Pod people: The thin line between insight and hearsay

Earlier this week, I critiqued an Associated Press story on the hullabaloo caused by a newspaper column in which a pastor’s wife referred to Southern Baptists as “the crazy old paranoid uncle of evangelical Christians.”

I closed that post by questioning the AP’s sourcing at the end of the story:

Here’s my journalistic question: If you were the editor, would you be comfortable with that source and the information provided? Or would you hold out for a more official source? In other words, would you consider this source credible on deadline?

The chunk of the story in question:

First Baptist member Larry Wilson said Bill Thomas was accused of “intolerable insubordination” by a staff committee and was told to submit a letter of resignation.

“To me, it sounds more like a termination or a forced resignation than a resignation,” said Wilson, who is also a Hopkins County magistrate.

Wilson said he believed Bill Thomas ran afoul of some church leadership before the column was published by supporting an openly gay church member. Wilson said Thomas was told to prevent the member from joining the choir, but Thomas declined to do so.

The church offered Thomas a severance package — contingent on him not making public statements about the details of his departure, Wilson said. According to church policy, staff terminations must be approved by the congregation, and church leaders wanted to avoid that step, Wilson said.

Wilson said he enjoyed reading Angela Thomas’ column.

“There were points in it that I thought were hilarious, it was funny, thought provoking,” he said. “Maybe we are Shiite Baptists.”

A bit of background for those who missed the original post: Both the assistant pastor and his wife declined to be interviewed. Meanwhile, the lead pastor told the AP that the column was not the cause of the assistant pastor’s departure. And the story cited a letter by the assistant pastor saying he had not resigned and had no intention of stepping down.

Confused yet?

My questions drew this response from Mollie, my fellow GetReligionista:

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In Kentucky, ‘Shiite Baptists’ and the crazy old uncle

Thou shalt not write an inflammatory newspaper column.

Hell, it seems, hath no fury like a community — or a congregation — scorned in print.

One of the favorite stories I wrote for The Associated Press during the 2004 presidential campaign involved the publisher of Republican George W. Bush’s hometown newspaper endorsing Democrat John Kerry:

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Signs at the bank, the cafe and the Bottlinger Grain bins all declare Crawford – the proud home of the president’s ranch – as “Bush Country.”

So when the Lone Star Iconoclast, a tiny weekly that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed Democrat John Kerry, there was hell to pay.

Local businesses pulled their ads and banned the paper from their stores.

“We felt a little betrayed,” said Larry Nelson, manager of the Crawford Country Style, a downtown shop that sells “Luvya Dubya” trinkets and other Bush memorabilia.

Most folks in Crawford (pop. 705) wholeheartedly support the re-election of the man whose “Western White House” made their speck on the map famous. Eighty-two percent voted for President Bush in 2000.

The paper’s publisher, W. Leon Smith, said he never expected such a hostile response. He knew “a person or two might pull an ad, that we might lose a subscriber or two.”

“But this has turned a little more vicious,” said Smith, 51, wearing a decade-old knit tie and ink pens in his white shirt pocket.

I thought of that story when I came across an AP report today about a Southern Baptist church seeking an assistant pastor’s ouster.

The pastor’s apparent offense? His wife wrote a less-than-flattering “humor column” about Southern Baptists.

The top of the AP story:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A newspaper column lampooning Southern Baptists, calling the group “the crazy old paranoid uncle of evangelical Christians,” is causing quite a stir in a Kentucky city and put a pastor’s job in jeopardy.

The column was written by Angela Thomas, the wife of Bill Thomas, an assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church in Madisonville. Her column was done in response to the Southern Baptist Convention’s opposition to a new Boy Scouts of America policy that welcomes gay members.

“Sexuality doesn’t come up and isn’t relative to typical scouting activities but now, thanks to Southern Baptists, the parents of little innocent scouts everywhere are having to have The Talk,” she wrote June 19 in The Madisonville Messenger. She writes a weekly humor column for the community paper, which publishes daily.

Later, the story notes:
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Painful silences in CBS chat on same-sex marriage rulings

OK, follow me carefully here, because it is especially interesting who passed the following item news along.

I read quite a few Catholic blogs, and follow the headlines at New Advent, but I had never heard of the self-proclaimed conservative Catholic blogger/geek who uses “Da Tech Guy” as his cyber-persona. However, this particular blogger recently offered up an interesting analysis of a not-so-shining moment in the long, distinguished career of reporter/anchor Bob Schieffer at CBS News.

More on the content of that post in a moment.

The key, for me, was that I learned about this post by seeing — via Twitter — a post by Deacon Greg Kandra, who runs the excellent “The Deacon’s Bench” blog, which is part of the whole Patheos Catholic blogosphere. The good deacon ran his post under this rather GetReligion-esque headline:

Great Moments in Journalism: Wherein Bob Schieffer Learns a Thing or Two About Gay Marriage

Now that’s a bit snarky, especially as a comment by a Catholic clergyman.

However, at that point it’s crucial to know a little bit about this deacon and his interests in all things journalism. His current online mini-bio hits the basics:

Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic deacon serving the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. A veteran broadcast journalist, Deacon Greg worked for 26 years as a writer and producer for CBS News in both New York and Washington. He now serves as the Multimedia Editor of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), overseeing editorial content for its acclaimed magazine, ONE, and its award-winning blog, ONE-TO-ONE. For his work in broadcasting, Deacon Greg has been honored with every major award in the industry, including two George Foster Peabody Awards, two Emmy Awards, the Christopher Award and four awards from the Writers Guild of America.

In other words, Kandra knows a thing or two about CBS News and what goes on in elite broadcast journalism organizations. Also, he made it clear, as he passed along the Schieffer item, that he was not trying to bash the journalist. Still, he thinks this particular broadcast offered sharp insights into the mindset of elites in this level of newsroom.

Now, Bob Schieffer is one of the most seasoned journalists still plying the trade — the only CBS News Correspondent to have covered the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Congress — and one of the few broadcasters who can claim deep roots in the world of print. (He was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram back in the day.) He’s a reporter’s reporter, with uncanny instincts, a Rolodex full of amazing sources, and a real talent for writing and interviewing.

I speak here from personal experience: he’s also a very nice guy.

This brings us back to the actual Da Tech Guy commentary, as passed along by the deacon. This is long, but includes transcribed material in italics from the Sunday broadcast:

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A tune on gay evangelicals that evangelicals won’t recognize

While working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew “Ring of Fire.” Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, “It goes something like that, right?” “No,” said Cash shaking his head. “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

I’m often reminded of that (perhaps apocryphal) story whenever I read mainstream media reports of conversations going on within evangelicalism. While the reporter may get bits and pieces right, the overall effect is that I finish the story thinking, “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

Take, for example, a feature yesterday by the AP, “Gay, evangelical and seeking acceptance in church.”

Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians, and the pressure isn’t coming from the gay rights movement or watershed court rulings: Once silent for fear of being shunned, more gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups – a development that even younger alumni say they couldn’t have imagined in their own school years

From the article, we can discern that four claims are being made (three from the opening lede, and one later in the feature):

1. Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups.

2. Gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out now, more so than in the past, about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

3. Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals.

4. Gay evangelicals have already prompted a backlash

The claim about students and alumni from Christian colleges forming gay and lesbian support groups is clearly supported by evidence, though the term “support group” is unhelpfully vague. This is a relatively underreported trend and could have been the focus of an entire article itself. Hopefully, the AP will provide additional coverage on that topic.

The second claim relies on a vague comparison to an undefined past. Still, it too is a relatively innocuous claim. The issue of homosexuality has become more openly discussed over the past ten years, so it would probably be fair to say that you could fill in the blank of “more gay and lesbian ______________ are speaking out” and have it be true for almost any group – including evangelicals.

The third and fourth points, which constitute the main theme of the article, raise the question of exactly how evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals and what sort of backlash is occurring:

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Same-sex marriage and a conscience clash, via CNN

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, CNN’s “Belief Blog” features an excellent story by Godbeat pro Daniel Burke exploring the issue from the perspective of conservative Christians.

The headline:

Conservatives brace for ‘marriage revolution’

The story grabs readers’ attention by focusing on a civil rights vs. conscience clash in Washington state:

With its ivy-covered entrance and Teddy Bear bouquets, Arlene’s Flowers seems an unlikely spot to trigger a culture-war skirmish.

Until recently, the Richland, Washington, shop was better known for its artistic arrangements than its stance on same-sex marriage.

But in March, Barronelle Stutzman, the shop’s 68-year-old proprietress, refused to provide wedding flowers for a longtime customer who was marrying his partner. Washington state legalized same-sex marriage in December.

An ardent evangelical, Stutzman said she agonized over the decision but couldn’t support a wedding that her faith forbids.

“I was not discriminating at all,” she said. “I never told him he couldn’t get married. I gave him recommendations for other flower shops.”

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson disagreed, and filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Arlene’s Flowers. The ACLU also sued on behalf of the customer, Robert Ingersoll, who has said Stutzman’s refusal “really hurt, because it was someone I knew.”

After providing a closeup view of that single skirmish, the reporter backs up and paints a wide-angle portrait of the changing times and attitudes confronting social conservatives — from within and outside their own ranks. It’s all extremely interesting with credible (albeit fairly predictable) evangelical sources such as Albert Mohler, Russell Moore and Jonathan Merritt.

At the end, the story closes with the florist featured up top:

Online, Stutzman has been called a bigot, and worse.

She said she’s lost at least two weddings because of her refusal to provide services for the same-sex marriage.

Conservative activists say her case is the first of what will surely be many more, as gay marriage spreads across the country.

As she gets ready to face a judge, the silver-haired florist offered some advice for fellow evangelicals.

“Don’t give in. If you have to go down for Christ, what better person to go down for?”

As an evenhanded account of conservative Christian attitudes, the CNN story turns out fine. But here’s where it falls short: in providing any actual insight into the legal issues involved in the Washington state case.

In a separate story, The Associated Press reported:

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Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

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Want balanced coverage? USA Today shows how it’s done

A few weeks ago a study on news media coverage by the Pew Research Center showed that stories with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1.

While the findings weren’t a surprise to most people who read news stories I suspect it came as a shock to some of the folks who write them. While almost everyone in the media will admit they are biased, most professional news reporters are bothered by the idea that their bias is undermining their work as journalists. The Pew study thus served as both a wake-up call and a warning that more balance is needed.

Over the next few days, GetReligionistas will be seeing who learned that lesson as we examine the coverage of religion and same-sex marriage in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions. Tmatt got us started by showing how The Baltimore Sun missed an opportunity, but I want to show an example of a news outlet doing it right.

With a title like “Religious leaders divided on gay-marriage decisions” you normally expect (re: Pew) to see one religious leader — most likely a Catholic bishop — state their opposition while two to four representatives — most likely mainline Protestant pastors — express their support. But the feature by USA Today is not only more balanced than usual but also covers a broader range of the religious spectrum.

Here is a list of sources quoted and where they stand:

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Wait, Baltimore’s archbishop is a national voice on WHAT?

As one would imagine, the editorial team that produces the newspaper that lands in my front yard in the liberal environs of greater Baltimore was celebrating a great victory yesterday.

I am, of course, talking abou those U.S. Supreme Court decisions that were consistent with the newspaper’s longstanding and clearly stated editorial stance on all matters linked to gay rights.

Thus, it would have been miraculous to have seen any degree of editorial balance in the large package of coverage published by The Baltimore Sun in the wake of this major victory for the moral, cultural and religious left. I mean, check out the strategic variation in the newspaper’s “Light For All” slogan in the header graphics used with key elements of the NEWS package (as opposed to an opinion weblog) for the day.

Still I think it is fair to pay attention to the material included in the main story that represented the views of traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and countless others who believe that the word “marriage” should not be redefined to include same-gender unions.

In particular, I was interested in how the Sun team would deal with the two primary realities in Maryland debates about sex, marriage and family.

The first is the majority of the state’s African-American Christians who do not back same-sex marriage and, also, continue not to equate race and sexual orientation.

The second is that the city’s archbishop serves as the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ ad hoc committee on religious liberty, a First Amendment issue that — for leaders on one side of these public debates — is directly linked to the future of U.S. laws and policies on marriage and family. In fact, would the story deal with the impact on religious believers and institutions at all?

So, what do we see in the main story (or in the whole package, for that matter)?

Trust me, this will not take a lot of your time.

Here is all of the material in this A1 story that is dedicated to the Maryland defenders of marriage as traditionally defined.

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