Please allow me to put on my journalism-professor hat for a moment as we take a second look at the media coverage of that Florida pastor's viral Facebook post about the recent rally for President Donald Trump in Melbourne, Fla.
When recording this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken asked me a question that focused on the journalism nuts-and-bolts of this mini-mediastorm. That question: How did a single social-media post -- with no follow-up interviews or research -- end up becoming a news report that ran in mainstream media around the world?
Good question. But before we get to that, please pay close attention to the very first few seconds of this CNN interview in which the Rev. Joel Tooley, senior pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Melbourne, was asked about his Facebook post and the events that inspired it.
The CNN pro begins by noting that this Florida pastor walked out of "President Trump's weekend rally, calling it 'demonic.' He says that his 11-year-old daughter was traumatized and in tears. ..."
Tooley immediately responds: "Well, first of all, to clarify, I didn't describe the event as 'demonic.' There was some ..."
The CNN host interrupts to say: "A headline described it as that. ..."
It's safe to assume she was referring to the headline on the Washington Post "Acts of Faith" news feature that read: " ‘Demonic activity was palpable’ at Trump’s rally, pastor says." That led to my post on the topic this week.
As the interview began, a CNN graphic (this is a screenshot) made sure that viewers got that point.
If you read the entire Tooley post, it is clear that what he is saying is that he believes he felt the presence of the "demonic" during a bitter encounter between anti-Trump demonstrators and a pocket of angry Trump supporters. The pastor and his daughter got caught in the middle when he tried to help shield the anti-Trump demonstrators from those attempting to abuse them.
So it was the "demonic" Trump mob vs. the pastor and the calm, reasonable anti-Trump folks?
That's pretty much what went down, according to this Religion News Service report, which was essentially a shorter version of the Post material. Once again, the crucial question was this: Who or what was Tooley calling "demonic"?
The headline on this piece: "A pastor’s encounter with the ‘demonic’ at Trump’s Florida rally."
That's an improvement, since the pastor did say that he encountered the demonic during an encounter that took place at the rally. Here is the overture in the RNS piece:
(RNS) The vitriol of the president’s supporters at a Trump rally has moved a Florida pastor to write a much-shared Facebook post about the mockery of religion he believed he witnessed.
“I have been in places and experiences before where demonic activity was palpable,” wrote the Rev. Joel Tooley, lead pastor of Melbourne First Church of the Nazarene.
The pastor said he felt the “power of the Holy Spirit of God” protecting him and his daughter as he sought to shield protesters from angry Trump fans.
Now, that lede needs an additional word -- "some" -- to accurately capture what Tooley described. It should have began with these words: "The vitriol of some of the president’s supporters at a Trump rally ..."
Later, the RNS piece added that what upset Tooley the most were:
... several Trump supporters’ reactions to two women protesting at the rally, who were chanting: “T-R- … U-M-P; that’s how you spell -- bigotry!”
The “people around them became violently enraged,” Tooley wrote, with one man grabbing one of the chanter’s arms and shouting: “I’m going to take you out! This is my president and no one has the right to disrespect him and no one has the right to keep me from hearing him!”
Two women who were part of the “angry mob” shook their middle fingers in Tooley’s face and cursed him when he tried to protect the protesters.
Now, it's good that this story made it clear that the worst actions were done by selected members of the "angry mob" at the rally. Note that the conflict with the pastor took place when "he tried" to help the protestors.
That's accurate, in a way, but does not capture the fine details of what Tooley was describing. Here is the crucial passage from his post (which we can assume describes the scene from his point of view, only):
I raised my voice and calmly said, "These ladies have the right to do what they are doing and they are harming no one; this is America and they a right to express themselves in this way. They are harming no one." A couple of other people around me stepped in and supported me in protecting them as a barrier, as well.
My daughter was shaking in fear as she clung to me. The one man behind the protesters shoved himself forward, grabbed the lady by the arm and screamed with multiple expletives, "I'm going to take you out! This is my president and nobody has the right to disrespect him and nobody has the right to keep me from hearing him!"
I wish I could have captured the expressions of that man on camera. I will never forget him.
The little girl on her mother's back was crying, completely frightened. I leaned forward and reassured her in her ear, "Your mommy is being brave and we will not let these people hurt you. You are afraid because these are angry, awful people. We will not let them hurt you or your mommy. You are being so brave and your mommy is doing something very brave."
That's when another lady screamed in my face that what I was doing was un-American. I just chuckled and responded, "What I am doing is completely American -- I'm standing up for people who are being bullied -- it doesn't matter if I agree with them or not. You came here to see the President, now ignore these ladies, turn around and enjoy the show." ...
Several bystanders gave Tooley high-fives and the pastor asked why they didn't step in to help defuse the situation.
So there are several layers to this situation -- at least five -- as described in a single social-media post by a man who openly states that he is a less-than-neutral observer.
(1) There is the rally itself. (2) There are Tooley and his daughter. (3) There are the few anti-Trump demonstrators. (4) There is a circle of rude and potentially violent Trump supporters who verbally threaten the anti-Trump people and the pastor. (5) Finally, there are other Trump rally participants who step in to help Tooley protect the demonstrators.
Now, the loaded word "demonic" was used to describe what part of this complex picture?
The whole rally? That's how CNN read the Post headline and the story itself, which never actually quotes the passage in which Tooley uses that term.
Why the simplistic headline? Probably because his comments were too complex to produce a clickbait headline.
I mean, this is a hot headline: " ‘Demonic activity was palpable’ at Trump’s rally, pastor says." Would as many typical Post readers have clicked a (longer) headline that said something like this: "Pastor says ‘demonic activity was palpable’ during clash with a few Trump fans at rally."
Would as many people have clicked an RNS headline that described the actual details of Tooley's account? That would have said (again, longer) something like: "A pastor’s encounter with the ‘demonic’ during clash with some angry Trump fans during Florida rally."
Let me stress, once again, another point made in my earlier post. I do not care if Tooley, as some conservative online critics are noting, was a #NeverTrump #NeverHillary man, as is easy to learn by scanning his social-media accounts.
Frankly, as a #NeverTrump #NeverHillary guy, I think my reactions to this rally would have been almost identical to those of Tooley. People chanting "USA! USA! USA!" after reciting The Lord's Prayer? Lead us not into temptation? Amen. Forgive those who trespass against us? Amen. That doesn't sound like pep rally stuff to me.
So was Tooley's post -- all by itself -- worth a global news story?
I tell my students that social-media can be a tremendous resource for good reporting. It alerts journalists to voices and eyewitnesses that, in the past, they may never have heard about. But there's the key point: This is where the story starts, not where it ends. Social media provides material that is worthy of further research, information that needs to be validated and clarified. Other points of view -- diversity is good -- should be sought out.
In particular, I was left wondering if Tooley was the only clergyperson at that rally. Did others present share his point of view? I guarantee you that some did and some did not. I am sure that there were evangelicals there who cheered everything that happened. But what about the other half of the white evangelical population that voted for Trump, but didn't want to? Were any of them there?
In other words, Tooley's post is a great place to start the journalism process. It's not material, all by itself, that I would feel comfortable turning into a news story -- which is how it ran around the world on the Post wire. At the very least, talking to Tooley himself was essential.
It also would have helped if journalists had refrained from yanking his words completely out of context. In terms of good and evil in in the doctrines of basic journalism, the clickbait approach that we saw here was, uh, rather demonic.