Bob Coy’s fall: Kinder, gentler media treatment, for now

Some of the most compelling Bible stories are those with flawed characters like David and Samson: rising to prominence, then falling into sin. Pastor Bob Coy, who fell from grace last weekend at Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, fits that mold.

Coy, whom I got to know casually during my time as the religion editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, could be forceful and aggressive, but never holier than thou. He was public with his past as a womanizer, drug abuser and Las Vegas promoter. And he always told people to follow Jesus, not him.

This is why I think mainstream media have been rather kind with the story of his resignation over a confessed, though unspecified, “moral failing.” The Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald are fierce, longtime competitors; yet their coverage of Calvary Chapel this week has refreshingly shunned the acidic glee of most scandal stories. Thus far, at least.

Both newspapers posted initial “breaking” news articles, followed by longer newsfeatures. The Herald’s first piece, however, was a five-paragraph AP story with the barest details — and an incorrect report of 18,000 members for Calvary Chapel. The staff-produced story gave a more accurate 20,000.

The Sun Sentinel turned out a longer, 18-paragraph newsbreak, as one might expect from a newspaper in the church’s hometown of Fort Lauderdale. The article also narrates considerable church history, drawing from its own extensive files going back to the church founding in 1985.

Both sets of stories do have their blemishes. The Herald veers into cliché by mentioning Coy’s “boyish good looks.” And both newspapers talk about Calvary Chapel’s “parishioners.” Apparently, they’re still unaware that many Protestant churches are not parishes.

The Sun Sentinel states incorrectly that Calvary Chapel started six other campuses, as opposed to the Herald’s accurate reporting of nine. The Sun Sentinel could have simply counted the campuses on the church website.

Each paper stumbles in saying that Coy had no higher education in religion — “no formal religious training” in the Sun Sentinel’s story, “no formal seminary training” in the Herald’s. It’s a stumble because it shows little understanding of how nondenominational churches operate. In Pentecostal churches, for example — both black and white — young believers often sense the call, then undergo apprenticeship under a pastor, then receive a license to preach. And some church chains run their own ministerial schools.

Beyond accuracy, there’s the matter of tone. Media cultures include overall attitudes, including those toward religion; and each indepth story reveals differences in the two newspapers.

The Sun Sentinel, drawing from the Midwestern-based Chicago Tribune chain, sets up a religious Camelot before hinting at the fall:

When Bob Coy arrived in South Florida nearly 30 years ago to found a Calvary Chapel ministry, he seemed an unlikely man of God.

Yet from his first days in front of worshippers meeting in a Pompano Beach funeral home, the admitted onetime cocaine abuser and womanizer from Las Vegas showed a talent for mixing Bible lessons with real life that gave rise to a mega-church with tens of thousands of followers.

“He just kept your attention the whole time,” said 20-year parishioner Beverly Shrove, 62. “There was just something about him that made you keep coming back.”

But in the wake of Coy’s surprise resignation for what church officials have termed “a moral failing in his life,” some wonder if one of the largest churches in Florida can survive the loss of its charismatic leader.

In contrast, the Herald takes a more pompous, melodramatic tone, drawn from its roots in the old Knight newspaper chain:

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Jim Davis agrees to join GetReligion’s thriving Florida bureau

EDITOR’S NOTE: What can I say? When I lived in South Florida this guy was the local professional on the religion beat whose work landed in my front yard. Also, surely it means something that one of his email addresses is “religionwriter.” To cut to the chase, I’m happy to report that James Davis, one of the gentlemen of the profession in recent decades, is joining us here at GetReligion.

Stop and think about it. With Father George Conger already based in Central Florida, I think the odds are getting better that there may someday be a GetReligion cruise to the Caribbean.

*****

Thanks to tmatt for the invitation to write for GetReligion. I’ve long admired the blog and I’ve known tmatt as a colleague on the religion beat for (slurred number) years. I’m honored to breathe the rarefied atmosphere here.

For myself, I worked for four decades until November 2012 with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, most of it as religion editor. Most of my work focused on religion at the local level, covering the unbelievably rich mix of religions that is South Florida.

Among the stories I produced were two in-depth articles on Holocaust Revisionism, which were cited in a book by the American Jewish Committee; religious groups’ roles in recovery efforts after hurricanes Andrew and Wilma; Luis Palau’s Beachfest, which drew 300,000 people over two days; three appearances of the Dalai Lama, his first-ever to South Florida; the founding of the Jewish Museum of Florida, and in-depth features on Hindus and Muslims in South Florida.

I’ve taken occasional dips in the national pool, though: covering conferences of United Methodists, rabbis, evangelicals, religious broadcasters and two U.S. tours of Pope John Paul II. I also covered the centennial meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. And I wrote several stories on Heritage U.S.A., before and after the Rev. Jim Bakker was ousted.

I received a religion writing award in 2010 from the Florida Press Club. I was a finalist twice for Religion Writer of the Year with the Religion Newswriters Association and once for the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year. And I’ve been given awards by Hadassah, the United Hindu Front and the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center.

Since leaving the Sun Sentinel, I’ve been working mostly with The Florida Catholic, in the Miami and Palm Beach diocesan editions, and occasionally for the statewide edition. I’ve contributed about 35 stories and a half-dozen photo galleries of art in churches. I’m also branching into copy editing. I’ve worked on two academic studies for the University of Florida and a study guide for a series of devotional films. And I was recently accepted as a copy editor for Zondervan.

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