Media stumbles over the ABCs

ABC'sSometimes media coverage of issues involving religion is so bad that there is just not much left for us to say at GetReligion that hasn’t already been said. Case in point is the media stumbling in an attempt to cover the resignation of Wheaton College professor Kent Gramm.

Here is some analysis from a Christianity Today news reporter in a harsh blog post titled “The ABCs of Journalism.” (Full disclosure: the author Sarah Pulliam is my sister):

ABC’s report of Wheaton College professor Kent Gramm’s resignation was an example of sloppy journalism and weak analysis.

The original headline was simply false: “Professor Fired for Getting a Divorce.” Gramm was not fired. He resigned because he declined to talk with the college about his divorce. (The image to the right is a screen shot of an earlier version)

Later today, ABC changed the headline to “Professor Loses Job Over Divorce.” The headline is still not quite accurate. To lose your job generally indicates that someone took it away from you. However, Gramm voluntarily resigned. And according to the Chicago Tribune, the college offered him another year of employment while he searched for another job.

Also, student Emma Vanhoozer’s name was misspelled. Most journalists are extremely careful about getting basic facts like these correct. But reporter Russell Goldman bypassed whatever fact-checking system ABC has set up, if they have one.

“If the school is free to impose its beliefs on divorced family members where does the law draw the line? Could the school just as easily impose arranged marriages?” Goldman writes.

Yes, that’s the big looming threat here: forcibly arranged marriages. Someone has been reading too much coverage of the raid on the polygamist sect’s ranch in Texas.

Yes, Russell Goldman, Wheaton is considering arranging marriages because that would fulfill its mission of controlling every aspect of its faculty’s lives. This bit of unnecessary and inappropriate hyperbole in a news report is Exhibit A in the museum of artifacts showing how and why journalists do not understand religion. I think the newly opened Newseum should have an exhibit dedicated to this purpose.

Here’s how Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs described the story at First Things:

Well, maybe not all about. Russell Goldman’s moronic story on ABC news is chiefly concerned to pursue the question of whether Wheaton might start forcing its faculty into arranged marriages — a wonderful example of the old practice of creating imaginary worlds so you can place people you don’t like there and make them be really, really evil. (The version of the story now online is corrected in a few ways, though still littered with errors — the previous one was submoronic.) …

Beyond that, here are the facts. Kent wasn’t fired for getting a divorce, as so many of the headlines say. Though Wheaton, in keeping with what it believes (and I believe) to be historic Christian teaching, sees divorce as a very bad thing, indeed often tragic, it does not fire people for getting divorced. We have a number of faculty who have been divorced while employed here; in the past dozen years or more, only one has been asked to leave. But the college authorities do ask to interview employees who are getting divorced in order to understand the circumstances. It was this interview that Kent declined to accept, and that’s where things unraveled.

More biting analysis is available here at the Sanctus blog.

For some positive news that is completely unrelated, check out New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s analysis in this week’s Interfaith Voices on why tolerance-preaching liberals seem to have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. It’s a breath of fresh air.

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A Methodism to the madness

um logo6It never ceases to amaze me how much media coverage of denominational politics we get for The Episcopal Church vis-a-vis all other denominations. It seems like every time an Episcopal clergyman sneezes, it’s worthy of massive coverage. But a major church body — the United Methodist Church — holds its quadrennial convention in Fort Worth over the last two weeks and we get nothing. Or at least something close to nothing.

I subscribe to every denominational press out there. The United Methodist News Service has been deluging its subscribers with stories. The press service for the church body is amazingly liberal, politically speaking. They ran a story this week attacking evangelical activists and traditionalists for caucusing with the also-evangelical and conservative African delegation. The conservative activists had supplied African delegates with cell phones to help coordinate efforts. A lengthy and completely biased story by the official news service of the Methodists three times accused the conservatives of racism when describing this coordinated political effort between conservative groups on two continents:

The giving of cell phones exclusively to people of color outside the United States raises some concerns about racial paternalism.

All week long I waited for some decent mainstream coverage of the larger Methodist story. Zip. Nada. I passed on the cell phone story to my husband who wrote it up for the National Review. It’s not mainstream media but it has more reportage on the General Conference than I’ve seen elsewhere. Herewith ends the shameless plug.

Well, the Methodists finally got around to voting on issues dealing with homosexuality so we’ve got a few (emphasis on few) stories trickling in.

Sam Hodges with the Dallas Morning News filed a report about a protest that took place after delegates voted to retain the church’s belief that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. After describing the protest — it was peaceful, legislative action stopped to permit the demonstration, 300 people sang a spiritual before leaving — he puts it in context:

Still, progressives were clearly disappointed that efforts to change the church’s stance on homosexuality failed Wednesday in voting by General Conference delegates.

“It was a terrible day,” said the Rev. Eric Folkerth, pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas.

The General Conference is the UMC’s quadrennial assembly for deciding church law and policy. It’s scheduled to wrap up today.

Most UMC churches either quietly or openly welcome gay people as members, and Northaven is part of a network of congregations that’s lobbying on related issues, such as allowing non-celibate gay clergy.

But the UMC’s fundamental position that the practice of homosexuality conflicts with Christian teaching has stuck, despite strenuous efforts to remove it at one General Conference after another.

Hodges explains the African dynamic. He notes that the African delegation’s numbers and influence have grown due to significant growth there. However, he doesn’t explain that the American church is losing members at the same time. He also speaks with an African delegate and an American leader of conservative evangelical Methodist women who support the church’s stance.

One line above caught my eye. What does it mean that “most” UMC churches quietly or openly “welcome” gay people as members? What does it mean to welcome gay members, exactly? And, then, how do we know that most congregations do this? And what, exactly, are the other congregations doing? What does it mean to not “weclome” gay people? Seems like some explanation and quantification is in order.

Still, I’m just so happy to see some actual news coverage. Hodges has also been linked to UMC press accounts of the convention on the Morning News religion blog.

Terry Lee Goodrich of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote a brief story about a lesbian couple exchanging vows outside the General Conference this week. The Associated Press‘ Angela K. Brown also had a report:

More than 200 Methodists attended a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony Friday in defiance of a vote to uphold a church law that says gay relationships are “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

It would be nice if denominations could get coverage even when there are no protests. But at least we’re finally getting some stories out there.

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Thanks Andrew! What else?

andrew sullivanLast weekend GetReligion received a nice hat tip from one of the pioneers and leaders in the world of blogging, Andrew Sullivan. The post Sullivan linked to was hardly one of the more exciting we have had lately, but for some reason analysis of a Vermont’s newspaper’s coverage of church-going atheists caught The Daily Dish’s eye.

Apparently Sullivan noticed that atheists seek out churches for the purpose of community. Seeking community is a frequent theme of Sullivan’s on his blog and perhaps it’s an issue journalists could focus more on when covering church issues.

Sullivan, since joining The Atlantic.com‘s stable of bloggers, posts 35-50 times a day, sometimes with more extended analysis, but more often than not it’s a post with a word or two describing the contents of a link and occasionally a block of text.

Unfortunately for fans of religion news analysis, Sullivan didn’t include any commentary in his post.

So, hey, we would be curious to know whether he tracks GetReligion at all (perhaps one of his interns visits from time to time) or has any thoughts on the media’s coverage of religion. It is easy to find out what he thinks about the media’s coverage of issues such as The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., political soap opera, but what about the media’s coverage of the day-to-day religious issues in America?

We’re here. Wanna talk?

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Wright stuff: A typical black church?

blackchurch Kelly Brewington of The Baltimore Sun had a good idea.

After the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. said that an attack on him was an attack on the black church, Brewington polled local black pastors to see if they agreed with him. Considering the difficulty of polling black pastors nationally, the reporter was smart to keep the focus local.

Brewington started the story strong. The Sun reporter hinted to readers that the story would contain subtlety and nuance. She quoted a black pastor whose views could not be easily categorized:

The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. considers the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. to be a tremendous pastor and a brilliant theologian. But sitting in the audience of the National Press Club in Washington this week, Hathaway found himself wincing at some of the remarks by Sen. Barack Obama’s embattled former pastor.

“When Jeremiah Wright says an attack on him is ‘an attack on the black church,’ that’s kind of stretching things,” said Hathaway, pastor of Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church. “I think it’s potentially dangerous.”

He is not the only one who thought so.

Brewington also pulled off two feats. The reporter quoted the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, a Baltimore pastor who co-wrote a book with the famous pastor, and gave readers important context for Wright’s assertion that the U.S. government infected blacks with the HIV virus:

Reid said those who find Wright’s words offensive might not be aware of the context.

“Certainly, all black churches do not think that the American government created AIDS to kill black people, but all black people also know that the Tuskegee Experiment was real,” he said.

In the Tuskegee study, researchers for the U.S. Public Health Service allowed syphilis in black men in Alabama to go untreated for more than 40 years.

I wish Brewington’s story had continued in this vein: localizing a hot national story. Alas, it did not. The reporter failed to put the pastors in context — denominationally, politically, or congregationally.

Brewington quoted from numerous black preachers, but the reasons for doing so are unclear. Are churches such as New Unity Church Ministries and the Ark Church part of a denomination or not? Do the pastors quoted in the story represent the largest churches in the city or a mixture of sizes? Are these pastors, to paraphrase the author, educated and enlightened or dumb less educated and socially conservative?

Brewington had the opportunity to make the story great. But by not executing the journalistic fundamentals, it was an opportunity missed.

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Wright stuff: Asking religious questions

jesus the good shepherdYesterday, I looked at how media coverage of Jeremiah Wright sourced a proverb from Abraham Lincoln to the Book of Proverbs. The two were similar, but distinct.

There’s another Bible verse mentioned by Wright that received a curious lack of coverage. It appeared, like so many other controversial remarks, in the question and answer period of the National Press Club event on Monday:

MODERATOR: Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the father but through me.” Do you believe this? And do you think Islam is a way to salvation?

WRIGHT: Jesus also said, “Other sheep have I who are not of this fold.”

While the moderator followed-up with other questions, there was no follow-up to this question. I would say that it’s an odd question to ask but Wright is Christian pastor. It could be a great question, depending on what the purpose of the question was. But it’s hard to tell since after Wright gave his brief answer, the moderator moved onto the next question.

The verse Wright excerpted was John 10:16. Here’s the full verse:

“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

I know it’s too much to expect that journalists could actually ask a follow-up to a theological question. It struck me as very interesting that Wright would use this passage from John to answer the question. It would be interesting to hear more about how he interprets that verse. It’s also probably too much to expect that a question and answer session between a journalist and a pastor involve more than allegedly dueling Bible verses. Either way, it’s interesting that this answer didn’t receive any mainstream coverage at all. I guess it wasn’t overtly political enough.

I should also quickly note that a few reporters asked some interesting theological questions of Barack Obama in his press conference on Tuesday:

Q: Reverend Wright said that it was not an attack on him but an attack on the black church. First of all, do you agree with that?

And second of all, the strain of theology that he preached, black liberation theology, you explained something about the anger, that feeds some of the sentiments in the church, in Philadelphia.

How important a strain is liberation theology in the black church? And why did you choose to attend a church that preached that?

Other questions, while not overtly religious, seemed sensitive to Obama’s professed religious views. One asked about giving Wright the benefit of the doubt and whether Obama spoke with Wright prior to his Philadelphia speech on race and religion. Another asked if the relationship between Obama and his pastor of 20 years had been irreparably damaged.

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Wright stuff: The church Obama joined

Rainbow flagYour GetReligionistas do not, as a rule, offer much comment about editorials and op-ed page columns. However, we do, from time to time, point out columns and commentaries that add actual insight and information to ongoing news stories.

Honest, in a few days, we hope to be past the firestorm about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. But, at the moment, some journalists are actually focusing on the content of a crucial religious issue linked the story — which is the style and content of the black church. Thus, I would like to point to two essays that will be of interest to those reading and writing about the hottest story — at the moment — in American culture.

The first is by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, who pounds home the main point that GetReligion has been trying to make for a month or so. Here is a long chunk of that piece:

The problem is that Wright insists on being seen as something he’s not: an archetypal representative of the African American church. In fact, he represents one twig of one branch of a very large tree. …

The reality of the African American church, of course, is as diverse as the African American community. I grew up in the Methodist church with pastors — often active on the front lines of the civil rights movement — whose sermons were rarely exciting enough to elicit more than a muttered “Amen.” They were excitement itself, however, compared with the dry lectures delivered by the priest at the Catholic church around the corner. And what I heard every Sunday was nothing at all like the Bible-thumping, hellfire-and-damnation perorations that filled my Baptist friends with the Holy Ghost — and even less like the spellbinding, singsong, jump-and-shout sermonizing that raised the roofs of Pentecostal sanctuaries across town.

Wright claims to represent all these traditions and more, but he does not. He also claims universality for the political aspect of his ministry. It is true that the black church, writ large, has been an instrument of social and political change. But most black churches are far less political than Wright’s — and many concern themselves exclusively with salvation.

I point all this out not to say that one tradition is better than another; as Wright said, different doesn’t mean deficient. But what Wright did was to try to frame the issue in such a way that to question him or anything he has ever said was to question the long, storied tradition of African American religion.

And all the people said, “Amen.” Thus, it is logical to say that Barack Obama, when he made his profession of Christian faith, was joining a particular congregation within the wider black church tradition or traditions.

Over at The New Republic, Noam Scheiber has written a piece that probes the content of that decision by the young and rising politician. This leads us to a long, long quote from the book “Obama: From Promise to Power” by David Mendell:

Wright remains a maverick among Chicago’s vast assortment of black preachers. He will question Scripture when he feels it forsakes common sense; he is an ardent foe of mandatory school prayer; and he is a staunch advocate for homosexual rights, which is almost unheard-of among African-American ministers. Gay and lesbian couples, with hands clasped, can be spotted in Trinity’s pews each Sunday. Even if some blacks consider Wright’s church serving only the bourgeois set, his ministry attracts a broad cross section of Chicago’s black community. Obama first noticed the church because Wright had placed a “Free Africa” sign out front to protest continuing apartheid. The liberal, Columbia-educated Obama was attracted to Wright’s cerebral and inclusive nature, as opposed to the more socially conservative and less educated ministers around Chicago. Wright developed into a counselor and mentor to Obama as Obama sought to understand the power of Christianity in the lives of black Americans, and as he grappled with the complex vagaries of Chicago’s black political scene.

“Trying to hold a conversation with a guy like Barack, and him trying to hold a conversation with some ministers, it’s like you are dating someone and she wants to talk to you about Rosie and what she saw on Oprah, and that’s it,” Wright explained. “But here I was, able to stay with him lockstep as we moved from topic to topic. … He felt comfortable asking me questions that were postmodern, post-Enlightenment and that college-educated and graduate school-trained people wrestle with when it comes to the faith. We talked about race and politics. I was not threatened by those questions.” …

But more than that, Trinity’s less doctrinal approach to the Bible intrigued and attracted Obama. “Faith to him is how he sees the human condition,” Wright said. “Faith to him is not … litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It’s what you do with your life, how you live your life. That’s far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn’t wear pants or if you drink, you’re going to hell. That’s just not who Barack is.”

WrightObama 01Now there are all kinds of things going on in that passage, including the assumption that Obama truly found that there are no traditional, doctrinally conservative African-American priests or pastors in the Chicago area who hold graduate degrees from solid, even upper-tier seminaries and were opposed to apartheid. Also, please do not click “comment” in order to state what we all know — which is that the hottest social issues in American church life are not drinking or the moral implications of women wearing pants.

The larger point, a key piece of the puzzle that reporters are failing to see, is that Obama clearly wanted to join a church. All of those “He’s a secret Muslim” emails be damned, his own testimony underlines the sincerity of his spiritual search and commitment to a liberal brand of Christian faith.

But, if Mendell and Wright are right, Obama was also searching for a black church that would allow him to avoid or even reject the vast majority of the other black churches around him. He was looking for a black church that would actually — on several crucial hot issues — help him fight the larger black church or, as I am sure Obama would state it, help him lead a crusade to liberalize the conservative moral teachings of the larger black church. (Andrew Sullivan has been making this point for weeks, but it is hard to find a specific topic within his massive site.)

Is that true? That’s a question that, sooner or later, someone is going to ask Obama and I would imagine that there are African-American conservatives who would love to have a chance to do so.

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Return of the haunted ’68 radicals

1968Anniversaries are anniversaries and several tumultuous events of 1968 have already been rehashed (see here) by reporters this year. You can bet that more (such as this one) stories of this kind are on the way. What angles should reporters look for?

Robin Shulman of The Washington Post gave the basic picture. In her story about the student revolutionaries at Columbia University, Shulman wrote about the students’ tactics, motivations and current occupations.

Shulman noted that the tactics of student leaders were unusual. In her lede, she implied that they were downright violent:

Forty years ago, they launched a student protest at Columbia University that involved the occupation of five campus buildings, the hostage-taking of a dean, 712 arrests and injuries to scores of students, faculty members and police officers.

Shulman also showed that the student leaders were not fighting for the right to party or high student fees. They had larger concerns in mind:

In 1968, the students sought to end Columbia’s affiliation with a think tank involved in Pentagon weapons research. They also wanted to halt construction of a gym in Morningside Park they thought would be segregated because of its separate entrances for Columbia students and Harlem residents.

Finally, Shulman implied that the student revolutionaries have not burned out or faded away but matured:

Now, they are lawyers, judges, playwrights, poets, professors and ministers. They gathered this weekend back on campus with former classmates to hear memories of those events and occasionally raise a revolutionary fist for old times’ sake.

Shulman’s thesis, in other words, was that student revolutionaries have become professionals. But might be there more to the story? As the title of this post indicates, the answer is yes.

Shulman’s story contains a ghost. Nowhere does she mention the student’s religious background and worldview. Do those elements deserve no mention in the story? After all, student leader Mark Rudd gave a speech about the leaders’ religious influence, citing, in particular, the impact of progressive streams of Jewish faith.

I am well aware that anti-Semites might use this information to cast the student leaders as sinister radicals. Yet should reporters ignore the religious background, training and ideology of political figures? As someone who has written about the Catholicism of the post-war Democratic bosses, I say no. Overlooking or ignoring the role of religion not only marginalizes religion but also misses the truth.

Some of the radicals went on to become ministers. What kind? Are any of those professors in Christian or Jewish schools of theology? How about the poets? Are any of them asking spiritual questions? The ’60s were, in part, about unconventional spiritual searches. It would be interesting to note where those searches have led.

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Wright stuff: Enough is enough?

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama gave journalists throughout the United States a challenge in his press conference Monday, where he “forcefully” broke with his ex-pastor the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In his short 5-minute opening remarks, Obama said that Wright does not represent the black church in America. Is this true?

Obama also made some interesting comments that may be worth a thorough journalistic fact-check: is the Wright we have seen over the last few days the same person that Obama met 20 years ago? If this is true, and there is no reason to doubt it until proven otherwise, how has Wright changed and why?

The newspaper best positioned to write these stories, particularly the ones about Wright, would be The Chicago Tribune. Here is Mike Dorning in the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., bureau covering Obama’s press conference:

Obama, appearing visibly pained, did in a hastily called press conference what he had been reluctant to do since controversy initially erupted more than a month ago over Wright’s sermons, repudiating not merely the words but the world view of a clergyman who had once been a close spiritual counselor and by Obama’s account inspired him to embrace Christian faith

Obama was confronting distracting media coverage of Wright’s fiery appearance Monday at the National Press Club, in which the minister reaffirmed his view that the U.S. government may have initiated the AIDS epidemic to wipe out racial minorities and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as one of the most important voices of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“When I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything I am about and who I am,” Obama said, adding that Wright’s comments “end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.

It’s interesting that Dorning would say that Wright was once a “close spiritual counselor because it seems to contradict what Obama said in the press conference Monday. “One thing that [Wright] said that was true was that he was never my quote unquote spiritual advisor, he was never my spiritual mentor.” Obama also said that Wright was merely his pastor, who married him and his wife Michelle and baptized his daughters. He also said Wright prayed with him when he announced his plans to run for the presidency.

The challenge for journalists covering this story is that not much has changed over the last few days in terms of our knowledge of the black church in America and how religion plays into Obama’s life and world outlook. Wright does not and cannot represent an entire religious group and cannot be the sole or even primary source for knowledge and insight into Obama’s soul. But it’s still part of the story.

It is easy for journalists to simply follow the pack and direction of the cable news networks in covering the inflammatory words of Wright, but what else is there to learn from him? The real story is going to be determining whether America believes Wright’s version of what America is all about or Obama’s hope for what American can become.

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