Sister Jane drama: Observer still trying to catch up on news

The Charlotte Observer tried to play catch-up this week on the Sister Jane controversy. But it succeeded only partly, and it continued journalistic errors typical of those found in recent articles on this subject.

You may recall my own posts on April 2 and April 4 about the flap that started with the Observer’s‘s story on March 27, in which parents were upset over an assembly speech by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel. Her talk, at Catholic High School in Charlotte, allegedly criticized gay couplings and said children were best adjusted when raised in traditional nuclear families.

After the talk, some students launched a petition (which has since been taken down by its writer), parents launched an e-mail campaign, and the school held a stormy town hall meeting. And Sister Jane — who was a guest speaker, not a staffer at the school — was instructed to take a sabbatical from her teaching post at Aquinas College in Nashville.

The newest Observer episode is a rather unremarkable statement from Bishop Peter Jugis on the matter, after his return from dedicating a mission in the mountains of North Carolina. The article starts rather impatiently, then continues rather provocatively:

Bishop Peter Jugis has finally weighed in on the controversy that recently rocked Charlotte Catholic High School, saying the last few weeks have been “very difficult” for the school and that all concerned have “experienced a great deal of pain.”

In a statement Wednesday addressed to Catholics in the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte, Jugis said that after all the debate over a divisive speech at the school, it’s now time to “move forward toward healing with charity.”

But in comments likely to further inflame the situation, the conservative bishop also criticized parents and others who he said engaged in uncharitable talk before, during and after a meeting with high school officials last week that drew nearly 1,000 parents.

The article then summarizes parents’ objections, but then repeats a questionable statement from past coverage: “Some students who attended the assembly reported that Laurel said, for example, that children raised by single parents had a greater chance of becoming gay or lesbian.” That has yet to be established: The sister’s speech wasn’t recorded, and even the 10-point petition didn’t include such an accusation.

Next, the Observer says that parents at the town hall meeting “sought an apology” from the Rev. Matthew Kauth, the school chaplain, for not alerting them in advance about the delicate nature of the nun’s speech. And it quotes Sister Mary Sarah, president of Aquinas College, that Sister Jane had gone beyond “the scope of her expertise” in some of her high school comments.

The previous day’s story in the Observer was similarly thin: a summary of remarks in the Sunday homily of a priest who has no obvious connection with the Catholic High controversy. The Rev. Timothy Reid was the only source quoted in the Observer’s March 27 story in support of Sister Jane and the school, and he devoted a little more than half the homily to the topic. The Observer did helpfully include a link to the whole homily for any interested readers.

Granted, the Tuesday article includes some vehement quotes from the priest against the protestors. But the quotes are graded as coming from a “traditionalist”:

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So who is Stephen Colbert really? Maybe ask a priest?

A decade ago, when I started writing a Washington Journalism Center syllabus on the history and future of news, I wanted to include a full day of material focusing on some element of the whole “entertainment as news” trend. I wanted to argue that the political commentary featured in settings such as Comedy Central represented, not the future of news, but the future of the old-school op-ed page.

After surveying what was happening in fall 2005-spring 2006, I decided to focus on the work of the hip young satirist Stephen Colbert. The question everyone was asking back then, of course, was: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? What does he really believe?

Well, I delivered that lecture on Colbert again last week, while reports began circulating that he would soon sit in David Letterman’s postmodern-humor chair at CBS. Now it’s official that Colbert has the “Late Show” nod and, once again, the dominate question in the coverage is: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? Will we finally find out who Stephen Colbert is now that he has said that he will stop playing that fictional “Stephen Colbert” character?

In other words, there are journalists out there who do not realize that it is quite common to see Colbert drop the “Stephen Colbert” mask and speak for himself. When? It happens almost every time that there is a Catholic guest or a guest who is on the show to talk about moral/religious issues, as opposed to strictly “political” issues. For example, consider the following exchange with Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, author of “The Lucifer Effect.”

ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”

COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”

ZIMBARDO: “Wow.”

COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”

ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”

COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”

The Catholic side of Colbert’s work has received significant ink over the years, but very few publications are mentioning his faith in their coverage of his new “Late Night” gig. As you would expect — with Rush Limbaugh raising all holy heckfire — publications are asking political questions about Colbert, since politics are real and, well, faith is not really real.

So the New York Times offers this:

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Via AP, a tasty piece on a same-sex wedding cake

Sometimes, the best journalism relies on a really simple recipe.

That’s the case with a recent Associated Press news-feature headlined “How a wedding cake became a cause.”

Here at GetReligion, we have critiqued numerous mainstream media reports — here, here, here, here and here, for example — on the battle over religious freedom for bakers and others opposed to same-sex marriage.

But few, if any, of those stories on what happens when religious liberty clashes with gay rights have matched the quality of this AP story out of Colorado:

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The encounter at Jack Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop lasted less than a minute.

Phillips stepped out from behind the counter in his small, pastry-crammed shop to meet customers Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins. They told him they wanted a cake to celebrate their own marriage.

Phillips replied he couldn’t, but that he’d be glad to make one for other occasions, such as birthdays. Left unsaid was how making a gay wedding cake would violate his Christian faith, how he does not make ones for Halloween or bachelor parties, either.

Craig and Mullins left the shop, stunned. Left unsaid was how they viewed themselves as a regular couple, their wedding a private celebration, not a political statement. They simply wanted a no-frills cake.

Crushed, they posted a note about the encounter on Facebook and soon the cake had become a cause, with the sides becoming stand-ins for the culture wars: Phillips was portrayed as the intolerant business owner. The couple became the gay rights activists pushing their agenda, some claimed.

As Religion News Service’s Cathy Grossman did with her recent profile on Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green, AP’s Nicholas Riccardi puts a fresh face — make that faces — on this story.

Riccardi does so by focusing on real people — their experiences, their beliefs — and avoiding the kind of legalese and screaming talking heads that characterize much media coverage.

After a vague mention of Phillips growing up in a “religious household,” the AP story describes the baker’s conversion experience and provides insight into how his faith plays into his profession:

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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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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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So how many gay bishops are there in England?

Spinning a news story is not as easy as it seems. Too light a touch and an author fails to convince his audience of the merits of his cause. Too much can spin the ball out of the author’s control — touching upon so many issues and arguments that readers may become enamored with the “wrong” issue.

Take Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Aesthetically a beautiful film (and evil too), it fails as propaganda for any but the true believer because of its heavy hand.

(As an aside: Riefenstahl created the cinema-graphic technique of the long entrance. Hitler’s entrance to the rally builds and builds, tension and anticipation mount. The shots follow him through the bowels of the stadium and culminate in his entrance to the stage. Should you take delight in upsetting your political friends, compare the shots Riefenstahl used in Triumph of the Will to the staging of recent Democrat and Republican conventions — Bill Clinton followed Riefenstahl’s playbook almost scene by scene inside the convention halls.)

The key to good advocacy journalism, as it is in all things, is moderation. The best propaganda is subtle propaganda. Too many claims, too much hyperbole and you cheapen your story.

A line in a  piece published in the Daily Beast on gay clergy weddings for the Church of England illustrates the merits of moderation. Let me say at the outset that the story in the Daily Beast is an advocacy piece, published on an openly liberal website. As such, this is not normal GetReligion material. However, this is an opinion article cloaked in the mantle of a news story.

The tone, focus and editorial voice of the recent story “Meet the Gay Priest Getting Married” lauds the subject of the profile, a Church of England priest who has vowed to marry his gay partner despite being told such an act violated church rules.

But the plea for sympathy and support for the priest in his battle with a harsh and oppressive bureaucracy, was overshadowed by the article’s crucial claim that almost a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay. The tabloids as well as the gay specialty press picked up this statement and the issue de jour became hypocrisy on high — not the little guy fighting the good fight.

The Daily Beast reported:

The Church of England, which broke from the Vatican in 1534 so that Henry VIII could take a second wife, has often been celebrated for its accepting and open attitude. In fact, Cain estimated that a third of the clergy in London are gay. A clergyman, who did not wish to be named, claimed that at least 13 of the church’s 42 bishops were also gay, although they have not publicly acknowledged it. “Gay people have very often a heightened sensitivity to things of beauty and spirituality,” Cain suggested. “There are an awful lot of gay people in the church.”

Before I start on the gay bishop claim, let me say a word or two about the canard that England got a new church because Henry wanted a new wife. It didn’t quite work that way. Also, the Church of England does not see itself as having been founded in the 16th century. It is the same church that existed in those isles from the time of St Augustine of Canterbury (circa 6th century). But like the Orthodox some 400 years earlier, during the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I the Church of England declined to accept the universal authority of the Bishop of Rome in England.

And, the indigenous reform movement within the Church of England predated Henry’s divorce and remarriage to Ann Boleyn. Henry’s anger at the pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment (a refusal made on political grounds not theological) was the wedge political issue the English reformers were able to use to break free from the theological dictates of Rome. The English reformers were willing to disagree amongst themselves and with Rome over the theology of Eucharistic presence but were prepared to go to the stake over the issues of justification by faith, the Bible in the vernacular, the uniqueness of the death of Jesus and for the right to disagree over second order issues — the principle of adiaphora.

Once again, the frisson this article created, however, has not been over same-sex marriage and the clergy or even Henry VIII, it is the claim that a third of the Church of England’s bishops are gay.

Granted this appeared in the Daily Beast and the standards of attribution expected of traditional journalism is not the same as found in a mainstream newspaper. The expectations one would have of rigorous professionalism are not pertinent. But should it have printed this claim without further substantiation or explanation? Does not placing the claim into the mouth of an anonymous priest add to the impression that this is gossip?

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