‘Fred Phelps has been excommunicated’ and other gossip

OK, folks. We need to keep news over here and gossip over there.

First, we have multiple stories that Fred Phelps — of Westboro Baptist Church fame, of “God Hates Fags” fame, of picketing veterans’ funerals fame — is “on the edge of death”.

Now he was supposedly kicked out of the Topeka-based church for advocating “kinder treatment of fellow church members.”

And what are the sources for this “news”? Facebook postings by Nate Phelps, an estranged son, who left the church 37 years ago. Here’s what he says, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal:

On Nate Phelps’ Facebook page, Nate Phelps posted: “I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps Sr., pastor of the ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the ‘church’ back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.

“I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.

“I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.”

The other main source is another son who is also estranged:

However, a second Phelps brother estranged from Westboro Baptist Church confirmed Sunday morning that Fred Phelps Sr. is in poor health and has been excommunicated.

“Just a quick note to assure you the information you wrote and published this morning is accurate,” Mark Phelps emailed to The Capital-Journal at 10:30 a.m. “I do not know anything more than you know, at this time, but what you wrote I know to be true, personally, just as Nathan (Nate Phelps) knows to be true also.”

Not exactly the same as hard evidence, is it? Especially given that Nate now says he’s an “LGBT Advocate”?

Years ago, when I worked at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, an investigative reporter told me how he worked: Whenever a source denied something, he would have it confirmed by four other knowledgeable sources. Only then would he go with it.

The mainstream media I’ve checked today don’t meet that standard. Besides Nate Phelps’ assertions, all they have is Westboro spokesman Steve Drain — who has denied that Fred Phelps is dying:

Drain acknowledged Fred Phelps Sr. has been admitted to Midland Care Hospice, adding he “has a couple things going on” but disputed the gravity of his health.

“The source that says he’s near death is not well informed,” Drain said Sunday.

The Capital-Journal stories have been picked up uncritically by major media, including Reuters, Huffington Post and The Blaze.

Instead of looking critically, they’ve simply been piling on, like a particularly brutal football scrimmage.

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What M.Z. said: Doctor Who vs. Jesus at BuzzFeed?

First things first: Yes, I am a big Doctor Who fan.

Thus, I find the role that the whole “Whovian” phenomenon plays in the following M.Z. Hemingway post to be fascinating, to say the least.

Nevertheless, suffice it to say that I think our beloved Divine Mrs. M.Z. nails this one and, yes, this is clearly a case of serious religious content giving some journalists sweaty palms.

So, I’ll simply say, “What M.Z. said.” And does the top of her post — at The Federalist, of course — sound kind of familiar here in the context of GetReligion.org? Take that double-decker headline, for example:

Why Is Religion Invisible To The Media?

A 12-year-old girl wrote herself a note before she died. It contained an amazing message of hope and redemption. That was before the media got to it.

And here is the top of the M.Z. manifesto. You really need to read it on their site to get the impact of the URLs, embedded tweets, etc.

Seven in 10 Americans identify as “very religious” or “moderately religious,” according to a recent Gallup survey. Each week, hundreds of millions of Americans go to houses of worship, pray, or just ponder the higher things related to our religious views. But it’s not news that this religious reality is not well reflected in our media.

There is some great work being done by mainstream media outlets, but much room for improvement. For those of us who are religious, we notice the weird way the media handles religion news and religious topics. We see it every time a broadcaster interviews someone live and stumbles when the subject mentions something religious. We see it in the egregious mistakes the New York Times makes about basic teachings of the Christian faith. We see it in the unmasked disdain for religious people.

But usually the media treatment of religious people and their religious views isn’t so much hostile as absent. We may not be invisible to them, but our religious views certainly are. I thought of this when I came across an interesting BuzzFeed post titled “After The Death Of Their 12-Year-Old Daughter, Parents Find The Letter She Wrote To Her Future Self.”

So here is how BuzzFeed summed up the crucial element of 12-year-old Taylor Smith’s epistle to her future self. The quotes from “Tim” are from her father, of course:

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Fresh take on Yom Kippur

I wish we saw more coverage of liturgical holidays but I get why we don’t. How do you write something fresh and new about something that’s been done … for thousands of years? It’s very difficult to transmit culture or tradition as “news” — since, by definition, they’re not. So that’s why you see news outlets focusing on progressive churches or groups that change, rather than retain, doctrine. It’s actually a fundamental flaw in the transmission-of-information part of the news process … but that’s for a lengthier treatment elsewhere.

But for fresh and new, let’s look at a couple of good treatments. First off is Religion News Service. And don’t be put off by the cliche’d headline of “For somber Jews on Yom Kippur, white is the new black.” Near the top it begins with a rabbi saying his congregation will be dressed in white for Yom Kippur:

Orthodox Jews commonly dress in white on this most holy on the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement – which begins the evening of Sept. 13.

In Reform and Conservative synagogues around the world, the picture on Yom Kippur is more colorful, with congregants dressed in suits and dresses of a variety of hues. Here, only the rabbis and hazzans, the musically-trained prayer leaders, will stand out in their white robes.

But in recent years, the tradition has spread to less observant Jews who make up the majority of world Jewry, and who find that wearing white is a way to connect to the message of Yom Kippur, which ends a month-long period of introspection and atonement for one’s sins.

It’s a trend piece without hard data, but nice anecdotes. We hear from members of congregations and rabbis. And it doesn’t shy away from some nice theological aspects — particularly for a brief piece:

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a member of the “Ask the Rabbi” team at Chabad.org – the online presence of the traditional Chabad movement, offers another Yom Kippur analogy.

“We’re wearing white, for the same reason a bride on her wedding day wears white. White is purity. We’re pure,” Freeman said.

And the groom? God. There may have been some nasty issues between the couple, said Freeman. But Yom Kippur gives them a fresh start.

“We say to Him, ‘We can’t live without you.’ He says to us, ‘I always loved you.’”

Another piece I enjoyed could not have been more brief and comes from Buzzfeed — a graph of people searching Google over the years for what time the sun sets. It peaks each year on Yom Kippur. See above.

Finally, there’s an interesting piece about an app that lets you digitally upload a confession and have it put onto a digital goat that is pushed over a cliff by an animated priest.

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Pod people: media struggles mightily with abortion coverage

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I discussed that embarrassing BuzzFeed confusion — or defiant ignorance, really — about basic and widespread traditional Christian teaching on evil. We also discussed the curious way in which the Washington Post is downplaying even local abortion “crime” stories.

Three abortion doctors had their licenses suspended after the death of a woman who had an abortion but The Washington Post just doesn’t find that newsworthy at all.

Honest. I mean, they ran a brief Associated Press story on the matter online and the only follow-up I’ve found is — no joke — a three paragraph update that one of the doctors had their license reinstated. Also by the Associated Press. Wouldn’t want to put any local reporter resources into this story, I guess.

Abortion coverage continues to be such a grievous weak point across the media. We’re all familiar by now with the approach taken where reporters ask something close to 100% of pro-life politicians about rape, even though it’s not a major policy point. And while the majority of Americans support some or all abortion restrictions, it somehow never occurs to reporters to ask the most radical pro-choice politicians (those who support no restrictions on abortions) about their extremism.

So when a reporter for the conservative Weekly Standard did the job that no mainstream reporter will do — asking Rep. Nancy Pelosi about her opposition to legislation that protects unborn children targeted by late-term abortions such as ones that end the lives of children the same age (but other side of the birth canal) as the ones convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell killed — you will never guess how the Washington Post wrote up her response …

Actually, you probably could guess, so want to try?

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Political reporters learn about St. Augustine. Chaos ensues.

On Friday, Angus Dwyer wrote on Twitter:

You’ll never guess what uncontroversial Christian doctrine this Republican candidate and/or office-holder believes!

Yes, friends, it’s that time of month again, when political reporters discover Christian doctrine and write BuzzFeed-style pieces about how outrageous said doctrine is! This weekend’s example comes, conveniently enough, from BuzzFeed’s own Andrew Kaczynski:

Virginia Republican Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson candidate said birth defects are caused by sin.

The headline and subhed:

Va. Republican Lt. Governor Candidate Said Birth Defects Were Caused By Sin 

“It is the principle of sin, rebellion against God and His truth which has brought about birth defects and other destructive natural occurrences.”

Is St. Augustine running for the Republican nomination to be Lt. Governor of Virginia? Because he wrote about this idea a long time ago! As reporter Joel Gehrke gently replied to Mr. Kaczynski:

Don’t most Christians think that the world would be perfect if not for sin?

Kaczynski then appealed to his 12 years of Catholic education to say he had never heard of such a notion. Gehrke provided links to Augustine.

It turns out all sorts of Christians teach and confess that evil is not the result of a loving God but, rather, sin. Just randomly from the Google, for instance, I found this passage on an Antiochian Orthodox Church web site explaining Holy Unction:

Sickness is the weakness of the body as a result of the sin of the world. Sickness is not the punishment from God of personal sinful behavior, per se. We all share in the consequences of sin in this world.

I hope no Orthodox Christians think about running for political office! BuzzFeed is on it!

I’m not saying Christian teaching on sin, sickness and death is easy for an uninformed person to understand. It’s not. It’s a topic that has been a challenge for Christians since Jesus first told questioners that a man’s birth defect was not the result of his sin or his parents, as had been held. He goes on to heal the defect and give everyone a larger lesson about everyone being born blind and defected.

I imagine that when some reporters read the Republican candidate’s words, they just assume the worst or even just assume that he was saying, contra what Jesus taught while performing miracles, that birth defects were caused by the personal sins of the involved parties. I haven’t read Jackson’s book, but you certainly would need far more than the passage quoted by BuzzFeed to accuse him of straying so far from traditional Christian teaching.

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Dueling Christian coverage, or Ira Glass vs. National Journal

YouTube Preview Image
Above is a nice little snippet of an Ira Glass interview. Interview of Ira Glass, I should say. The popular host of public radio’s This American Life reflects on why the show does so much good coverage of Christians. It’s because the media do such a bad job of covering them otherwise, he says. He says the Christians he knows and works with — including the “fundamentalists” — are nothing like how Christians are portrayed in the media.

I knew GetReligion readers would want to see the interview.

It’s also a great introduction to a piece that ran on National Journal, yesterday. Many reporters passed it along to us, including one who added the note:

Those crazy Christians are at it again!

Praying!

About major decisions!

You get a feeling for the reportorial prowess on display, the nuance, the journalistic integrity, with the headline alone:

The Things That God Tells Politicians
Mostly, it’s to run for president. But every now and then, the almighty may intervene in a leadership coup.

Do you want to read on? Neither do I! But, this being part of the job and all, I guess we will. Here’s the top of the piece:

In early January, House Speaker John Boehner was in crisis. After a brutal fiscal-cliff slog, Boehner’s speakership was in serious doubt, and a group of conservative House Republicans were preparing to drive in the knife. But that’s when, according to a new Washington Post story, God intervened.

Barely 36 hours after the caustic [fiscal cliff] New Year’s Day vote, Boehner faced a coup attempt from a clutch of renegade conservatives. The cabal quickly fell apart when several Republicans, after a night of prayer, said God told them to spare the speaker.

This, of course, is not the first time that God has been said to have stepped into U.S. politics. Here’s a brief look at some of the almighty’s supposed prior forays.

I’ll spare you the rest, on account of it being too early for this much juvenile snark, but it goes on to make fun of other Republicans praying.

What’s your favorite part of this story? Is it how it perpetuates the stereotype that Democrats are all godless and Republicans are all fundamentalists? Is it the drive-by, Buzzfeed-worthy substance of the post? Is it the complete missed opportunity?

See, I’d love nothing more than a critical and thoughtful look at how politicians use religion — a story that broached whether they use religion to manipulate or advance objectives. I’d love to see one that didn’t assume prayer was just a ploy. I’d love one that didn’t sound like it was written by a former Talking Points Memo staffer (which, in this case, would be difficult since National Journal apparently hired this reporter after stints at … Talking Points Memo, Salon, etc.). Just about anything would have been better than this drivel.

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Is Politico as partisan as The Weekly Standard?

Today is Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s last day. You can read his memo to staff here.

To mark it, I’m ruminating on a Twitter exchange I happened across last night. So telling. It begins with John McCormack, a reporter for The Weekly Standard, writing:

Politico article on abortion issue includes two quotes–one from Planned Parenthood and one, for balance, from ACLU

It’s a particularly bad example of what we see on abortion coverage every day, as well as coverage of many other hot-button issues commonly found on beats linked to religion and politics. Even though this is only six paragraphs long, it’s a bad example.

But what I found interesting was the response from Andrew Kaczynski, a reporter for the supposedly mainstream Buzzfeed:

Lot of balance in those Weekly Standard Chuck Hagel stories.

This is a reference to The Weekly Standard‘s work opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. But the Standard (where my better half works) is an avowedly conservative opinion journal. It’s whole purpose is to spread adoption of a particular set of conservative values.

Do you see the problem here?

BuzzFeed and Politico (and the Washington Post, and countless other media outlets) present themselves as mainstream media outlets doing straight news. I’ll let Twitter do my work for me:

@QuinHillyer Weekly Standard is an opinion journal. Politico claims to be straight news. Big difference in what’s expected

@McCormackJohn Well, at least they’re more balanced than Buzzfeed’s articles on gay marriage. Also: We don’t pretend we’re not ideological.

@IMAO_ He’s very clearly saying that Politico is as partisan as the Weekly Standard.

We’ve been talking about this a lot recently, because it’s a major change in the stated objectives of mainstream media. This is also a topic closely linked to media-bias studies about religion news.

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Is a blasphemous drag show really ‘anti-Catholic’?

Just yesterday Bobby pointed out a practice of double attribution, asking whether it goes beyond attribution into the dreaded scare quote territory. I wonder the same thing in a few stories I’m reading about the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

I started looking around when Michael Brendan Dougherty asked, on Twitter:

Curious why reporters put “anti-Catholic” in scare quotes in their stories.

Jonah Goldberg responded, “because they think the anti-Catholics are right.”

What are they talking about? Well, when Hagel was nominated, some groups mentioned that he’d opposed Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel to be an ambassador because he was “aggressively gay.” Those words might not have been as controversial during the Clinton administration as they are now, but people were upset.

I was surprised to learn the rest of the story today:

Hagel also told the World-Herald he has seen tape of Hormell (sic) at an event by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco-based performance and activist group comprised of gay men in drag as nuns.

“It is very clear on this tape that he’s laughing and enjoying the antics of an anti-Catholic gay group in this gay parade,” Hagel told the paper in the 1998 interview. “I think it’s wise for the president not to go forward with this nomination.”

It is always good to consider the context of any remark. Hagel has apologized for his remarks either way, but knowing that Hagel was upset by Hormel laughing it up at a blasphemous drag show is an important detail. But is the group really blasphemous or anti-Catholic?

Wikipedia explains the group’s activities:

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