In Kentucky, ‘Shiite Baptists’ and the crazy old uncle

Thou shalt not write an inflammatory newspaper column.

Hell, it seems, hath no fury like a community — or a congregation — scorned in print.

One of the favorite stories I wrote for The Associated Press during the 2004 presidential campaign involved the publisher of Republican George W. Bush’s hometown newspaper endorsing Democrat John Kerry:

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — Signs at the bank, the cafe and the Bottlinger Grain bins all declare Crawford – the proud home of the president’s ranch – as “Bush Country.”

So when the Lone Star Iconoclast, a tiny weekly that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed Democrat John Kerry, there was hell to pay.

Local businesses pulled their ads and banned the paper from their stores.

“We felt a little betrayed,” said Larry Nelson, manager of the Crawford Country Style, a downtown shop that sells “Luvya Dubya” trinkets and other Bush memorabilia.

Most folks in Crawford (pop. 705) wholeheartedly support the re-election of the man whose “Western White House” made their speck on the map famous. Eighty-two percent voted for President Bush in 2000.

The paper’s publisher, W. Leon Smith, said he never expected such a hostile response. He knew “a person or two might pull an ad, that we might lose a subscriber or two.”

“But this has turned a little more vicious,” said Smith, 51, wearing a decade-old knit tie and ink pens in his white shirt pocket.

I thought of that story when I came across an AP report today about a Southern Baptist church seeking an assistant pastor’s ouster.

The pastor’s apparent offense? His wife wrote a less-than-flattering “humor column” about Southern Baptists.

The top of the AP story:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A newspaper column lampooning Southern Baptists, calling the group “the crazy old paranoid uncle of evangelical Christians,” is causing quite a stir in a Kentucky city and put a pastor’s job in jeopardy.

The column was written by Angela Thomas, the wife of Bill Thomas, an assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church in Madisonville. Her column was done in response to the Southern Baptist Convention’s opposition to a new Boy Scouts of America policy that welcomes gay members.

“Sexuality doesn’t come up and isn’t relative to typical scouting activities but now, thanks to Southern Baptists, the parents of little innocent scouts everywhere are having to have The Talk,” she wrote June 19 in The Madisonville Messenger. She writes a weekly humor column for the community paper, which publishes daily.

Later, the story notes:
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Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

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Pope Francis on Page 1: Best and worst of local reax

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It’s another great day to be a newspaper junkie who enjoys checking out front pages across the nation after major breaking news.

When tmatt saw the number of local reaction stories I planned to mention, he made me promise to keep this post under 5,000 words. I told him I’d hit the high points (and the low ones, of course).

Without further ado, I want to present a few nominees for limited-edition GetReligion awards for coverage of Pope Francis’ selection.

Best use of “firsts” in a lede

— Seattle Times

It may take time before Seattle-area Catholics learn whether Pope Francis shares their views on specific issues. But many found things to like in the new pontiff Wednesday:

First pope from the Americas. First Jesuit. A man from a developing region and one who has chosen a humble lifestyle.

Their comments made it clear that the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope turned a page in church’s 2,000-year history.

“The whole school stopped for about an hour to watch this historic moment,” said Father William Heric, chaplain at Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish.

Dallas Morning News

First pope from this hemisphere. First Hispanic pope. First pope taking the name “Francis.” North Texas Catholics grabbed on to facts Wednesday about the man who until that afternoon had been Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aries.

Josefina Flores of Arlington was in downtown Dallas with her daughter and heard the bells peal at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They ducked into the sanctuary to say a prayer for the new pontiff.

“He comes from a spiritual country and he seems so charismatic,” she said. “I have high hopes for him.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

While Wednesday’s election of a new pope may not have included the “first” that many St. Louisans were hoping for — namely, the election of Ballwin native Timothy Dolan as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics — it did contain three others.

And that’s not an easy accomplishment for a 2,000-year-old institution.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, is the first pope in history to choose the name Francis, in honor of one of the most popular saints in history, Francis of Assisi.

“He selected for himself the name of Francis, which tells you a great deal about the new Holy Father,” said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. “As you know, St. Francis was a man of simplicity and peace as he lived out the gospel. We can assume that our new Holy Father will do just the same.”

Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit supreme pontiff in the church, and his chosen name could also be a nod to the great 16th-century Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier — familiar to generations of St. Louis University students as the namesake of College Church.

“We’re proud, as a Jesuit institution, that it was a Jesuit selected to be pope,” said David Laughlin, president of St. Louis University High.

And, of course, Francis, until Wednesday the archbishop of Buenos Aires, is the first pope from Latin America.

Worst overgeneralized, unattributed statement

Arizona Republic

Bergoglio is seen as a leader who can bridge the divide between social liberals in the church and orthodox traditionalists; between the growing church south of the equator and the historical church of Europe; and between Jesuits, who are seen as more liberal, and conservative movements in the church.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The new pope will find himself in a delicate balancing act, adhering to traditions on which the faith is based yet moving them forward to address critical issues such as transparency, trust, the role of women in the church and better handling of the sex abuse scandal. …

Few doubt that the church needs reform.

Hartford Courant

Though most people in Connecticut knew little about him before Wednesday, the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope filled the state’s Roman Catholic community with hope for a different perspective in the Vatican.

Best use of a quotation in a lede

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