Writing a puff piece: a how-to manual

Truth be told, in our bias for fair, accurate journalism, we at GetReligion probably focus too much on the negative.

We point out mistakes in mainstream reporting. We cry out for balance. We complain about the MSM bubble.

For once, I want to accentuate the positive. Therefore, please allow me to highlight a Seattle Times story this week as a perfect example of how to write a puff piece.

Before I begin, however, I must stress that reporters typically do not write their own headlines. In this case, the headline and deck might give the reader the mistaken impression that this will be an actual news story, not a puff piece (shame on the headline writer!):

In black churches, a gay-marriage divide

A source of debate across the country and the subject of ballot measures in four states this year, same-sex marriage remains a thorny issue within the African-American community, where objections are deeply rooted in religion and biblical teachings.

At this point, I must admit that I was worried. I feared that the story might subject me to actual intelligent voices on both sides seriously engaging the thorny issue and even providing insight (of a theological nature!) on the deeply rooted objections.

Whew! Imagine my relief when I realized that this would indeed be a puff piece.

Some key elements that make this puff piece work:

• The lede: Immediately, the Times takes readers to a gay-friendly church that stands as a stark contrast to the discriminatory black churches that — somehow in an enlightened age — still manage to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality:

Sounds of gospel music resonated through the sparse sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon as voices rose up in praise and a few hands sailed through the air.

Liberation United Church of Christ in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood is a small congregation with a style of Christian worship not unlike many charismatic black churches.

But its congregants, many of them African American, come here as much for the spiritual euphoria as for this: that as gays and lesbians, they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the churches of their parents and grandparents.

That’s particularly relevant in a year when questions about whether gays should be allowed to marry will appear on the November ballot in four states, including Washington.

The sourcing: The Times quotes eight sources by name, by my quick count. Fortunately, six of them support same-sex marriage and contribute mightily to the puff piece. But even the two sources who oppose same-sex marriage serve a purpose, providing caricatures with real names to highlight the lunacy of the other side:

Within the community, there are unspoken concerns, particularly among older people, that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow diminishes the discrimination blacks have endured.

Some have even said that given the challenges in the black community — from education to health care — marriage for gays cannot be a priority, despite a significant number of African Americans in same-sex relationships.

But ultimately for many, the Bible is the final arbiter.

“People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong,” said André Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, who has participated in recent rallies in favor of traditional marriage.

“Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them.”

Notice the way the story makes a lot of broad generalizations about the other side without attributing the information to a named source? That’s a brilliant tool for a puff piece. But then the story quotes a single pastor as the sole representative of the “many conservative leaders — including some black pastors” opposed to same-sex marriage. Again, brilliant.

• The marginalization: Make it crystal clear which point of view is on the right side of history and public opinion. (Hint: Don’t dare let on that a state referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage has never passed in the United States or that polls show support for the Washington state measure under 50 percent.) The proper way to write it:

While national polls now show majority support for gay marriage in the general population and among other racial and ethnic groups, support among black people remains under 50 percent — despite a bump after endorsements by President Obama and the NAACP.

Recently, black pastors in parts of the South and Midwest have encouraged voters to sit out the election or to consider not supporting Obama because of his position.

In Atlanta, Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s, said she would never suggest that people not vote. But she said she and some pastors are so disturbed by Obama’s endorsement they’ve formed an organization, GodSaid.org, to urge black Americans to vote their “biblical values” rather than a party line.

At this point, we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the story. The writer has allowed token appearances by the other side. But the entire rest of the story — the final one-third — needs to provide positive, compelling anecdotes and quotes to support the need for same-sex marriage. Bingo, the Times is up to the challenge! This is such a terrific puff piece — leads with the side that’s right, ends with the side that’s right and sprinkles the side that’s wrong in the middle, but just a little bit!

All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for a better puff piece.

Seattle skyline image via Shutterstock

MSM’s upside-down Chick-fil-A sandwich

YouTube Preview ImageRemember when pickles, buttered buns and fried chicken filets were all we could talk about over the summer?

I’m referring, of course, to the big brouhaha over Chick-fil-A (catch up here, here, here, here and here if you happened to be stranded on a deserted island during that time).

Now comes an update from USA Today.

The headline:

Chick-fil-A thrives because of support for families

The top of the story:

Chick-fil-A has something not all that surprising to crow about.

Consumer use, visits and ad awareness were all up measurably in the third quarter, at a time the chicken chain enjoyed a remarkable outpouring of support from consumers, reports research specialist Sandelman & Associates.

Intense national media and social media attention — much of it positive — was heaped on the chain three months ago, after President Dan Cathy told a religious publication that his company was “guilty as charged” in supporting the biblical definition of the family unit.

Supporters of the Atlanta-based chicken chain caused long lines and traffic jams across the country as they rallied for Chick-fil-A. At the same time, a few gay rights groups called for boycotts, but company executives reiterated their long-standing love and appreciation for all customers — even those who disagree with Cathy’s position.

Oops! I am messing with you. That is not actually how USA Today reported the story.

Here is the actual headline:

Chick-fil-A thrives despite gay rights issue

And the actual lede:

Chick-fil-A has something unexpected to crow about.

Consumer use, visits and ad awareness were all up measurably in the third quarter, at a time the chicken chain appeared to be taking a public relations drubbing, reports research specialist Sandelman & Associates.

Intense national media and social media attention — much of it negative — was heaped on the chain three months ago, after President Dan Cathy told a religious publication that his company was “guilty as charged” in supporting the biblical definition of the family unit.

Many gay rights groups called for boycotts, and company executives seemed to be put on the defensive. At the same time, supporters of the Atlanta-based chicken chain held rallies outside stores. The national media couldn’t get enough of it.

Hmmmm, not much subtlety in the worldview of the reporter cranking out that version of the story, huh?

A few journalistic questions: Who is the source on Chick-fil-A’s success being “unexpected?” At the closest Chick-fil-A to my office (and yes, I live in the Bible Belt), the drive-thru is a madhouse every day. Folks in orange vests direct traffic in the parking lot, and runners zip back and forth between the long line and the window swiping credit cards and delivering bags full of delectable chicken sandwiches.

Concerning “public relations drubbing,” again, who is the source (besides the bias of the writer and his editor)?

About the “negative” social media attention, any statistics available on how many folks tweeted and Facebooked positive posts about Chick-fil-A vs. negative messages? Or is this a simple case of a MSM bubble?

Later in the story, there’s this:

Chick-fil-A declined comment.

Last month, the chain seemed to soften its tone. “Our intent is not to support political or social agendas,” Steve Robinson, executive vice president for marketing for Chick-fil-A, said in a statement. Chick-fil-A’s culture, he said, “is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.”

That softened tone sounds familiar. It’s almost as if the company said basically the same thing more than a year and a half ago before this latest controversy started. From a January 2011 statement by Cathy:

In recent weeks, we have been accused of being anti-gay. We have no agenda against anyone. At the heart and soul of our company, we are a family business that serves and values all people regardless of their beliefs or opinions. We seek to treat everyone with honor, dignity and respect, and believe in the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself.

We also believe in the need for civility in dialogue with others who may have different beliefs. While my family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who disagrees.

Keep reading, and PR execs quoted by USA Today try to figure out how Chick-fil-A overcame such a dreadful “PR disaster.”

Yeah, I wonder.

Image of Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day via Shutterstock 

Pod people: saying goodbye

Friends of GetReligion, it is time for me to tip my hat and say farewell. It’s been a good ride, three years of working with excellent colleagues.

I’ll give one final post with some reflections, but first, in my last podcast, I tried to address a few posts that have encapsulated some of the issues GetReligion regularly addresses. Ultimately, we hope to help reporters understand better how to cover the religion beat, a challenging beat for reporters to cover.

Recently, we considered how the religion beat is changing, looking at what’s new that we didn’t have a few years ago. Here’s a hint: we’re all recovering from this great recession and we have this thing called Twitter on the scene. Combine those and you have a few dead religion blogs, reporters moving in and off the beat faster than many people can remember in recent years.

We also have often discussed what religion ghosts look like, stories that should include religion but they don’t. I made a few assumptions when watching London’s opening ceremonies, for instance, filtering religion through my own set of beliefs. Religion is truly everywhere, so sometimes it’s worth getting over yourself and admitting you don’t know the answer. Then you go to a religion scholar and ask some basic questions. Or you crowd source and ask Twitter for help. There are more ways of reporting when we get creative.

Remember this summer when everyone was getting all hot and bothered over Chick-fil-A? The stories were perfect for social media, so what do you do when you have a really hot story the internet loves? I say, maybe you should give it a little bait and then quickly ignore it. Truly, the internet honors stupid stories. Additionally we see seen time and time again reporters who show biases, undercutting their own objectivity.

Because my husband is a sports reporter, I regularly make comparisons between the religion beat and the sports beat. Think about it. There are passionate fans in both beats, people who will spend a lot of money in both areas. So why, then, do sports reporters often ignore an athlete’s faith? I’ve made the case time and time again that sports reporters expect the faith narrative and think it’s cliche. But reporters who ignore the glaring religion angle, as some did with the story on Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, do a disservice to their readers. So how do they keep it fresh? Examine the Grantland piece on athlete Mo Isom for ideas.

There are always ways to tell stories about religion in fresh and interesting ways. Just ask the religious leaders who give sermons every week. And enjoy the podcast.

Imagine this: Another unbalanced Post LGBT piece

Oh well, here we go again. I realize, at this point, that I am severely testing the patience of the many GetReligion readers who are convinced that our elite media have little or no interest in balance and fairness when it comes to covering the hot-button issues that severely divide our nation, yet trigger severe group-think in so many newsrooms.

So, to set the stage for this latest bias case study, let’s try to imagine the following fictional scenario.

It’s late January, 2013, and — in a bizarre turnaround in political affairs — President Mitt Romney is naming the key members of his administration.

As director of the often overlooked, strategically crucial, Office of Personnel Management the Republican president repays a crucial debt and appoints a conservative evangelical activist, someone best known for his work with, oh, Focus on the Family or the National Organization for Marriage.

So, The Washington Post eventually decides to run a profile of this social activist turned government executive and, over the course of this 1,700-word text, focuses almost completely on the voices of people who think this appointment is perfectly normal, or even a giant step forward in American life.

Where are the culturally and politically liberal critics of this appointment, the people who believe that their stunned and furious voices should be heard in this piece? Where are the liberal voices offering balance in this piece of advocacy journalism? Well, they are nowhere to be found, in this pretend Post piece. In fact, the only voices critical of this activist come from those who are even further out on the political and cultural right.

Can you imagine this happening? Me neither.

Now, with this in mind, read through the recent Post story that ran under the headline, “John Berry, head of OPM and openly gay, helps Obama reach out to LGBT community.”

Who are the informed, critical, conservative voices quoted in this piece? Come back when you’re done with this quick reading assignment.

So, did you spot any? Instead, readers are given paragraph after paragraph of hagiography that sounds like this:

On that summer evening, the unassuming but effervescent bureaucrat gave a passionate recitation of the president’s record on gay rights and a pledge that a second term would bring full equality. And threaded through those remarks was Berry’s personal story. It’s a tale of humanity that has resonated so widely that he’s become a quiet figurehead, not so much fighting a full-throated battle for gay rights as embodying a philosophical shift: Gay relationships, Berry suggests with his presence, are normal, humane, right. An openly gay man can run a federal agency. He’s accepted by conservative veterans.

Berry told the donors in Rehoboth how he made the risky decision at 25 to come out to his devout Catholic parents, his terror that they and God would reject him, his Marine father’s painful decision to ban Berry’s partner from the family’s Rockville home for Sunday dinners. And redemption: When the partner, Tom, was dying of AIDS in 1996, the elder Berry held him in his arms and told him he loved him as a son.

There are, however, critical voices. They sound like this:

Speaking in July to gay Latinos gathered in Las Vegas, Berry chose his words carefully, promising that the president still is committed to crossing the next big hurdle to gay equality: workplace discrimination.

“We have not taken it off the table,” he assured activists at the National Council of La Raza’s annual convention. But he would not commit to a date when Obama would sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors, leaving impatient activists to wonder if the White House is serious about the pledge Obama made during his first presidential campaign.

Weeks before, Berry had told activists the president would not sign the executive order until after the November election.

“He defended the decision,” said Tico Almeida, president of the LGBT group Freedom to Work, who was at the White House when the activists learned the news. “It shows the tension and challenge of being on the inside of an administration.”

This dual role has left some activists wondering whether Berry is their best representative. The same skepticism came up over the Defense of Marriage Act, which the administration initially defended. Berry had to fall in line.

See the balance? On one side, in this report, are those who cheer him. On the other side are those in the LGBT community who think he has not pushed hard enough for the changes they seek.

Would a Post piece about a conservative activist be constructed in this manner? Of course not. It would — and properly so — include the voices of representative LGBT leaders and other progressives. That’s journalism. So what, precisely, in journalistic terms, should this Post feature be called?

Remember Chick-fil-A? Still making news!

Even as we head into beautiful fall color changes, we’re still talking about Chick-fil-A apparently.

No news becomes news apparently, if you read this Associated Press report that spends most of the story rehashing what happened earlier this summer.

Chick-fil-A is once again in the public relations fryer.

The controversy flared up this week when a Chicago politician said the company was no longer giving to groups that oppose same-sex marriage, angering Christian conservatives who supported Chick-fil-A this summer when its president reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage. Civil rights groups hailed the turnabout, yet the company never confirmed it and instead released two public statements, neither of which made Chick-fil-A’s position any clearer.

The events suggest the Southern franchise may be trying to steer clear of hot-button social issues while it expands in other, less conservative regions of the country. In its statement Thursday, the Georgia-based company said its corporate giving had for many months been mischaracterized.

Or here’s the headline from the Los Angeles Times: “Chick-fil-A vows to stop donating to anti-gay groups” that tmatt went over yesterday.

Perhaps there’s a style question going on, but does Chick-fil-A consider the groups “anti-gay”? I highly doubt they would use that language. Also, “vow” is a pretty strong word. So let’s look at what CFA actually said:

A part of our corporate commitment is to be responsible stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. Because of this commitment, Chick-fil-A’s giving heritage is focused on programs that educate youth, strengthen families and enrich marriages, and support communities. We will continue to focus our giving in those areas. Our intent is not to support political or social agendas.

The LAT story has a funny attempt by the reporter to gauge all of social media’s reactions:

On social media, reaction was split.

“Yes, Chick-Fil-A was wrong but they’ve changed their policy and I think they should be thanked for that,” wrote user DoubtcastFletch.

But Twitter user Glam_Star77 accused the company of trying “to play neutral.”

“I feel like I’ve been betrayed,” the user wrote. “No integrity or ethics!”

An editor should have deleted that whole section. Why would you use 10 second reactions from Twitter instead of talking to real people on the street? Why not go to a food court and find out whether people choose or don’t choose Chick-fil-A? The social media plug screams laziness.

Hey, here’s an idea: Call real sources on the other side of the issue. It’s like these journalists were thinking, “Oh dear God in heaven, don’t make me talk to a religious traditionalist of any kind!”

Meanwhile, Focus on the Family released a CitizenLink story correcting media reports saying CFA would be stopping its donations to groups like Focus.

Contrary to reports first made by the gay-activist group The Civil Rights Agenda (TCRA) on Tuesday and later picked up by mainstream media outlets, Chick-fil-A and its charitable-giving arm, the WinShape Foundation, did not agree to stop making donations to groups that support the biblical definition of marriage in exchange for being allowed to open a franchise in Chicago.

…Moreover, many news agencies reported that Chick-fil-A had specifically agreed not to give money to Focus on the Family or the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). NOM said Wednesday it has never received money from the foundation. Focus on the Family has.

This time it looks like the media is fishing for stories, pouncing on ones that seem to obvious. Sometimes the story isn’t as juicy as it appears and could be left alone. Remember, the Internet often honors stupid stories, so it takes discipline to resist them.

LATimes on Chick-fil-A: Where’s the journalism?

A long, long, time ago — almost a decade, in fact — there was a Los Angeles Times editor who wrote a letter to his section editors in which he defended solid, old-fashioned American journalism. You know, the kind that strives to accurately quote informed voices on both sides of controversial issues, perhaps even in a way that promotes informed, balanced, constructive debate and civic life.

The editor’s name was John Carroll. His famous memo started like this:

I’m concerned about the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, “politically correct” newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring “so-called counseling of patients.” I don’t think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it “so-called,” a phrase that is loaded with derision.

It was clear that most mainstream scientists were, at that time, discounting the abortion-breast cancer link. The issue, for Carroll, was that his staff made no attempt to talk to mainstream scientists who did support this stance. Of course, there were scientists — then and now — who believe they have evidence for this stance.

Instead of talking to scientists about science, on the pro-life side of the debate, the Los Angeles Times team elected to go in other directions. Carroll wrote:

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story’s lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he “has a professional background in property management.” Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn’t we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views. Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.

But why does this matter? What’s the point? For Carroll, the ultimate journalistic goal was to produce coverage that accurately and fairly represented the views of stakeholders on both sides of the debate. His bottom line?

We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I’m no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

I am well aware, obviously, that Carroll no longer edits the Times and that there have been many changes in that newsroom in the years since then.

Still, I would like GetReligion readers to think about the points that Carroll made while reading the following Los Angeles Times report about the decision by Chick-fil-A executives to go silent on issues linked to centuries of Christian teachings on marriage and family. As you read the story, search for representative, informed voices speaking for religious traditionalists — in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. — who would be troubled by this decision.

You do remember the case, right? Here’s the update:

Chick-fil-A will no longer donate money to anti-gay groups or discuss hot-button political issues after an executive’s controversial comments this summer landed the fast-food chain in the middle of the gay marriage debate.

Executives agreed in recent meetings to stop funding groups opposed to same-sex unions, including Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage, according to Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno.

Earlier this summer, Moreno became a key critic of Chick-fil-A after the Atlanta company’s president, Dan Cathy, said in an interview that his business was “guilty as charged” of supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

When you click the “comment” option, please avoid several non-journalistic issues. We are not here to discuss the newspaper’s use of the term “anti-gay” to describe the nondenominational groups that received money from this foundation. Also, it is clear that pro-gay rights groups had every right to protest the religious beliefs and activities of Chick-fil-A leaders. The corporation’s leaders had every right to respond to the resulting media tsunami in the way that they did.

No, the purpose of this post is to ask if the current Times team produced a journalistic product that attempted, in any way, to take seriously the views of stakeholders on both sides of this debate. Find the conservative voices in this piece and compare their offerings, in size and serious content, to those of the gay-rights supporters who are asked to discuss this decision.

In light of the Carroll memo, what kind of news story is this? How seriously does this take the serious religious and legal arguments on both sides?

Good luck with that.

Paper of record or church bulletin of the left?

The New York Times‘ outgoing public editor — Arthur S. Brisbane — wrote his final column this weekend. Most of it is outside the purview of this blog, which is discussion of media coverage of religion news. He talks a lot about how the Times has streamlined and responded to social media. But part of it was interesting enough to some readers to send it in for discussion. Here it is:

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

It is to the New York Times’ credit that it publishes critiques such as this.

You’ll recall former public editor Daniel Okrent’s column headlined “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?“  The first line of that piece was “Of course it is.” It went on to mock anyone who thought the paper “plays it down the middle” on the issues of “gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others.” Okrent said the newspaper’s coverage of same-sex marriage resembled “cheerleading.”

One of the things I find most astute is how Brisbane notes that it’s easier to see the homogenous thinking on display across the paper’s many departments from the outside. Almost as if to prove his point, Times‘ executive editor Jill Abramson said to Politico in response to the column:

“In our newsroom we are always conscious that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of the country or world. I disagree with Mr. Brisbane’s sweeping conclusions,” Abramson told POLITICO Saturday night.

It’s interesting to read through some of the comments from readers, too. Ron from New York City says, “I’m all for gay marriage. But the obsession of The Times with gay marriage and all gay issues is beyond bizarre.” Dave from Texas writes “Groupthink can be a very dangerous thing. So many at the Times think the same way that they literally cannot comprehend how any thinking person could hold an opposing viewpoint. Sadly that inability is costing the Times tens of millions of dollars a year because their thinking is so one-sided that half, yes half, their potential customers refuse to buy their product.”

Media critics also responded to the piece. Jay Rosen says “Look: The New York Times would be better off if everyone knew where it was coming from.” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger agrees, saying that the Times must abandon “the fiction that ‘We’re just reporting the news here.’” The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple avoids the more interesting charges about same-sex marriage to criticize the public editor for failing to document bias covering Occupy Wall Street.

As for me, I’ll only say that I think that the type of bias that the New York Times displays when it advocates for same-sex marriage is hurting our ability to be civil with each other. Even before the politically motivated shooting at the Family Research Center, I wrote about my concern that unbalanced and inaccurate media treatment of same-sex marriage battles was harmful to civil society. I mentioned a few recent incidents — the reporter going off on a Chick-fil-A-related Facebook tirade, the same-sex marriage proponent losing his job after bullying a remarkably composed young Chick-fil-A drive-thru worker, a lesbian who said watching lines at Chick-fil-A made her feel like there were boots on her chest.

All of these stories made me sad, for one reason or another. Obviously something in civil society had broken down. As I wrote then:

If it is true that believing marriage is the conjugal union of one man and one wife is bigoted, the equivalent to the most vile racists of the past centuries, then it makes sense to react in the way the reporter, the recently fired corporate executive and the lesbian passer-by did.

If the idea that marriage is the conjugal union of man and wife is bigotry — and the mainstream media and the cultural elite have pounded this view non-stop for years (here’s the latest example of the accompanying holier-than-thou pietism with which the view is pushed) — then you should respond by tormenting drive-thru workers who are part of the bigotry-industrial complex. You should speak ill of people who hold this view on Facebook. Often! You should feel like eating a chicken sandwich was about people putting their boot on your chest.

The thing is, though, that it’s not…

When I first began covering this issue — back when California was deciding Prop. 8 — I was shocked to learn that what the media had told me was wrong. When I interviewed people who supported Prop. 8, I found that they were eminently calm and reasonable. Their arguments did take a while to learn, but they were able to be learned.

These people explained why marriage law exists and what it is designed to protect. They explained why they viewed a change to those laws as seriously misguided. They pointed out some of the logical conclusions to changing the definition of marriage.

Now, you may agree or disagree with what they have to say (and to learn more about what they say, I think this paper is easy to read and digest), but it’s not bigotry. And it is a scurrilous indefensible charge to say otherwise.

If our country is to work through these debates about what marriage is and what it should be, we simply must devote ourselves to listening to arguments and thinking things through. It is impossible to do that when we dismiss supporters of traditional marriage as bigots.

Even more than the reflexive cheerleading for same-sex marriage that Brisbane refers to, it is the media’s demonization of those who retain a traditional definition of marriage that concerns me. I am in no way blaming the media for recent violent attacks against people or businesses. Only the people who assault employees or their buildings are responsible for their actions. It’s just past time to start talking about what marriage is without charging people with bigotry. Some people believe that marriage is the conjugal union of a man and woman who make permanent and exclusive commitment to each other, based on their gender differences and built around conjugal acts — those acts that naturally lead to reproduction and unite them as a reproductive unit. Other people believe that marriage is the union of two (or some might say more) people of any sex who commit to romantically love and care for each other and share domestic burdens. These are different definitions that have consequences that are far-reaching.

We probably haven’t even touched the surface of what those consequences might be. And we will never be able to think these things through rationally and calmly if we denounce one or the other view as unfit for public discussion. Heck, I’d say that most media outlets haven’t even begun for a moment to think about any consequences for changing this definition — apart from what you read about in terms of particular people who would be affected by the change.

This is one of the wonderful things about a mainstream press. It can help promote civil discourse, rational thinking and an improved society (I thought this recent debate led by a New York Times religion columnist was a good step in the right direction). When the paper of record becomes a particularly virulent propaganda arm for one side in the culture war, those things don’t happen — and I hope we can agree no matter which side we take on hot-button cultural issues.

(For what it’s worth, I stole the headline from one of the commenters to the public editor’s last column.)

Todd Akin interviewer denies blunt attack on Christianity

The most important story this week — do the math — has been the reaction to Rep. Todd Akin’s comments to an interviewer about what he called “legitimate rape.” While people have focused on Akin, it might be worth taking a closer look at the reporter who asked Akin the question about abortion and rape. It came during an appearance on The Jaco Report, hosted by veteran journalist Charles Jaco.

Yesterday I asked why reporters always ask consistent pro-life politicians about rape exceptions but never ask consistent pro-choice politicians about why they support abortion being legal moments before birth, or just because the child happens to be female, or because the child has Down syndrome.

I don’t know if Jaco has asked — or will be asking — Akin’s Senate race opponent Sen. Claire McCaskill good and tough abortion questions, but several days ago I was forwarded an email exchange a viewer says she had with him that gave me pause about his ability to impartially cover hot-button topics such as these.

The viewer was complaining about inaccurate statements that Jaco had made in an aimless commentary against Chick-fil-A. Here’s the note Sally Dooling sent to Jaco via an online form:

Name: George and Sally Dooling
Email: [redacted]

I do not have a question for Mr. Jaco–I have a comment.  The next time you want to quote the Bible in your commentary, I suggest you get your information correct.  I saw your very hateful comment on Chick-fil-A this afternoon and and you said that the Bible says that women are subservient to men.  The bible says no such thing.  It says that the wife is to be submissive to her husband and the husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the church.

The owner made a statement of his personal beliefs and said nothing about gay marriage or homosexuals.  He stated that he believes in the biblical meaning of marriage and said nothing demeaning about gay people.  The hate speech  that has been directed at him is just terrible and you add to that with your comment.

It’s a sad day in the U.S when someone can’t state their beliefs and sadly it happens all the time to Christians.

Phone: [redacted]

Time: Thursday August 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm
IP Address: [redacted]
Contact Form URL: http://fox2now.com/2012/02/07/contact-the-jaco-report/
Sent by an unverified visitor to your site.

Jaco didn’t respond to her complaint about his inaccurate statement about what the Bible says but he did respond with this:

This was NOT the man’s personal opinion. As a corporation, Chik Fil A has given over $5 million to anti gay rights groups. So what’s your problem? Sent from my Droid Charge on Verizon 4GLTE

The viewer responded:

What is YOUR problem–as a corporation why can’t they give some of their profits to whomever they want.  Corporations give money to different organizations every day without all the uproar.  You did not address the biblical part of my comment. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, as you are entitled to yours and so is Mr. Cathy. We have gay friends and we are not anti-gay, but the strong arm of the gay movement always talks about “TOLERANCE”, but they sure don’t practice what they preach.  Whenever someone disagrees with their agenda, that someone is called intolerant. I think they should practice what they preach.

Have a blessed day Mr. Jaco–I love a good debate. God bless you and your family.

Jaco then more or less lost it. He mixed some, at best, Sam Harris/Dan Savage-level Biblical exegesis with some garden variety bigotry and came up with this:

Since you choose to live as what Thomas Jefferson called, “…a prisoner of superstition,” I don’t imagine there’s much I can do to sway your belief in Bronze Age folk tales as some sort of direct communique from the creator.

I would expect you call yourself a Christian, which is amusing, given that the man you worship had a lot to say about tolerance, and not one word to say about homosexuals. Your bible is loaded with all sorts of admonitions on how to live one’s life. It’s your choice if you want to cherry-pick the bits that condemn men laying with men, and ignore the parts that say you shouldn’t consume swine, or shellfish, or that the woman should be subservient to the man. How does that sort of cafeteria religiosity work, anyway, where you can create a political movement against gay marriage with some quotes, and ignore the rest? As I recall parts of the bible, large chunks also defend slavery.

Gay marriage certainly doesn’t affect the sanctity of my marriage. I’m sorry if it somehow devalues yours. I’m even sorrier that you base your fear of it on something written by zealots half a world away 3,200 years ago.

Charles Jaco

What the what? “Prisoner of superstition” … “Bronze Age folk tales” … “direct communique from the creator” … “you base your fear” … “something written by zealots half a world away 3,200 years ago”? What in the world is this guy doing in the journalism business? And why do journalists not know that this is unprofessional behavior? I can’t be alone in thinking that this incivility — and refusal to admit error or correct an error — reflects poorly on our profession. We should always aim to treat our viewers/listeners/readers with respect.

I get that these types of bigoted views are sadly common among people who are in the media. It’s hard to ignore that those views make their way into decisions of how to cover the news, what questions to ask, how to frame the issues of the day, etc. But this is not a helpful way for journalists to respond to their listeners, readers or viewers. It certainly goes far to hurting trust between the media producers and consumers.

And if I were his employer, I’d think about whether he’s best suited to be interviewing religious conservatives, given his stated bias against them.

For his part, I emailed Jaco to confirm and he* wrote back to say he didn’t send the email that comes from his e-mail address and uses his name. He suggests that someone else in his newsroom is pretending to be him, although he doesn’t indicate knowledge of who that might be. I’ll go ahead and quote his response here:

I did not send the attached communication. The computers in the newsroom are public, and if we log on to our email and fail to log off, are accessable to anyone.

I don’t know if that includes the note that says it was sent from the Droid or just the one that I sent him for confirmation that included the sign-off “Charles Jaco,” but there you go.

*or someone using his email account, I guess.


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