Atlanta Journal Constitution

Yes, the United Methodist Church's big meeting in St. Louis is national news, but it's something else, too

Yes, the United Methodist Church's big meeting in St. Louis is national news, but it's something else, too

Some familiar Godbeat reporters with national audiences are in St. Louis covering the United Methodist Church’s high-stakes meeting on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.

Both Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion News Service and Holly Meyer of The Tennessean (which is part of the USA Today’s national network) are on the scene reporting on the crucial developments.

Speaking of which, this is the latest — as I type this post — from the United Methodist News Service:

The Traditional Plan — with some amendments — won approval in the General Conference legislative committee, clearing a major hurdle in The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body.

The delegates also approved two plans that allow churches, with certain limitations, to leave the denomination with their property.

All the forwarded legislation still faces a vote in the General Conference plenary session on Feb. 26. 

The legislative committee voted for the Traditional Plan, which seeks to strengthen enforcement of the denomination’s homosexuality prohibitions, as amended by 461 to 359.

But while the meeting in the Gateway City is obviously national news, it’s something else, too: It’s a big local story in places such as Atlanta, Cleveland and, of course, St. Louis itself.

Those of us who follow religion news are accustomed to those few regional papers that still have Godbeat pros — such as The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City paper where Carla Hinton is the longtime religion editor — jumping on stories such as this. Indeed, Hinton had a big Page 1 preview on the Methodist meeting in Sunday’s edition.

However, this story also has generated some attention from metro dailies that don’t follow religion as closely. We mentioned a big story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram earlier this month. And this weekend brought some newsy, informative coverage from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others.

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Atlanta fire chief gets $1.2 million settlement: Journalists still avoid all Bible references

Atlanta fire chief gets $1.2 million settlement: Journalists still avoid all Bible references

Once upon a time, you could count on newspapers offering readers the most complete, detailed, nuanced versions of most major news stories.

Pros on the religion beat (I plead guilty) used to look down our noses, quite frankly, at the short, blunt, even chopped-up reports offered by TV news teams — if they bothered to cover religion news at all.

Then along came the Internet and things got more complex, with more radio and television newsrooms posting solid, full-text versions of their stories on their websites. At the same time, alas, falling advertising revenues cut the hearts out of many local and regional print newsrooms — often costing them their religion-beat scribes.

The results can be painful. It doesn’t help when editors look the other way as stories veer away from news reporting, with many reports evolving into hit pieces and advocacy journalism.

There’s a story back in the news that serves as a fine example of this sad trend.

You may recall seeing stories from major news outlets back in 2015 when Atlanta fired its fire chief because of controversial content in a book he wrote. Click here for some GetReligion background on that. Now, we have an update in Atlanta-area media:

ATLANTA — The city of Atlanta has settled a lawsuit with a former fire chief over his firing for a book containing passages which some saw as anti-gay.

The Atlanta City Council approved a settlement agreeing to pay fired Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran $1.2 million.

In 2013, Cochran wrote a book about his Christian faith titled "Who Told You That You Were Naked?" for a men's Bible study and gave it to around a dozen subordinates he said had either requested copies or shared his beliefs.

In the book, Cochran characterized homosexuality as a perversion.

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How can scribes capture Billy Graham's giant, complex life in newsprint? This will take time

How can scribes capture Billy Graham's giant, complex life in newsprint? This will take time

Back in the early 1980s, I sat in a meeting at The Charlotte Observer in which we discussed how the Rev. Billy Graham's hometown newspaper would handle his death. After all, he wasn't that far from the time when ordinary people start talking about retirement.

Graham, however, wasn't "ordinary people" especially in a town with a major road called the Billy Graham Parkway. The Observer team needed a plan. 

How do you sum up Graham's giant, complex, sprawling life in a few paragraphs? Try to imagine being the Associated Press pro who had to come up with the first bulletin that moved when the world's most famous evangelist died early Wednesday morning. Here is that story in its entirety:

The Rev. Billy Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died.
Spokesman Mark DeMoss says Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina on Wednesday morning. He was 99.
Graham reached more than 200 million through his appearances and millions more through his pioneering use of television and radio. Unlike many traditional evangelists, he abandoned narrow fundamentalism to engage broader society.

The priorities there seem solid, to me. The AP, of course, quickly released a full-length obituary.

As you would expect, there were stumbles in other newsrooms -- some of them almost Freudian. Consider the opening of the Graham obituary at The Daily Beast:

The Rev. Billy Graham, an evangelist preacher who changed American politics, has died at the age of 99. ...

Uh, no.

There were also some struggles to grasp the precise meanings of key religious words. For example, Graham was often called "America's pastor," but he spent very, very little time as a pastor, in terms of leading a congregation. There were some struggles, as always, with variations on words such as "evangelist," "evangelical" and "evangelizing." Was Graham a "fundamentalist"? The true fundamentalists would certainly say "no."

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Are Southern voters really different? Washington Post political desk avoids religion, again

Are Southern voters really different? Washington Post political desk avoids religion, again

We are, of course, talking about the most important news story in the history of the universe. That is, until the next political proxy war takes place between Citizen Donald Trump and powers that be in elite American culture.

So Republican Karen Handel defeated House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- as well as 30-year-old documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff -- for a traditionally Republican seat in the greater Atlanta area.

If the GOP had lost, the news media powers that be would have hailed it as a tremendous loss for Trump -- even though this was a rather pricey, highly educated district that wasn't fond of Trump (as noted in this New York Times fact piece).

Since the Democrats lost, this affair was hailed -- by Trump supporters -- as a great win for their bronze-tinted leader, as opposed to Handel, a pro-life Catholic.

One thing was clear: Acela-zone journalists knew that this race was about money and jobs, as well as politics, money and jobs. Here's the most recent Washington Post overture:

Narrow losses in two House special elections had Democrats once again trading recriminations Wednesday and pondering anew whether their leaders have them on a path back to power.
Especially painful was Jon Ossoff’s three-percentage-point loss Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District after his campaign was buoyed by more than $23 million in donations, much of it from grass-roots Democrats across the country eager to oppose President Trump.
That funding surge was blunted by millions of dollars’ worth of TV ads and mailers from Republican victor Karen Handel and from outside GOP groups. A common theme in those efforts was to tie Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- a figure both well-known and widely reviled, according to Republican polling.

You can hear the same dirge here, in the Times. However, down near the bottom of that long Post report there were some interesting thoughts from Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), assistant House Democratic leader. He was concerned about weak efforts to turn out African American voters, but he also added:

But Clyburn said he asked the DCCC “not to make it a national cause” and that he “intentionally did not want it nationalized . . . because I know how South Carolina voters are.” ...
“Southern voters are a totally different breed,” he added. “And Southern voters react parochially.”

Maybe, just maybe, there were some cultural issues at play in this race? Down South, issues of culture, morality and faith tend to be rather important. Can I hear an "Amen"?

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Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Muslim college student fights for her right to wear a hijab: good, controversial piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

At least until you see that much of the article was drawn from the campus newspaper, the Georgia State Signal. And both stories are haunted by religious "ghosts" -- the omission of the faith-based objections underlying the student's protest.

You’ve no doubt read about hijab cases before, often about students or office workers. Nabila Khan's story is a more extreme case, an acid test for individual freedom: the niqab, which not only covers a woman's hair and neck, but envelops her face except for her eyes. 

So her story carries a greater punch, which the Constitution adroitly summarizes:

During her first week of school, a Muslim student was asked to remove her veil by a Georgia State University teacher. She refused.
Nabila Khan, a first-year student, is now at the center of a controversy about religious freedom.
She told The Signal, the school’s newspaper, that the teacher held her back after class and asked her not to conceal her face while in class, as was written in the syllabus. Khan refused, and said she believed being required to remove her niqab violated her rights to freedom of speech and religion.
Khan said in the article that she chooses to wear the niqab, which is a veil that covers all but the eyes, to work and school.
“Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it,” she said.

It's a compelling, counterintuitive treatment of a news story: the head covering not as a symbol of an oppressed gender, but as an individual religious choice. But how original? Have a look at the Signal's version:

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Elvis statues, segregation: Atlanta paper lays Deep South template over Nashville news

Elvis statues, segregation: Atlanta paper lays Deep South template over Nashville news

The Atlanta Journal Constitution raises Deep South, Civil War-era caricatures in its weekend story on cultural stresses in Tennessee.  And it does so in almost a robotic, paint-by-the-numbers style.

The article strains mightily to contrast urbane, liberal city dwellers with backward, "ignorant" -- yes, one source uses that word -- country folk. It takes a patronizing attitude toward these yahoos and pits people on the street against scholars and think-tankers. It even compares so-called "bathroom bills" in some states with "White" and "Colored" signs from segregation days.

How else to read paragraphs like:

Across the country -- the South in particular -- a wave of bills, proposals and court fights in recent months are again ramping up the culture wars. The measures come in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, a decision many religious conservatives see as an assault on their beliefs.

And:

The South finds itself in the middle of that conflict. It’s a place where city folks may have a decidedly different take on social issues than their peers in the country, a region where progressive notions rub up against more traditional, conservative values.

For context, the article brings Georgia's"religious liberty" bill -- complete with sarcasm quotes -- vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal. There's also Gov. Bill Haslam vetoing a bill to make the Bible the state book in Tennessee, then signing a bill to let counselors refer out people who conflict with their "sincerely held principles" -- yes, more sarcasm quotes -- to reject gay, lesbian, transgender and other clients. Would it be better for these religious counselors to handle these cases, even though they have a clear conflict of interest?

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Georgia religious liberty follow-up: News media pros finally quote religious people

Georgia religious liberty follow-up: News media pros finally quote religious people

Georgia has religious people! The Atlanta Journal-Constitution finally remembered!

But don’t pop the bubbly just yet. The newspaper saw the light mainly after the much-contested religious rights bill was vetoed on Monday. And even then, religious and social conservatives got precious little space in an article supposedly focusing on them.

AJC's story is one of several follow-ups in mainstream media, on the next moves by advocates of the law and similar ones in other states. We'll see how it stacks up against the others.

Here is how Georgia's largest newspaper covered a press conference by several of the groups:

A coalition of conservative and religious groups in Georgia on Tuesday blasted Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of a "religious liberty" bill this week, saying he had turned his back on the state’s faith community.
"What this says to me is Gov. Deal is out of touch with the people of this state," said Tanya Ditty, state director of Concerned Women for America, who was joined with leaders of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and a half dozen other organizations at a Capitol news conference.
Lawmakers, Ditty said, "are not elected to represent Hollywood values or Wall Street values. The voters are tired of political correctness."

Sounds decent until you notice a few things. First are those well-worn sarcasm quotes around "religious liberty," a signal that you're supposed to doubt its legitimacy. Second, the entire story takes less than 300 words. The stories on protests by business and sports executives were several times that long.

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Media gag order: In Georgia religious liberty flap, one side is played up, the other shouted down

Media gag order: In Georgia religious liberty flap, one side is played up, the other shouted down

So Georgia passed their hotly debated religious freedom bill, allowing faith-based objections to serving gays. What could be stronger than the voice of the people?

At least two things: Pro sports magnates and mainstream media. Together, they're shouting down the opposition in a drive to get Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bill.

Team associations, like the NFL and NCAA, threaten boycotts. Team owners preach equality and tolerance. Religious voices -- except for one exception, which we'll mention later -- essentially get a gag order.

Typical for much of the coverage is yesterday's Washington Post story:

The NFL issued a stern warning Friday to the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta, a reminder that if a "religious liberty" bill is signed into law by the governor, it could affect whether the city is chosen to host a Super Bowl.
The bill states that, with few exceptions, the government may not "substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution of general applicability." It would also protect faith-based groups from penalties if, in the absence of contracts, they refuse to provide "social, educational or charitable services that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief." Those groups would also be protected if they chose not to hire an employee whose religious beliefs are in contrast with the organization’s.
The purpose of the bill, which has gone from the state legislature to the governor, is, according to one legislator, to provide a response to the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. The NFL joined hundreds of businesses in Georgia that see it as discriminatory.
"NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites."

The Post goes on like that for 1,200 words. It adds rebukes from the NCAA and from Atlanta teams the Hawks, the Braves and the Falcons. They all recite similar scripts about tolerance, equality, diversity and welcoming everyone.

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Gays and Georgia: Mainstream media ignore the religious angle

Gays and Georgia: Mainstream media ignore the religious angle

The gay rights/religious rights battle is back in Georgia, where a religious freedom bill died in the last legislative session. As the next session opens today, mainstream media -- some from far away -- are watching closely at this embryonic state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The battleground of religious rights versus gay rights is back in Georgia, where a religious freedom bill died in the last legislative session. As the next session opens today, mainstream media -- some from far away -- are watching closely at this embryonic state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Unfortunately, all of that close watching misses the usual religious ghosts, and other stuff.

How many people have Georgia on their minds? Apparently they do in Portland, Maine, where the Press Herald ran a Tribune News Service advance on the Georgia session. It says RFRA is actually one of three such bills coming up.

But for a news organization once known for its conservatism, the article starts out awfully skewed toward the opposition:

ATLANTA — A public campaign by some of the biggest companies in the world launched Wednesday in Georgia, aimed at assuring gay employees and customers ahead of one of the latest legislative battles over religious freedom and gay rights.
Google, banking giant SunTrust and AT&T joined stalwarts including Delta Air Lines, Home Depot and UPS among nearly 100 businesses and universities that have signed on to the effort so far, which they have jointly dubbed "Georgia Prospers."
It marks the first organized effort by business and education leaders against a "religious liberty" push at the state Capitol that many in the gay community fear could allow discrimination – and that the corporate world fears would make an economic pariah of the Peach State. Religious liberty supporters, however, cast it as a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference.

To TNS, then, the important part is not that the bill is back, threefold; it's that corporations say these issues of principle will hurt business. Note also that the article puts "religious liberty" in sarcasm quotes, but not gay rights.

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