Journalism

Democratic socialists vs. traditional Catholics: Guess who gets better news coverage?

Democratic socialists vs. traditional Catholics: Guess who gets better news coverage?

Every profession has a national convention. Bankers, plumbers and even electricians hold them. Journalists have several each year (I have attended some in the past), as do journalism college professors (I have attended those as well). Earlier this month, The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication — a mix of both professions — held their annual conference in Toronto.

That begs the question of when is a national convention worthy of news coverage?

The answer goes to the heart of journalism, potential bias and why reporters and editors choose to cover an event over another. It’s a no-brainer when the gathering is the Republican or Democratic National Conventions held every four years. After all, that’s where each party officially nominates a presidential candidate. It’s where speeches are delivered and news is made.

What’s the bar for coverage when it comes to lesser-known gatherings? Two very distinct conventions earlier this month may shed some light on who is worth covering these days and why.  

The Democratic Socialists of America held their convention last week in Atlanta. By coincidence, the Knights of Columbus held their annual convention in Minneapolis. Readers of this space should find it to be no coincidence whatsoever that the Democratic socialists received plenty — and perhaps more favorable — coverage compared to a Catholic group.

Most can infer who the Democratic socialists are. They have gained lots of influence in the Democratic party and broader political debate since Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016. Many of the group’s anti-capitalist policy positions have gained traction among those running for president in 2020.  

The New York Times wrote about the gathering in an August 6 feature. This is how the piece opens:

Three years ago, the Democratic Socialists of America had 5,000 members. Just another booth at the campus activities fair, another three-initialed group an uncle might mention over lunch.

Today, dues-paying D.S.A. members exceed 56,000. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star of American politics, is one. So are a couple of dozen local elected officials across the country. Senator Bernie Sanders, a current presidential candidate, is not, but he may as well be: He identifies as a democratic socialist and enjoys a totemic status with the group’s members.

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Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

That was kind of a delayed reaction. Hang on a moment, and I’ll explain what I mean.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a post noting that a side issue had emerged at President Donald Trump’s infamous “Send her back!” rally in Greenville, N.C.

The controversy, as I noted, involved Trump’s choice of words.

Here’s how I opened that post:

If I told you that Donald Trump uttered a curse word, it probably wouldn’t surprise you.

We are talking, after all, about the future president caught on videotape uttering the famous “Grab-em-by-the-*****” line.

But how might Trump’s evangelical supporters react if the leader of the free world took God’s name in vain at a nationally televised politically rally?

That’s the intriguing — at first glance — plot in a Charlotte Observer news story.

So what brings us back to that same, profanity-laced subject?

That would be Politico, which has taken the story national with a relatively in-depth piece headlined “‘Using the Lord’s name in vain’: Evangelicals chafe at Trump’s blasphemy.”

Here’s Politico’s overture:

Paul Hardesty didn’t pay much attention to President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., last month until a third concerned constituent rang his cellphone.

The residents of Hardesty’s district — he’s a Trump-supporting West Virginia state senator — were calling to complain that Trump was “using the Lord’s name in vain,” Hardesty recounted.

“The third phone call is when I actually went and watched his speech because each of them sounded distraught,” Hardesty, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, said.

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Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

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Why teach journalism at religious private colleges? Let's start with some creation theology ...

Why teach journalism at religious private colleges? Let's start with some creation theology ...

Here’s an old journalism saying that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (please click here to tune that in). All together now: “It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.”

That does this have to do with this past week’s GetReligion post about a much-discussed Washington Post piece about Jerry Falwell, Jr., Donald Trump and the student press? Click here for more background on that essay by former Liberty editor Will Young: “Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges.”

Publications operated by the military are, literally, providing news about the actions of their bosses. They are trying to cover their own publishers. The same thing is true at private colleges and universities. Student journalists (and, yes, their journalism professors) work for news organizations that ultimately answer to administration officials that they inevitably have to cover.

Things can get tense. But to understand the realities here, readers need to know a few facts. Here is a chunk of a Liberty University report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that frequently clashes with schools on the cultural left and right. Many critics call TheFIRE.org a conservative organization because of its defense of old-school First Amendment liberalism.

Note the first sentence here.

As a private university, Liberty is not legally bound by the First Amendment, and may decline to protect students’ free speech in favor of other institutional values. But for years, Falwell has publicly held out the university’s commitment to free expression as far superior to that which other institutions make — indeed, as among the very best in the nation and among the cornerstones of his institution.

Liberty’s policies, hidden from public view behind a password-protected web portal, are devoid of any written commitment that would effectuate its leadership’s proclamations. FIRE has acquired a copy, however, and determined that the policies provide Falwell and Liberty administrators with sweeping control over all manner of campus expression.

Here is another crucial passage:

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Friday Five: El Paso and Dayton, RNS on scene, Liberty's J-school, whopper correction

Friday Five: El Paso and Dayton, RNS on scene, Liberty's J-school, whopper correction

Do we really need to know what makes a mass murderer tick?

It’s a question we’ve contemplated previously here at GetReligion. I’ve noted that I personally tire of reading about crazed killers who go on shooting rampages.

After Saturday’s massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the Dallas Morning News provided extensive coverage.

However, here’s what the Dallas newspaper didn’t do: mention the gunman’s name on the front page.

“Though the shooter’s name would be online and inside the paper, we would not identify him or show his photo on the front page,” Editor Mike Wilson said of the purposeful decision. “Even in the digital age, what we run on 1A is an important expression of our values.”

It’s a small, mainly symbolic gesture, but I like it. Kudos to Wilson and his team.

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, dominated headlines this week, and rightly so.

In a post Thursday, I praised an emotional, heart-wrenching story on one victim’s family published by the Los Angeles Times. I declared that the front-page news-feature just might be “the best religion story you’ll read all year.”

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This El Paso report is emotional, heart-wrenching and maybe the best religion story you'll read all year

This El Paso report is emotional, heart-wrenching and maybe the best religion story you'll read all year

Los Angeles Times national correspondent David Montero’s front-page feature on the parents of an El Paso, Texas, shooting victim is not perfect.

But it’s pretty darn close.

It just might be — in terms of the mixture of storytelling prowess and attention to faith details — the best religion story you’ll read all year.

However, be sure to grab a tissue before clicking the link and becoming engrossed in the narrative. Trust me on that.

Montero opens with this powerful scene (it’s a big chunk of text, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut it off any quicker):

EL PASO — The pastor had never prayed so fervently.

Michael Grady had just learned that his 33-year-old daughter was lying in a pool of blood at Walmart.

Shot three times, Michelle Grady had managed to dial her cellphone to call her mother, Jeneverlyn, who jumped in her car and kept her on the line until she reached the store.

His wife called him from the store, and Michael Grady raced to join them. The drive from his house to the Walmart normally takes about seven minutes. It felt longer.

When he finally arrived, the parking lot was already taped off. He saw his wife’s car by the theater next to the store. He parked. He ran.

But his 65-year-old body, which had endured a quadruple-bypass heart surgery a few years prior, couldn’t move nearly as fast as he would’ve liked.

Grady prayed.

Keep reading, and Montero quotes Grady — in the father’s own words — on exactly what he was praying. And later in the piece, he does so again.

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Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Over the past week or so, I have received a steady stream of email asking me to comment on a recent essay in The Washington Post that focused on an always touchy subject — efforts to do journalism education on private college campuses.

You wouldn’t know that’s what the essay is about if you merely scanned the headline — which offers your typical Donald-Trump-era news hook. The article is better than this headline.

Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear’

How Jerry Falwell Jr. silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics.

Yes, Trump plays a role in this piece and I am sure that Falwell’s over-the-top loyalty to the president is causing lots of tension at Liberty. However, that isn’t the main source of conflict in this article.

The main problem? Like many private schools (and even a few state schools), Liberty — on academic paper — says that it has a “journalism” program. The problem is what top administrators actually want is a public relations program that prepares students to work in Christian nonprofit groups, think tanks and advocacy publications.

This is a problem that is much bigger than Liberty. I have encountered this syndrome on campuses that are left of center as well as those on the right, during a quarter-century of so of teaching students at (or from) Christian colleges. More than a few college leaders — like Falwell — don’t want parents, donors and trustees reading student-written news material about real life on their campuses.

Real life? Here is the issue that I always use as my line in the sand, when studying conflicts about college journalism programs: Will school officials allow news reports about issues that produce public documents, like police reports.

Sure enough, that’s where former Liberty University journalist Will Young begins his Post essay. This is long, but essential:

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Thoughts, prayers and Christian nationalists: News coverage after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio

Thoughts, prayers and Christian nationalists: News coverage after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio

I’m back home in Oklahoma after 10 days on the West Coast and catching up on my reading.

Here is one of those “quick” summer posts that tmatt — enjoying time with his grandchildren in Colorado — referenced earlier this week.

Religion figures in a lot of coverage of the Texas and Ohio mass shootings.

Here are five links related to that:

1. The Atlantic’s Emma Green is always worth reading.

Here, she explores “What Conservative Pastors Didn’t Say After El Paso.”

Some crucial paragraphs:

Christianity in America is wildly diverse, but this question, perhaps more than any other, has become a dividing line for churches today: In the midst of rising hatred, Christians cannot agree on what their prophetic role should be, and whether there are political solutions for America’s apparent recent uptick in overt violence and bigotry.

Some pastors, like Morriss, forcefully argue that America’s most powerful leaders, including President Donald Trump, have to be held responsible for their rhetoric and ideas, including vilifying Hispanics and immigrants, the very people mentioned in the manifesto allegedly connected to the El Paso shooting. “If you look at the current propaganda coming from Washington, you might believe that dark-skinned people, and certainly immigrants, ‘bad hombres,’ are the dangerous ones,” Morriss said. “This is not a foreigner issue. This is not an immigrant issue. This is the violence we have made a home for.”

But other pastors, including several influential mega-church leaders who have been strong supporters of the president, have pushed back on what they call the politicization of this and other shootings. “I think it is wrong to assign blame to any party or any candidate for this problem,” Robert Jeffress, the head pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council, told me. “This is the problem of evil.”

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Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

I have attended many vigils and funeral services in my years as a news reporter. I did so primarily as a general assignment reporter covering crime in New York City throughout the early 2000s.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I attended dozens of funerals for firefighters and other first-responders who perished during the collapse of the World Trade Center in the biggest terror attack on American soil.

There is a new terror threat that faces our nation. The rise of domestic terrorists with easy access to guns have made even a routine weekend trip to the mall something to fear. Those memories of covering vigils and funerals — many involving children and teens shot and killed in senseless gang violence — came flooding back to my mind this past weekend.

The back-to-back massacres — one at a Texas Walmart on Saturday and another in an Ohio nightclub the following day — cast a pall on our nation at a time when many families are enjoying time at the beach.

Again, the violence had to do with guns. As flowers and candles piled up at both scenes of the tragedy, the political response was all about finger-pointing and racism. It was yet another example of our country’s increased political (and news media) polarization. Mainstream media news coverage could be summed out this way: Democrats blamed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, while Republicans pointed the finger at mental illness and violent video games.

The news coverage was predictable, boilerplate even. As usual, it lacked any real focus on religion, either in the many main news stories of the first few days or the sidebars that evolved. You would think the aftermath of two major tragedies wouldn’t lack talk of faith. Instead, the focus was politics — both regarding the motives of the shooters in each case and the need for gun control.

It’s a topic that comes up each time there is a mass shooting. And each time the coverage lacks any real consideration for what faith-based organizations are doing to try and stop future incidents. That is, have religious leaders offered more than prayers.

In this case, what the Catholic church has done to reduce gun violence has gone largely unreported or underreported the past few years.

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