Worst religion story of the year? AP trashes Phil Robertson

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Sigh…no context, just a quick Associated Press gotcha blurb. 

Yep, that reader’s email to GetReligion pretty much sums up an atrocious, 135-word piece of AP “journalism” on Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame.

The headline:

New anti-gay remarks by ‘Duck Dynasty’ star emerge

The lede:

NEW YORK (AP) — A&E has declined to comment on new video of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson reviving past anti-gay remarks.

His comments are included in a sermon delivered at his church in West Monroe, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday. Robertson includes homosexuals with other groups such as thieves and adulterers as hell-bound sinners.

What exactly did Robertson say? Did he quote the Bible inside a church (say, 1 Corinthians 6:9)? Why is it important for A&E — and not Robertson himself — to be contacted for comment?

AP provides no details at all.

Let’s keep reading:

Robertson is the bearded patriarch of a clan that manufactures duck calls and became reality-TV stars. In December he set off a firestorm after GQ magazine quoted him linking homosexual behavior to bestiality.

Here is what GQ originally reported:

What, in your mind, is sinful?

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Is that linking homosexual behavior to bestiality?

More from AP:

He also made racist statements.

From the original GQ article:

Phil On Growing Up in Pre-Civil-Rights-Era Louisiana

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

That may be a naive, even stupid thing to say, but is it racist?

This is true: Robertson — like millions of Christians who believe in traditional, 2,000-year-old doctrine — considers homosexuality a sin. That much has been clear for months.

But did the Duck Commander really say anything deserving a brand new, national wire headline?

Answering that question would require AP to engage in the actual practice of journalism instead of skirting at the edges of libel.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Joshua Jeffery

    I would say that it the “linking homosexual behavior to bestiality” comment is debatable. I can see it.

    The comments on Jim Crow era America being racist? Yes, absolutely racist. Racism is a system of systematic oppression against minorities to keep the reigning class in power. Claiming that African-Americans were happier and Godlier in the Jim Crow era moves towards the argument that providing fuller freedoms to African-Americans was bad for them…an argument that many in the South have been making ever since we started moving against segregation. It should be clear to those with a historical consciencousness that his remarks were made within that paradigm.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I’ll take your questions in order:
    1) Yes, his quote links bestiality with homosexuality on a list of equivalently sinful behaviors. It was not one of those “which of these is not like the other” quizzes. Of course, he also linked *adultery* to bestiality, which could rile up the significantly larger percentage of adulterers than homosexuals in the audience.
    2) Yes, the quote about happy singing darkies, sorry, black people was racist. Which does not mean that *he* is intentionally racist. But the quote expresses an unmistakably racist POV, whether he understood that or not.
    3) Did whatever he said recently deserve a “new national headline?” This is a brief. It’s the kind of piece that in the Olden Days would have run in the small space around the classifieds on one of the airplane pages (like, B-52). Even these days, it’s a stretch to suggest that a 131-word brief is a “national headline.” Yes, on the Intertubes, it’s much more of a challenge to determine the hierarchy of intended importance on a story. But y’all are taking a blunderbuss to a fly, I’m thinking.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Re: your argument that “it’s a brief” so the post is much concern about nothing.

      You miss my point. If it’s worth reporting at all, it’s worth reporting fairly and accurately with proper background and context.

      • Jeffrey Weiss

        The AP does briefs, and more of them these days than ever. And there is only so much nuance one can pack into 130 words. To attack this for being a brief is like attacking a jalapeno for being spicy. Having said that, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, were I the writer, I would have gone with a phase other than “anti-gay.”

        • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

          I understand and appreciate your perspective.

          But if Robertson has made “new anti-gay (or however you define them) remarks,” and if AP decides that these remarks merit a national news brief, shouldn’t AP at least tell me WHAT he said?

          • Jane Dunn

            Not necessarily in a “brief.” Now that so many are reading news, even long form journalism, online, I think it can be sufficient to tell readers where to find cited sources, reports, sermons, etc., rather than having to quote or paraphrase them in enough length to be fair.

            Here, AP’s point wasn’t so much to report on the substance of what Robertson said as it was to briefly report that Robertson made more remarks similar to the ones that got him in trouble before. Those comments have been analyzed to death. It was enough that AP then told people where to find Robertson’s whole sermon.

            And, yes, the comments about happy black people were racist. One aspect of racial superiority is to believe that you know better than the “other” group whether they are happy or not or oppressed or not and that you have a right to speak for that group. Robertson didn’t say they *seemed* happy. He said that “were” happy. Only a warped sense of superiority would lead him to believe that the “happiness” of southern blacks during the Jim Crow era was his story to tell.

            Another aspect of racial superiority is not being able to see the oppression of the “other.” It is way more than mere naïveté to look around the Jim Crow South in the 1950′s and ’60′s and just see happy black people. It’s even worse 50 or 60 years later to still apparently not be aware of the ravages of segregation and all the rest.

          • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

            It was enough that AP then told people where to find Robertson’s whole sermon.

            So readers are supposed to search on YouTube for the video, watch a 43-minute sermon and figure out on their own what exactly Robertson said that AP considers “anti-gay?”

          • Jane Dunn

            Yes, if they want to know the specifics and the context. In this case, Robertson’s views were discussed to death the first time he made them. That he made them again doesn’t require the same examination of the specifics, the context, and whatever nuances might be found there. The point of the brief was just to report that Robertson made similar comments again, not to undertake a serious look at the specific words in depth. Too often, you and Mattingly want articles to be about something they’re not actually about.

          • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

            Too often, you and Mattingly want articles to be about something they’re not actually about.

            The headline said: “New anti-gay remarks by ‘Duck Dynasty’ star emerge.”

            The alleged anti-gay remarks quoted in the story: (crickets)

            Yeah, Mattingly and I are definitely the problem. :-)

          • Jane Dunn

            Well, if you can’t actually engage the critique of your critique, I guess a joke is the next best thing.

            The headline shows the point of the brief was the “emergence” of the new comments. Since the report describes them as being essentially restating the old comments, why does the AP need to quote them, especially if they were so widely reported and dissected the last time, and probably longer than the little blurb itself?

            Have you even tried to find out if the AP is wrong? (Crickets!)

          • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

            If he’s not saying anything “new,” why is it is “news?” But if he has said something newsworthy, then the AP should report what he said and let readers decide if it’s “anti-gay.” We just have a fundamental disagreement on the journalistic issues involved here.

            Have you even tried to find out if the AP is wrong? (Crickets!)

            My role at GetReligion is to critique journalism, point out strengths/weaknesses, raise questions, etc., not to report. But in the post, I did provide a link (in the “AP provides no details” sentence) to a religious news org’s report on the sermon that contains this quote:

            “You say, why’d they get mad at you?” Robertson continued. “‘Cause instead of acknowledging their sin, like you had better do, they railed against me for giving them the truth about their sins. Don’t deceive yourselves,” he warned.

            “You want the verse? The news media didn’t even know it was a verse!” he said about his comments to “GQ.” “They thought I was just mouthing off. Is homosexual behavior a sin? The guy asked me. I said, do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived.”

            Robertson then paraphrased a passage from 1 Corinthians chapter 6, verses 9-10.”Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God,” says the New International Version of the verses

            I haven’t listened to the entire 43-minute sermon in this case, but I did report on a sermon he gave in Tulsa in March in which he said much the same thing: http://www.christianchronicle.org/article/phil-robertson-weighs-in-on-politics-sin-grace-and-jesus

          • Jane Dunn

            IMO it’s newsworthy that the guy who got in so much trouble with these comments decided to “revive” them again. Whether or not they are “anti-gay” has already been debated to death. I don’t really care about the details of what he said. I am interested in knowing, however, that he’s at it again.

            And, I like some short blurbs that give highlights of a less-than-crucial Hollywood meets Flyover land stories rather than having to read through a whole theological exposition about various Christian positions on marriage equality or gay rights. Not every story is the Pentagon Papers.

            So, yes, we disagree on the journalism issues and on the subject/point of the article. But I do appreciate (no snark) that you responded.

    • gabrielsyme

      2) So, you’re claiming that the African-Americans Robertson worked alongside with did not in fact sing songs when working? The only way that claim is racist is if it in fact didn’t happen. It doesn’t reflect poorly on African-Americans; in fact, in reflects rather well on the inherent creativity, sociability and resilience of an oppressed people.

      Of course, the tradition of African-American folk songs is rather well-known, so I have no reason to doubt Robertson’s account.

      • Jeffrey Weiss

        You *do* know that many, many African-American folk songs are explicitly laments about oppression, yes? And many of those songs lyrics were in coded language, so that the white oppressors didn’t know what they were actually about. What was racist about his comments was not his report of what he thought he heard, but his assumption of the attitudes of those he was listening to. I accept that at the time he may have thought they were all happy darkies. But by 2014, he had long ago lived through the era where the mask got ripped off.

        • gabrielsyme

          Firstly, your use of racist language (“darkies”) where Robertson does not is unhelpful and misleading. And, yes, I’m quite aware that many African-American folk songs express lament about their oppression. I’m sure Robertson could have usefully noted the iniquity of Jim Crow laws, but we don’t know what he said in the ellipses – if it were troubling, I would assume GQ would have printed it.

          I have a major problem with indicting people as racist when they display neither prejudice nor malice nor a denial of wrongs committed nor a defence of those wrongs. Robertson is mostly complementary about African-Americans here – to account him a racist for what he does not say is a ridiculous and unworkable standard.

    • wlinden

      And he “linked” adultery with homosexuality.

  • http://theparish.typepad.com Greg Horton

    I’m going to say that “linking” is ambiguous enough that we can’t say he was going for equivalence, but he clearly links them in some sense of the word. I’ve read his quote three times, and it makes not grammatical sense. If an editor read through it, it would surely be cut or rewritten. As for the racial comments, yes, clearly racist. Equating white trash with African Americans. Suggesting that they were happier pre Civil Rights Bill. Engaging in racial stereotyping. Naive, yes, and racist.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      My dictionary defines racist as “a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that a certain human race is superior to any or all others.”

      What part of Robertson’s comment espouses that doctrine?

      • http://theparish.typepad.com Greg Horton

        Because I think Wittgenstein was right about much to do with language, I don’t subscribe to the notion that dictionaries define words; they attempt to reflect common usage, and depending on the dictionary, often do it poorly. The definition you offer is needlessly narrow, and doesn’t accurately reflect how we use the word in everyday speech.

        • wlinden

          But “in everyday speech”, it is used more and more indiscriminately. I was accused of “racism” by “movement” goons for trying to attend college classes when they ordered us not to. Funny, the goons all looked white to me.

      • Jeffrey Weiss

        In this case, what’s going on is the obverse: Reflecting a belief that one group of people is willing and happy to accept inferior treatment. I suggest that is at least implied in your dictionary definition.

        • gabrielsyme

          He implied nothing of the sort. Suggesting that members of a community could be happy despite disadvantage is not the same thing as saying they were happy with their oppression.

          • Jeffrey Weiss

            You and I are reading different passages. That racially oppressed blacks in the Jim Crow era in the south were so satisfied that they sang happy songs and never complained about their white oppressors? Not a racist sentiment? (Leave aside that the blues were literally invented by black musicians. And that one theme of said blues was (often coded) complaints about white oppressors.)

    • gabrielsyme

      I can’t agree at all with your interpretation of Robertson’s comments. He didn’t equate white trash with blacks – he stated that he was white trash and that he therefore worked alongside black people. Nor did he say that Civil Rights made African-Americans less happy or less godly, instead he implies that the Welfare State has had a negative impact on the African-American community. Noting that the black people he knew in his youth were good to work with, happy and godly people is in many ways high praise, the reverse of a racist attitude.

      Now, doubtless Robertson was not privy to the complaints African-Americans made within their community, but noting that the day-to-day relations between communities weren’t hostile is a legitimate observation. Perhaps he’s wrong in his recollections, but having a nostalgic sheen on one’s childhood is not racist.

  • MDevlin

    When I saw that AP lede, I also wondered if it was from 1 Corinthians. If it was, did AP decide on its own that the remarks were anti-gay? Ironically, that passage is precisely why I don’t treat gays differently — I see myself in the group of sinners that Paul lists.

  • Thinkling

    Not sure this is the worst religion story of the year. That gives a whole lot of credit to a lot of real whoppers.

    But it is a good example of yellow journalism. Or in the modern vernacular, clickbait. Enough conventions are respected so that there is plausible deniability that it wasn’t a total hack job. But it is designed to be sensationalistic, at the expense of broad understanding.

    Easiest example: Pretty obvious and fairer summary of what AP called anti-gay would be anti-sin. But that doesn’t pack the same rhetorical punch. So while the moniker was not strictly false (nor would anti adultery etc), it was misleading by omission.

    “Anti gay” also benefits the AP through its modern ambiguity and ease of equivocation. This is seen even more by the “racist” moniker, which can take either the morally suspect definition Bobby mentions, or the broader and more neutral anthropologic one several others allude to. Some agreement here that the second might apply to Mr. Robertson, but a common yellow tactic is to use the naked term which many folks automatically assume the first meaning, and anticipate the ambiguity as a way to make the reader feel morally superior (and thus more likely to finish the piece and click on ads).

    If the snippet really wanted to take on the religion angle, it would have used “anti-sin”, and unpacked his racial comments more with respect to Mr Robertson’s faith perspective. So I reiterate it wasn’t the best example of poor religious journalism. But poor it clearly was.

    [Edit: fixed name]


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