Torture lost to Mafia coverage, at least in news on pope talks

If the coverage of Pope Francis this weekend was any indication, the Mafia is more interesting to mainstream journalists than torture chambers are. The reporters paid lots of attention to the pope’s anti-Mafia statement on Saturday, but hardly seemed to notice the next day when he urged all Christians to join in ending torture.

Meanwhile, torture is used in 141 nations in every region of the world, according to Amnesty International. Yet when Francis focused on it in his weekly Angelus address, it got little more than a brief in some media.

The Associated Press gave the story a mere five paragraphs. And only three of them had to do with the speech:

VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis is urging Christians to work together to abolish every form of torture, condemning the practice as a grave sin.

Francis told the public in St. Peter’s Square Sunday he wanted to reiterate his “firm condemnation of every kind of torture.” He sought united efforts to work for torture’s end and to support victims and their families.

Francis said it was a “mortal sin, a very grave sin, to torture people” and noted that Thursday marks the United Nation’s day for torture victims.

The other two paragraphs mentioned that the military government of Argentina, Francis’ homeland, often used torture from 1976 to 1983. “Francis has been credited with saving lives of political dissidents while a Jesuit priest in Argentina,” the story adds.

Surprisingly, one of the best mainstream stories on the Angelus ran in the International Business Times:

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Do skewed churches deserve skewed coverage?

Funny, isn’t it? So many people recoiled in horror at the judgmentalism of the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Now that he’s dead and gone — but the church is still here to kick around — a lot of journalists seemingly can’t spew insults fast enough.

One of the thickest volleys of darts flew from the International Business Times, which listed tweets of the rich and famous — and judgmental. Some vented spite on a fire-and-brimstone level. “If there is a hell, then he is there,” TV host Andy Cohen tweeted.

And Roseanne Barr used the occasion to damn all faith: “Fred Phelps liberated millions of ppl from slavery to religion by exposing its heart of darkness.”

Yes, these are lively direct quotes. But IBT’s Maria Vultaggio wasn’t content to quote. No, she had to try a little skewing herself:

Infamous Westboro Baptist Church head Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. died in Topeka, Kan., Wednesday night, a few days after he was reported to be excommunicated from his own church. The notorious group, which many consider a cult, gained national notoriety for its hateful antics.

Granted, Phelps and his Topeka, Kan.-based church were not exactly popular. To say the least. These folks have waved pickets, stood on American flags and fixated on homosexuality and their imagined mission to confront it. They’ve spread anguish at the funerals of veterans and terrorism victims. And the “About” page of its own website says “hate” or “hates” or “hated” six times — and links to “sister sites” that tell how God also hates Islam, the media and for that matter the whole world.

And when you combine anti-gay attitudes, institutional religion and a small, easily targeted congregation, the temptation is apparently too much — even for media that are supposed to deliver facts unskewed.

The Huffington Post catalogued 10 counter-demonstrations by gays and other liberals: bikers, grandmas, children, human walls, a man dressed as God, women dressing as angels, men kissing in front of the Westboro picketers. HuffPost even dipped into 2011 to recall a pro-gay song by the Foo Fighters.

But we’re not sharp enough to get the point of all that propaganda. HuffPost also felt the need to tell us:

Not missing the chance to fight hatred with love, many inspiring advocates of equality have come out over the years to counter-protest the WBC. These peaceful demonstrations show the power of love, compassion and gentle humor to combat the WBC’s message of intolerance.

Some music writers revved up verbal chainsaws after hearing that Westboro planned to picket a concert in Kansas City. Here’s a good example from the Kansas City Star:

Pucker up, people. The Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest pop star Lorde’s concert at the Midland on Friday and she has a suggestion: Plant a big ol’ wet one on a protester.

You know, a little man-on-man, woman-on-woman action.

The “Royals” singer – who was influenced by an old photo of George Brett when writing her monster hit – sounded excited to hear that she had made Westboro’s playlist.

“Hahaha omg just found out westboro baptist church are going to picket my show in kansas city,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

She tweeted two more suggestions: Everyone wear rainbow clothing to the show and “everyone try to kiss church members who are same sex as you they will so love it christmas comin early in kansas city.”

Not that Westboro people act like meek martyrs. The Star writer quotes a remark from the church website:

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‘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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