaefer to a church court this month and won. After an emotionally charged trial, a jury of fellow pastors convicted Schaefer of breaking church law and suspended him for 30 days for performing the April 2007 marriage of his son in Massachusetts.

Now, he faces a choice: loyalty to church doctrine, or loyalty to his son and to other gay men and women who might ask him to perform marriages in the future.

OK, three cheers for a rare mainstream media reference to the word “doctrine,” which — properly so — is included along with the obligatory reference to the trivial sounding term “rules.”

But it’s all right there in the phrase stating that this is a “fight between reformists and traditionalists.”

Say what? This is a biased wording that plunges right past the problems in Schaefer trial coverage that host Todd Wilken and I discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen in).

Open your local cyber dictionary and you will find this information:

re·form: verb …

: to improve (someone or something) by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc.

In other words, this is not a battle between people who want to defend church traditions and those who want to “change,” “liberalize” or even “modernize” them. This is a battle in which one side — by the word chosen by the Times — are merely attempting to remove or correct an error, a fault, in the teachings of their church and, by proxy, two millennia of church history.

There is, in other words, a good side here and a bad side and there is no need for journalistic coverage that treats both sides in a fair and accurate manner.

Also, note (click here for the GetReligion post that spells this out) that the Times is not taking a “secular” journalistic approach to this story.

This is not a case of “The Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy.” No, the editors at the Times are acting as theologians, saying that there is a good theology at work in the Schaefer trial, a theology of “reform,” and a bad theology that wants to defend faults and errors that are in need of “reform.”

What we have here, again, is a clash between two claims of absolute theological truth and The Los Angeles Times has chosen a theological side. Yes, there are political implications. But this is a story about a debate in a global church, not a U.S. courtroom.

It will not surprise faithful GetReligion readers that this Los Angeles Times story reminded me of that famous May 22, 2003, memo by former editor John Carroll about a rather egregious example of media bias in a story that his own staff published about abortion.

Please read it all. But here is the concluding passage, after a discussion of how his staff had totally loaded a story with qualified voices on the pro-abortion-rights side, while ignoring qualified voices on the other side:

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.

The reason I’m sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. 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.

It’s time for another memo in that newsroom, updating this one.

Enjoy the podcast. And enjoy the link on “egregious.”

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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.

  • wlinden

    “When Johnson called patriotism ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’, he overlooked the possibilities of the word ‘reform’.” — Roscoe Conkling?

    We have had “abortion reform” (not “legalization”), “marijuana reform”, and of course, “campaign finance reform” (which keeps getting followed by more sets of “reforms” which are supposed to obviate the unintended consequences of the previous set.) On immigration law, EVERY faction calls its position “immigration reform”.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I agree that “reform” is one of the words most abused in media output.
    But a little history explains a lot of this misuse (partly on purpose for propaganda purposes, partly out of the force of our culture.)
    For our culture is rooted in the Protestant Reformation thus any policy position that can be wrapped in the word “reform” or “reformation” has already gone a great way in swaying the debate in favor of those who co-opt those words for their point of view.
    I wonder–does the word “reform” or “reformation” have the same cultural power in Orthodox countries like Russia and Eastern European countries.

    • Julia B

      Good question.

  • FW Ken

    I’ve been hearing all week how Pope Francis is going to “reform” the Church. This post puts an interesting skin on that.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “Schaefer’s United Methodist Church does not tolerate same-sex marriage”
    For me, that’s the loaded sentence. The United Methodist Church does not (as of yet) permit its clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. “Tolerance” has nothing to do with that; is it a rule? did he deliberately break the rule? is there a prescribed punishment for breaking that rule?

    I don’t know if the UMC has a rule on, say, its clergy holding public office, but say it did: say that one of its ministers ran for, and won, election as mayor or representative to Congress or some such. Suppose that person was then instructed to follow the denomination’s discipline and either resign from public office or cease to be a minister.

    Would we get stories about “The UMC does not tolerate double-jobbing” or “The UMC does not tolerate politics”? With the same tone implied as “tolerance” has when discussing LGBT matters?


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