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February 8, 2013

The New York Times has published a letter of reference for the Rev. Joshua DuBois, President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Unless I am much mistaken, the theme of  “White House Director of Faith-Based Office Is Leaving His Post” is to help the 30-year old Pentecostal minister launch his private sector career following his resignation from his White House post this week.

I would be hard pressed to describe the story on  page A17 of the 8 Feb 2013 New York edition as a news article. There is no balance, no curiosity, no context here. While political allies of DuBois sing his praises in the article, there is no voice questioning the wisdom of the transformation of the office to an adjunct to President Obama’s perpetual political campaign.

Let me say out the outset that I offer no criticism of DuBois’ tenure at the White House. My concern is with the Times‘ coverage. The article opens with high praise, noting:

Mr. DuBois played a central role when Mr. Obama was making his first run for the presidency, cultivating relationships on his behalf with religious leaders of many faiths. Mr. DuBois, 30, has also served as an unofficial in-house pastor to Mr. Obama, sending the president an e-mail each morning with Bible passages intended to prompt reflection or prayer. At the prayer breakfast, the president called Mr. DuBois a “close friend of mine and yours” who “has been at my side — in work and in prayer — for years now.”

The article states that when President George W. Bush created the post in 2000, it “proved contentious because many critics said the office and its actions often violated the constitutional separation of church and state. But Obama preserved the office and appointed advisory councils that represented a broad range of religious leaders, including conservative evangelicals and openly gay ministers.”

The Times reports DuBois changed the focus of the Office from a White House-based agency that would help provide a level-playing field for religious groups in seeking federal social service grants to what Josh Good in the National Review called a community organizing focus.

Mr. DuBois, a black Pentecostal minister, steered the office toward engaging religious leaders to address broad social goals like reducing unwanted pregnancies, helping people cope with the economic downturn, encouraging fathers to take responsibility for their children and improving child and maternal health.

Two voices appear in the story: the omnipresent Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who objects to the idea of a White House faith office and the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland:

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October 27, 2012

Truth be told, in our bias for fair, accurate journalism, we at GetReligion probably focus too much on the negative.

We point out mistakes in mainstream reporting. We cry out for balance. We complain about the MSM bubble.

For once, I want to accentuate the positive. Therefore, please allow me to highlight a Seattle Times story this week as a perfect example of how to write a puff piece.

Before I begin, however, I must stress that reporters typically do not write their own headlines. In this case, the headline and deck might give the reader the mistaken impression that this will be an actual news story, not a puff piece (shame on the headline writer!):

In black churches, a gay-marriage divide

A source of debate across the country and the subject of ballot measures in four states this year, same-sex marriage remains a thorny issue within the African-American community, where objections are deeply rooted in religion and biblical teachings.

At this point, I must admit that I was worried. I feared that the story might subject me to actual intelligent voices on both sides seriously engaging the thorny issue and even providing insight (of a theological nature!) on the deeply rooted objections.

Whew! Imagine my relief when I realized that this would indeed be a puff piece.

Some key elements that make this puff piece work:

• The lede: Immediately, the Times takes readers to a gay-friendly church that stands as a stark contrast to the discriminatory black churches that — somehow in an enlightened age — still manage to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality:

Sounds of gospel music resonated through the sparse sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon as voices rose up in praise and a few hands sailed through the air.

Liberation United Church of Christ in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood is a small congregation with a style of Christian worship not unlike many charismatic black churches.

But its congregants, many of them African American, come here as much for the spiritual euphoria as for this: that as gays and lesbians, they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the churches of their parents and grandparents.

That’s particularly relevant in a year when questions about whether gays should be allowed to marry will appear on the November ballot in four states, including Washington.

The sourcing: The Times quotes eight sources by name, by my quick count. Fortunately, six of them support same-sex marriage and contribute mightily to the puff piece. But even the two sources who oppose same-sex marriage serve a purpose, providing caricatures with real names to highlight the lunacy of the other side:

Within the community, there are unspoken concerns, particularly among older people, that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow diminishes the discrimination blacks have endured.

Some have even said that given the challenges in the black community — from education to health care — marriage for gays cannot be a priority, despite a significant number of African Americans in same-sex relationships.

But ultimately for many, the Bible is the final arbiter.

“People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong,” said André Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, who has participated in recent rallies in favor of traditional marriage.

“Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them.”

Notice the way the story makes a lot of broad generalizations about the other side without attributing the information to a named source? That’s a brilliant tool for a puff piece. But then the story quotes a single pastor as the sole representative of the “many conservative leaders — including some black pastors” opposed to same-sex marriage. Again, brilliant.

• The marginalization: Make it crystal clear which point of view is on the right side of history and public opinion. (Hint: Don’t dare let on that a state referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage has never passed in the United States or that polls show support for the Washington state measure under 50 percent.) The proper way to write it:

While national polls now show majority support for gay marriage in the general population and among other racial and ethnic groups, support among black people remains under 50 percent — despite a bump after endorsements by President Obama and the NAACP.

Recently, black pastors in parts of the South and Midwest have encouraged voters to sit out the election or to consider not supporting Obama because of his position.

In Atlanta, Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s, said she would never suggest that people not vote. But she said she and some pastors are so disturbed by Obama’s endorsement they’ve formed an organization, GodSaid.org, to urge black Americans to vote their “biblical values” rather than a party line.

At this point, we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the story. The writer has allowed token appearances by the other side. But the entire rest of the story — the final one-third — needs to provide positive, compelling anecdotes and quotes to support the need for same-sex marriage. Bingo, the Times is up to the challenge! This is such a terrific puff piece — leads with the side that’s right, ends with the side that’s right and sprinkles the side that’s wrong in the middle, but just a little bit!

All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for a better puff piece.

Seattle skyline image via Shutterstock

April 8, 2014

McCarthyism is alive and doing quite well in America, a scan of this week’s newspapers reveals. The mob mentality that promotes intolerance in the name of diversity has claimed the scalp of Mozilla CEO Brendon Eich and dominated the front pages of newspapers and the chat shows, but it has been the little things — the small local events and actions that condemn free speech, free thought and freedom of religion — I find so frightening.

An item in one of my local newspapers, Florida Today (part of the Gannett chain), illustrates the collapse of discourse in our culture — and the truly rotten state of affairs within the top ranks of our military.

The newspaper reported that the Missing Man Table in one of the dining facilities at Patrick Air Force Base had been removed after someone complained about the presence of a Bible.

The author enters into the story through the reaction of a dismayed veteran, angered over the disappearance of the table:

When Michael Tater did not see the POW/MIA Missing Man Table at the Riverside Dining Facility at Patrick Air Force Base, his reaction was of disbelief. Missing Man Tables — fully set tables left vacant for military members who didn’t return from combat — are commonplace at military and veterans organizations. One had been a fixture at Riverside. But a dispute over including a Bible as part of the display led to its removal from the dining hall.

Done right, a lede sentence that frames the issue according to the views of the man in the street makes for an interesting feature story. But care needs to be taken that the man in the street view is not being used by the author as a cloak for his own views. This is where balance and context comes into play. We hear side A, but also need to hear side B. And the two need to be placed in context.

This article is almost there — but not quite.

The story continues with a response from the base commander. Was the name withheld by the author or was the press release signed base commander? A name is necessary — especially in light of what follows.

But commanders at the base have rethought that decision. They said Friday that the table would again be displayed at Riverside, but they did not specify a time for the reintroduction of the table or what items will or will not be included on it.

“The 45th Space Wing deeply desires to honor America’s Prisoners of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) personnel,” commanders said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, the Bible’s presence or absence on the table at the Riverside Dining Facility ignited controversy and division, distracting from the table’s primary purpose of honoring POWs/MIAs. Consequently, we temporarily replaced the table with the POW/MIA flag in an effort to show our continued support of these heroes while seeking an acceptable solution to the controversy.”

“After consultation with several relevant organizations, we now intend to re-introduce the POW/MIA table in a manner inclusive of all POWs/MIAs as well as Americans everywhere.” the statement said.

The remainder of the article gives voice to local reactions to the news that the Missing Man Table is being returned. But should not there be a bit more context? What do the regulations say on this point? Did the base commander act according to the rules, or did he violate them?
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October 19, 2013

Case closed.

The Associated Press has decided, apparently, that stories need to include only side. Stories about same-sex marriage, that is.

Earlier this month, I highlighted a doozy of an AP puff piece out of Salt Lake City on some Mormons challenging their church’s stance on homosexuality. Now comes another AP puff piece — this one datelined Harrisburg, Pa.

To be fair to AP, I should point out that the latest story does include two sides — New Jersey same-sex marriage advocates who are on the verge of victory and Pennsylvania same-sex marriage advocates who are having more trouble persuading their state to do the right thing.

Same-sex marriage opponents? Ah ha ha. Get out your magnifying glass and try to find them in this story.

The top of the editorial — er, news story:

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania and New Jersey are on tracks that could lead to the Northeast being the first full region in the country to legalize gay marriage – but the routes are hardly parallel and the horsepower anything but equal.

A flurry of recent court decisions has gay couples in New Jersey, where same-sex marriage has long been debated, hurrying to make wedding plans for when they can legally marry starting Monday – even as a moderate Republican governor with apparent presidential aspirations appeals.

Across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, advocates are pecking away at a 1996 gay marriage ban by introducing bills in the Legislature, defiantly issuing marriage licenses in localities and taking the issue to court – with few people conceding the tactics will work anytime soon in a big state with a socially conservative spine.

Who does AP allow to speak in their own voice — inside quote marks — in this story?

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October 18, 2013

There is little new under the sun when it comes to anti-theistic arguments. Whether it be high minded philosophical critique or rabble rousing anti-clericalism, what was old is now new.

Richard Ostling observed in his Get Religion post “Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?” the content of the criticism remains the same, but the tone has changed. The new atheism has taken a:

[A] tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush.

In this week’s Crossroads, aGet Religion podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I discussed two posts that touched on anti-theism — but approached the subject from different perspectives: French media disdain for religious believers and a “heretical” Episcopal bishop.

While there have been other non-theistic Episcopal bishops, Jack  Spong of Newark was the media  darling of the ’90s. A fixture on talk shows and op-ed pages in his day, Bishop Spong was the subject of a profile written by the Religion News Service that was released in advance of his next book.

Pressed by Todd whether my dislike of the story was motivated more by my theological disagreements with Bishop Spong than journalistic concerns, I responded that I had no quarrel with Bishop Spong being Bishop Spong. What stoked my ire was the the lack of balance, hard questions of context in the RNS piece. It was more of a People magazine puff piece than journalism.

The second half of the story was a review of my criticism of two different accounts of the trial of four French West Indian immigrants in Paris, accused with kidnapping and torturing a fellow immigrant. They have denied the charge, and in their defense have claimed they were exorcising demons from their victim. The journalistic issue I saw was the discrepancy between AFP’s English and French language stories — released at the same time. The English language version noted the defendants said they were motivated to act by the tenets of their Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. But it included the information the four had been expelled from the church some time ago — and that their actions were contrary to that church’s doctrine and discipline.

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October 11, 2013

Here at GetReligion, we make no secret of our bias.

That bias: our deep affection for good, old-fashioned journalism.

In two recent posts, I highlighted stories at opposite extremes of that ideal. I discuss those posts with host Todd Wilken on this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast.

In my “When religious liberty clashes with gay rights” post, I praised a Wall Street Journal story on lawsuits over wedding professionals — such as bakers and photographers — refusing to serve same-sex couples. I noted that the Journal quoted sources on both sides of the issue and fairly framed each side’s broad arguments.

That post prompted some interesting discussion from readers (some of it actually related to journalism). Reader cvg commented, in part:

This seemed like a good article. I wouldn’t say the quotes were really well balanced. The SSM quotes reflected personal trauma, while those on the liberty side didn’t. Perhaps it is the language each side naturally uses: one naturally in tune with successful PR, and one naturally out of tune? I suspect there would be stronger balance if quotes reflected how disturbing it can be for a person of faith to be forced to act against deep seated convictions. However, is it the journalist’s job to dig for balance, if those reflected each side don’t naturally portray such balance? Probably not. However, if you’re really after portraying balance, a decent follow up wouldn’t hurt. Too much leading?

My reply:

cvg,

You definitely make some interesting points concerning the balance on the quotes.

One issue at play: Attorneys are being quoted (instead of plaintiffs themselves) in most of these cases, and attorneys speak legalese.

Another issue: the relatively short word count on the story, which doesn’t allow for any source to elaborate a whole lot.

Still, I was pleased that the Journal made an attempt to let each source make its best case, albeit in a short amount of space.

Meanwhile, in my “Mormons softening opposition to homosexuality … or not” post, I raised a number of questions about what I characterized as an Associated Press “puff piece” on Mormons challenging the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Reader Darren Blair commented, in part:

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October 11, 2013

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Remembrance of Things Past. Volume 1: Swann’s Way: Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, translated by  C.K. Scott Moncrieff. p. 48.

Jack Spong is my petite madeleine.

The former Episcopal Bishop of Newark does for me what a cookie did for Marcel — open the door to bittersweet memories. The taste of the tea-soaked biscuit reminded Marcel of Charles Swann’s destruction that had been precipitated by his unfaithful wife Odette. An article in today’s Washington Post‘s On Faith section from the Religion News Service reminded me (as a priest in this church) of the destruction of the Episcopal Church precipitated by its unfaithful leaders over the past 40 years.

The article entitled “An aging maverick, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has no regrets” is part Edith Piaf — part Soviet Life hagiography. As I read through article I heard Jack Spong proclaim “Non, Rien de rien / Non, Je ne regrette rien” — while RNS went into full bore People magazine puff piece mode. All that was missing was the photo of the smiling peasants with their balalaikas extolling the virtues of the dear leader. One cannot blame Jack Spong for his part, but I do think RNS might be a little embarrassed.

The article opens on a friendly note:

MORRIS PLAINS, N.J. — At 82, retired and enjoying life, Bishop John Shelby Spong doesn’t have to be the liberal enfant terrible whose pronouncements for gay rights and against traditional dogmas once scandalized Christendom.

Indeed, many of the views that once turned the former Episcopal bishop of Newark into a lightning rod are now regarded as so matter-of-fact that they barely occasion much notice: ordaining gay clergy and blessing same-sex marriages, for example, or having a female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion.

And it gets better from here. The good bishop enumerates his triumphs with but slight modesty … but he discounts any direct responsibility.

Yet while he finds the victory deeply satisfying, he says he doesn’t take personal pride in this tectonic shift.“I was simply interpreting a rising consciousness,” he said. “Whether it was race or women or homosexual people, the issue was always the same: fighting against anything that dehumanizes a child of God on the basis of an external characteristic.”Now, he said, “I feel mellow,” his soft drawl burnishing the tone of reflection. “And I don’t think I’ve changed, particularly. I’m just not controversial in my church anymore.”

But RNS tells us:

[T]hose who love Spong — and the many who love to hate him — need not worry: He is hardly going gently into that good night. He seems as vital and youthful as ever, tall and lanky with a shock of reddish hair that still falls insistently across his forehead. He does four miles every morning on the treadmill, and he and his wife travel about 60 percent of the year, mainly at the invitation of audiences who want to hear more from Spong.And he has a new book out — his 24th. This latest one is a take on the Gospel of John called “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.” As the subtitle suggests, Spong reads the Gospel through a Jewish lens, as he has done in many of his works.

It continues in this vein of hero worship. Jack Spong is a mystic — but a rationalist one.

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October 8, 2013

If you enjoy quality journalism, feel free to skip an Associated Press story out today on Mormons challenging their church’s stance on homosexuality.

But if you’re in the mood for a puff piece, wow … AP has produced a doozy!

From start to finish, this quasi-news report engages in unfettered cheerleading. Ready? OK!:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Wendy and Tom Montgomery went door-to-door in their California neighborhood in 2008 campaigning for the passage of an anti-gay marriage proposition. They were among thousands of faithful Mormons following the direction of a church that spent millions on the cause.

Then they learned last year that their 15-year-old son is gay — a revelation that rocked their belief system.

Now, Wendy Montgomery is leading a growing movement among Mormons to push The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to teach that homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Alas, AP never gets around to providing any concrete data to back up the claim of “a growing movement.”

The story does provide this big chunk of “background,” all without any named sources:

The Utah-based church’s stance on homosexuality has softened considerably since it was one of the leading forces behind California’s Proposition 8. A new website launched this year encourages more compassion toward gays, implores them to stay in the faith and clarifies that church leaders no longer “necessarily advise” gays to marry people of the opposite sex in what used to be a widely practiced Mormon workaround for homosexuality. In May, church leaders backed the Boy Scouts’ policy allowing gays in the ranks. Some gay Mormons who left or were forced out of the church say they are now being welcomed back — even though they remain in same-sex relationships.

Who says the church’s stance has “softened considerably?” The story doesn’t say.

Who are the gay Mormons welcomed back and allowed to remain in same-sex relationships? AP doesn’t bother to quote any of them.

That giant paragraph is followed by this transition:

It may seem like negligible progress to outsiders, but Mormon scholars say 2013 has been a landmark year for the religion on gay and lesbian issues.

How’s that for editorializing? (I’ll give it an A-plus.)

Throughout the story, AP presents the Montgomerys’ version of events as the gospel truth, such as:

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