Critical thinking would help reporters cover gay debates

Yesterday we looked at some of this week’s worst examples of some major media’s trouble covering homosexuality or same-sex marriage. It was what I was thinking about as I ruminated on a first-person essay on TheAtlantic.com headlined:

There Probably Isn’t Any Neutral Way to Report on Homosexuality
Journalists could do better at conveying the best traditionalist arguments against gay marriage. But some people won’t be satisfied unless gays are stigmatized as in bygone days.

The Atlantic piece, written by Conor Friedersdorf, is a highly personal essay about how he would run a newspaper. He argues that he’d advocate for changing marriage law, and viewing this as a “civil rights” issue — but he’d do so in a transparent manner. He sees the problem with the approach taken by some mainstream media outlets, those that share his partisan views but aren’t forthright about it, as one of failing to be honest and transparent about their grounding premises.

And, he says, he’d want to be fair to those who disagree but are not bigoted. But, he says, let’s not pretend that bigotry isn’t a driving force here:

But let’s be clear: While journalists are obligated to set forth the best arguments from all sides in their “facilitating public discourse” mode, they oughtn’t give the impression, in their “conveying reality as it is” mode, that the most thoughtful, non-bigoted arguments against gay marriage are all that’s driving the debate. It’s been some years since I went door-to-door as a beat reporter, talking to anyone I could find about gay marriage on one of the occasions that the issue flared up in California. I won’t pretend that the dozens of people I spoke to in person or the hundreds I interacted with online were a scientific sample. But suffice it to say that it is very easy to find people whose opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with a principled commitment to preserving marriage as an institution whose primary purpose is procreation and child-rearing.

These people are cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don’t want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage. And public opinion is changing so quickly in part because encounters with real-life gays rather than stereotypes thereof tend to make many people more sympathetic to gay marriage.

You get where he’s going. I’d argue — and have argued strenuously — that sharing the fullness of the debate on this topic requires digging deep. Part of that means digging deep into the views of those who would retain marriage as a heterosexual institution.

But even in Friedersdorf’s essay we see a failure to recognize a distinction many traditionalists make between disapproval of a particular behavior and disapproval of a person. Later, Friedersdorf says he’d like to know what marriage traditionalists such as Eve Tushnet would do if they ran a style section to a newspaper. It’s an interesting choice because Tushnet is rather famously same-sex attracted and also celibate for religious reasons. One of the problems with the current media approach to this topic is how many journalists lazily prejudge any disapproval of any aspect of homosexuality with bullying, bigotry and hatred.

A correspondent, who is a journalist, had some challenging remarks in response that everyone should read:

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Can the press cover traditionalists with justice and decency?

Thanks to the many readers who sent in kind words regarding my piece last week on the Washington Post ombudsman column that shed light on how bigoted some in the media are when it comes to covering those who oppose changing marriage laws to include same-sex couples.

That column, which quoted directly from a shockingly ignorant and contemptuous Washington Post reporter’s email — and then piled on with some further ignorance about arguments regarding same-sex marriage law — has generated quite a bit of coverage.

I wanted to look at one response to my original piece that ran on The Atlantic‘s web site. But first, a few items. Let’s note how the New York Times pitched a recent piece that adopted the arguments of those seeking to change marriage laws. Here’s how the reader submitted it to us:

From this afternoon’s NY Times e-mail:
Common Sense
Refusing to Arrive Late on Same-Sex Marriage

By JAMES B. STEWART
Corporate America has historically been slow to take up civil rights issues, but companies have rushed to sign the briefs filed with the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage.

Can you spell “a-d-v-o-c-a-c-y”?

Yes, I can! And that’s exactly how you spell it. Advocacy is fine, of course. It has a place. That place is not, as it turns out, on the pages of a media outlet that claims to be presenting news, but it does have a place.

I also made it through the beginning of this other New York Times advocacy piece that found the actual words of a source not compelling enough for the story’s campaign objective. The premise is that a reporter is interviewing a family friend who is a pastor:

As I sat across from him at the kitchen table, drinking mint tea, I turned on my recorder and took a breath. Has the Christian church adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell policy? I asked.

“I would have to say yes,” he answered, shifting in his seat a little nervously, it seemed to me. He noted that many black churches like his own had made concessions to accommodate the growing acceptance of same-sex lifestyles. “There is a compromise because there is such a prevalent hard-core view on what’s considered right and wrong. People are feeling that in order to even retain a certain amount of membership, you can’t be very dogmatic about any of their sins.”

Said another way: If a minister is too rigidly homophobic, it could scare away members, which would decrease contributions and might ultimately be the end of a family-owned church.

I don’t know who is responsible for the, “Said another way” line, but Oh. My. Goodness. Now, nothing in the quote suggests that the pastor was AFRAID of homosexuals, so why would you ever use the bullying phrase of “homophobic”? But if you need to completely rewrite something in “another” way than your source said it, you are just making stuff up. Don’t do that. I’m not even going to address the imprecision of the broad, sweeping question about “the Christian Church” or the weird line about a “family-owned church.”

What’s particularly sad about this subsuming of journalism in favor of advocacy is that the interviewee said something really interesting about changing doctrines to be popular. What a wonderful idea to build a story around, but one that doesn’t match the paper’s preconceived ideas about what the story should be (hint: we’re later told he’s “torn” between “humanity” and being “welcoming” and his “religious beliefs.”). (Cue: Triple sign.)

Finally, the Washington Post is hosting an online discussion speculating about precisely what role “Christianity” played in the murder of an openly gay politician last week. You may suspect, given that this is considered a perfectly fine thing about which to speculate, that we know that “Christianity” played at least some role. Any role. Even a tiny smidgen of a role. In fact, police have identified a suspect and, well, here’s what a progressive news site called Raw Story says about the suspect Lawrence Reed:

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That minister of humor unloads on the pope coverage

The thought for the day and, perhaps, for the next week or two, care of Father James Martin, the chaplain of The Colbert Report and author of the essential “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”

The problem, as you will see in this Facebook entry, is that — other than a choice poke or two — I don’t think this particular Jesuit is laughing at the moment. Hang on.

The conclave hasn’t even started, and I’m already submerged by a sea of stupid articles, idiotic commentary and boneheaded op-eds about the Catholic Church, by people who have no clue what they’re talking about. I’m not talking about people with whom I disagree, or who challenge me with new ways of thinking about the church, but writers who seem completely clueless about the most basic concepts. Some of this is to be expected: the church is a highly complex institution with 2,000 of history behind it.

But the number of misinformed articles I’ve read about celibacy, the priesthood, the papacy, the church in this country, the causes of the sexual abuse crisis, church authority, papal infallibility, the role of the magisterium, life in a religious order, the vow of chastity, and Benedict XVI, just boggles the mind. Or at least my mind, which perhaps is too easily boggled. Needless to say, I don’t expect commentators to know everything about the church. (I sure don’t.) But I think it’s a reasonable to expect that people should refrain from commenting (especially publicly) on stuff that they clearly don’t know much about.

Wait, there’s more! Trust me on that.

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Bill Keller, et al, openly confess that “error has no rights”

As the debates rage on about you know whatWashington. Post. Ombudsman. Bias. Column. — I would like to jump in remind faithful GetReligion readers of an earlier episode in this post-journalism drama. I’ll also share another link or two pointing toward pieces in which journalists are discussing some of the prickly issues in the Patrick Pexton piece.

But first, let’s back up to the earlier event (video here) in Austin, Texas, that still has me depressed, the one during which Bill Keller, days after stepping down (or is that abdicating) as New York Times editor, essentially said that there are different journalistic rules for covering social issues and religion, as opposed to politics and real news. For those who have forgotten his remarks, here is a flashback care of a column I wrote for Scripps Howard:

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. … We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what are some of the “social values” issues that have popped up in the news every now and then since, oh, 1973 or thereabouts? That would be any issue in public life linked to sex, salvation, marriage, abortion, parenting, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other things that, in the United States, tend to get linked to religion. Did I miss anything major in that list?

None of those issues, of course, have anything to do with politics or life in the public square. So how, precisely, does a newspaper such as the Times cover political life in America in a balanced way without being able to be accurate and fair in its coverage of opposing voices in debates about religious and social issues?

Yes, the same question would apply to The Washington Post.

Let the journalistic debates continue, since the only thing that is at stake is the future of what historians would call the American Model of the Press.

Meanwhile, over at CNN.com, former Post media-beat reporter Howard Kurtz has weighed in on Pexton’s piece, and related issues. He notes, for example, what happened when the newspaper in Laurel, Miss., covered a particularly moving same-sex union rite, the first ever in that Bible Belt county.

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Pod people: Pope steps down; many journalists fall down

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Gentle readers, one cannot make some of this stuff up.

So, everyone knows that Pope Benedict XVI is elderly and has physical ailments.

So how tired and elderly is this man? Read the following passage from The Washington Post carefully. The story offers details from his dramatic final dramatic Mass, as pope, at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Wait for it.

The pope has cited his failing body and mind to explain his decision, and … he appeared fragile, if determined, while presiding over the solemn pageantry of the Catholic Mass. He was shepherded down the long aisles of the basilica on a wheeled platform, although he at times walked unaided. In the pews, young seminarians took notes and grew teary-eyed as the pope hobbled down the marble stairs of the altar for the last time. Asian, European and American tour groups fortunate enough to be in Rome for the occasion strained their necks to catch a glimpse from the rear of the church.

At the conclusion of the Mass, as cardinals and bishops watched, a short nun stood on her chair to wave at the pope as he began his last procession out of the basilica. He walked with a gilded cane in the shape of a cross. Cheers erupted from the benches as he passed, along with shouts in Italian of “long live the pope!”

What? He walked with the help of a “gilded cane” topped with a cross?

Might that have been his papal crosier (sometimes spelled “crozier”), the formal pastoral staff — a symbol of this role as shepherd of his flock — that is carried by a bishop? Might this be the golden staff, topped with a cross, that Benedict has always used, the one that would be seen in many, many photos (click here for sample) of this particular pope that originate in liturgical settings?

In other words, it would have been genuinely strange if Benedict had NOT been using his pastoral staff, as he always has.

Oh well. This is not the strangest thing that has every happened in mainstream news media reporting about this particular piece of liturgical equipment. Who can forget this classic, from the funeral of the Blessed John Paul II?

“The 84-year-old John Paul was laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop’s miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows,” wrote Ian Fisher of the New York Times. “Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

Right. His “crow’s ear.”

Obviously, the sudden decision by Benedict XVI to step down as pope has dominated the religion-news beat all week. Readers will not be surprised to know that it was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, as well. Click here to listen to that.

There was much to discuss. Still, it says a lot about the state of the news world in which we live that one of the best commentaries on the press coverage of this week could be found over at The Onion. Here’s how it opens. Read The Onion and weep:

VATICAN CITY – Citing his advancing age and deteriorating health, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy Monday, saying he no longer possessed the strength and energy required to lead the Catholic Church backward.

According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.

This was not the only commentary about the mainstream coverage of this stunner. Needless to say, many readers noted this headline in an analysis piece at The Telegraph:

Pope Benedict XVI resigns: the mainstream media just doesn’t get God or Catholicism


Here’s the start of that essay by historian Tim Stanley:

For Lent, I’m giving up. How can anyone of faith not feel like surrendering after this week’s largely bad media coverage of the papal abdication? The identikit headline seems to be, “Elderly Homophobe Quits Misogynistic Institution Because He Can’t Hack It”. And my favourite piece of instant analysis has to be The Guardian’s “Five Key Issues for the Catholic Church”, which details the things the next Pope must do to rescue the Church from oblivion. They include ordain women priests, conduct gay weddings and hand out condoms. So The Guardian’s ideal Pope is someone who isn’t a Catholic. The paper reports that Sinead O’Connor is available.

Some parts of the mainstream media don’t do God and don’t understand people who do. They see everything through the prism of politics – presuming that Christians fall into camps of Left and Right, that Bible-talk is ideological slang or that the tenets of faith are up for negotiation in the same way that party platforms are easily forgotten by the hucksters who ran on them. Some journalists need a crash course in Christianity.

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Alas, next pope will probably defend same old doctrines

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So here is an interesting journalism question for this digital age: What do we do with the earlier versions of stories by major news organizations if the editors later take them down and replace them with cleaned-up, expanded versions?

Do all of those headlines and paragraphs go into journalistic limbo? Were they ever published in the first place?

Take, for example, the following headline from The New York Times:

Pope’s Successor Is Likely to Share His Doctrine

By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO 4:08 PM ET

You have to admit that this is a stunner. Doctrinal stability! You mean the Catholic Church doesn’t change doctrines whenever the top man steps down, rather like a National Football League team losing its head coach? For many journalists, the more likely parallel in their minds is the White House, with entire policies going up for grabs after a change in the Oval Office.

Anyway, I saved the URL for the story that went with that headline, which featured a lede that clearly inspired the headline. Only now, when you click that URL, one goes to a new story in which the gist is the same, but the wording is less, well, funny.

The key to this rather magisterial report is — as usual — the almost complete lack of attribution attached to its many sweeping fact statements. Readers are left with this undeniable impression: People are talking to The New York Times and the editors of The New York Times do not want to tell us their names, perhaps because they all come from the same camp in the battles over the direction of Catholic life here in North America and spiritually frosty Europe.

Check this out. Yes, I removed one quote with a clear attribution, simply to save space:

The resignation sets up a struggle between the staunchest conservatives, in Benedict’s mold, who advocate a smaller church of more fervent believers, and those who believe that the church can broaden its appeal in small but significant ways, like allowing divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive communion or loosening restrictions on condom use in an effort to prevent AIDS. There are no plausible candidates who would move on issues like ending celibacy for priests, or the ordination of women.

Many Vatican watchers suspect that the cardinals will choose someone with better management skills and a more personal touch than the bookish Benedict, someone who can extend the church’s reach to new constituencies, particularly to the young people of Europe, for whom the church is now largely irrelevant, and to Latin America and Africa, where evangelical movements are fast encroaching. …

The other big battle in the church is over the demographic distribution of Catholics, which has shifted decisively to the developing world. Today, 42 percent of adherents come from Latin America, and about 15 percent from Africa, versus only 25 percent from Europe. That has led many in the church to say that the new pope should represent a part of the world where membership is growing quickly, while others say that spiritual vision should be paramount.

The questions are obvious: Who are the “many Vatican watchers”? Who, precisely, are the “many in the church” who are debating the voices captured in that “while others say” reference?

Oh, and why would there be a tension between “spiritual vision” and the Catholic leaders who represent parts of the world in which the church is thriving? Are there really people in Catholic circles who believe that “spiritual vision” conflicts with church growth? Perhaps these mysterious voices are talking about some other kind of vision, perhaps a vision of change and progress for the future. It’s hard to tell, since we have absolutely no idea who the Times team is quoting.

The story, of course, also offers a political-horse-race list of candidates, complete with lots of labels and, once again, no indication of who is going the evaluating.

Later on, a real live scholar with a name — a totally logical one, too — shows up, to address the crucial issue of Catholic work in the Global South.

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Lo! A better-than-average Womenpriests story

Your GetReligionistas, as the divine Mrs. MZ once stressed, are way, way, way past the point where we joyfully go out of our way to write about the journalism issues linked to the mainstream media coverage that is, from time to time, poured out on behalf of the Womenpriests movement.

Some readers have been tempted to think that we do not believe that this movement is worthy of coverage. This is nonsense, of course, since GetReligion has been arguing since Day 1 that the mainstream press rarely does enough to cover doctrinal and cultural trends on the Religious Left.

Others have suggested that we only want the Roman Catholic Church’s viewpoint covered on this issue. That’s nonsense, as well. This is a hot-button issue and the press needs to find articulate, informed voices on both sides.

We have, however, argued that journalists have gone too far — often — when they describe the women ordained in these rites as Catholic priests.

The women should be quoted making their case, on this subject, but the historical reality is that the Catholic Church gets to decide who is and who is not a Catholic priest, just as the leaders at The New York Times get to determine who is and who is not a columnist for The New York Times. On one occasion I asked if journalists would call men ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention rabbis simply because the SBC said they were rabbis. President Barack Obama gets to decide who serves on his cabinet, etc., etc.

All of this raises a basic journalistic question: What does accurate coverage of a Womenpriests event look like?

Well, take a look at the following effort from The Toledo Blade, taking it, of course, from the top:

Deacon Beverly Bingle, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic woman from Toledo, will be ordained a priest by Roman Catholic Womenpriests today.

Her ordination at 2 p.m. at First Unitarian Church of Toledo, 3205 Glendale Ave., will not be recognized by the Diocese of Toledo, however.

After she was ordained a deacon on Sept. 13, the diocese stated her participation “in an invalid and illicit attempted ordination” meant she was automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

The diocese has released a similar statement in advance of today’s ceremony, reminding that Deacon Bingle is excommunicated and that Ann Klonowski, a woman from the Diocese of Cleveland who will be ordained a deacon at the same ceremony today, will lose her standing in the church.

However, the Reverend Bingle, as she can be called with today’s ordination by Bishop Joan Houck of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, not only will participate in the ceremony; on Sunday, she will start holding weekly services as a priest for the Holy Spirit Catholic Community, a church she’s starting that will meet at Unity of Toledo. …

Now, the one thing that I would challenge in that material is that I think it is proper for journalists to note that the legal name of this movement, of this splinter church that is making its own claims of Catholicity, is “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.” The name confuses the issue, that that’s who whole point, isn’t it?

So what else is right and what else, alas, is wrong in this story?

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Puff piece on Office of Faith-based Partnerships

The New York Times has published a letter of reference for the Rev. Joshua DuBois, President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Unless I am much mistaken, the theme of  “White House Director of Faith-Based Office Is Leaving His Post” is to help the 30-year old Pentecostal minister launch his private sector career following his resignation from his White House post this week.

I would be hard pressed to describe the story on  page A17 of the 8 Feb 2013 New York edition as a news article. There is no balance, no curiosity, no context here. While political allies of DuBois sing his praises in the article, there is no voice questioning the wisdom of the transformation of the office to an adjunct to President Obama’s perpetual political campaign.

Let me say out the outset that I offer no criticism of DuBois’ tenure at the White House. My concern is with the Times‘ coverage. The article opens with high praise, noting:

Mr. DuBois played a central role when Mr. Obama was making his first run for the presidency, cultivating relationships on his behalf with religious leaders of many faiths. Mr. DuBois, 30, has also served as an unofficial in-house pastor to Mr. Obama, sending the president an e-mail each morning with Bible passages intended to prompt reflection or prayer. At the prayer breakfast, the president called Mr. DuBois a “close friend of mine and yours” who “has been at my side — in work and in prayer — for years now.”

The article states that when President George W. Bush created the post in 2000, it “proved contentious because many critics said the office and its actions often violated the constitutional separation of church and state. But Obama preserved the office and appointed advisory councils that represented a broad range of religious leaders, including conservative evangelicals and openly gay ministers.”

The Times reports DuBois changed the focus of the Office from a White House-based agency that would help provide a level-playing field for religious groups in seeking federal social service grants to what Josh Good in the National Review called a community organizing focus.

Mr. DuBois, a black Pentecostal minister, steered the office toward engaging religious leaders to address broad social goals like reducing unwanted pregnancies, helping people cope with the economic downturn, encouraging fathers to take responsibility for their children and improving child and maternal health.

Two voices appear in the story: the omnipresent Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who objects to the idea of a White House faith office and the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland:

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