Dallas Morning News advocacy journalism, the prequel

Dallas Morning News advocacy journalism, the prequel March 6, 2014

Pardon me, Dallas Morning News. We underestimated you.

I’ll explain what I mean in a moment. But first, a little background — OK, it may turn out to be a big chunk of background:

Twice in the last week — here and here — we at GetReligion posted on the Texas newspaper’s advocacy journalism on a retired Methodist pastor conducting a wedding ceremony for two elderly gay men. In each case, we lamented the Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote supporting the United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Instead, a newspaper that likes to tout its nine Pulitzer Prizes since 1986 settled each time for a “no comment” from the region’s presiding Methodist bishop.

In our last post, I opined:

But if the bishop won’t talk, are there no other Methodist leaders — in Texas or the nation — that the Morning News might quote to help readers understand why the “other side” believes what it does?

Or is the Dallas paper content to advocate for one side and make only a cursory effort to give the “other side” a voice? Barring any evidence to the contrary, that certainly appears to be the case.

That post prompted Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher — who once worked at the Morning News — to write at The American Conservative:

Same-sex marriage is a big deal within the Methodist Church nationally. The church officially doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, but as you’ll see from the AP story I linked, activists within the national church have undertaken guerrilla actions to defy church teaching because they haven’t gotten their way nationally. They are destroying church unity, but they believe they’re doing it for a good cause. The point is, at this juncture in the struggle within the Methodist church, traditionalists are still in control, and set policy for all Methodist churches. There ought to have been balance in the News stories.

I lived in Dallas, and I know Methodists there. It is absurd to think that it’s impossible to find a Methodist in Dallas who stands with tradition, which is, for the time being, the United Methodist Church’s official teaching. For heaven’s sake, you’ve got a major Methodist divinity school there in town. I’ve never been a religion reporter, but I know at least one professor there who would have given a defense of the church’s teaching — if the reporter from the News would have cared to have learned it. That’s the rub, though. If the reporter and her newspaper don’t believe the other side has a right to be heard, they won’t be heard, and the false impression is given that there is only one side to the story.

That brings me to the reason for this post. It turns out that we were wrong about the Morning News writing two one-sided stories on this issue.  Perusing the newspaper’s online religion page this morning, I found a third. 

Let’s call it the prequel, as it ran back in January:

The Rev. Bill McElvaney, retired pastor of the Northaven United Methodist Church, says he plans to conduct same-sex weddings, risking censure from his Protestant church.

Two United Methodist pastors — one in Pennsylvania and one in New York — have been formally charged under church law with presiding over the same-sex weddings. One was defrocked after he led his son’s wedding.

The United Methodist Church considers the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Controversy on the issue is sweeping through U.S. churches.

Unlike the first two stories cited, the first one didn’t include a “no comment” from the bishop. In fact, it contained no attempt at all to reach anyone to speak on behalf of the church position. It did, however, clear up an earlier question I raised concerning the Northaven senior pastor’s position:

The Rev. Eric Folkerth, Northaven’s senior pastor, made clear his support of the pastor emeritus, who also was an instructor at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. “Same-sex marriage is a pastoral necessity of this congregation right now. Not in some future theoretical era,” Folkerth said this week in his personal blog (wheneftalks.com).

So we’re left — still — with explaining to a Pulitzer-winning newspaper how it might practice balanced journalism and treat all sides of a divisive issue such as this fairly.

Fortunately, I also came across the United Methodist News Service’s coverage of this same story. Here’s how UNMS — whose writer, Sam Hodges, was the Morning News’ last full-time religion writer, if I am not mistaken — handled the bishop not talking:

Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference has not commented publicly on McElvaney’s plan to do the March 1 service.

The Rev. Mike Walker, a retired United Methodist ordained elder in Dallas and board member of Good News, an unofficial caucus within the denomination that supports the church’s teaching and positions on homosexuality, did voice objection.

“I’m deeply saddened that a fellow colleague in ministry for all these years in the North Texas Conference has decided to plan an act seemingly in defiance of church law on a very controversial and divisive issue, and on an issue which the church has settled through a long series of decision-making processes,” he said.

Walker added, “I’m sure that Bill sees this as an act of justice or perhaps pastoral care, but I see this as an issue of covenant-keeping and an issue of the meaning of marriage and the boundaries for proper sexual behavior.”

It’s basic Journalism 101 stuff, really. Any chance the Morning News might decide to practice it next time it writes about the debate within the United Methodist Church?

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2 responses to “Dallas Morning News advocacy journalism, the prequel”

  1. The “no comment” reminded me of a recent church situation of my experience. Our church had split from another church. It happened to be the case that the elders there had commanded that there shall be no clapping during the singing. The split was not over that particular issue but my personal opinion is that autocratic decisions were part of the impetus behind the split. After the new church formed and new elders were in place, they discussed the issue in view of the recent experience. They knew some members were positively for it, some positively against it, and a lot in between. So, they decided not to make a ruling and to allow the result to develop on its own. In essence, a “no comment.”

    I’m wondering if a similar reason is behind the Methodist official’s “no comment.” They may believe that their members hold to a range of views on the subject. They do not want to alienate those who hold to the traditional view nor anyone else. Perhaps that official has a non-traditional view. I’m not sure seeking out some other person to affirm belief in the tradition, which everyone already knows, would necessarily add new information. Of course, as with all articles, one can always wish for more detail and depth on all aspects, but time and space place limitations on that and judgements have to be made.

  2. Ah, but under the new rules of journalism, as explained by High Poobah Bill Keller at the New York Times, “error has no rights”.
    You see, anyone opposing gay marriage is wrong, wrong, wrong. The media has determined this for us. The opponents have no rights to be heard, because they are just like Nazis or KKK members.
    Anyone who is wrong, wrong, wrong, must not be allowed to speak via the media. After all, since they are wrong, you wouldn’t want them to convince anyone, would you?
    The same idea has been applied to the global warming debate. The LA Times recently decided that they would not print ideas by global warming deniers, who are obviously wrong, wrong, wrong.
    So all hail our new masters.

    They media have now decided to take over control over what is seen and heard. Just like on the old TV show Outer Limits : “We are controlling transmission. We are controlling the horizontal. We are controlling the vertical. We can change the focus to a soft blur. Or sharpen it to crystal clarity. Sit quietly and we will control what you see and hear”
    What? You want to hear both sides of the debate? Don’t be so naive. These things have been decided for you. Imagine! Journalists presenting both sides fairly. What would happen if they did that?

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