Say what!? A Phelps story even Joe Friday would approve

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Bad journalism makes for good GetReligion posts.

See “‘Fred Phelps has been excommunicated’ and other gossip” and “Do journalists need to crank up the Phelps vitriol? Really?”

Those excellent posts by Jim Davis and Terry Mattingly highlight the media’s sins in reporting on the dire health situation of Phelps, founder of the famous — for all the wrong reasons — Westboro Baptist Church.

Our tmatt, in super-punctuation mode, urges:

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

How wild is this? I’m going to praise a reporter for using a technique straight out of Journalism 101 to report the Phelps story.

Here’s the straight-news lede — inverted-pyramid style — atop CNN Godbeat pro Daniel Burke’s report (hint: he just quotes people):

(CNN) – Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas congregation known for picketing funerals with anti-gay signs, called reports that its founder, Fred Phelps, is near death “speculative.”

“Fred Phelps has health issues,” the church said in a statement Sunday, “but the idea that someone would suggest that he is near death, is not only highly speculative, but foolish considering that all such matters are the sole prerogative of God.”

Nathan Phelps, the estranged son of Fred Phelps, posted a Facebook message Sunday saying his father was “at the edge of death” at a hospice in Topeka, Kansas, where Westboro Baptist Church has long been a controversial presence.

Nathan Phelps also said his father had been excommunicated from the church. “I’m not sure how I feel about this,” he added. “Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.”

Westboro declined to say whether or not its patriarch has been excommunicated. The church’s statement said that “membership issues are private” and that eight unnamed “elders” lead the Westboro congregation.

A church spokesman declined to respond to follow-up questions.

Burke attributes the disputed details to named sources and leaves it to readers to determine each party’s credibility.

In his post, tmatt suggests:

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.

The CNN report provides this crucial background:

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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:

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‘Fred Phelps has been excommunicated’ and other gossip

OK, folks. We need to keep news over here and gossip over there.

First, we have multiple stories that Fred Phelps — of Westboro Baptist Church fame, of “God Hates Fags” fame, of picketing veterans’ funerals fame — is “on the edge of death”.

Now he was supposedly kicked out of the Topeka-based church for advocating “kinder treatment of fellow church members.”

And what are the sources for this “news”? Facebook postings by Nate Phelps, an estranged son, who left the church 37 years ago. Here’s what he says, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal:

On Nate Phelps’ Facebook page, Nate Phelps posted: “I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps Sr., pastor of the ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the ‘church’ back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.

“I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.

“I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.”

The other main source is another son who is also estranged:

However, a second Phelps brother estranged from Westboro Baptist Church confirmed Sunday morning that Fred Phelps Sr. is in poor health and has been excommunicated.

“Just a quick note to assure you the information you wrote and published this morning is accurate,” Mark Phelps emailed to The Capital-Journal at 10:30 a.m. “I do not know anything more than you know, at this time, but what you wrote I know to be true, personally, just as Nathan (Nate Phelps) knows to be true also.”

Not exactly the same as hard evidence, is it? Especially given that Nate now says he’s an “LGBT Advocate”?

Years ago, when I worked at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, an investigative reporter told me how he worked: Whenever a source denied something, he would have it confirmed by four other knowledgeable sources. Only then would he go with it.

The mainstream media I’ve checked today don’t meet that standard. Besides Nate Phelps’ assertions, all they have is Westboro spokesman Steve Drain — who has denied that Fred Phelps is dying:

Drain acknowledged Fred Phelps Sr. has been admitted to Midland Care Hospice, adding he “has a couple things going on” but disputed the gravity of his health.

“The source that says he’s near death is not well informed,” Drain said Sunday.

The Capital-Journal stories have been picked up uncritically by major media, including Reuters, Huffington Post and The Blaze.

Instead of looking critically, they’ve simply been piling on, like a particularly brutal football scrimmage.

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Is it legal to let St. Patrick be St. Patrick? (Plus MZ zinger)

I guess that the crucial question — at this moment in time — is whether St. Patrick’s Day parades have anything to do with St. Patrick. In other words, are these events connected, in any meaningful way, with Catholic tradition, doctrine and history?

I know that, in the past, it has been easier to argue that these parades — especially in America’s major urban centers in the Northeast and upper Midwest — have been testimonies to Irish culture, pride and political clout. The archbishop may be there, but the essence of the event was found in the presence of local politicians who needed the votes of Irish laborers.

But what is the reality right now, at this moment in church-state history?

You can find some clues in the rather stock Reuters report about the pro-gay-rights pressures on Guinness — which were successful — to pull it’s sponsorship of the New York City parade.

On Friday, two other major beer companies, Sam Adams brewer Boston Beer Co and Heineken dropped their sponsorship of parades in Boston and New York, respectively, over the issue.

Representatives for the New York board of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, which has run the parade for more than 150 years, could not be reached for comment on Sunday afternoon.

Earlier in the day Boston Mayor Marty Walsh skipped his city’s parade when he couldn’t negotiate a deal with organizers, the conservative Allied War Veteran’s Council, to allow members of MassEquality, one of Massachusetts’ largest gay activist groups, to join. …

Organizers of St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston, among the most liberal-leaning cities in the United States, have come under increasing criticism in recent years for banning openly gay marchers. Parade organizers argue that to do so would conflict with their Roman Catholic heritage. The Catholic church contends that homosexual activity is immoral.

Now in my humble opinion, I think it would help to know something about the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, since this organization is at the heart of this annual skirmish in the Culture Wars. I find it interesting that few of the mainstream stories that I saw this year about these events offered detailed information on this point. However, the group’s website, on the front page, notes:

We are the oldest and largest Irish Catholic organization in the United States. The AOH is a place to meet like minded Irish Americans who share the same values and beliefs. …

Through it’s charitable arm, Hibernian Charity, a 501c-3 not-for-profit, the AOH is able to raise money for a number of Irish and Catholic causes in the this country and in Ireland.

Whatever it’s symbolism found in this organization, in terms of culture and politics, there does seem to be a religion hook in there somewhere.

Thus, a key journalism question is this: Does this religious group still have a right to march in public streets while declining to openly undercut the doctrines of its church? In other words, does the “free exercise of religion” still include public displays of faith?

Has anyone seen that issue raised in St. Patrick’s coverage this year?

This issue is openly discussed at the Irish Queers website, a center for activism against the beliefs of the Hibernians:

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Pod people: There really are two sides to every story, folks

The stories we critique here at GetReligion usually fall into one of two categories. First we have the good stories: well-written pieces that are fair, balanced, properly sourced and complement the outlets they represent. The second category is comprised of the opposite kind of story, the poorly written ones. These pieces have problems such as ghosts, bias, unexplored angles, poor attribution, inadequate sourcing, vague terminology, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Which would you think would be the more difficult posts for your GetReligionistas to write? If you said the well-written ones, you get a cookie. Or a sugar-free lollipop, since that’s more politically correct.

The well-written stories take much more time and thought and energy and work (at least for this girl) to post about for the very reasons they take longer to write. When a journalist does the job correctly, the story is a veritable treasure chest of information. It features colorful writing and multiple angles. Sources are plentiful, selected thoughtfully and allowed to speak without the journalist inferring or labeling or categorizing for them. When I encounter a good story, I read it multiple times — each time I flesh out a new detail or appreciate a particular pattern of thought. Writing about these gems is an extension of reading them. (And then I have to take a timeout to Google the author, if I don’t recognize the byline. Just to give the writer a virtual high-five.)

Todd Wilken and I discussed the contrasts between good stories and incomplete ones on this week’s edition of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. In particular, we looked at my part of a three-post journalistic train wreck from The Dallas Morning News. Three stories about two elderly gay men and one maverick Methodist minister preparing to marry them — and zero quotes from anyone affiliated with the United Methodist Church who might speak to the denomination’s official stance on gay marriage. I feel like I know this couple quite well, as do I all their friends and supporters, after the trilogy. What we don’t know, as Todd astutely pointed out, is why no one bothered to walk inside one of the many, many Methodist churches that line the streets of Dallas and interview someone who felt differently about gay marriage than the journalist, the couple, the rogue minister and those who know and love them.

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Concerning all those angry white married men in pews

It’s mid-term election time, which means that it’s time, once again, for the mainstream press to try to figure out what is wrong with all of those angry white men.

You remember the angry white men, right? Remember the folks who keep insisting on clinging to their — what was that phrase again — guns, religion and antipathy to people who are not like them?

GetReligion readers can probably predict which one of those factors was ignored in the recent New York Times piece that ran under the headline, “Democrats Try Wooing Ones Who Got Away: White Men.” The key voice up top — in the thesis paragraphs — is that of Frank Houston, a man with working-class roots who is leads the Democratic Party in Oakland County, Michigan.

Mr. Houston grew up in the 1980s liking Ronald Reagan but idolizing Alex P. Keaton, the fictional Republican teenage son of former hippies who, played by Michael J. Fox on the television series “Family Ties,” comically captured the nation’s conservative shift. But over time, Mr. Houston left the Republican Party because “I started to realize that the party doesn’t represent the people I grew up with.” …

Mr. Houston is part of an internal debate at all levels of his party over how hard it should work to win over white men, especially working-class men without college degrees, at a time when Democrats are gaining support from growing numbers of female and minority voters.

It is a challenge that runs throughout the nation’s industrial heartland, in farm states and across the South, after a half-century of economic, demographic and cultural shifts that have reshaped the electorate. Even in places like Michigan, where it has been decades since union membership lists readily predicted Democratic votes, many in the party pay so little attention to white working-class men that it suggests they have effectively given up on converting them.

There are several religious and cultural ghosts in this story, but the Times team never really names them.

Instead, the story does a great job — over and over — of telling readers what kind of voters are very loyal to the Democratic Party these days. Readers then have to do the math and try to spot the obvious patterns. Take this quote for example:

No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white men since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all prevailed with support of the so-called rising electorate of women, especially single women, and minorities. But fewer of those voters typically participate in midterm elections, making the votes of white men more potent and the struggle of Democrats for 2014 clear.

Carter, of course, did much better in the South and in the Midwest in his first campaign. And what was different that time around? I mean, other than having to run against Reagan?

Also, note another theme in the story: Democrats do much, much better with single adults, as opposed to married adults. In stories that dare to probe this, what usually shows up in that familiar “pew gap” indicating that people who attend worship more tend to vote for culturally conservative candidates. Married people also tend to more religious than single people.

But this is not a story that has the time to look into things like that.

Let’s see. So what else does this story tell us?

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United Methodism doctrine? Think location, location, location

Sherman, please set the controls of the GetReligion WABAC (pronounced “wayback”) machine for the year 1980. Our destination is Denver, because it’s time for another episode of Improbable United Methodist History.

Yes, it was in 1980 — note that this was one-third of a century ago — that Bishop Melvin Wheatley, Jr., of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church announced (wait for it) that he was openly rejecting his church’s teaching that homosexual acts were “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Two years later, this United Methodist bishop appointed an openly gay pastor to an urban church in Denver. When challenged, Wheatley declared: “Homosexuality is a mysterious gift of God’s grace. I clearly do not believe homosexuality is a sin.”

The Denver pastor continued to serve for many years (while also leading the Colorado AIDS Project), in part because the United Methodist policy opposed the appointment of “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. Note the words “self-avowed.” Thus, when appearing before officials in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, this minister simply declined to answer questions about his sexual history or practice. Since he was not, therefore, “self-avowed” (at least not during those official church meetings), his sympathetic local church leaders declared that he was not in violation of the national church’s doctrinal standards.

That was the end of that, for the most part, in this western region of the United Methodist Church. Defenders of the denomination’s teachings had to take their battles elsewhere.

This was, in other words, a perfect example of the reality described in an important study — “The Seven Churches of Methodism” — published in the mid-1980s by two scribes from Duke University.

One of the authors, a future United Methodist bishop named William Willimon, once told me that it was very painful for the church’s leaders to have to admit that United Methodists were already worshipping in what amounted to seven different churches when it came to matters of doctrine and church law. It was hard to find the ties that could bind the declining flocks in the “Yankee Church,” “Industrial Northeast Church,” “Western Church” and “Midwest Church” with those in the larger and still growing “Church South” and the “Southwest Church.”

The clergy in these churches went to different seminaries and had radically different beliefs about biblical authority, salvation, evangelism and moral theology. At the heart of many of their disputes, of course, were differences over sexual ethics, especially the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

Denominational executives, seminary leaders and bishops in the liberal regions — such as Melvin Wheatley, Jr. — were already openly or quietly opposing the teachings affirmed by the growing United Methodist regions in the United States and, yes, around the world.

Note, once again, that this strategy of open and passive resistance began way back in 1980.

This brings us to the current headlines focusing on the supposedly radical actions of New York Bishop Martin D. McLee, especially his open announcement that he would refuse to hold church trials of clergy who violate the denomination’s teachings that homosexual activity, as opposed to orientation, is sinful. McLee is, in effect, saying what Wheatley said in 1980-82.

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Church & state: Double coverage challenge in Seattle

I often ding mainstream media for lapses on religious doctrine. I also criticize them for ignorance of legalities that deal with religion. The story of Mark Zmuda, the gay administrator who was fired from a Catholic school, gives me a twofer.

The Seattle-based educator says Eastside Catholic School didn’t tell him not to marry his partner. He also accuses the Archdiocese of Seattle of pressuring the school to run him out. Says TV station King 5:

Mark Zmuda filed a complaint for damages against Eastside Catholic and the Seattle Archdiocese Friday. Zmuda told reporters the school was initially supportive of his marriage, but said he believes the school changed its position under pressure from the church.

“The information we have is that there was involvement from the archdiocese. Pressure was put on the school to fire Mark,” said Richard Friedman, Zmuda’s attorney.

“I was asked by the school to break my wedding vows to keep my job. I was told I could either divorce or be fired. How could anyone ask anyone else to make that choice? I was fired,” said Zmuda.

Other media have gotten, shall we say, enthusiastic about the case. USA Today ran an AP story that reported the lawsuit even before it was filed. Huffington Post reported the same — even saying in the headline that the lawsuit had already been filed, although the story itself said only that Zmuda was planning to file.

All that strikes me as a journalistic lapse. I don’t know HuffPost’s and AP’s and USA Today’s editorial policies; but at the newspaper where I worked until late 2012, we didn’t announce lawsuits, or protests or demonstrations, until they’d been filed. Often, we found, people wouldn’t follow through after they got their publicity.

I could recite the GetReligion litany on mainstream media taking sides — quoting, for one thing, students and parents who support Zmuda but not those who support the school’s decision — but let’s not make it a threefer. With this one, we’ll look at church, then state.

A gold star for King 5 for quoting a statement from the archdiocese that it “has no authority to direct employment decisions for the school.” It would have been nice to point out what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality and marriage as well.

King 5 also could have asked about the school’s website while reporting:

Zmuda said that he applied for the job, the school’s website read, “it did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, marital status or sexual orientation.” He also said the employee handbook indicated the school did not discriminate.

“If I had read the school’s website and it had said, ‘We do not hire gay men or gay men who marry,’ I would have never taken the job at Eastside Catholic,” said Zmuda.

Did the website really say that? Was the statement taken down? Who would know? King 5′s curiosity seems to run out at this point. Also, is it possible that Catholic schools hire gays who are celibate and accept the moral teachings of the church? The issue is public opposition to the church’s doctrines.

Now, the legalities. None of the articles by KIRO, HuffPost or USA Today show much awareness of a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that acknowledged the right of a religious group to hire and fire.

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