Revisiting that nasty Sunday-school fight

boxing glove velcro 1 colourAfter looking back over the comments from last week’s post on the disastrous news articles on the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher in upstate New York, I feel it’s necessary to make a couple of points very clear.

It is possible for the media to do an adequate job covering religion and sometimes they even excel at it. And, yes, it is also necessary for the media to cover religion.

The whole situation is quite sordid thanks to the confusing nature of church politics, but it’s clear that both the Associated Press and Dan Harris of ABC News fumbled the coverage. But that does not mean that everyone failed or that reporters should not cover the story.

Thanks to a link provided by GetReligion reader Jeff, check out the local news coverage in the Watertown Daily Times of the church’s controversies. Staff writer Drew Mangione does a very thorough job covering the developments in the church that led to Sunday school teacher Mary Lambert being dismissed:

The Rev. Timothy R. LaBouf was named pastor almost two years ago, and in his tenure, attendance at the Sunday service has gone from fewer than 40 to more than 150. He estimated that weekly giving has gone from about $900 under the interim pastor who preceded him to about $2,500 now.

“First Baptist was on a continual decline until two years ago, when we began to see growth,” the pastor said. “It’s all about relevancy. That’s what the American Baptist (Churches) wants for its churches — to be relevant in the 21st century.”

However, some longtime members are upset their pastor is leading them away from their doctrinally moderate tradition and toward fundamentalist beliefs.

“I can’t even begin to express the frustration of the established members of the church, the people who have been here for a long time and who hired him as the pastor,” said Mary F. Lambert, a past church moderator, who chaired the pulpit committee that chose the Rev. Mr. LaBouf.

She and about a dozen other members have compiled a list of grievances, alleging that church items are missing and that their pastor doesn’t follow church procedures. At the core of their displeasure, however, is his conservative approach to Christianity. Mrs. Lambert has hired Watertown attorney Eric T. Swartz to explore their options, which could include an attempt to oust the minister.

Things are not as simple as Lambert being upset at LaBouf for being a conservative preacher. It runs much deeper than that. And it’s darn confusing.

At one point of the article, Lambert is upset over the resignation of the moderator of the church’s deacon board, Robert Fleming. Apparently Fleming owns an adult video store and promised that if anyone hesitated to join the church because of this, he would step down. He stepped down, but Lambert and her supporters believe it was over a disagreement with LaBouf. What does Fleming say? He supports the pastor:

However, the businessman said he regularly attends services, tithes and continues to support the pastor, who accepted him into the church on the premise that Jesus’s message is for sinners, not saints.

Mr. Fleming said that Mrs. Lambert’s efforts can only hurt the church and that he believes the dissenters are upset because they have been marginalized by the growing congregation.

“They’re not happy because they can’t keep control of the church,” Mr. Fleming said. “They want 100 percent control and for the pastor to say what they say, when Tim follows the Bible.”

This is only one angle in the story, but one worth highlighting because it draws out the tangled web of tales, he-said, she-saids and allegations that a reporter must be willing to uncover.

There may, in fact, be an overarching conservative vs. liberal theme to the story. However, as you dig into the weeds that whole paradigm starts falling apart and what you have is a wonderful opportunity to explore the inner workings of a changing community.

As Mangione demonstrated, it is possible to do that. It’s complicated, but it’s possible.

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That Baptist shoe drops in Palm Beach

pod1The other shoe has dropped in West Palm Beach.

As I noted the other day, the leaders of the First Baptist Church of Palm Beach elected to try to stonewall reporter Jane Musgrave of the Palm Beach Post. Why? She was checking into rumors, reports and documents that suggested that the Rev. Steven Flockhart — the congregation’s new minister and a nationally known pulpit star — had some financial skeletons in his closet. That led to a lengthy report that, to my amazement, did a good job of quoting the young minister’s many admirers, as well as his critics.

However, I also predicted that this lock-it-down approach to media relations would backfire.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister’s background — educational, personal, whatever — and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious.

Thus, Musgrave went back to the well and there was plenty to write about. As it turns out, Flockhart — whose evangelism website has now gone offline — seems to have done preliminary studies at the Pat Robertson School of Resume Writing. Actually, that may not be fair. The resume (the Post put in online as a PDF) is tiny and vague, as opposed to packed and padded.

Thus, the news from Palm Beach County is that Flockhart has resigned. There is no need to review all of the details in the newspaper’s lengthy second investigative piece that focused on Flockhart’s educational background. The bottom line is that the evangelist’s degrees came from the online Covington Seminary, a school that does not have much going for it on formal accreditation.

“This is one of those schools I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to,” said Rick Walston, author of Walston’s Guide to Christian Distance Learning: Earning Degrees Non-Traditionally.

Covington’s Web site says it is accredited by Accrediting Commission International. Once known as the International Accrediting Commission, it changed its name and moved to Beebee, Ark., after it was charged with fraud and barred from doing business in Missouri, according to an article by John Bear, who has collaborated with Walston and has served as an expert witness on diploma mills and fake degrees.

The school’s downfall proved to be a sting operation in which it accredited a school set up by a Missouri assistant attorney general. To make his fake school as outrageous as possible, the state lawyer listed the Three Stooges and other TV characters as faculty members. The school motto, when translated from Latin, was: “Education is only for the birds.”

2005best 01So what happens now? This is certainly a tragic story for Flockhart and his family, although it seems that he has powerful friends who may be able to help him earn a real seminary degree and then return to the pulpit in one of the thousands of independent or almost independent Baptist churches in America.

But what happens now at the newspaper? Do not be surprised if Musgrave and her editors are already digging again, looking for more information about people with ties to Covington Seminary.

Why? There is a hint in the story, a hint about Flockhart’s powerful mentor — the Rev. Johnny M. Hunt, a leader on the Southern Baptist Convention’s right flank. The Post notes that Hunt recently withdrew from the race to be the next president of America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

That leads to this section of the story:

Flockhart said he was “licensed to preach” in 1986 by Rev. Hunt and ordained by Hunt in 1990. Hunt appeared via videotape at Flockhart’s first service at First Baptist last month and gave a ringing endorsement of his protege. Like Flockhart, he also lists a degree from Covington on his resume. It says he holds an honorary doctorate from the school.

An honorary degree means little or nothing. But stay tuned anyway, because this story may not be over yet.

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What would Jesus wear?

Sunday Best 2I really liked this Peggy Fletcher Stack piece in the Salt Lake Tribune. It’s not groundbreaking, but it nicely surveys a variety of churches in the Salt Lake region about an issue that’s somewhat universal.

It happens every summer. A Catholic priest stands at the pulpit and laments the arrival of tank tops, flip-flops and shorts. Modesty and respect are on the decline, he moans. This is God’s house and you are dressing for the golf course or, worse, the beach. Then comes the retort: God doesn’t care a fig about suits and skirts. He sees only the heart.

The what-not-to-wear-to-church debate divides old and young, rich and poor, clergy and lay members, black and white, Americans and others. Like all such divisions, it can cause tension even among those who share a common theology.

Where Christians end up reflects cultural biases about what God expects from human worship. Is God a king to be worshipped and revered or an everyday presence who is with us in the ordinariness of our lives?

Fletcher Stack says the question of how to dress in church first arose in the 1960s. Ah, the 1960s.

One Utah Catholic priest in the 1970s posted a sign in his church’s vestibule: “Must wear shoes, no shorts, no bare shoulders.”

This may seem like a trivial subject to cover, but I learned recently how important it is. At my church, we all dress up and nobody seems to have a problem with it. But when I told some of my friends and family that I have to cover my shoulders at my wedding, many of them flipped out. Apparently the most important thing at a wedding is that the bride be dressed sexily.

Fletcher Stack talks to women who wear hats to church and reports that Mormons have an unwritten rule against women wearing pants.

I thought this was an interesting exchange, too:

Catholic educator Dan John was getting ready for church on a recent Sunday and put on a pair of sandals.

One of his teenage daughters at first queried, “Sandals at church, Dad?” and then answered her own question: “Well, Jesus wore sandals.”

Dan John then put his tunic and rope belt on and walked to the local church.

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Too many Bible verses in those texts?

bibleHere is a story from last weekend that I have been thinking about most of the week. The story is not new, but there has been a major development.

This is complicated stuff and, it seems to me, reporter Marla Jo Fisher has most of the major voices featured in her report for The Orange County Register.

Here is the opening of the story:

How much Christianity is too much for the University of California?

That’s a question being asked these days, in a federal lawsuit that has pitted Christian schools against admissions officials at UC who decide which high school courses are eligible to be college prerequisites.

The issue revolves around decisions by the University of California to reject three Christian-themed courses at a high school in Murrieta and several textbooks by two well-known Christian textbook publishers. The move came in the wake of a 2002 decision by the UC to look more closely at school accreditation and quality issues.

“These textbooks had already been used by many, many schools,” said Robert Tyler, attorney for plaintiff Calvary Chapel Christian Schools of Murrieta, along with the Association of Christian Schools International and five students. “It’s a fundamental shift. They were acceptable in the years past.”

Now, here is the key question and, at this point, there does not seem to be a clear answer. But this is the angle that the newspaper must pursue to nail this story down — before it heads into higher and higher courts.

In the past, Christian schools have been judged harshly on the basis of what they do not have their students read and the viewpoints to which their students are not exposed. In other words, they fail to cover basic territory that state universities expect students to have covered before admission.

But Fisher does a fine job of pointing out that this may not be the case this time around. There is evidence, this time, that the students are being punished for the Christian concepts and readings that are being included in the classes, not for a failure to cover basic territory.

What we have here is new territory — maybe. That is what the newspaper has to find out. For example, we have yet another vague use of the “creationism” term. We do not know what the schools are teaching in science classes, whether it’s seven-day creationism, a concept of gradual change over time that denies that creation is random and unguided or some other mix of theories. We do not know if the students are reading a wide variety of materials about evolutionary theory, or not. “Creationism” is too vague a word. We need facts.

The goal, in a fine Christian school, is to actually hold debates that you may not be able to hold on a secular campus, to read more points of view — not less. Note this passage in the story:

Included in the lawsuit and among the courses proposed by Calvary Chapel school in Murrieta and rejected by UC: Christianity’s Influence in American History, Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic and Christianity and Morality in American Literature.

“Unfortunately, this course, while it has an interesting reading list, does not offer a non-biased approach to the subject matter,” the rejection letter for the literature class read.

Lawyers for the Christian schools argue that these proposals should not have been rejected when other schools have approved courses such as Western Civilization: The Jewish Experience, and Intro to Buddhism.

Were the reading lists for the classes too weak? Some said that was not the problem. Were the students graduating from the controversial schools academically weak and unprepared? Apparently not.

Stay tuned.

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Pew gaps about the pew gap

WDobsonIt’s time for another round of “Name That Newspaper.”

Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have released another large chunk of their annual blast of data about the state of religion and public life. In newspapers this translates into religion and politics and, this close to an election, that translates into headlines about who is headed up, with God, and who is headed down.

In that spirit, GetReligion readers are asked to guess which of the following two headlines and leads come from The New York Times and which comes from The Washington Times.

Brace yourselves, because this will be really hard.

Few see Democrats as friendly to religion

Liberal or progressive Christians, who make up 34 percent of the population, are disunified on key issues, and only one out of four Americans considers the Democratic Party friendly to religion, a Pew poll shows.

And now, here is our second lead covering the same study:

In Poll, G.O.P. Slips as a Friend of Religion

A new poll shows that fewer Americans view the Republican Party as “friendly to religion” than a year ago, with the decline particularly steep among Catholics and white evangelical Protestants — constituencies at the core of the Republicans’ conservative Christian voting bloc.

And there you have it. If you could not figure out that story No. 1 comes from The Washington Times and that story No. 2 is from The New York Times then, honestly, I don’t know what we can do for you.

But please let me stress that I do not intend this exercise as a criticism of either Julia Duin or Laurie Goodstein, the veteran Godbeat reporters who wrote these news stories. After a quick glance at some of the survey materials, it seems to me that both of these stories are accurate and, frankly, both are pretty obvious to anyone who follows the news or this weblog.

Yes, there are quite a few conservative religious believers in quite a few conservative pews who are not very happy with the Republican Party at the moment.

Meanwhile, the “religious left” has been getting lots and lots of ink in recent months — as well it should. There is quite a bit of evidence that the Democratic Party is, in large part, led by a coalition of people who are either secular or very active in liberal denominations that are defined, in large part, by their opposition to the traditional religious views of believers on the traditional side of the aisle.

kerry communionHowever, the “religious left” itself is rather small when it comes to real people sitting in real pews. It tends to hail from religious groups that are aging and shrinking. Click here for a controversial essay in the Los Angeles Times on that topic.

So, it is one thing to say that the GOP has reason to fear that people in pews may not be all that fired up. It is something else to say this means these core voters will switch to the other side of the social-issues aisle. And, as always, this means that voters in Catholic pews are the great swing factor — as they have been for ages and ages. Amen.

This leads me back to another Pew study that was released a few weeks ago that focused on how Americans feel about social issues. The big lead on this story was that Americans are confused and/or diverse on social issues and, thus, it is wrong to talk about “culture wars.” However, the numbers had not changed that much. Click here to go to that study and, if you wish, click here for the Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote about it.

Once again, it isn’t all that shocking to find out what core Republican voters believe about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. What I found interesting in that previous Pew report was the information about my fellow Democrats, especially those of us who are opposed to abortion. Here is part of my column, drawing on an interview with veteran pollster John C. Green. These are some wild numbers.

As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats. Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which Green said might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions.

“Many of those liberals are black Democrats who are frequent church goers,” said Green. “But those Democrats are still out there.”

Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions,” the choice that Green called a “modern pro-life stance.” Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

But this does not mean that all of those Democrats are going to vote Republican. The poll numbers are more complex than that.

So if you are really interested in these topics, it pays to read several different reports about the same research and, if you have the time, scan the poll numbers for yourself. These days, it will almost always be available with a few clicks of a mouse.

UPDATE: Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has a lengthy post up at Beliefnet on this new Pew poll. Check it out.

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The Sun sees an obvious light

TimeisgoddeadI am sure that I have written this before at GetReligion and I am sure that, before long, I will write it again. However, there is some truth in the old Godbeat saying that for most American newsrooms, the formula for a page-one religion story is “three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin Marty.”

But there is a reason that Marty (click here for more info) has become a brand name in religion news. Actually, there are several good reasons. One is that his knowledge base is very broad, which often happens with historians who have written 50-plus books. Second, he can speak ordinary English about complicated subjects (and often be witty at the same time). Third, he is famous for answering his own telephone. Fourth, he writes about 2,000 words a day and all of them are published — somewhere.

Finally, the man is often two or three beats ahead when it comes to seeing the obvious and then putting a spotlight on it.

Thus, I would like to note that the Baltimore Sun just published a very fine essay titled “Religion’s flame burns brighter than ever: What happened to the world’s transition to secularism?” It was written by Timothy Samuel Shah of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and Monica Duffy Toft of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

But I would also like to note that Marty voiced the major theme of this essay — in very blunt terms — back in a 2002 lecture that I heard him give to students, journalists and ministers at the University of Nebraska. He has also been saying the same thing for a decade or two, only now more people are noticing because of the march of world events.

So what is Marty’s big idea? Here’s how I stated his thesis in a 2002 Scripps Howard column:

Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

Countless despots have learned that faith cannot be killed with force. This is especially true outside what Marty called the “spiritual ice belt” that extends across Western Europe and North America. …

In the mid-1990s, Marty directed a massive project to study the “militant religious fundamentalisms” on the rise worldwide. It concluded that the leaders of many such groups would resort to military action, when they failed to achieve victory through constitutional means. And if military might was not enough, Marty noted that the study warned that “they may very well take no prisoners, allow no compromises, have no borders and they might resort to terrorism.”

This brings us to the essay by Shah and Toft, which states many obvious facts in a place where the rarely appear — the pages of a solidly left-wing American newspaper. Here’s a large chunk of the heart of this story:

Global politics is increasingly marked by what could be called “prophetic politics.” Voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests. These movements come in very different forms and employ widely varying tools. But whether the field of battle is democratic elections or the more inchoate struggle for global public opinion, religious groups are increasingly competitive. In contest after contest, when people are given a choice between the sacred and the secular, faith prevails.

God is on a winning streak. It was reflected in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shia revival and religious strife in postwar Iraq, and Hamas’s recent victory in Palestine and Israel’s struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon. But not all the thunderbolts have been hurled by Allah.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s was strengthened by prominent Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond K. Tutu. Hindu nationalists in India stunned the international community when they unseated India’s ruling party in 1998 and then tested nuclear weapons.

American evangelicals continue to surprise the U.S. foreign-policy establishment with their activism and influence on issues such as religious freedom, sex trafficking, Sudan and AIDS in Africa. Indeed, evangelicals have emerged as such a powerful force that religion was a stronger predictor of vote choice in the 2004 U.S. presidential election than was gender, age, or class.

Much has changed, admit the authors, since the infamous Time cover in 1966 that asked “Is God Dead?” That was a logical question for people in elite academia. The question never made sense in Middle America. It is a question sure to be pinned on bulletin boards in the headquarters of Islamists, for obvious reasons.

The article shoots down other myths. Education does not make people less religious. Prosperity does not do the trick, either. Vague, muddy faiths keep fading, while traditional forms of faith appeal to young and old.

There is much that can be debated in this piece. But the central question echoes what Marty has been saying for years. Feel free to send the URLs for these pieces to your local newspaper editors and ask them how this reality is reflected in their newsrooms and in their future plans for their news pages.

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A faulty Sunday school lesson

FirstBaptistWatertownOh the confusing tales that we journalists weave, except when we attempt to deceive by making them too simple.

Did you hear that Thomson Financial has begun using computer-generated stories? Yes, some of what journalists used to do is now being done by computers. I can’t say that’s surprising, because of the cut and paste, let’s get that data out there nature of some journalism.

This type of technology is a long way off from replacing religion reporters — except, perhaps, when you ignore the details of a slightly complicated story and write a formulaic article with a shocking headline that confirms stereotypes and misreports the facts.

When I first stumbled across an Associated Press article about the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher because her Baptist church had adopted a “literal interpretation” of the Bible’s teaching on women in the church, I knew something was amiss. Here is a report from Dan Harris of ABC News, who is not a regular religion reporter, that is only slightly more detailed than the AP’s:

Aug. 21, 2006 — After 54 years of classes, a New York Sunday school teacher is getting an unexpected lesson in theology: She lost her job because of her sex.

Mary Lambert, 81, has been a member of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., for 60 years. She had her wedding on the premises, raised her kids in its halls and taught Sunday school at First Baptist for more than five decades.

But she recently received a letter from the church board notifying her that the board had voted unanimously to dismiss her from her post. The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible’s First Epistle to Timothy, which states: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

Actually if Harris had bothered to dig any further, he would have discovered a more complex story that is messy and involves church politics, factions, and what appears (at least to outsiders) as petty squabbling. I also have a suspicion that this article did not surprise his editors because it confirmed all their worst stereotypes. This article would set off alarm bells in the head of any editor with even the slightest understanding of the theology behind conservative church policies.

I won’t make any claims of knowing the full story, but after reading this letter from the church’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy LaBouf, it’s obvious that Lambert was not fired simply because she is a woman. A convenient fact that Harris and the AP left out of their articles is that, according to this letter from the church’s deacon board, which includes women, a large percentage of the Sunday school teachers at First Baptist Church, Watertown, N.Y., are women. They are not being fired.

Judging from LaBouf’s letter, it appears the church fired Lambert for making a fuss earlier this year — that ended up in the local media — about changes being made by a new pastor:

We had originally intended to include the various multifaceted reasons for the dismissal in our [correspondence;] however after legal review it was recommended that we refrain from including issues that could be construed as slander and stick with “spiritual issues” that govern a church, which the courts have historically stayed out of. With threats of lawsuits in the past we wanted to try hard to not go down that road again. I am sure you can understand why we would desire to exercise caution.

Yes, Pastor LaBouf, we all understand. However, your church’s sneaky actions did not make it easy for reporters and this seems to have backfired. But that is no excuse for reporters failing to dig out some of the nitty gritty facts and report them.

But why should we expect that level of detail from news reporters? It’s clear that reporters, including the author of this Reuters story, read the letter but chose to omit its details. What other facts have been left out?

It’s really not that complicated a story, unless you ignore facts to downgrade it to a level that could be written by a computer. Just remember, reporters, facts keep journalists in business.

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Reading Washington Times tea leaves

scarletmitt 1 It’s true. One of the reasons people inside and outside the Beltway read The Washington Times is to find out what Republican strategists are thinking. It’s interesting to find out what makes it into the official GOP talking points and what does not.

I always see the Times before I see The Washington Post, for the simple reason that I live in a blue-collar neighborhood on the south side of Baltimore that is not considered ritzy enough for home delivery of the Post. One will often see events in the Republican world in one of these papers and not in the other, and you can guess which is which.

So it was interesting to note this headline today in the Times, atop a story filed from Los Angeles by Christina Bellantoni: “Romney golden to GOP in blue state.” It states the obvious about the charismatic Gov. Mitt Romney:

Mr. Romney is eyeing a White House bid as he finishes his last few months in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion, and made his case to state party activists this weekend at the California Republican Convention. They loved him — cheering wildly for a stump speech that closely resembled a stand-up routine and later praising him as someone with the right kind of fiscal and conservative values.

“He’s got the charisma Kennedy had and the morals we wish Kennedy would have had,” said Republican Donee Chabot of Los Angeles, who works in real estate.

But I was also struck by this obvious paragraph:

Another Republican privately worried Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith would be a deterrent. The activist said Mormonism will be a difficult thing for the nation to get behind, a tougher religion to sell than President Kennedy’s Catholicism.

Now, where do you think Bellantoni — or her editors — played this interesting statement? Is there, or is is there not, some symbolism in this placement?

Just asking. In terms of journalism and story structure, it seemed rather strange to me.

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