Shocking news! T.D. Jakes doubts something!

“Replate 1A.” That was a favorite dry reaction at my old newspaper whenever someone announced something obvious, as if were front-page news.

That’s what I said when the Hollywood Reporter labeled T.D. Jakes as “a man of God who admits he has wrestled with doubt.” Clearly, the reporter hasn’t read Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama, let alone St. Paul or the prophet Elijah.

It’s one “revelation” of the Reporter’s lengthy profile on the Dallas-based author, pastor and filmmaker. The 2,200+ word story reads like a rambling patchwork of bio, indepth, newsfeature and inside baseball.

In the process, it veers among trade savvy, admiration and more interest in Jakes’ business side than his spiritual side. But at least it seems to get the facts right. Mostly.

It trips up, predictably, on the matter of homosexuality. And it seems to want to make Jakes sound more like a diplomat than a minister.

The Reporter’s reporter extravagantly calls him a “towering figure in the evangelical world” — indeed, a “6-foot-3, 250-pound giant whose low, rumbling voice only adds to his gravitas.” But he softens that with a closer look:

In person, as I discover when we sit in Jakes’ windowless office suite the day after the ceremony, he is a gentle man whose style is more considerate than commanding. He has the faintest hint of a lisp, which softens his powerful appearance.

The article reports extensively on Jakes’ multi-sided ministry, starting with an enthusiastic look at his Potter’s House megachurch. There’s a wrenching but happy-ending anecdote as a former inmate tells congregants how her life turned around. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, with phrases like “Waves of emotion course through them.”

We trot through Jakes’ books and TV appearances, but this being the Hollywood Reporter, we’re quickly directed to his four films and his upcoming movie Heaven Is for Real. The story also mentions his friendships with “an armada of celebrities, from Tyler Perry to Oprah Winfrey.”

There’s a brief bobble as the story says The Passion of the Christ “resurrected the religious movie.” That ignores earlier releases like 1998′s Prince of Egypt and 2003′s The Gospel of John. It also doesn’t account for the lack of subsequent films in the supposed revival.

The Reporter then delivers a heavy six paragraphs of biographical material, going back to his janitor father dying when Jakes was 16. We follow his success as a pastor in Charleston, W.Va., then his fateful decision to move to Dallas with its big-city problems.

Here, the story seems to blame that move for exposing his children to urban vices: first his daughter’s unwed pregnancy, then his son’s alleged experimentation with homosexuality. And here is where the narrative begins to wobble:

In 2009, he discovered his son Jermaine had been arrested for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover male officer. Back then, Jakes was circumspect in his comments about his son’s possible homosexuality; today he is bolder. “In a world where we all have to live together, I think everybody has a right to pursue their own life and their own beliefs and their own passions,” he says, “and that’s what makes this country great.”

Um, howso? Up to now, the article has said nothing on Jakes’ beliefs about homosexuality. And if the direct quote shows his boldness, how did his circumspectness sound?

Yet the article goes on to say that Jakes has critics “slinging arrows from the left and the right” on a wide swath of topics — including being accused of “hostility to homosexuals.”

Jakes did, in fact, speak frankly on the topic in a 2012 interview on Oprah’s Next Chapter:

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Ahhh … a balanced article on religion … thanks, David

After carving apart so many journalism-challenged articles, it’s nice to be able to throw laurels every now and then. This one — a whole bouquet, actually — goes to David Van Biema of Religion News Service for his thorough, balanced article on the newest project of the Green family: a Bible course to be taught in public schools.

We at GetReligion have long noted the fine work of Van Biema, a veteran religion writer for Time magazine. Three years ago, our George Conger mentioned Van Biema’s 2006 article on the prosperity gospel. Eight years later, he’s just as good.

I like Van Biema’s RNS story just for the lede. Only there does he mention the Supreme Court case where the Greens, who own the Hobby Lobby store chain, are fighting the Affordable Care Act because of its contraception requirement. That would likely have been the focus of many other media reports.

Instead, Van Biema moves quickly to the still-developing Bible course, which has been accepted in the Greens’ backyard, Mustang, Okla. He offers an introduction, saying the program would examine the Bible’s “narrative,” its development and its impact on civilization.

The article extensively quotes Jerry Pattengale of the Green Scholars Initiative, who of course pumps the product. He cites Green for wanting young Americans to understand the Bible and its significance. Pattengale describes the first year of the four-year task as a “multimillion-dollar effort involving more than 170 people.”

Van Biema offers a gee-whiz item: pictures in a textbook that “come alive” when a smartphone is held over them. The feature sounds like “augmented reality,” which I wrote about in May when I saw it in a Catholic high school yearbook.

Great touch also in getting input from a veteran expert on church and state:

The Green curriculum “is like nothing we’ve seen before,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and editor of a booklet sent out to all schools by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000 on teaching religion in public schools. “It’s unique in its ambition and its scope and its use of the latest technologies. I think school districts far from Oklahoma will take note.”

Yet another laurel for Van Biema reminding us what the Supreme Court says and does not say about teaching the Bible:

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For the Times, Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy has only one side

Brandeis University offered an honorary degree to a controversial speaker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then withdrew it under pressure from Muslim students. Controversies always have at least two sides, right?

Not when the New York Times reports it. In its story on the dispute, the Times cites three sources who opposed Hirsi Ali’s appearance.

How many voices speaking on Hirsi Ali’s side? None.

There’s an attack by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling her “one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide.”

There’s Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute: “… for an institution like Brandeis to choose to honor someone like this is really disappointing.”

And there’s a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, who endorses Brandeis’ decision.

The Times adds: “Having drawn fire for inviting Ms. Hirsi Ali, Brandeis may now take criticism from other camps, whether for disavowing Ms. Hirsi Ali’s views, or for giving in to Muslim activists.”

You bet they might. So why didn’t the newspaper ask anyone?

Could the Times perhaps have called the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee? Or the American Enterprise Institute, where Hirsi Ali is a visiting fellow?

How about one of a dozen Jewish organizations at Brandeis? Surely the newspaper could have found a Jewish source at a school that was founded for Jewish higher education — as a 1998 Times article noted?

The Times story is not totally one-sided. It notes in the lede that Hirsi Ali is a “campaigner for women’s rights” as well as a “fierce critic of Islam.” It reports that it tried to reach her by phone and e-mail. And it offers two paragraphs of explanation for her antagonism to Islam:

Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far. A native of Somalia, she has written and spoken extensively of her experience as a Muslim girl in East Africa, including undergoing genital cutting, a practice she has vigorously opposed, and her family’s attempts to force her to marry a man against her wishes.

She moved to the Netherlands as a young woman, and she was later elected to the Dutch Parliament. She wrote the screenplay for “Submission,” a 2004 film critical of the treatment of Muslim women. Shortly after its release, the director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, who pinned to the victim’s body a threat to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali as well.

But it would have been better to quote someone who was on her side.

Asking comment from Maya Berry is puzzling in itself. Most Muslims are not Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims, as the Arab American Institute’s own website indicates. Even Hirsi Ali isn’t Arab; she was born in Somalia.

Other media had little trouble going to the other side, as it were. Omar Sacirbey of the Religion News Service quotes two of them in the second paragraph of his piece. And an Associated Press story quotes a professor who refused to sign a faculty letter against Hirsi Ali:

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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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Dear Sun editors: Do you favor a state-endorsed faith or not?

Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing.

Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.

This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.

The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions — “entangled” is the big word — about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.

But what happens when some state officials consistently use their free speech rights in ways that offend the religious views of others (in effect establishing a favored, state-endorsed religion)? That’s when people of good will need to evoke “equal access” principles.

Now, I realize that equal access principles — another product of the amazing left-right church-state coalition in the Clinton era — are primarily used in disputes linked to schools and the use of other public lands and facilities. But every now and then you see disputes of this kind show up in other settings. Take, for example, the drama that The Baltimore Sun is currently attempting to cover in nearby Carroll County. Here is the top of the report:

A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”

The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs. The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.

Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.

“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.

So what is the problem here, from the point of view of the board’s majority?

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Bob Coy’s fall: Kinder, gentler media treatment, for now

Some of the most compelling Bible stories are those with flawed characters like David and Samson: rising to prominence, then falling into sin. Pastor Bob Coy, who fell from grace last weekend at Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, fits that mold.

Coy, whom I got to know casually during my time as the religion editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, could be forceful and aggressive, but never holier than thou. He was public with his past as a womanizer, drug abuser and Las Vegas promoter. And he always told people to follow Jesus, not him.

This is why I think mainstream media have been rather kind with the story of his resignation over a confessed, though unspecified, “moral failing.” The Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald are fierce, longtime competitors; yet their coverage of Calvary Chapel this week has refreshingly shunned the acidic glee of most scandal stories. Thus far, at least.

Both newspapers posted initial “breaking” news articles, followed by longer newsfeatures. The Herald’s first piece, however, was a five-paragraph AP story with the barest details — and an incorrect report of 18,000 members for Calvary Chapel. The staff-produced story gave a more accurate 20,000.

The Sun Sentinel turned out a longer, 18-paragraph newsbreak, as one might expect from a newspaper in the church’s hometown of Fort Lauderdale. The article also narrates considerable church history, drawing from its own extensive files going back to the church founding in 1985.

Both sets of stories do have their blemishes. The Herald veers into cliché by mentioning Coy’s “boyish good looks.” And both newspapers talk about Calvary Chapel’s “parishioners.” Apparently, they’re still unaware that many Protestant churches are not parishes.

The Sun Sentinel states incorrectly that Calvary Chapel started six other campuses, as opposed to the Herald’s accurate reporting of nine. The Sun Sentinel could have simply counted the campuses on the church website.

Each paper stumbles in saying that Coy had no higher education in religion — “no formal religious training” in the Sun Sentinel’s story, “no formal seminary training” in the Herald’s. It’s a stumble because it shows little understanding of how nondenominational churches operate. In Pentecostal churches, for example — both black and white — young believers often sense the call, then undergo apprenticeship under a pastor, then receive a license to preach. And some church chains run their own ministerial schools.

Beyond accuracy, there’s the matter of tone. Media cultures include overall attitudes, including those toward religion; and each indepth story reveals differences in the two newspapers.

The Sun Sentinel, drawing from the Midwestern-based Chicago Tribune chain, sets up a religious Camelot before hinting at the fall:

When Bob Coy arrived in South Florida nearly 30 years ago to found a Calvary Chapel ministry, he seemed an unlikely man of God.

Yet from his first days in front of worshippers meeting in a Pompano Beach funeral home, the admitted onetime cocaine abuser and womanizer from Las Vegas showed a talent for mixing Bible lessons with real life that gave rise to a mega-church with tens of thousands of followers.

“He just kept your attention the whole time,” said 20-year parishioner Beverly Shrove, 62. “There was just something about him that made you keep coming back.”

But in the wake of Coy’s surprise resignation for what church officials have termed “a moral failing in his life,” some wonder if one of the largest churches in Florida can survive the loss of its charismatic leader.

In contrast, the Herald takes a more pompous, melodramatic tone, drawn from its roots in the old Knight newspaper chain:

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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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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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