Do skewed churches deserve skewed coverage?

Funny, isn’t it? So many people recoiled in horror at the judgmentalism of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Now that he’s dead and gone — but the church is still here to kick around — a lot of journalists seemingly can’t spew insults fast enough.

One of the thickest volleys of darts flew from the International Business Times, which listed tweets of the rich and famous — and judgmental. Some vented spite on a fire-and-brimstone level. “If there is a hell, then he is there,” TV host Andy Cohen tweeted.

And Roseanne Barr used the occasion to damn all faith: “Fred Phelps liberated millions of ppl from slavery to religion by exposing its heart of darkness.”

Yes, these are lively direct quotes. But IBT’s Maria Vultaggio wasn’t content to quote. No, she had to try a little skewing herself:

Infamous Westboro Baptist Church head Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. died in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday night, a few days after he was reported to be excommunicated from his own church. The notorious group, which many consider a cult, gained national notoriety for its hateful antics.

Granted, Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based church were not exactly popular. To say the least. These folks have waved pickets, stood on American flags and fixated on homosexuality and their imagined mission to confront it. They’ve spread anguish at the funerals of veterans and terrorism victims. And the “About” page of its own website says “hate” or “hates” or “hated” six times — and links to “sister sites” that tell how God also hates Islam, the media and for that matter the whole world.

And when you combine anti-gay attitudes, institutional religion and a small, easily targeted congregation, the temptation is apparently too much — even for media that are supposed to deliver facts unskewed.

The Huffington Post catalogued 10 counter-demonstrations by gays and other liberals: bikers, grandmas, children, human walls, a man dressed as God, women dressing as angels, men kissing in front of the Westboro picketers. HuffPost even dipped into 2011 to recall a pro-gay song by the Foo Fighters.

But we’re not sharp enough to get the point of all that propaganda. HuffPost also felt the need to tell us:

Not missing the chance to fight hatred with love, many inspiring advocates of equality have come out over the years to counter-protest the WBC. These peaceful demonstrations show the power of love, compassion and gentle humor to combat the WBC’s message of intolerance.

Some music writers revved up verbal chainsaws after hearing that Westboro planned to picket a concert in Kansas City. Here’s a good example from the Kansas City Star:

Pucker up, people. The Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest pop star Lorde’s concert at the Midland on Friday and she has a suggestion: Plant a big ol’ wet one on a protester.

You know, a little man-on-man, woman-on-woman action.

The “Royals” singer – who was influenced by an old photo of George Brett when writing her monster hit – sounded excited to hear that she had made Westboro’s playlist.

“Hahaha omg just found out westboro baptist church are going to picket my show in kansas city,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

She tweeted two more suggestions: Everyone wear rainbow clothing to the show and “everyone try to kiss church members who are same sex as you they will so love it christmas comin early in kansas city.”

Not that Westboro people act like meek martyrs. The Star writer quotes a remark from the church website:

“New Zealand came forth with a young lassie that doesn’t have enough sense to put in a thimble. Now the world has elevated her to the status of an idol. Then the world began to weigh in. They think this and that and blah, blah, barf.”

USA Today did an about-face in its Phelps/Westboro coverage. On March 20, it ran a straightforward obit, merely calling Phelps “a fierce opponent of homosexuality whose protests at military funerals prompted two federal laws.” The newspaper merely let others do the hatin’:

The Anti-Defamation League called the church “a small, virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group” and the Southern Poverty Law Center called it “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”

A day later, USA Today got more pejorative in a story about the church’s future. It called Phelps the “vitriol-spouting leader of Westboro Baptist Church,” then handed the mike to sharp-tongued Mark Potok:

“It’s unclear whether this so-called church will survive the death of its founder,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has closely monitored the group. “In some ways, it was a cult of personality.”

Actually, calling this a “cult of personality” is a rare mainstream media use of the word “cult.” Imagine that.

USA Today later quotes gay leader Darlene Nipper and the father of a U.S. Marine whose funeral Westboro picketed. At least the newspaper says it also tried to get a quote from congregational leaders; failing that, it quoted from the church website.

Kansas First News did some enterprising reporting, asking Westboro members if the picketing will continue (it will). The reporter also got remarks from a former mayor of Topeka and a local Episcopal priest whose church was picketed by Westboro.

Kansas First’s story was so substantial, the Boston Globe folded it into its roundup of Phelps obit news. However, the Globe also approvingly ran a family tree by a blogger called Chartgirl, calling the church “the worst.family.ever.”

We could go on, but the lessons are evident by now. Much of the “coverage” of Phelps’ death and the aftermath is less like facts, more like a pack attack. Much of it spreads the very style of hate that it condemns. And ironically, it wounds the very credibility that draws readers.

After all, if media radically skew their writing about unpopular people and groups, what will happen if they decide they don’t like you and yours?

IMAGE: Jim Davis

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About Jim Davis
  • FW Ken

    Here’s another Kansas City take on it.

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

    I linked to Deacon Greg because he puts the relevant picture up top. The while news segment is interesting.

  • radiofreerome

    Jim, your article is by far the worst coverage of Phelps’ death that I’ve read.
    “After all, if media radically skew their writing about unpopular people and groups, what will happen if they decide they don’t like you and yours?” Just stupid. Calling the Westboro Baptist church a hate group is merely accurate reporting. Saying that they merely opposed homosexuality is just journalistic whoredom.


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