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Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

And now, an all too familiar word from America's Tweeter In Chief: "The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust."

This is, of course, a variation on his larger theme that the entire mainstream press is the Enemy of the People, or words to that effect. Meanwhile, "fake news" has become a phrase that (click here for a tmatt typology on this term) is all but meaningless in American public discourse.

Whenever a Trumpian Tweet storm kicks up, I always say that it's stupid to say that something as complex as the American Press is the Enemy of the People. However, after decades of reading media bias studies on moral, cultural and religious issues, I think that it’s possible to say that significant numbers of journalists in strategic newsrooms are the enemies of about 20 to 40 percent of the nation's population. This remark usually draws silence.

This brings us to the growing "trust gap" between the American press and the American people. What can be done to improve this tragic situation?

That's the subject of this weekend’s think piece, which is a Q&A at FiveThirtyEight, that includes a rather strange reference to improving religion-news coverage. The discussion opens like this: 

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s time to gaze at our navels!!! We’re chatting about the media. Everyone ready?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’m not not ready.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Technically, I’m in a different field full time, academia, where we never do any navel-gazing, sooo …

micah: On this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, we talked about President Trump’s attacks on the press. Trump’s criticisms are mostly wrong, but the press as a whole (yes, it’s not great to lump all the media into one) does have a trust issue.

With that in mind, our mission for today: What resolutions do we think journalists (us and everyone else) should make to improve Americans’ faith in the press? 

Now, if you are an advocate of old-school, "American Model of the Press" journalism (stress on accuracy, balance, fairness and respect for voices on all sides of public debates), this Q&A is going to make you upset.

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Political speeches? Hey AP! NFL This Hall of Fame class stopped just short of giving an altar call

Political speeches? Hey AP! NFL This Hall of Fame class stopped just short of giving an altar call

GetReligion readers know that I am a big sports fan, even during these days of NFL confusion. I lived in greater Baltimore for 12 years and followed the Ravens quite closely.

So, yes, I watched the NFL Hall of Fame speeches the other day, in part because Ray "God's linebacker" Lewis was a first-ballot pick and he spoke at the end of the program.

Now, you knew that Lewis was going to go into full-tilt preacher mode when given this kind of platform. Right? 

So imagine my rather cynical surprise when I picked up my Knoxville News Sentinel the next day and saw this headline on the Associated Press story covering this event: "Hall of Fame speeches get political." That was a shorter version of the AP's own headline: "Hall of Fame speeches get political in Canton, Chattanooga."

Ah come on. Yes, there was obvious political implications to many of the remarks. I get that.

But several of the speakers packed their speeches with so much Godtalk that I thought the NFL police were going to have to rush in to prevent them from ending with an altar call. Many of the most striking remarks, in terms of politics, were mixed with religious content. I mean, Lewis -- in a plea for safer schools -- even talked about prayer in American schools.

This was a classic example of one of GetReligion's major themes: "Politics is real. Religion? Not so much." Here is the AP overture, which is long -- but essential. You have to see how hard AP worked to stress the political over the spiritual.

CANTON, Ohio (AP) -- Just as the demonstrations of players during the national anthem have become a means of expression for NFL players, the stage at the Hall of Fame inductions often turns into a political platform. It certainly did Saturday night.

Ray Lewis did so with his words, and Randy Moss with his tie.

There even were political tones with a different target 600 miles away during Terrell Owens’ speech at his personal celebration of entering the pro football shrine.

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First Amendment question from tmatt: What happens if Dallas Cowboys offer visible prayers?

First Amendment question from tmatt: What happens if Dallas Cowboys offer visible prayers?

We will open this religion-beat NFL update with a confession, a comment and then a question.

The confession: I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and '70s as a loyal Dallas Cowboys fan, in the era of Coach Tom Landry and the great Roger Staubach. I now cheer against the Cowboys and consider the current owner to be the younger brother of the Antichrist. So there.

A comment: I understand that NFL owners consider their stadiums to be professional "workplace" environments. Thus, they argue that they have the right to create rules governing the behavior of their employees. However, some of us First Amendment liberals would like to note that significant chunks of the funds used to build many, maybe most, of these structures came from local and state governments. Are we talking about public or private buildings?

The question: I realize that many NFL big shots, and the journalists who cover them, have a problem with demonstrations of religious faith. However, shouldn't reporters be including the word "pray" in their reports about the national anthem wars, as well as the word "protest"?

What happens if, during the upcoming season, one or more players: (a) Kneel and bow their heads in prayer? (b) Prostrate, face down, assuming a prayer position common in many Eastern faiths? (c) Stand, but raise their hands in a "charismatic" prayer gesture, with their lips moving in silent speech? (d) What if players make the sign of the cross and combine this with (a), (b) or (c)?

Protest or prayer? Maybe reporters need to ask if the correct answer is "both"?

The spark for this GetReligion meditation is, of course, the back-and-forth shots by Donald Trump and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Here is the top of the latest report from The New York Times.

The Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, no stranger to speaking his mind and creating controversy, on Wednesday added fuel to an already confusing and rancorous debate about how the N.F.L. plans to handle players who demonstrate during the playing of the national anthem this season.

At the opening of the Cowboys’ training camp in Oxnard, Calif., Jones said that all his team’s players would be required to stand on the field for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They would not be able to stay in the team’s locker room, something allowed under the league’s revised policy on the anthem.

“Our policy is you stand during the anthem, toe the line,” Jones told reporters.

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A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

A liberal Baptist preaching to Unitarians: Washington Post digs into racial conflicts (period)

From Day 1, folks here at GetReligion have urged newsrooms to pay more attention to liberal Christianity and other forms of liberal faith. There is, of course, lots of coverage of these groups when it comes to politics and social-justice issues. Progressive actions on sexuality make news. 

What is missing is what any of this has to do with the basic building blocks of religious faith and tradition. What do these liberal groups have to say about, well, doctrine?

With that in mind, let's turn to the long, intensely reported Washington Post feature that ran under this headline: "Prominent progressive D.C. church, accused of racism, tries to move on." The church at the heart of this story is All Souls Church Unitarian, a prominent congregation at or near the heart of progressive Beltway culture. Here is the overture:

One of the District’s best-known progressive congregations was locked for months this year in a very public conflict with its associate minister, who claimed she was mistreated and pushed out because she is black. Her supporters -- in the church and around the country -- spotlighted the case as an example of what, to them, liberal racism looks like, and vowed to keep it in the public eye until she got a better exit package.

The conflict at the 1,100-member All Souls Church Unitarian, known for nearly 200 years as a bastion of social justice activism, became fodder for debate about the nature of racism, and whether its pervasiveness will always seep into interactions and judgments even among people and institutions who say they are fixated on fighting it.

Now, three months after All Souls reached a private settlement with the Rev. Susan Newman Moore, the impacts of the dispute are still unfolding.

A few lines later, a very interesting word enters this discussion. Let us attend:

Moore has returned to the Baptist denomination in which she was ordained in the 1970s, and a few weeks ago the D.C. Baptist Convention held a “reaffirmation” ceremony for her, “as a binding of sore spots where wolves have taken a bite of you.”

You read that right. This prominent Unitarian Universalist preacher is a Baptist.

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New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

The New York Times' front page Monday featured a "beautiful and powerful story" — as one top journalist described it — on the 20th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.'s racially motivated dragging death in the East Texas town of Jasper.

Emotional and compelling, the piece is expertly written and filled with riveting details.

It even contains several references to faith.

So why am I about to give this story — which I mostly liked and really hoped I could praise — a negative critique? The simple answer is that the Times, in an otherwise excellent piece of journalism, fails to answer basic questions tied to religion. 

Up high in the story, the newspaper hints strongly at a religion angle when it mentions church and notes that Byrd's family forgave his killers:

JASPER, Tex. — Sometime after church but before dinner, Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the front door of James and Stella Byrd’s home. He stepped into the living room, removed his white cowboy hat and bowed his head. Then, with a somber look on his face that the Byrds still remember years later, he delivered the news that their son James Byrd Jr. was dead.

The horrific circumstances surrounding his death they would learn later: Chained by his ankles to a pickup truck by three men, he had been dragged three miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.

“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of Mr. Byrd’s younger sisters, whispered as she sat on a picnic bench at a memorial park now named in his honor. “It’s such a small town that we had already heard the rumors that a black man was found dead, but we didn’t know who it was. Until the knock on our door.”

The family forgave Mr. Byrd’s three killers long ago and made peace with Jasper, the small East Texas town where they have lived for three generations. But as the nation faces a spread in bias crime incidents, the family wants to ensure the public remembers one of the worst hate crimes of the 20th century. In the years since Mr. Byrd’s death, both state and federal hate crime laws bear his name.

As I kept reading, I expected — or at least hoped — that the Times would elaborate on the family's forgiveness of the killers and the reasoning, which I suspected would include religion, behind it. But that explanation never comes.

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'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.

I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.

Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.

But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?

So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.

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Southern Baptists are still Southern Baptists: But the future is starting to look more complex

Southern Baptists are still Southern Baptists: But the future is starting to look more complex

So what happens next, in terms of the big issues at the 2018 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?

Obviously, there were several hot topics addressed on the floor during the Dallas meetings. However, most of them were linked, in one way or another, to two basic issues -- reactions to the #SBCToo crisis and how Southern Baptists handle political issues and the politicians who seek some kind of symbolic blessing from the nation's largest Protestant flock.

Sure enough, the Southern Baptists were -- #DUH -- the topic we discussed during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in or sign up for the podcast using iTunes.

Host Todd Wilken and I spent quite a bit of time talking about (a) why the folks voting at SBC meetings are "messengers," not "delegates," (b) why the SBC is a "convention," not a "denomination" and (c) how those two realities affect real issues in the lives of real Southern Baptists.

In particular, I noted that the SBC's legal structure -- emphasizing local congregations, rather than a national hierarchy -- may present challenges to those seeking concrete, national structures to warn churches about church leaders who have been accused or convicted of sexual abuse.

Now, we recorded this podcast before the release of a fine Religion News Service story by veteran reporter Adelle Banks, that wrestled with that very issue. The headline: "Southern Baptists mull what’s next on confronting abuse." This is a must-read story, for those looking ahead on the #MeToo issue. Here is a crucial chunk of this story:

The alleged untoward behavior by Southern Baptist leaders forced many of the messengers, as delegates to this meeting are called, to grapple with how to rein in abuse while respecting the autonomy of the convention’s local churches. One step that the messengers took was to pass a nonbinding statement that suggested that “church and ministry leaders have an obligation to implement policies and practices that protect against and confront any form of abuse.”

The convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission announced that it will partner with a research firm to study the extent of abuse that is occurring in churches. The commission also has been referred a request from a messenger to evaluate the feasibility of establishing an “online verification database” of known sexual predators among ministers and other church personnel. It is scheduled to respond to that request at next year’s annual meeting.

Ah. But would the creation of a national SBC agency tracking abuse create the potential for lawsuits against the entire SBC, as opposed to local congregations or the trustees of individual SBC agencies or schools?

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Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Well now. It appears we have a 2018 Southern Baptist Convention angle that will draw news coverage, maybe even from TV networks, since many newsroom managers weren't interested in America's largest Protestant flock wrestling with domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In other words, the Donald Trump angle has arrived -- with Vice President Mike Pence's appearance at the gathering in Dallas. And here is the shocker! It appears that not all Southern Baptists are united when it comes to baptizing their faith in partisan politics. You mean there are divisions among evangelicals in the age of Trump? 

There must be, because I read it in The Washington Post. But hold that thought, because I have a bit of picky religion-beat business to handle first.

If you've covered SBC life for a couple of decades, you know that SBC leaders really need to post a sign over the press facilities at this event that screams: "HEY! The people at this convention are MESSENGERS, not DELEGATES! Please get that right."

Why is this particular burr under the journalism saddle bother Southern Baptists so much? 

The bottom line: The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention, not a denomination. It exists when it's in session, with "messengers" from its rather freewheeling local congregations. In other words, this "convention" is not a formal "denomination" structured like those dang (Baptist speak there) Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and what not.

There's even a FAQ book to help reporters handle these kinds of questions, for sale right here. Item No. 1? 

Who are the messengers? They are the folks who actually compose the convention when it meets. Why “messengers” and not “delegates”? Read the book. 

A decade or so ago, Baptist Press published an "Understanding the SBC" piece that noted:

Southern Baptist churches meet annually in convention. They do so by electing “messengers” who attend the Convention, and participate in the business of the Convention. In Southern Baptist parlance, representatives from churches are “messengers,” not “delegates.” Theoretically, they bring no authority from the churches over the Convention, and they take no authority from the Convention back to the churches. ...

Each Southern Baptist church can send as many as ten messengers to this annual convention meeting. The cap on the number of voting messengers is intended to ensure equality of small and large congregations alike.

Now, back to what really matters these days -- Trump-era political shouting. The headline on the relevant Washington Post piece proclaims: "Why Southern Baptists giving Mike Pence a platform is so controversial."

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Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Which major American religious flock is the most neglected by news media? 

Please read the headline a second time and think about it.

The Religion Guy asserts the obvious answer to this question is Baptists in “historically” or “predominantly” African-American denominations. By out-of-date estimates, their cumulative membership exceeds 12 million. That’s not so far behind the 15 million members in the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention, whose Dallas meeting June 12-13 will grab the usual media coverage.

No reporters are likely to staff the June 26-28 Columbus, Ohio, meeting of the Atlanta-based Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. Admittedly, with only 800 congregations it’s small compared with the mighty SBC, but there’s an angle: It’s the youngest black Baptist denomination, formed in 1994 by  those leaving the older groups to emphasize Pentecostal-charismatic style “gifts” of the Holy Spirit.  

It can be argued that publications neglect black religion when the majority of their reporters are white.

No question, the “mainstream media” mostly have a narrow interest in black churches as political players, ignoring their central mission as a powerful religious force.

Meanwhile, black churches have a history of expending little energy cultivating visibility. For example, those Full Gospel Baptists don’t provide information for the standard online church listings at  www.yearbookofchurches.org. Nor does the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal body that equals the Baptists in neglect though it claims to be the single largest U.S. black denomination, with 6.5 million members. Datebook note: Its annual convocation is Nov. 5-13 in St. Louis.

Reporters should also be familiar with groups founded two centuries ago, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (headquarters in Nashville) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (headquarters in Charlotte). Neither  provides membership estimates to that online church data base.

Back to the Baptists.

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