Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?

At this point, it’s pretty clear that coverage of the demise of the Rev. Fred Phelps is going to test the limits of what mainstream journalists are willing and able to print in hard-news stories in mainstream newspapers.

As our own Jim Davis noted yesterday, the editors at The New York Daily News approved a clever, but rather column-esque, lede on their basic news story on the reports (originating from estranged son Nathan Phelps) that the anti-gay patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church was on his death bed, after being kicked out of his own congregation for reasons that have not yet been documented. For those catching up on that story, the lede stated: “No one’s going to protest against this guy’s death.”

I think that what they really meant to say was that “no one’s going” to mourn “this guy’s death,” as opposed to saying that no one is going to protest at the Phelps funeral, whenever that event takes place.

Actually, if the key elements of some of these stories hold up, I would say that there is a pretty good chance that members of the Westboro Baptist Church are going to protest at his funeral. Also, I would be stunned if no one on the cultural left, or from the cultural middle, or the normal cultural right, showed up at his funeral with signs of various kinds, either obnoxious or graceful or all points in between. No one expects Phelps to go quietly into that good night (see this USA Today report as a sign of things to come).

Interestingly enough, there is evidence that the original Daily News lede contained even blunter language of a rather editorial nature. One former GetReligionista, on her mobile, saw an original version of the daily story that referred to Phelps as the founder of the “hate-fueled Westboro Baptist Church.” This language quickly vanished, but remained alive on other pages — see this screen-capture image.

Also, echoes of this reference showed up in the International Business Times, which noted:

According to the New York Daily News, Nathan left the hate-fueled WBC more than 30 years ago. After the fallout with his father and other family members, Nathan has reportedly become an advocate for LGBT causes.

The WBC is notorious for their cruel and harsh nature: picketing funerals and celebrating the death of soldiers and even children. The Phelps family is widely regarded as one of the most hated in America.

Now let me be clear. I think it is quite reasonable for critics of Westboro Baptist — which would include most people on Planet Earth — to assume that the congregation does what it does for theological reasons that to outsiders look like hate. My personal soundbite is that their doctrines are “smoke from the pit of hell.”

So I am cool with newspapers quoting people saying that the Westboro crew are driven by hate-fueled motives. What catches my attention is when journalists start using this kind of language in plain, simple, fact-based prose — without attributions. After all, the members of the church insist that what drives them is not hate, but the clear judgments of the Bible, as they read it.

Yes, that’s a thin line. However, I think it’s a line that journalists should heed in the days ahead, even if there are strong, strong, strong temptations to erase it.

After all, between the Westboro faithful and their critics, there will be more than enough strong language available to quote without journalists adding more fuel to the fire. I think we can count on that. You think?

Meanwhile, it’s crucial for readers — journalists and news consumers alike — to grasp just how wild the doctrines of the Westboro crew really are, when compared with Christian orthodoxy. To do that, you really need to listen to what they have to say, as hard as that may be.

Consider, for example, some of the contents of this 2003 Baptist Press interview with Phelps. Keep in mind that, for the Westboro folks, the Southern Baptist Convention people are a bunch of liberal heretics. Please pay close attention:

Phelps views himself as doing the work of a modern-day prophet — telling Americans what he believes God wants them to hear, whether they like it or not.

According to Phelps’ website, God doesn’t have much use for preachers who proclaim God’s love to everyone. “You are going to Hell!” the website exclaims. “Period! End of discussion! God’s decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites! How can ye escape the damnation of Hell?!”

“That’s Bible preaching,” he told Baptist Press. …

To say that his views are on the fringe of evangelical belief would be an understatement. He doesn’t believe the sin of homosexuality is forgivable. Thus, he doesn’t believe that homosexuals can be saved.

“No, I don’t think that homosexuals can be saved,” Phelps said. He pointed to Romans 1, where he says homosexuals have “been given up by God.”

“… It’s the only sin that by definition the adherents are proud of. You’ve never heard of an adulterous pride parade. You’ve never heard of anybody boasting and bragging about their sin.”

Interestingly, Phelps says that he’d “be glad if they all get saved,” although he doesn’t believe it’s possible. Questioned about Christians who have come out of the homosexual lifestyle, Phelps said he has yet to see a solid example. “I’m still waiting to see one,” he said.

Then there’s the death penalty for homosexuals. Phelps is for it — although not by stoning. He once sent letters to every member of Congress — as well as every United Nations leader — telling them that capital punishment for homosexuals was the first step toward worldwide repentance.

The final word from Phelps:

“You tell [people] that God loves everybody? You’re lying on God.”

I’m thinking that, when the day comes, the Fred Phelps funeral will not be a quiet, timid affair.

So journalists, please just quote people. That. Will. Be. Wild. Enough.

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.

  • Darrell Turner

    A good point, Terry. This can be done for even the most extreme people. In covering Hitler, a reporter could simply quote key passages from “Mein Kampf.” In covering the Klan, a reporter could simply quote its documents stating what it believes about African-Americans and other minorities. Some things speak for themselves.

  • Darren Blair

    I seem to recall a point in time in which it was considered bad form for journalists to become the news unless they were directly and clearly involved in what was going on (such as the California news reporters who were live on-air when the quake hit a few days ago).

    Am I mistaken, or has this point of conduct become forgotten?


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