NYTimes offers labels-free look at key free-speech fight

Anyone who has read GetReligion for, oh, more than a week knows that we are not pleased when journalists attempt to jam the complex beliefs of large groups of people into the cramped zones defined by simplistic labels.

Obviously, one of the most abused labels in religion news is “fundamentalist.” We like to quote the Associated Press Stylebook at this point, the part where it proclaims:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Another oh so popular and all but meaningless label, these days, is “moderate.” A decade ago, the independent panel assembled by the leaders of The New York Times to study the newsroom’s strengths and weaknesses noted in its public report:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

In effect, mainstream journalists often are tempted to use this f-word to describe religious people that they don’t like, while reserving the gentle m-word for those whose views are found acceptable in newsroom culture.

With that in mind, readers may understand why I was rather skeptical when I dug into the recent New York Times report that ran under the headline, “Where Free Speech Collides With Abortion Rights.” After all, my biases on these issues are well known. I am both a pro-life Democrat (and Eastern Orthodox Christian layman) and a rather fire-breathing defender of the First Amendment. I was worried about what would happen when the open Sexual Revolution advocacy stance of the Times (hello, Bill Keller) collided with the First Amendment rights of believers engaged in politically incorrect protests.

What did I fear?

To be blunt, I feared that the Times team would pin the “liberal” label on the folks who want to limit free speech on public sidewalks, while pinning some variation of a “conservative” label, or worse, on the (mostly religious) folks who were defending a wide-open interpretation of the First Amendment.

I am pleased to say that this story is refreshingly label-free. Perhaps someone on the copy desk knew enough about First Amendment history to know which side of this debate is — classically defined — the “liberal” side, as that term is usually defined in these kinds of disputes. Here is a sample or two of the careful language in this report, which centers on the work of protester named Eleanor McCullen and the meaning of a pro-abortion-clinic ruling in 2000.

This long passages includes several slots that, all too often, are filled with labels rather than information:

The court’s membership has indeed changed since the 2000 decision, Hill v. Colorado, with the court growing more receptive to some free-speech claims and some restrictions on the right to abortion.

… Ms. McCullen said the law frustrated her attempts to talk to women entering the clinic. She said she had just moments to try to make contact before she had to pull up short. She is 77, and she said she posed no threat. “I am 5 feet 1 inch tall,” she said in a sworn statement filed in the case. “My body type can be described as ‘plump.’ I am a mother and grandmother.”

Even after the buffer zone was imposed, she said in a 2011 deposition, she had persuaded more than 80 women not to have abortions. She added that the zone had caused her to miss five or six opportunities to connect each day.

As she talked with a reporter, she scanned the people walking toward the clinic, on a busy stretch of Commonwealth Avenue near the Boston University campus. Most walked straight through the zone, oblivious to it. But as three young women made a path for the door, a second protester, Mary O’Donnell, called out from the far side of the yellow line. Her tone was conversational, and her words were partly muffled by passing traffic.

“Please allow us to help you,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “It’s not too late to change your mind.”

The women kept walking.

Here’s another place where the Times team wisely, in my opinion, let someone speak free of labels:

The law bars everyone from entering or staying in fixed buffer zones around entrances to reproductive health care facilities. There are exceptions for people going into or coming out of the building, people using the sidewalk to get somewhere else, law enforcement officials and the like, and clinic employees.

That last exemption, for clinic employees, tilts the scales in favor of their point of view, said Mark L. Rienzi, a lawyer for Ms. McCullen and other protesters.

“The government does not have the ability to decide,” he said, “that its public sidewalks are open for speakers on one side but not speakers on the other side.”

Finally, near the end, there was this amazing passage in which I wished the Times team had actually dared to tell readers a bit more about the background of the man behind the voice of authority. I am sure many GetReligion readers will know this name, speaking on the side of free speech:

Laurence H. Tribe, the Harvard law professor, said the decision was “right up there” among the candidates for the worst blunders the Supreme Court committed that term.

“I don’t think it was a difficult case,” he said at the time. “I think it was slam-dunk simple and slam-dunk wrong.”

Read it all. I am sure that activists on both sides of this hot-button issue would have small bones to pick with the content. However, I simply want to praise the journalists involved in the story for their admirable restraint, this time around, in the labels department.

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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.

  • Julia B

    Great.


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