Lessons (long ago) from Hurricane Harvey news: Yes, even Brits fussed about Joel Osteen

“A week is a long time in politics,” is a saying attributed to the late Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of Britain from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. What is of vital importance today, for politicians and the press, may be of no concern a week later.

A week? What about a month?

This phrase, like that attributed to Harold MacMillan, “events, dear boy, events,” has worked its way into the fingers of journalists around the Anglosphere. It is a handy cliche to be trotted out by the hack who wishes to appear world weary and sophisticated, and who is also pressed for time and cannot think of something original to say.

Biographers of Wilson and MacMillan claim not to be able to verify if or when these phrases were ever uttered by their subjects. Yet, provenance is no longer important when they appear in an article -- they serve to set a tone.

If one looks back in time, that furor over Joel Osteen’s alleged callousness towards those seeking shelter from Hurricane Harvey in Houston is a fine case study of reporting via tone. In American the press, social media and the television networks had extensive coverage of the report the telegenic pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston had failed to open his 16,000-seat church to those fleeing the rising flood waters in Houston.

The story seemed to be everywhere -- then 10 days later it was nowhere to be found (except in commentary pieces, of course).

The reason? “Events, dear boy, events.” Hurricane Irma, etc., displaced Hurricane Harvey in the press cycle and the lidless eye of Mordor media turned its gaze from Texas to Florida and back out into the Atlantic Ocean.

But back to that Houston case study. The British press also followed the events at Lakewood Church. Three national circulation newspapers devoted space to the Osteens story: the upmarket Telegraph, the middle market Daily Mail and the tabloid The Sun. A perusal of all three accounts finds the tabloid actually did the hard work of journalism, while the upmarket newspaper wrote a story almost entirely based upon tone -- reporting with a sneer.

The Telegraph’s August 31st story -- “Pastor tries to explain why megachurch didn't open sooner for Harvey victim” -- was the third report on Osteen’s conduct during the hurricane. It opens with:

Pastor Joel Osteen has defended not opening his megachurch sooner to help Hurricane Harvey victims, claiming the city “didn't ask” for his help. Osteen, a senior pastor at the 16,000-capacity Christian Lakewood Church in Houston, was heavily criticised over accusations he initially failed to offer shelter to flooding victims. The 54-year-old televangelist, who appeared to backtrack by later opening his doors to those left homeless, has now shifted the blame onto Houston city officials.

The story continues in this vain -- Osteen is presented in an unkind and unfair light with a series of twitter quotes denigrating and defending his conduct. At the close of the story the article notes:

The church later opened its doors to flood victims following the barrage of online criticism.
Meanwhile, many inspiring acts of heroism and kindness have emerged from the devastation of Harvey.

What the author is doing here crafting text is to imply Osteen was shamed into opening the doors of his church in light of the social media criticism. The last sentence then draws comparison between what the Telegraph sees as Osteen’s bad conduct and the “heroism” of others.

Once you see this kind of approach in action, it's easy to see it elsewhere.

This approach is not legitimate journalism. Why? The reader is not told anything about the people making the criticisms. Why should they be taken seriously by anyone? The Telegraph skims the slime off the top of Twitter and pairs it with remarks from church spokesmen and Osteen -- yet there is no context to these remarks. Professionals at the Telegraph do not ask Osteen or Lakewood Church if they changed their mind over opening their doors due to social media criticism, or did they change their mind once they had sufficient information to make a judgment as to how and when to offer their facilities to those in need.

The Telegraph, nevertheless, knows how to read Osteen’s mind and lets us know he is a charlatan and hypocrite. What nonsense.

The Daily Mail’s story was headlined: “ 'If people were in my shoes, they would have done the same thing': Joel Osteen still insists fear of floods was the reason he kept his megachurch closed in first days of Harvey.” It addressed the questions the Telegraph did not deign to ask. Its lede states:

Pastor Joel Osteen has no intention of apologizing even as he continue to face withering criticism over his decision not to immediately open the doors of his Houston megachurch in order to shelter Harvey flood victims, he told Entertainment Tonight on Thursday. The popular televangelist said he isn't concerned about his critics on social media who have taken turns blasting Osteen for initially saying the church was flooded even though it was largely dry. 'We're concerned with these people [victims now at the church] and how they move forward,' he told ET.

Drawing upon interviews conducted by other press outlets in the United States, the Daily Mail allows Osteen to explain his actions. It also gives him space to address the question of social media criticism.

I don't spend any energy on the Twitter universe or social media,' he said.  'And I don't mean that disrespectfully. I just don't put any energy into it. I mean, life is too short to put energy into negative emotion and I feel at peace because we did the right thing.' 'Hey, my reputation is in God's hands and he can take care of that,' he said.

To my mind, the best report came from The Sun, the British tabloid. It was clear in stating it did not care for Osteen, yet after the editorial voice spoke in the lede, the remainder of the story was matter of fact -- a plain telling of the facts. The article entitled “Panned Pastor” is followed by a subtitle: “Who is Joel Osteen, what is the Lakewood Church pastor’s net worth and why has he been criticised over Hurricane Harvey? People in need were eventually invited in the 16,800-seat place of worship but Osteen was criticised for reportedly taking time to extend the offer.”

The Sun lays out its story in three sections entitled: “Who is Joel Osteen?”, “Why was the Lakewood pastor criticised after Hurricane Harvey?”, and “What happened in Hurricane Harvey?”

That was that. No sneering. No cruelty or invective -- merely the who/what/when/where/why laid out for a quick read. The Telegraph author appeared to be writing for those who already knew what to think before they knew the facts. An American prosperity gospel preacher from Texas with a high wattage smile and styled hair -- “charlatan!”

The Sun team came to the story absent the need to impress London’s bien pensant. The absence of tone and the pursuit of reporting is what set the Sun’s reporting far above the Telegraph.

There are times when basic journalism is enough.

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