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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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Poynter takes on Fox News' 'repurposing' of other publications' religion stories without proper credit

Poynter takes on Fox News' 'repurposing' of other publications' religion stories without proper credit

The reporter has become the reported-on.

I complained on social media recently after Fox News’ Caleb Parke rewrote one of my Christian Chronicle stories without doing any of his own reporting. I never could get a response from Parke, whose verified Twitter profile says he covers “faith & values but my favorite stories are #GoodNews.”

After my first complaint, Fox attributed a second quote to my Chronicle story but didn’t deal with the bigger issue of passing off our original piece as its own. And Parke and Fox felt no need to reply to me directly.

That might have been the end of it, except that Kelly McBride, a leading media ethics expert who serves as senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, took an interest in my case.

Today, Poynter published McBride’s lengthy piece calling out Fox News’ “repurposing” of other publications’ religion stories without proper credit.

Spoiler alert: She says a lot of really cool things about me that my mom will really enjoy, such as calling me a “nice-guy church newspaper editor based in Oklahoma City.” My boss particularly relished that line, given the grumpiness that I occasionally display on deadline.

But for those interested in religion reporting in the news media (that would be you, dear GetReligion reader), McBride’s comments on Fox’s practice of relying on other publications’ hard work will be particularly relevant.

Such as this:

It’s clear that this is about return on investment. Fox could easily have religion reporters out there turning up original stories the way Ross and his team do. But that would mean they would only get one story a day or even a week out of a reporter, not three or four. But fewer stories means a smaller audience.

Alternatively, Fox could subscribe to the Religion News Service, a wire service devoted to creating original stories about religion, as well as sharing content generated by other publications, including The Christian Chronicle. “We do not subscribe to this service,” a Fox spokesperson said by email. “We monitor them like we would any reliable news outlet and aggregate content when we find it compelling and worthy of our standards.”

When you look closely at what news organizations invest resources  in — original reporting vs. simply repeating the work of others — you can get a window into what the company values. 

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Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

During my four decades or so in religion-beat work — as a reporter and then as a national columnist — I have covered or attempted to cover countless (trust me on that) stories linked to the lives of LGBTQ Catholics.

I also, in the early 1990s (after I had left the Rocky Mountain News) interviewed for a teaching post at a Jesuit university, where I was grilled about my support for many Catholic Catechism statements on sexuality (I was an evangelical Anglican at the time). I was told that I would threaten gay students and others in the campus community.

Through it all, I have learned one thing: It is impossible to stereotype the lives or beliefs of many, many gay Catholics. There is no such thing as an archetypal “gay Catholic.”

This brings me — I apologize, right up front — to yet another mainstream news report about Catholic schools, church doctrines, teacher contracts, doctrinal covenants and “gay” teachers. Yes, here we go again.

In this case, look at the overture in this CNN story, under this headline: “An Indiana teacher is suing his archdiocese, saying he was fired from a Catholic school for being gay.”

The key words, of course, are “fired … for being gay.” Here’s the top of this story:

A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.

On Monday, Payne-Elliott's attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.

The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.

Fired “for being gay” then leads to the follow-up statement that this teacher was “fired because of his sexual orientation.” The key term is “orientation.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a second.

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Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Here’s the parting shot offered by Ross Perot, in an interview a few years ago with The Dallas Morning News: "Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I'll be Texas dead. Ha!"

No doubt about it, Perot was a Texan. However, the prodigal Texan in me (my chosen label) can still remember some of the holes in the mainstream press coverage of Perot’s gadfly political career — if that was, in fact, the real goal of his crucial first White House campaign. So many journalists simply settled for saying that Perot was a Texan, when they needed to ask what KIND of Texan he was.

You see, Perot wasn’t your ordinary Texan. He wasn’t even your ordinary rich Texan in Dallas.

Perot rose to become a Highland Park Texan. He wasn’t just rich, he was a certain kind of rich within the structures of Texas life. If you want a glimpse inside that world, check out this 1976 classic from Texas Monthly: “The Highland Park Woman.”

To cut to the chase, this kind of conservative Texan — much like the liberal tribe located in Austin — is embarrassed by all those other Texans. Most of all, they are opposed to all of those, well, religious nuts out there in ordinary Texas.

So this leads me to the big question that I kept asking as I read some of the mainstream news obituaries for Perot: Why did he do it? Why did Perot turn on George H.W. Bush — from the Houston version of the Highland Park tribe — and try to take him down? What was the elder Bush’s fatal sin?

Well, let’s look back to a 1992 feature in the New York Times to find some of the information that was omitted from the Perot obits, as well as most of the coverage of his public life. Read this carefully:

Mr. Perot espoused a kind of fiscal conservatism and toward the end of his campaign a strong law-and-order theme. But he also drew cheers when he staunchly defended a woman's right to choose an abortion and when he bashed the religious right. Indeed, in the voter survey, only 34 percent of Mr. Perot's voters said they attended religious services at least once a week, compared with 42 percent in the survey sample as a whole.

Mr. Perot's army seems to include a strong libertarian streak: people seeking a measure of freedom from what they perceive as the heavy hand of institutions, religious as well as governmental. If the fundamentalist right holds sway in the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Perot followers could go elsewhere.

What did Bush do wrong? Why, there may have been other sins (like Gulf War 1.0), but it was crucial that George H.W. Bush betrayed his class by abandoning his support for abortion rights, while taking other steps to court the world of religious and cultural conservatism.

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'No more faith-based than Satan himself': Houston Chronicle digs into health-sharing ministry

'No more faith-based than Satan himself': Houston Chronicle digs into health-sharing ministry

Even before the Houston Chronicle’s investigative piece on a Christian health care cost-sharing ministry was published in print — at the top of Sunday’s front page — the newspaper got action.

To the tune of $129,000.

The dead-tree version of the story notes:

On Tuesday, the day this story appeared online, an Aliera claims director called Martinez and said the company had reversed its previous denials and would pay the entire claim.

But that decision does nothing to blunt the power of this hard-hitting piece of journalism, which presents the “ministry” profiled as — to use the words of the main source quoted — “no more faith-based than Satan himself.”

Christian health-care sharing is a topic we’ve covered before at GetReligion — here, here and here, for example. Elsewhere, Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt wrote about the future of that approach back in 2017.

The Chronicle story does an exceptional job of detailing the concerns about Trinity Health-Share, Aliera Healthcare’s affiliated health-sharing ministry.

The opening paragraphs set the scene:

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As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

If you have read GetReligion for a while — several years at least — you know that when you see images of mountains in East Tennessee and North Carolina, that means that it’s finally vacation season at this here weblog.

Well, “VACATION” doesn’t mean that we close down. It just means that people come and go — not to be confused with Bobby Ross, Jr., heading to Texas Ranger games — so you may see business days with one or two posts instead of the usual three. But the cyber doors will never close. I’m about to leave my home office in one set of mountains (the Cumberlands) to hide away (near a WIFI cafe) for a couple of days in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But before I go, let me point readers to a very interesting church-state story developing here in the Volunteer State, a story that raises a very important question that shows up in religion news every now and then. The headline: “Internet church sues Tennessee over law banning weddings by online-ordained ministers.”

That question is: What — in legal, not theological terms — is a “church”? Here is the overture, care of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

A Seattle-based online church is suing the state of Tennessee over a new law that bars online-ordained ministers from performing weddings.

Universal Life Church Ministries filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. … The law, which states that "persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony" was to go into effect July 1. But Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw scheduled a July 3 hearing in Nashville on the restraining order requested by ULCM attorneys. …

ULCM describes itself as a "non-denominational, non-profit religious organization famous worldwide for its provision of free, legal ordinations to its vast membership over the internet." It has ordained more than 20 million people, including singer-actress Lady Gaga, talk show host Stephen Colbert and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

The bottom line is right here:

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Catholic school wars (yet) again: Can teachers take public actions that defy church doctrines?

Catholic school wars (yet) again: Can teachers take public actions that defy church doctrines?

What we have here is another one of those stories that your GetReligionistas have written about so many times that we have crossed over into a state of frustration.

Can you say “doctrinal covenant”?

At this point, it’s clear that many newsroom managers just can’t handle the fact that the Catholic Church is not (in many zip codes) a liberal democracy, which means that many Catholic bishops still think their schools should defend the contents of the Catholic catechism. OK, maybe the issue is whether people in Catholic schools get to attack the faith in symbolic ways in public.

Once again, no one thinks that journalists have to endorse the doctrines of the Church of Rome. The question is whether reporters and editors know enough about the contents of these doctrines, traditions and canon laws to cover them accurately. At a bare minimum, journalists need to know that there are experts and activists on both sides of these debates, but that — in the vast majority of cases — local bishops, representing the Vatican, are the “prevailing legal authorities.”

So here we go again. Let’s turn to USA Today, for a rather one-sided story about this latest conflict: “Cathedral High School terminates gay teacher to stay in Indianapolis Archdiocese.” As you will see, this story is Act II in a larger local drama:

Just days after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis cut ties with one Catholic high school over its decision to continue to employee a gay teacher, another school is firing one of its educators to avoid the same fate.

Cathedral High School, located on the northeast side of Indianapolis, announced Sunday it is terminating a gay teacher in order to avoid a split with the archdiocese, which stripped Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School of its Catholic identity last week.

Brebeuf refused to fire its educator, who is in a public same-sex marriage.

Cathedral's board Chairman Matt Cohoat and President Rob Bridges posted a letter on the school's website announcing the decision to "separate" from a teacher in a public same-sex marriage. The letter is addressed to the "Cathedral family."

The archdiocese made it clear, the letter said, that keeping the teacher employed “would result in forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage.”

OK, let’s unpack this oh-so-typical conflict — yet again.

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Open Doors CEO slams U.S. churches, while persecuted Christians are murdered overseas

Open Doors CEO slams U.S. churches, while persecuted Christians are murdered overseas

Open Doors, the watchdog organization that monitors Christian religious persecution worldwide, released their annual report on the 50 worst countries in the world back in January, but it’s only gotten some air time recently.

What kind of reactions?

Well, let’s look at an editorial that ran Tuesday in USA Today by Open Doors CEO David Curry with this attention-grabber of a headline: “Global Christian persecution is worsening while American Christian churches slumber.” It opened with the latest anti-Christian outrage in Nigeria, where 3,731 Christians were killed in 2018.

We usually don’t talk about opinion in these blog posts, but the complaint here is directly related to press coverage about persecution.

The bottom line: If people don’t know something’s happening, they can’t very well protest it.

If such violence had occurred in Nashville rather than Nigeria, it would dominate nightly news broadcasts and saturate social media feeds. American churches would be launching fundraising campaigns for victims’ families and addressing it in their weekly gatherings. In this case, however, the American church has barely acknowledged it. Unfortunately, when violence occurs somewhere “over there” instead of in our backyard, it is often dismissed as just another story. American churches must do better…

Yet the leadership of the American church, with its superpastors and megachurches, is whistling through the graveyard. The beast that we have created, which relies on upbeat music and positivity to attract donors to sustain large budgets, leaves little room for pastors to talk about the suffering of global Christians. Like most of the culture, the American church is more concerned about college entrance scandals and "Game of Thrones" than persecution.

Inoculated by entertainment and self-absorption, they are completely detached from the experience of the global church. The American church is feeding itself to death while the worldwide church is being murdered.

You can also substitute “American media” in there, too, although it’s accurate to note that most U.S. readers are notorious for not caring about international news. Christians are basically the same with the possible exception of news about Israel.

What the editorial is asking for is something on the line of what happened in 40 years ago when a quarter million people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., in December 1987 on behalf of Soviet Jews.

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Friday Five: McCarrick news, Alex Trebek, comedian's faith, ECFA scrutiny, scary baseball

Friday Five: McCarrick news, Alex Trebek, comedian's faith, ECFA scrutiny, scary baseball

According to the New York Times, the nation’s long run of recent bad weather might wind down by the weekend.

Speaking on behalf of Oklahomans and residents of other states hit hard by tornadoes and flooding, I pray it’s so.

Now, let’s dive into the (hopefully sunny and calm) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Perhaps you (like the New York Times so far) missed this big scoop concerning restrictions placed by the Vatican on former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick way back in 2008.

Not to worry: Our own Julia Duin can fill you in on a former aide to McCarrick spilling the beans to Crux and CBS.

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