Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo

Before dissecting this MSNBC story, let’s pause for a round of Spot the Codewords.

Start at the top left of the screenshot above. There’s “equality,” an oft-cited banner of gay rights and same-sex marriage, as common as the familiar striped gay pride flag.

Now, the headline: “Anti-gay activists.” Who wants to be anti- anything? The subtext is: “These are people you don’t like.”

Next, we have those scare quotes, which can lend a sarcastic taint even to a neutral phrase like “religious freedom.”

Then there’s the lede, saying that Mississippi “quietly” passed its religious freedom law — “quietly” meaning, of course, sneaky, surreptitiously.

Also in the lede: “gay and lesbian rights activists.” If they’re in favor of rights, what about their opponents? Yep: They’re against rights.

We’ve just begun reading and already the sides have been graded.

Pro-gay folks embrace the time-honored American value of equality. Their opponents are against not actions or situations, but people. They’re feigning concern for religious freedom, just to hone one more weapon against their victims. And they’ve pulled it off under the public’s noses.

Now that you’re sufficiently conditioned, you may miss the many signs of slanted reporting thereafter. Like where? Like in the very first paragraphs:

Mississippi quietly passed its “religious freedom” law Tuesday, prompting alarm from gay and lesbian rights activists who say it could be used to justify discrimination in the name of religion.

The Mississippi version is narrowed from the religious freedom proposals championed by religious conservatives across the country, and now largely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“While this is an improvement upon the language that the legislature previously contemplated, it still falls short,” said Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had pushed for specific language that would prevent the bill from being used to protect discrimination in the name of religion.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office, and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” Rho said.

OK, scalpel time. Aside from the gaming of terms, the lede immediately casts the new law as cause for alarm from the good guys. The second paragraph identifies their foes, i.e. the bad guys: religious conservatives.

MSNBC acknowledges that the new Mississippi law closely resembles the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but then musters an ACLU type to throw stones at it. She even raises the specter of litigation … and … more expense to taxpayers! As if other laws, state or national, are never challenged in court.

RFRA was, in fact, passed on the federal level two decades ago to shield individual rights from excess governmental interference. And it was endorsed by both parties and signed into law by President Clinton, as well as a broad religious and civil coalition. MSNBC doesn’t mention that in this article, but it did in another recent piece — which deals with doubts by the original sponsors over how the law is applied nowadays.

The article says that the Mississippi version adds new language to allow business owners to use religious beliefs as a shield from being sued. It also notes that all such efforts have failed in other states, famously in the governor’s recent veto in Arizona. MSNBC sounds almost frustrated: How on earth did the new Mississippi law get past all the “right” people?

MSNBC dutifully (grudgingly?) gives three paragraphs to the opposition, but it sets them up as “religious right activists.” It quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who actually gives two examples of the need for legal protection: “someone like Pastor Telsa DeBerry who was hindered by the Holly Springs city government from building a new church in the downtown area, or a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”

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Brendan Eich nailed for his generic, private, anti-gay beliefs?

Yes, yes, yes, I know. Just try to imagine the mainstream press coverage if Brendan Eich had been a Chick-fil-A manager in, oh, some middle-American enclave like Mission, Kan., who was forced to resign because of his private financial support for gay rights.

No, I am not going there. To put it bluntly, I am waiting for the religion shoe to drop in the whole story of the Mozilla chief executive who was forced to step down because he once donated $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8, a campaign dedicated to defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

As one veteran GetReligion reader asked in a private email: “I’m not missing the part where they say he’s Catholic, Mormon, evangelical, whatever, am I? The faster gay marriage becomes accepted, the harder I think it is for someone to be against gay marriage without some driving religious belief.”

Unless I have missed something in the past hour or two, that is not a question that many journalists have been asking. Right now, the framing for this story is that his actions were anti-gay, not pro-something, something doctrinally and legally different.

Over at the normally gay-news-driven New York Times, this story is not receiving major attention. A “Bits” feature in the business pages does provide an interesting summary of the raging debates surrounding this case, including the fact that some liberals — including some in the gay community — are quite upset with the illiberal campaign by many “liberals” to punish Mozilla, while making Eich an untouchable in the highly influential tech world. Here is a key chunk of that report:

Mr. Eich’s departure from the small but influential Mountain View, Calif., company highlights the growing potency of gay-rights advocates in an area that, just a decade ago, seemed all but walled off to their influence: the boardrooms of major corporations. But it is likely to intensify a debate about the role of personal beliefs in the business world and raise questions about the tolerance for conservative views inside a technology industry long dominated by progressive and libertarian voices.

Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay writer and an early, influential proponent of making same-sex marriage legal, expressed outrage over Mr. Eich’s departure on his popular blog, saying the Mozilla chief had been “scalped by some gay activists.”

“If this is the gay rights movement today — hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else — then count me out,” Mr. Sullivan wrote.

A number of gay rights advocates pointed out that their organizations did not seek Mr. Eich’s resignation. Evan Wolfson, a leading gay marriage advocate, said that this was a case of “a company deciding who best represents them and their values. There is no monolithic gay rights movement that called for this.”

The article also noted that Eich has consistently stressed, and so far no one has contradicted this, that he was committed to inclusiveness in the Mozilla workplace and had never discriminated. However, he has also asked not to be judged for his “private beliefs.” In a way, that is also interesting in that fierce defenders of the First Amendment have long argued for free expression, even in public (with others, yes, having the right to freely protest in return).

The Times article does note, concerning the clashes between old-school liberals and the new illiberal liberals:

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Sister Jane, chapter 2: Observer still favors the protestors

Remember the fracas over a speech by a nun at a Catholic school? Well, they haven’t forgotten at Charlotte Catholic School in North Carolina, where nearly 1,000 people gathered Wednesday night to complain about Sister Jane Dominic Laurel’s March 21 speech focusing on Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality.

And again, the Charlotte Observer gleaned enough for a story on the matter, although the reporter couldn’t get in. (Wasn’t his fault, though; the school locked out all media except the diocesan newspaper.) Just not enough information for a clear picture.

As you may remember from my April 2 piece, Sister Jane is a Dominican nun from Nashville who spoke on sexuality at the Charlotte school. Parents said their kids told them the sister voiced “inflammatory comments”: homosexual behavior is unnatural, children develop best in two-parent families, etc. More than 3,000 of them signed a petition and the school arranged a meeting on the matter.

Reporting second hand is a handicap. It means relying on texts and tweets from inside the school gym — inevitably getting more feedback from the angrier parents. But the Observer did have six days, after its March 27 story, to study the matter and make contacts on both sides. There was plenty of time to find the many Catholics who are supporting Sister Jane.

Unfortunately, the new story repeats some of the same mistakes.

Once again, it cites the protesters more than the school’s supporters, although it notes the latter were present as well. The story paraphrases them, but they’re outweighed by the opposition:

Some defended Laurel, saying she was presenting traditional Catholic teachings. But Hains and others said the majority of parents who spoke did not agree with the nun or many of her comments.

And some expressed anger at the school for inviting her, for not stopping her when she veered off script, and for not telling parents ahead of time what she would talk about.

At times, the article blurs the line between fact and personal impressions. It quotes a parent quoting her son:

“He said, ‘We had the worst assembly today,’ ” Traynor recalled. “He said he tried to leave with some others, but they were made to sit down. There are students in this school who are openly gay and some who are not out yet. Obviously, they felt bullied.”

And again, the newspaper didn’t quote the alleged offender, Sister Jane herself. The one whose words were being trashed and perhaps mischaracterized. And it’s not like she couldn’t be found.

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How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate

Let’s assume that many if not most professionals in an elite newsroom in Southern California — The Los Angeles Times, perhaps — will be tempted to believe that they know more about sex than most parents and educators in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi. Safe assumption?

My goal here is not to settle that question, so please do not click “comment” just yet.

If the leaders of this newspaper decided to write a news feature on sex education in Mississippi, I would assume that they would know, from the get-go, that they would need to go out of their way to quote the voices of articulate, qualified people in Mississippi on both sides of this hot-button issue. After all, journalists committed to journalism would never think of imposing their own beliefs and values on, let’s say, people in radically different cultures overseas, cultures built in part on other religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Right?

Ironically, the journalists in this case study face a challenge that is very similar to the one faced by Mississippi educators — they are trying to find a way for committed believers with clashing views to be heard in the same forum. One group is trying to mix clashing voices in classrooms, while the other is trying to do balanced, accurate, fair-minded journalism in a major newspaper.

So with that in mind, let’s scan the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under this double-decker headline:

Sex education stumbles in Mississippi

Even a law requiring schools to teach sex ed is falling short in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.

And here’s the opening of the story:

TUNICA, Miss. – Marie Barnard was delighted when, after decades of silence on the topic, Mississippi passed a law requiring school districts to teach sex education. But the lesson involving the Peppermint Pattie wasn’t what she had in mind for her sons.

The curricula adopted by the school district in Oxford called on students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.

“They’re using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she’s had sex — that she’s been used,” said Barnard, who works in public health. “That shouldn’t be the lesson we send kids about sex.”

She and other parents lobbied the district to teach about contraception, not just abstinence. After all, as she and other parents noted, 76% of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school.

OK, remember that the purpose of this post is not to argue about sex education. My goal is to discuss journalism ABOUT a debate over sex education.

What is the warning flag in that opening anecdote?

Right: The newspaper accepts as gospel truth Barnard’s second-hand quotation about what was taught in that Peppermint Pattie session. After using a second-hand quotation like that one, it was going to be very, very important for the Times (a) to confirm what was actually contained in the guidelines for that class and/or (b) what the teacher leading the class actually said. If that is not possible, it would certainly be crucial to talk to a teacher or school official who knows what teachers are instructed to say in that class exercise and, thus, can explain the intended message.

In other words, it is not good journalism to assume that the enemies of a particular point of view are the best authorities on the content or intent of those who advocate that point of view. That’s true when dealing with ideas, movements and people on the cultural left and right. It’s simply basic journalism.

Now, does this Times report include material from an articulate defender of that classroom lesson or others like it? After all, the journalistic goal is to be fair and accurate when dealing with both sides of this debate. Correct?

So how many cultural conservatives are quoted in this piece, how many experts on the logic behind that point of view?

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Archbishop sells his fancy digs; NYTimes digs a bit deeper

What we have here is a very solid New York Times story about a somewhat controversial issue in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

Let me repeat that, for regular GetReligion readers who may have fainted.

What we have here, under the headline “Bishops Follow Pope’s Example: Opulence Is Out,” is a very solid story about the trend among Catholic prelates to down-size their lives a bit, when it comes to the cost of their housing. In fact, I have only one minor criticism and that focuses on an interesting, but perhaps not essential, angle that this fine story could have mentioned.

But let’s focus first on the good news. The story opens with the decision by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta to sell his new $2.2 million, 6,000-square-foot mansion in the ultra-high-rent Buckhead neighborhood which, the Times properly notes, was being built on donated land with funds donated for this purpose.

Then there is this obvious news hook in the summary paragraphs:

… (As) Pope Francis seeks “a church which is poor and for the poor,” expectations for Catholic leaders are changing rapidly. So on Monday night, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory apologized, saying that laypeople had told him they were unhappy with his new house, and promising to seek guidance from priests and laypeople and to follow their advice about whether to sell it.

“What we didn’t stop to consider, and that oversight rests with me and me alone, was that the world and the church have changed,” he wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Georgia Bulletin. He added, “The example of the Holy Father, and the way people of every sector of our society have responded to his message of gentle joy and compassion without pretense, has set the bar for every Catholic and even for many who don’t share our communion.”

The unhappy reaction of local Catholics to the archbishop’s new house in Atlanta is the latest in a series of lay uprisings since the new pope altered the landscape by choosing to live in a modest Vatican residence rather than the opulent apostolic palace, to travel in a Ford Focus and to denounce overspending by church leaders.

Now, the Pope Francis superstar factor cannot be denied here. It’s there and it’s very real. However, I think it’s crucial to note that other factors are playing a role in this trend.

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Some finger-waggling about a Catholic school story

The scowling, scolding, dogmatic nun is among the few stereotypes that persist in otherwise sensitive, all-accepting society. So it’s important for media to guard against perpetuating such images.

This is true especially when reporting public complaints against nuns, as in a recent story in The Charlotte Observer. On one level, the article merely reported a furor over an address by a Dominican sister at Charlotte Catholic School.

Parents were angry that Sister Jane Dominic Laurel was said to have spoken against gays and lesbians and — according to students and parents — “made inflammatory remarks about single and divorced parents.”

Mind you, the complaining parents weren’t there, and “a record of the comments was not available,” the article reports. But they were still angry:

The petition, which has drawn more than 2,000 supporters, listed 10 objections to her remarks, including this: “We resent the fact that a schoolwide assembly became a stage to blast the issue of homosexuality after Pope Francis said in an interview this past fall that ‘we can not insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’ We are angry that someone decided they knew better than our Holy Father and invited (this) speaker.”

Some students told their parents that a few teachers left the assembly in tears.

In addition, parents called for a letter-writing campaign, sending out emails that listed the addresses of the Diocese of Charlotte, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, even the pope in the Vatican.

Other parents complained to the Observer that the school didn’t tell them in advance what Sister Jane would talk about. Remember: Catholic school, Catholic nun, Catholic doctrine. And they were surprised?

To its credit, the paper quoted a spokesman for the Diocese of Charlotte defending the nun. He noted that she has a doctorate in sacred theology and has spoken in the diocese before.

The newspaper also quoted a priest who said she “represented well the Catholic positions on marriage, sex, same-sex attraction and proper gender roles.”

Still, the Observer story has holes.

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The obvious gap in that NYTimes report on sexual abuse

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Almost a year ago, The New York Times launched a series of web-only video-and-text features called the Retro Report. The goal of these short documentaries is, apparently, to help readers by filling in the gaps on complex, ongoing stories.

While these short features have been identified as “columns,” the content — at least to me — seems to be rather ordinary news analysis work. The key is that the goal is to give readers a summary of background facts and history. At the very least, then, we can expect these pieces to be factual and somewhat thorough.

This brings me to the recent piece that ran under this headline: “The Fight to Reveal Abuses by Catholic Priests.” That’s a very important topic, of course, an let me stress, again, what I have stated in the past: Journalists have been totally justified in focusing on the cover-ups as well as the crimes.

These scandals have been drawing waves of coverage since the 1980s, although there are reporters out there who seem to think that this hellish pot of sin, sacrilege and clericism didn’t boil over until the revelations in Boston about a decade ago.

Let me stress, as your GetReligionistas have noted on numerous occasions, that this has been a scandal that has touched both the Catholic left and the right. To be perfectly blunt, quite a few Catholics on both sides of the theological spectrum have been hiding skeletons in their closets. If you have the stomach for it, the most intense, searing take on the scandal can be found in the book “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” by the conservative scholar Leon J. Podles.

It is hard to miss the Watergate-esque grammatical construct in a crucial quote at the top of the story posted with this Retro Report video:

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, is in no way the principal face of the sexual abuse scandals that have buffeted the church and its priesthood almost without pause for three decades. But he embodies a certain mind-set among some in the highest clerical ranks. It is an attitude that has led critics, who of late include the authors of a scathing United Nations committee report, to wonder about the depth of the church’s commitment to atone for past predations and to ensure that those sins of the fathers are visited on no one else.

In 2002, with the scandal in crescendo and the American Catholic Church knocked back on its heels, Cardinal Egan reacted with obvious ambivalence to accounts of priestly abuses that occurred in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., which he had led before moving to New York. “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry,” he said in a letter to parishioners.

Yes, mistakes were made. And crimes were committed. And sins — if confessed — remained hidden.

So what caught my attention in this piece, looking at it from a GetReligion point of view? As you would expect, many of the key facts are here and I do not dispute them. Anyone who has followed this hellish history knows many or most of the key facts.

Well, I wondered how this piece from the Times empire would deal with the arrival of Pope Francis. At the very end, readers are told:

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World Vision, donors, scripture and ‘online speculation’

It took a few days, but the newspaper of record has now produced a solid story on the World Vision U.S. firestorm. The piece includes several interesting facts and observations, including a rare sighting of the term “liberal evangelicals.”

The key to the story, at this point, is the emerging reality that there is no way for nondenominational groups to find a safe, compromise position on the redefinition of marriage or on attempts to edit thousands of years of doctrine stating that sex outside of marriage is sin. Here is a key chunk of that New York Times report:

From the start, World Vision’s decision to open its staff to married gay men and women was a test in tightrope walking. Richard Stearns, the charity’s president, called it a “very narrow policy change” and “not an endorsement of same-sex marriage” in an interview announcing the change in Christianity Today — like World Vision, one of the bedrock institutions of American evangelicalism.

Mr. Stearns explained that World Vision’s staff members belong to more than 50 denominations, and since some Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Congregational churches are now marrying same-sex couples, the charity’s board had decided to be “neutral.” He said this was no different from World Vision’s practice of deferring to churches on other doctrinal matters, such as divorce and remarriage, women in leadership and evolution.

The story contains relevant quotes from articulate, qualified people on both sides of the debate and it’s clear that the Times did everything it could to talk to World Vision leaders who are now avoiding telephone calls. All well and good.

At one point Stearns said the board’s action was rooted in its desire to “avoid divisive debates.”

Good luck with that. If board members ever respond to calls from journalists, that’s a key statement that must be clarified. A majority of the board felt that this action would not be controversial? Stearns added this:

“What happened is we ended up creating a great deal more division than unity,” he said. “Our closest partners” told the board that “we had veered from our core values in a way that created a lot of dissonance in our own community.”

He said that despite online conjecture, World Vision had not been pressured by the government to hire married gay employees. World Vision’s annual budget is $1 billion, and the government provides 18 percent of its revenues, while 61 percent is from private cash contributions, a spokesman said. But the decision to make a U-turn was made after donors canceled “several thousand” child sponsorships in two days, Mr. Stearns said.

So, is it safe to say that I can be listed among the people gathered under that “online speculation” umbrella?

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