Can we let Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist rest in peace?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity — at least that’s how the saying goes.

I beg to differ when it comes to the late Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church and promoting your business.

From my home state today comes this front-page story in The Oklahoman. Take a moment to read it so we’re all on the same billboard, er … page.

Now then, let’s talk about what constitutes newsworthiness and how that differs from creating news.

Newsworthiness is well defined at this link via Media.com. It offers five factors: timing, significance, proximity, prominence and human interest — and says that stories should meet two of the five criteria to be considered newsworthy.

Sound old school? Some would argue that it is, and those types have added several more categories to the mix, including the bizarre factor and conflict.

The Oklahoman story is banking solely on those two additional categories by printing this story — and it’s written that way:

Moore Liquor, at 914 SW 4, has gained a local reputation for its humorous, frequently off-color marquee signs. The shop marquee even has its own Facebook page and Twitter account, where followers can see regular photos of the latest roadside witticisms.

“Fred Phelps, 1929-2014. Champagne 10% off! Not a coincidence,” is the latest storefront marquee message.

Shop owner Bryan Kerr said he put up the sign this week after Phelps died March 19. Phelps gained national fame after picketing the funeral of gay college student Matthew Shepard after he was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyo.

“Fred Phelps is the kind of guy who is very difficult for reasonable people to like, and I knew I wanted to do something that had just a little bit of humor but wasn’t too disrespectful,” Kerr said.

Kerr tries to keep the liquor store marquee fresh with frequent references to pop culture and current events. “If you’re watching Dancing with the Stars sober, you are doing it wrong,” one recent message said.

Westboro Baptist Church was tipped off about the marquee and used its own Twitter account to let the masses know it would pay Moore Liquor a visit on its way to a Texas protest and that God hates gays.

And this is news. (Alternative punctuation: And this is news?)

Granted, news of the created or “subsidized” variety is much more prevalent today than naturally occurring and evolving  news, but this is played more prominently than your average press release or ribbon cutting.

Why?

A glimpse into the online comment section indicates some feel the city’s pride is at stake. Others hanker for their chance to do battle with the infamous protesters, whose ranks might be one less but still strike a formidable media punch.

What if we all just left Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church to rest in peace? What if no news outlet reported on this attention-seeking bunch (or those who bait them)?

Even on a slow news day, a back-and-forth from a liquor store owner and an out-of-state group of protesters who claim a rogue form of Christianity should not be grabbing headlines.

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About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • russellstjohn

    What are the characteristics of a “rogue form of Christianity?” For info purposes can you cite another group in that category?

    • Tamie Dillard Ross

      A rogue Christian group is one that adopts a denomination’s name without actually being part of that group, for legitimacy’s sake. The name applies affiliation, but none is there.

      • russellstjohn

        More homework required. I don’t think you’ve made your case here. Sounds like you are going around in circles, claiming Westboro to be something and then defining them to be what suits your argument. WBC is an Independent Fundamental Baptist church and, by definition, not affiliated with any other group. There are hundreds of these across USA and many of them hold very similar, if not identical, beliefs to WBC, except without the sign protests and public campaigns. Their messages are controversial and highly offensive mostly because America has moved far from taking God and the Bible seriously.

        • Tamie Dillard Ross

          So what you’re saying, then, is that Westboro’s actions are singular in nature, no other group behaves the way it does in terms of protests and publicity?

          • John Pack Lambert

            Actually what he is saying is what the Supreme Court said in 1890. Some beliefs are so objectionable that we can punish people (in that case by denying them the right to vote) merely for holding a belief without ever having acted on it.

          • russellstjohn

            I thought my point was very clear. Beyond that I will only say that I wish reporters would do some proper research when covering WBC and avoid inaccurate statements (which most often indicates bias).

          • tmatt

            In terms of church history, Baptists are essentially people who call themselves Baptists. It’s tricky territory, but the only thing journalists can say, really, is that it’s a totally independent Baptist congregation with no ties to anyone else. Also, they have some bizarre doctrinal twists — to say the least — that the most conservative of Baptists would reject. I have seen the situation accurately described in a sentence or two. Or three.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This looks more like free Advertising for a liquor store than news.

  • FW Ken

    I would agree that Westboro is a rogue group, but they are entitled to call themselves Baptists. Phelps was educated at Bob Jones University, a bastion of independent, fundamentalist Baptist religion. The Baptist world is a mess of denominations, sects, and congregations United by not much, unless it’s believer’s baptism by immersion.

    But not everyone is making hay over Phelp’s death. Some have figured out a better way to respond.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/deaconsbench/2014/03/westboro-baptist-church-stages-a-protest-and-finds-something-they-didnt-expect/

  • watchingduck

    “What if we all just left Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church to rest in peace? What if no news outlet reported on this attention-seeking bunch (or those who bait them)?”——- the reason they cannot and should not be ignored is because, unfortunately, groups like this are more and more, are defining Christianity to broader society. Extremist judeo-Christian Taliban – new age Pharisees are defining and redefining Christianity. And that is a true tragedy and horror, which should not be unchallenged.

    • Tamie Dillard Ross

      Those who worry Westboro and others are defining Christianity to society have forgotten the first rule of living in a society: No one person can control the actions of another. No one can stop WBC from sending a handful of their members out with hate-filled placards. However, we CAN recognize them for what they are and shut off their lifeblood of mass media exposure. If all church members redirect their energy from opposing Westboro to embrace and creatively work within their cities, communities and the world to show Jesus’ love and feed his sheep, those actions would rewrite dictionaries. Christians should define their faith on their own terms and with their own actions.

      • watchingduck

        Sure, phelps and his ilk do not define you or me, but he along with some other misguided extremists are defining Christianity to a lot of folks who are not better informed….and there are many who do not think that he and his followers are such an aberration, because they do not know better. And while he may be an extreme example, there are others who are not so far from his viewpoints and when you add up the cumulative effect, it is harmful and discouraging. Yes, teaching and educating by example and love is unquestionably best, but challenging the likes of phelps is important too. People need to hear that he does not speak for all of us. These approaches need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, I would suggest that one demands the other.


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