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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Pod people: Vatican gay lobby or a gay Lobby?

Where should the stress be placed in Pope Francis’ phrase the “gay lobby”? Upon the first word “gay” or the second, “lobby”?

This semantic game animated my discussion this week with Todd Wilken, the host of Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues, Etc program, as we did this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen). In our conversation we contrasted The New York Times coverage of Pope Francis’s comments that a gay lobby existed at the Vatican to the coverage in the European and religion press.

Wilken started off by asking if this whole topic was really new news? I was polite and responded that this issue is only 100 years or so old, which I admit was a misstatement on my part. But it would’ve been bad form to quote Pope Pius V on a Lutheran program.

In his Constitution Horrendum illud scelus of 30  August 1568, Pius stated:

In his That horrible crime, on account of which corrupt and obscene cities were destroyed by fire through divine condemnation, causes us most bitter sorrow and shocks our mind, impelling us to repress such a crime with the greatest possible zeal.

Quite opportunely the Fifth Lateran Council [1512-1517] issued this decree: “Let any member of the clergy caught in that vice against nature, given that the wrath of God falls over the sons of perfidy, be removed from the clerical order or forced to do penance in a monastery” (chap. 4, X, V, 31).

So that the contagion of such a grave offense may not advance with greater audacity by taking advantage of impunity, which is the greatest incitement to sin, and so as to more severely punish the clerics who are guilty of this nefarious crime and who are not frightened by the death of their souls, we determine that they should be handed over to the severity of the secular authority, which enforces civil law.

Therefore, wishing to pursue with greater rigor than we have exerted since the beginning of our pontificate, we establish that any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit, and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, let him be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be put to death, as mandated by law as the fitting punishment for laymen who have sunk into this abyss.

Pius did not mince words. Obviously.

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Put not your trust in Huffington Post headlines

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I know a maiden fair to see,
Take care!
She can both false and friendly be,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s advice about women — especially blondes …

And she has hair of a golden hue,
Take care!
And what she says, it is not true,
Beware! Beware!
Trust her not,
She is fooling thee!

… is also good advice in reading headlines. As your GetReligionistas have stressed many times, seldom does a reporter get to write his own title. Yet when a sub-editor makes a mess of a headline the blame is laid at the reporter’s feet when the claim made in the title is not substantiated in the text. There have been times when stories I have written appear under a title that implies the opposite of what I reported.

Sometime back I was commissioned to write an article on a lecture given by the literary critic and philosopher René Girard at Oxford. I gave the story my all and … when I opened the paper after it came off the truck from the printer I found my article nicely displayed on page 5 with a beautiful photo of Girard scoring a goal in a World Cup match.

Too bad René Girard the philosopher and René Girard the soccer player are two different people. Perhaps my readers thought I was being droll, commenting on the élan vital of Girard’s latest book on mimesis by reference to the 1982 France v Poland match. Or they thought I was an idiot.

These meditations on my less than glorious moments in journalism are prompted by a Reuters article on the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s visit to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. The Huffington Post headlined the story: “Pope And Archbishop Of Canterbury Meet, Note Differences On Women Ordination, Gay Rights”.

While I was not in Rome for the press conference at the Venerable English College where Archbishop Welby and Vincent Nichols the Archbishop of Westminster gave a press conference at the end of their day at the Vatican, this headline indicated I missed a major event. Until now Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby held near identical views on gay rights, same-sex marriage, and civil liberties of persons with same-sex attractions. Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting! What had they said to each other?

I dove into the Reuters story looking for details. But there was nothing there. I could quibble here and there with some of the language and editorial asides made by the author:

It was the boldest step by the Vatican to welcome back Anglicans since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.

An Anglican would say Henry made himself Supreme Governor not head — the head of the church is Christ (there is a difference) and there was nothing “new” in a Church of England in 1534 — “new” implying a discontinuity between the pre and post 1534 church. A frightful papistical canard. Or:

In January this year, the Church of England lifted a ban on gay male clergy who live with their partners from becoming bishops on condition they pledge to stay celibate, deepening a rift in the Anglican community over homosexuality.

A celibate person is an unmarried person. A chaste person is someone who refrains from illicit sexual behavior. I assume Reuters meant to say chaste, meaning conforming to the church’s teaching that “in view of the teaching of scripture, [the Anglican Communion] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage”. The working assumption is that clergy in civil partnerships are celibate, because they are unmarried, and chaste as they are to abstain from sexual relations outside of (traditional) marriage.

And it is the Anglican Communion, not community. Community implies an ashram in the woods somewhere, or a collection of sensibly dressed nuns in their cloister. (True there are such Anglican communities — religious with pearls and twin sets) but this is not what Reuters is likely to have in mind — but perhaps this is the “women” link to the headline?

Or:

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Holy Scouts! Southern Baptists didn’t do what we expected!

So, when push came to shove, what did the Southern Baptist Convention decide to do about the Boy Scouts of America?

To the surprise of the national press, the debate in the national convention ended up featuring a variety of voices making a variety of interesting and valid points about Scouting and its new approach to gay members. In the end, the nation’s largest Protestant flock elected to do something that was more Baptist and congregational than it was political — they left the ultimate decision about supporting or leaving the Boy Scouts of America up to local congregations.

Thus, some news organizations clearly didn’t know how to handle this.

Did The New York Times even do a story? I cannot find one on the site. The lesson? If the story doesn’t go the way you expected, then don’t cover it.

Or, you can take the approach used in The Los Angeles Times. Try to find the key fact — the fact that the SBC said churches should make their own decisions — at the top of this report:

HOUSTON – Members of the Southern Baptist Convention at their annual meeting Wednesday voted to support families who leave the Boy Scouts due to the group’s plans to accept gay Scouts, urged the removal of Boy Scout leaders who championed accepting gays and encouraged former Boy Scouts to join a Southern Baptist youth group instead.

“Homosexuality is directly opposed to everything that Scouting stands for. I am disappointed in Scouting,” said the Rev. Wes Taylor in speaking for the resolution endorsed by the convention. “They are moving away from the principles that it was founded upon. This is an attempt to open the door to broaden the acceptance of homosexuality in that organization. It is an environment that would prove just fertile for young boys to be exposed to something that is ungodly and unacceptable.”

The proposal was submitted by the Southern Baptist Committee on Resolutions.

All valid, but the story totally missed the point of the key debates on the convention floor. In fact, the story does not include a direct reference to the most important element of the decision — the defense of local-church autonomy. It is clear that thousands of SBC churches will continue to be critical (in multiple meanings of that word) participants in Scouting for some time to come.

You can tell that the newspaper’s scribe heard some of the debate. The following information is crucial and hints at the issue lurking in the background — the distinction the Boy Scouts (echoing language used by Catholics and Mormons, to cite two key groups) are drawing between sexual orientation and opposition to sexual activity, gay or straight, by Scouts.

Thus, the story notes:

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Churches dumping Boy Scouts over gay policy … or not?

Godbeat pro Bob Smietana wrote a story this week exploring whether churches will keep sponsoring Boy Scout troops or drop their affiliation given the organization’s new gay-friendly membership policy.

It’s a timely, logical religion angle. (Others who have covered that angle include ABC News and the Birmingham News.)

The lede:

For the Rev. Ernest Easley, the decision to cut ties with the Boy Scouts was simple.

The Bible says homosexuality is a sin. The Boy Scouts do not.

“We are not willing to compromise God’s word,” said Easley, pastor of the 2,300-member Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., which has sponsored Boy Scout Troop 204 since 1945.

Easley, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, said his church will shut down its troop at end of the year, over a recently adopted policy to allow openly gay scouts. He’s urging other Baptists to do the same.

I first saw the story (one version of it, anyway) Thursday on USA Today’s website, where it carried this headline:

Religious regretfully sever Scout sponsorships

Huh?

At this point, I should remind GetReligion readers that reporters typically do not write their own headlines. So I’m assuming that Smietana didn’t craft that one.

But it struck me as awkward on more than one level. “Religious” seems especially vague. And while I assume the headline writer means that those severing ties are doing so with regrets, the statement also could be interpreted as an editorial comment, as in, “How dare they?”

On Friday morning, a truncated version of the same story (read: stripped to its bare bones) appeared on Page 1 of the USA Today dead-tree edition that I picked up in my driveway.

The headline on that version:

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The big questions facing that out gay Catholic priest

It is my experience, through my decades on the religion beat, that liberal Catholics genuinely love talking to mainstream news reporters.

That said, I have also observed — click here for a classic example — that liberal Catholics, especially if they are wearing collars or have the word “sister” in front of their names, do NOT enjoy answering doctrinal questions in the vicinity of recording devices.

Off the record chats? Sure. Background material for those wonderful paraphrased passages in The New York Times that go on and on with no hint of on-the-record attribution? Go for it. Discussions of “reform” in the church, with the questions all framed in precisely the terms they want to see them framed? You betcha.

You see, there is this place called the Vatican and, from time to time, non-liberal Catholics (many of them laypeople who own recording devices or know how to use Internet search engines) have been known to send troubling verbatim transcripts to the powers that be in Rome or to the headquarters of any local Catholic dioceses that happen to be quite loyal to Rome.

You can see this religion-beat reality, methinks, lurking in the background of the recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the openly gay Catholic priest who is doing what authors tend to do — doing lots of interviews and speeches about a book that he wants to sell. This book — “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay Catholic Priest” — used to have the word “Anonymous” on the cover, but Father Gary Meirer has put his name on a new edition.

So here is the opening of this news feature:

ST. LOUIS – Standing in front of a stained-glass window on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis earlier this week, the Rev. Gary Meier addressed a congregation of sorts. It had been nearly a year since the Roman Catholic priest had stood before a flock.

That was last June, when Meier told his parishioners at Saints Teresa and Bridget Church in north St. Louis that he would take a leave of absence “to discern what ministry God was calling me to do.” Meier, 49, had talked to St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and told him that he could no longer teach the Catholic church’s stance on homosexuality.

“I have tried over the years to reconcile my silence as a gay priest with that of the Church’s increasingly anti-gay stance. I have been unsuccessful,” Meier writes in his book “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay, Catholic Priest.” “I was hopeful that I could find a way to have integrity while remaining part of a hierarchy that is anti-gay — I was unsuccessful.”

Now, this story does include a brief, accurate, summary of what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality. As always, the key is that the church draws a bright red line between issues linked to “sexual orientation” as a condition and the moral status of homosexual acts. This has obvious implications for debates about the priesthood. Thus:

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‘Take Out the Trash Day’ for Boy Scouts?

In a memorable episode of “The West Wing,” Press Secretary C.J. Cregg is advised to save a few embarrassing stories for release on Friday.

Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and his assistant, Donna Moss, engage in a somewhat humorous discussion of the strategy involved:

DONNA
What’s “Take Out the Trash Day?”

JOSH
Friday.

DONNA
I mean, what is it?

JOSH
Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about we give all in a lump on Friday.

DONNA
Why do you do it in a lump?

JOSH
Instead of one at a time?

DONNA
I’d think you’d want to spread them out.

JOSH
They’ve got X column inches to fill, right? They’re gonna fill them no matter what.

DONNA
Yes.

JOSH
So if we give them one story, that story’s X column inches.

DONNA
And if we give them five stories?

JOSH
They’re a fifth the size.

DONNA
Why do you do it on Friday?

JOSH
Because no one reads the paper on Saturday.

DONNA
You guys are real populists, aren’t you?

Speaking of “Friday news dumps”

The Boy Scouts of America made a major policy statement this past Friday concerning admittance of gay members. Of course, most Americans’ attention was focused solely on Boston that day. Intentionally or not, the Boy Scouts’ announcement came at the worst possible time for actually conveying the news.

If you missed the headline, here’s how the Los Angeles Times summarized the news:

Top officials of the Boy Scouts of America have unanimously recommended allowing gay boys into the ranks of one of the nation’s oldest and most traditional youth groups while continuing to exclude homosexual adults as leaders.

Scouting’s executive committee described the proposal as an effort to acknowledge changes in society while respecting the religious organizations that sponsor many Scout troops across the country. It also aims to move the organization beyond a controversy that has rocked its foundation in the last several months.

“We believe the BSA can no longer sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, controversial, and unresolved societal issue,” National President Wayne Perry said in a statement.

The recommendation is set for a vote at the Scouts’ 1,400-member national council meeting in May.

Though a dramatic shift from the Scouts’ outright ban on gays, the proposal left many on both sides of the debate unsatisfied. It comes after months of intense pressure inside and outside the organization, whose leadership has sent mixed signals on the issue. On Friday, some who have pushed for change were no happier than those who want to keep the status quo.

Most major news outlets stuck to a similar theme of the proposal generally failing to satisfy both sides. Quotes pulled straight from advocacy groups’ news releases reigned.

While reports hinted at the key religion angle, voices of faith were scarce in the stories I read. The New York Times, for example, referenced “conservative Christians” up high:

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