Can the press cover traditionalists with justice and decency?

Can the press cover traditionalists with justice and decency? March 5, 2013

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

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:

According to Reed’s friends, WPTY reported, the two men became friends after meeting at a bar in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where McMillian was running as a Democratic mayoral candidate. They were supposed to go to a party on Feb. 25, when McMillian allegedly drove Reed to an unfamiliar area, at which point Reed called his girlfriend.

“She said she was listening to everything that was going on,” said one friend of Reed’s, Derric Crump. “The guy was trying to get Lawrence to have a homosexual activity.”

But one of McMillian’s friends told the newspaper that the former consulting firm CEO and Reed were romantically involved.

“They were having an affair,” said the friend, Carlos Jones, adding that McMillian and Reed “got to tussling” before McMillian’s death.

Here’s the chat “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” The Washington Post‘s chat happened at noon today. The news about Reed and McMillian being friends (or more) is days old.

For my original post on the ombudsman column, there was quite a bit of online and offline reaction. One of the emails I received, from a journalist, made some important points I wanted to share:

You identified what to me is the most galling, most indefensible part of the whole thing: the glaring failure to present readers with opposing arguments accurately at any point, which in reality falsifies the entire discussion from the start. Unfortunately it also seem to be the case that the reason for this failure is that the reporter and ombudsman do not themselves actually understand the opposing arguments, which as you note is inexcusable for someone covering the issue. What’s worse, at this point it is hard not to conclude they have absolutely no interest in doing the very basic work it would require to remedy that shortcoming. The judgment of the situation that is implicit in that decision to remain willfully ignorant is just staggering.

I mean, there is so much more to which one can object in coverage of this issue: the selection bias (what gets covered? who gets interviewed? who gets quoted, where, and how?), the manifest double standards in how different kinds of stories are treated, the loaded language, the editorializing, the framing. I try not to get cynical, and I do appreciate and share the pro-journalism bias of GetReligion, but I’m almost beyond wishing for mainstream journalists to treat these things fairly at this point. But in this other thing, just reporting what someone says and thinks accurately if you’re going to bother to mention him at all? You don’t need ethics classes in journalism to know you’re supposed to do that. It’s just basic justice, just basic decency, the sort of thing you would normally do even for people you really dislike. In fact, it seems to me something most reporters would do even when doing something as distasteful as reporting on an actual racist.

But here? No. You have the Washington Post ombudsman — in a column where he is putatively recommending better treatment of “social conservatives” — basically making something up out of thin air, attributing it to readers who would not recognize it as their own view and then saying this straw man doesn’t make sense to him. I don’t know that it would be possible to even parody that.

There are various reasons why that ombudsman column was good news. In general, transparency is good and for a profession that claims to love transparency, we don’t see a lot of it from newsrooms.

It was also good to know a bit more about why some reporters struggle to report things honestly or fairly (even if it was a bit disappointing to see the muddy and juvenile thinking on display).

Finally, some journalists are earnestly asking what they could do better. The correspondent above provides some helpful starting points. I’m optimistic because while it requires just a bit of intelligence and humility, these things are in no way difficult to accomplish.

More on that theme, and some more substantive issues in the next post. I know you can’t wait.

Integrity photo via Shutterstock.

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3 responses to “Can the press cover traditionalists with justice and decency?”

  1. “I try not to get cynical, and I do appreciate and share the pro-journalism bias of GetReligion, but I’m almost beyond wishing for mainstream journalists to treat these things fairly at this point.”

    Can we please stop calling them mainstream? Please. I mean, seriously. I know that you all wish it were so, but day after day you present a steady stream of evidence to the contrary. The Emperor has no clothes, and he has been parading around in the buff for a loooong time.

  2. I don’t get it how such a question can even be asked by a WAPO columnist when the facts of the gay-murder are still not in. Heck, it looks like a gay man killed his lover. What on earth does that have to do with Christianity or Christians? Are they really this pathetic? Cmon!