If at first you don’t succeed … find another source

Tis a lesson you should heed:

Try, try again.

If at first you don’t succeed,

Try, try again.

British writer and editor W.E. Hickson popularized this quotation in the 1870s, and I’m dusting it off today for our friends at The Dallas Morning News. Why, you ask? I’m guessing they haven’t thought of applying the concept to sourcing stories, particularly ones that demand a balanced treatment.

On the heels of a federal judge’s ruling striking down Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage, I looked to the Lone Star State’s outstanding collection of newspapers for what I expected to be top-notch coverage. Instead, I came across this news/feature piece, which fell flat on its one-sided backside.

After 53 years, Jack Evans will finally get hitched to his life partner George Harris on Saturday, believed to be the first public same-sex wedding in Dallas officiated by a United Methodist minister.

The union has qualified religious acceptance. There’s open debate in the United Methodist Church, which officially views homosexuality as ”incompatible with Christian teaching.”

But the well-known minister celebrating the wedding — the 85-year-old Rev. Bill McElvaney — says “love over law” matters most.

“The Methodist church is on the wrong side of the Gospel on this — and history,” McElvaney said.

In the next paragraph, we expect a quote from someone speaking on behalf of the United Methodist Church. The rules of good journalism would suggest this person be allowed to speak to the denomination’s stance on same-sex marriage, perhaps offer a comment on the news peg of the Texas ruling and what it might mean for the people in Texas pews.

Here’s what we have instead, buried deep in the heart of Texas — er, this story:

The UMC bishop for this region, Bishop Michael McKee, didn’t return messages seeking comment.

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Pod people: Much ado, nothing new, Merry Christmas to you

Santa scored big in Texas schools this week. Free speech, meanwhile, ruled it a tie. And religion paced the sidelines waiting to be put in the game.

The Lone Star state’s “Merry Christmas Law” guarantees the freedom for students, teachers and administrators to wish each other Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah. They can wear sweaters with St. Nick on them to class Christmas parties and hand out dreidel pencils and reindeer antlers. As I said earlier this week, the law was effective this past summer.

Never mind that they could, by law, do all these things before. Now it’s duplicated, so it really must be OK!

The Christian and Jewish holidays lawmakers unanimously voted in June to verbally and visually protect in schools were represented by the most familiar and commercial symbol at a press conference this week: Santa Claus.

Not Mary, Joseph and the infant Christ, along with all the nativity trappings.

Not the menorah or a scroll containing a blessing.

Santa was the main focus of a press conference given to remind Texans that they didn’t have to be politically correct and dance around the words Christmas or Hanukkah in public school settings.

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Santa Claus is coming … to Texas schools

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No more winter parties in Wichita Falls, nor holiday trees in Houston: Schoolchildren in the Lone Star State can now legally wish each other “Merry Christmas” without fear of legal prosecution.

(Actually, the law passed this past summer. But it would have been silly for Santa to Ho-Ho-Ho his way into the state Legislature then for a news conference, not to mention quite hot in that suit of his.)

From Texas lawmakers this week comes much ado about the Merry Christmas law, which in spite of the Christmas reference also protects Hanukkah. Schools may legally display nativity scenes, Christmas trees, menorahs and other “scenes and symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations” as long as more than one religion is referenced, or one religion and one secular symbol (snowman, Santa Claus, candy cane) are present. Students, teachers and guests also may say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Holidays” to one another legally.

Like a large, prettily wrapped box decked out in shiny paper and a big bow, this story could have held all the promise of a nice gift. I was shaking the computer screen, hoping inside the text would emerge a good read that thoughtfully addressed the complexities of the issue, seen as recently as this month in the Dallas suburb of Frisco when a politically correct memo on an elementary school’s winter parties was distributed.

The Associated Press story reads more like a quick-hit piece written on deadline, though, with just the press conference referenced. No background for newcomers, no new updates on  the Frisco fracas, nothing but a repackaging of the facts of the day.

Bah humbug.

“I’m proud to stand in defense of Christmas and I urge other states to stop a needless, stilted overreaction to Christmas and Hanukkah,” the law’s sponsor, Houston Republican Dwayne Bohac, said at a news conference Monday.

Bohac, who has a sign at home that proclaims: “Be Merry and Stay That Way,” said the law was meant to codify the religious freedoms of the First Amendment and keep “censorship of Christmas out of public schools.” He said it will stop “ridiculous” past lawsuits against some Texas schools in the name of excessive political correctness.

“This is a real issue in our country,” said Bohac, who said similar bills have been filed in state Legislatures in Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana and New Jersey, and that one is coming in Oklahoma.

Texas is the only state to so far approve such a law, which some civil libertarians have criticized as unnecessary given the First Amendment.

And now we’ll hear from the civil libertarians. Or someone in Frisco who thought the party planning letter was a good idea, maybe the author? Or anyone else.

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Baylor’s Art Briles: Diehard Texan and what else?

Try to imagine national-level journalists writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Notre Dame University without mentioning Catholicism.

Try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Brigham Young University without mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Baylor University without mentioning the fact that it is the largest Baptist academic institution on the world? Without mentioning whether or not the coach is a man of faith?

What if the coach in question was a man whose life pivoted around a tragic, soul-crushing event in which, as a young man, he lost both of his parents in a tragic car crash as they were driving to see him play? What about it, ESPN?

What if the man in question — in the midst of an amazing Big 12 championship season that could make him the national coach of the year — also lost his beloved brother in yet another tragic accident?

Would it be possible for journalists in yet another national-level newsroom to skip the religious element of that story?

Well, Washington Post folks, what about it?

It appears that Briles veered onto the elite radar at the Post, in large part, because of his more-than-a-mentor relationship with Robert Griffin III and a rumor, that lasted for a few days, that the professional football team in Washington, D.C., might want to pull him inside the Beltway as a head coach.

Thus the Post team dedicated nearly 2,300 words to Briles the other day in a long and very ordinary football-coach profile.

That’s a lot of ink.

So what did the Post editors decide is the crucial element of the Briles story, the main reason that he is such a great fit for Baylor and its unique cultural and educational challenges?

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A same-sex marriage story that makes you go hmmmmm …

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Here at GetReligion, we’ve repeatedly highlighted the apparent new normal on mainstream media coverage of same-sex marriage.

I’ve complained (more than once or twice) that The Associated Press seems to have decided to quote only same-sex marriage proponents — and not opponents — in its stories.

So as I was scanning the headlines on the Pew Research Center’s “Religion in the News” page (one of my favorite bookmarks), this one caught my attention:

AP: Gay rights fight comes to Texas, despite ban

A native Texan, I clicked on the story link, curious if the story would conform to the new normal or actually quote key voices on all sides of the reported fight.

Let’s start at the top:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — One couple wants to get married, while the other just wants theirs recognized. A third couple wants a divorce, while the fourth wants theirs finalized. If all win their lawsuits, they could overturn the Texas ban on same-sex marriage.

A federal court in San Antonio will hear arguments next month from the attorneys representing the couples who want to live lawfully wedded. The Texas Supreme Court is considering the cases of the couples who want their out-of-state marriages legally dissolved.

They are challenging a constitutional ban on gay and lesbian marriages approved by 1.7 million Texas voters in 2005. At the time, only Massachusetts allowed gay marriage and conservatives hoped to pass a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Eight years later, 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriages, and New Mexico is allowing marriages pending a decision by that state’s Supreme Court later this year. The U.S. Supreme Court has also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, saying federal authorities cannot deny the rights of couples legally married under state law.

Well, four paragraphs in, the story really hasn’t quoted anyone.

I kept reading, and the entire story — all 660 words of it — reads more like a boring research paper than an actual enlightening piece of journalism.

The couples who sued are never identified. The only actual humans named are U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. But the story — if you want to call it that — contains not a single comment inside quote marks, pro or con.

Yawn.

Attribution — by which quality journalism identifies the source of its information — is just as lacking.

For example, consider this paragraph:

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The return of Baylor football, minus all that Baptist stuff

Way back when I was in college, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, the always confident folks at the University of Texas (rivals in the region would use a different adjective) fired an interesting salvo at a key rival.

The marketers for the Tea Sippers created a burnt orange and white car window decal that simply said “The University.”

The message was clearly targeted at the humble Aggies over at Texas A&M University in their semi-military fortress. There was, you see, only one university of Texas and it was in Austin, not in College Station.

And in Waco?

While that hubbub lingered, someone at my alma mater had an interesting idea. They created a green-and-gold decal for the much smaller university on I-35 that said “Thee University.”

In other words, Baylor University answered to an authority even higher than the folks who ran higher education in the Lone Star State. That “thee” move was clever, since there was no way for Baylor people to deny that the school’s image was completely dominated by the fact that it was the world’s largest Baptist school. There was a reason that people liked to call Baylor — as a tribute, or with a touch of venom — “Jerusalem on the Brazos.”

After all, it’s hard to play truly Texas-worthy football when you’re a rather bookish Baptist school, the kind of place where just as many players, or more, frequent Bible studies as often as they do the local watering holes (ask for a Big O). Right?

Maybe not. Right now, the Baylor Bears are on a bit of a multi-year roll, riding the waves still rippling from that remarkable Heisman Trophy run (and pass) by Robert Griffin III, a church-going do-gooder who was as skilled in the classroom as on the gridiron.

So, how does anyone try to tell the Baylor story without mentioning the whole “Jerusalem on the Brazos” angle?

Ask the folks at ESPN.

To my shock, the world’s most powerful multi-media sports empire recently ran a lengthy piece on Baylor, Griffin and head football coach Art Briles without mentioning the word “Baptist” or the word “church.” How about “Christian”? How about “faith”? That would be “no” and “no.”

But what about the history and identity of the program?

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When Planned Parenthood isn’t news (fraud edition)

Is fraud a religion story? Not necessarily.

Are the actions of Planned Parenthood religion stories? Not necessarily.

But what about the larger issue of the ongoing problems that the mainstream news media have had covering abortion and other social issues related to religion? Is it worth noting here, for instance, the very odd lack of coverage of Planned Parenthood’s recent settlement over fraud allegations?

You wouldn’t probably know it from media coverage but, as one conservative think tank noted this week:

Alliance Defending Freedom’s recent analysis of state and federal audits of family planning programs suggests that in 12 states, Planned Parenthood affiliates overbilled Medicaid for more than $8 million. One federal audit of New York’s Medicaid family planning program reported that certain providers, “especially Planned Parenthoods,” had engaged in improper practices resulting in overpayment.

Despite mounting accusations of fraud, the organization that performs roughly one out of every four abortions in the U.S. has continued to ride the waves of taxpayer funding to annual surpluses. During its last reporting year alone, Planned Parenthood received over half a billion dollars in taxpayer government funding, all the while performing a record 333,964 abortions. To solidify its place as the top abortion provider in the country, Planned Parenthood announced that all local affiliates would have to begin providing abortion services starting in 2013.

I don’t remember what the original allegations of fraud in Texas were but Planned Parenthood there agreed to pay the state $1.4 million $4.3 million to settle the claim that it had fraudulently overbilled the state’s Medicaid program for products and services that were never actually rendered, not medically necessary, and were not covered by the Medicaid program.

No biggie. This is just a story about the mainstream news media’s very favorite organization in the whole world paying to settle legal claims. I know that usually when other organizations — say Roman Catholic archdioceses — settle lawsuits even below a million dollars, it usually gets reported pretty far and wide. Rightly so. Certainly the country’s largest abortion provider — and a taxpayer funded one at that — should get some media coverage, no?

It’s so confusing how a private breast cancer charity choosing not to give Planned Parenthood a couple hundred thousand dollars generated thousands of stories but that same abortion group paying a $1.4 million $4.3 million fraud settlement doesn’t generate hardly any.

A quick Google search for Planned + Parenthood + fraud shows that the following outlets did pay attention. See if you can detect a pattern:

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NPR misses the symbolism — and reality — of Jane Roe

NPR had a story on the Texas legislature passing what journalists usually call “sweeping abortion restrictions.” Let’s look at a big chunk of the story right at the top:

“What this does is completely reshape the abortion landscape in the state,” says Elizabeth Nash, who follows state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group. “With this legislation, Texas will become one of the most restrictive states in the country. And Texas really matters.”

First, Texas is the second most populous state in the nation, with four major cities and 5.5 million women of reproductive age. It also has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

And symbolically, Texas was home to Jane Roe, whose fight for a legal abortion went all the way to the Supreme Court — which decided in 1973 that abortion is a woman’s fundamental right under the Constitution.

Under the new law, abortion doctors must get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals; abortion clinics must upgrade to surgical centers; abortion-inducing pills can only be taken when a physician is present; and abortions would be banned 20 weeks after fertilization.

Well, kudos to NPR for actually describing these “sweeping” restrictions, however briefly. But did you catch that bit about Jane Roe? Texas matters because Jane Roe came from here? And hers was the case that decided that legalized abortion is a fundamental right under the Constitution?

And then on we are to the next line without mentioning some crucial information.

I like the idea of including “Jane Roe” and her symbolism in a story about Texas’ move to change the abortion regime in that state. She might be the perfect symbol of what this battle in Texas says about our country’s messy views on abortion. But, as the reader who submitted this story put it:

What a way to spin.  How convenient to ignore that “Jane Roe” was the assumed name of Norma McCorvey, who is now outspokenly pro-life, and who has made it clear that she was used by pro-abortionists who wanted to push their agenda. Even Wikipedia notes this.

It’s amazingly convenient and misses the real, the ultimate symbolism of this Texas woman. There are even religion ghosts all over her story. Let’s go ahead and look at the portion of her Wikipedia entry dealing with her views on abortion:

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