Charlotte Observer

An award-winning Godbeat pro retires, raising a question about religion coverage at regional papers

An award-winning Godbeat pro retires, raising a question about religion coverage at regional papers

If I understand correctly, today is Tim Funk’s last day of work at the Charlotte Observer.

Funk, an award-winning religion reporter, posted on Facebook that he is retiring after 34 years at the Observer and 40 years overall of full-time news writing. (Click here, here and here for just a few of the Funk stories I’ve praised over the years.)

“As I take my (totally voluntary) leave, I’ll be rooting for those remaining on the job at the Observer,”  Funk said. “Times are tough for the news biz, but these journalists work hard and smart every day to hold the powerful accountable and tell us what’s happening and what it means.

“And, of course, I’ve been especially blessed to get to meet and write about some of the most interesting people in Charlotte.”

Among his favorite memories, Funk recalls “reporting on Billy Graham, sharing a lunch with him and wife Ruth (and my Observer colleague Ken Garfield) in their mountain-top Montreat home, and writing a 250-inch obituary of the evangelist for his hometown newspaper.”

Here’s wishing Funk all the best in his next adventure!

Meanwhile, I’m curious if the Observer — long ago the home of a religion-beat reporter named Terry Mattingly — will assign someone else to the beat. I sure hope so.

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Jailed Evangelical Presybterian pastor in Turkey finally gets full-court press coverage

Jailed Evangelical Presybterian pastor in Turkey finally gets full-court press coverage

Quite a few mainstream news outlets are finally chronicling the drama of a Christian pastor, a Turkish prison and a tussle over religious freedom that’s pitting President Donald Trump against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

At issue are the few Christian missionaries in Turkey (the only Muslim majority country I know that actually allows missionaries to operate there) who are pawns in a war of words between the two countries.

In the summer of 2016, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pulled all of its missionaries out of Turkey, sensing things were going to get worse, not better, for believers there.

So here’s how the Wall Street Journal described a trial that happened this week:

An American pastor who has spent 18 months in Turkish custody appeared for the first time in court Monday, denying accusations of espionage and contacts with terrorists in a case that has exacerbated tense relations between Washington and Ankara.
Turkish prosecutors allege Andrew Brunson colluded with a group Turkey blames for the 2016 failed military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well with Kurdish militants Turkey regards as terrorists. If convicted he faces up to 35 years in prison.

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How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

For those in Godbeat circles, many of the bylines splashed across today's front pages are extremely familiar.

I'm talking about names such as William Lobdell and Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today.

All of those veteran religion writers — just to name a few — wrote their respective papers' major obituaries marking Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

But here's what might surprise many ordinary readers: None of them has worked for those papers in years. 

"I must have written and updated a whole suite of advance obit stories on Graham at least three times over 15 years," Grossman said. "I last polished up the package in 2013, in the week before I left the paper on a buyout. However, I stayed in touch with USAT editors (and) emailed them where fixes/changes might be needed over the years."

Welcome to the concept of the "prepared obit."

Here's what that means: News organizations put together obits in advance for certain prominent people, such as presidents, movie stars and — in the case of Graham — world-famous preachers. That way, they're prepared (at least somewhat) if the person dies 10 minutes before deadline.

A New York Times obituary writer explained it this way in a 2014 piece:

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Blast from the past: Charlotte Observer catches up with Jessica Hahn — yes, THAT Jessica Hahn

Blast from the past: Charlotte Observer catches up with Jessica Hahn — yes, THAT Jessica Hahn

You never forget certain names in the news — even though you may go years without hearing them.

I think of Pat Boone, who was a major celebrity decades ago but — at age 83 — is not nearly as well known to younger Americans. Boone spoke briefly at this year's Religion News Association annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., and joked that a fellow speaker told him, "I know who you are. I thought you died." (In case you're curious about Boone, read the interview I did with him at the RNA meeting.)

Just this week, the death of Cardinal Bernard Law — "the disgraced former archbishop of Boston whose failures to stop child molesters in the priesthood sparked what would become the worst crisis in American Catholicism," as The Associated Press described him — pushed him back into the headlines. Fifteen years ago, of course, Law was at the center of the clergy sex abuse scandal sparked by a Boston Globe investigation. At that time, I was religion editor at The Oklahoman, and I remember covering the June 2002 meeting in Dallas where then-Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating was appointed to lead a national review board charged with monitoring U.S. bishops' new policy on clergy sexual abuse. (Read Julia Duin's post on news coverage of Law's death.)

I've found that readers like "What ever happened to?" stories. They appreciate knowing — months or even years later — how life turned out for a particular newsmaker. We journalists, on the other hand, often neglect to go back and provide such updates. Generally, there is plenty of new news to keep us busy. 

Occasionally, though, reporters find intriguing stories in blasts from the past: A recent one comes courtesy of the Charlotte Observer's veteran religion writer, Tim Funk, who interviewed Jessica Hahn — yes, that Jessica Hahn.

If your response is, "Jessica who?" then you probably also wouldn't recognize a rotary telephone or have any clue about dial-up internet. 

Good news for you: Funk's story does an excellent job of providing historical background and context so that his story makes sense — and would be worth a read — even to those fresh to the story of Hahn and her relationship with disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker. (There's another name that will need no introduction to readers of a certain age. Read Terry Mattingly's 1996 column on Bakker's conspiracy theories.)

At the top of his Hahn story, the Observer writer gets right to the point:

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In this congressional race, the question apparently is: Which candidate loves Jesus more?

In this congressional race, the question apparently is: Which candidate loves Jesus more?

When I got home from work the other day, I found a political flyer on my door.

The full-color leaflet concerned a legislative race in the Oklahoma House district where I live. I don't have the shiny paper handy, but what I remember is: The candidate touts herself as a pastor's daughter and a devoted Christian. Apparently, that kind of thing matters where I live. (Smile.)

Unrelated side note: The woman running for the seat wrote a personal note to our family and said she was sorry she missed us. That'll probably stick with me longer than the mailer itself.

But anyway ...

I bring up the above little anecdote because of an interesting story (to say the least) in the Charlotte Observer this week. 

When I first printed out the piece to read, this was the headline:

Rep. Robert Pittenger airs new ad featuring Jesus Christ

But now there's a new headline, and yes, I'd say this one better nails my question about this U.S. House race:

How did Jesus Christ become an issue in this NC primary?

The lede provides the basic facts:

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Journalistic malpractice: Metro daily serves up embarrassingly incomplete, one-sided abortion story

Journalistic malpractice: Metro daily serves up embarrassingly incomplete, one-sided abortion story

Oh, this is bad.

So, so bad.

If you read GetReligion with any frequency, you know we've pointed out — once or twice or a million times — the rampant news media bias against abortion opponents.

But even graded on that negative curve, the Charlotte Observer's weekend coverage of an anti-abortion rally takes slanted, inadequate journalism to a whole new level. This is, to use a term familiar to regular readers of this journalism-focused website, Kellerism on steroids.

Seriously, we're talking about a major metro daily publishing a news story built almost entirely upon quotes from a single source — an abortion clinic administrator. The Observer didn't bother to send a reporter to the pro-life rally and apparently couldn't (or didn't want to) locate a single person out of hundreds who attended the rally to comment on it. 

Nonetheless, the Observer feels compelled to report the pro-abortion official's claims as gospel truth:

The leader of a Charlotte abortion clinic claims the city improperly gave a pro-life group a parade permit, and is demanding answers after a large protest at the facility Saturday left patients feeling harassed.
Calla Hales, the administrator at Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte on Latrobe Drive, said the city had rushed approval for a permit for pro-life group Love Life Charlotte. That left Hales’ center less time than usual to prepare for the demonstration, she said.
The event was billed as a prayer march that would draw 1,000 men to the clinic to stand against abortion, according to a Facebook page. Justin Reeder, founder of Love Life Charlotte, called on men to discourage women from getting abortions, in an effort to highlight how abortion impacts men.
“The truth is that this is more of a men’s issue than it is a women’s issue,” Reeder said in a video on the Facebook event page. “We forget about the men so often in this story.”

Not only does the paper rush to publication before allowing anyone on the pro-life side to respond to the clinic leader's claims, but the story — based on my reading of the same Facebook page — unfairly characterizes the intent and spirit of the event.

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Did Charlotte Observer miss key questions linked to Hank Hanegraaff's move to Orthodoxy? (updated)

Did Charlotte Observer miss key questions linked to Hank Hanegraaff's move to Orthodoxy? (updated)

Controversy and questions have dogged Hendrik "Hank" Hanegraaff since at least 1989, when he announced, at funeral services for Christian Research Institute founder Walter R. Martin (who originated the "Bible Answer Man" radio program now hosted by Hanegraaff), that Martin had designated him as Martin's successor.

Martin's family later disputed that claim, as Jill Martin Rische, the late apologist's daughter, has documented on her own apologetics website.

People like to argue about the work of outspoken apologists. So it's no surprise that Hanegraaff's latest move -- from an unspecified evangelical Christian affiliation to being received as a member of the Orthodox Church -- would garner media attention and controversy. After his conversion into an ancient, non-Protestant branch of the Christian faith, Hanegraaff's radio program has lost a significant number of radio stations, The Charlotte Observer reports:

On Palm Sunday, [Hanegraaff] and wife Kathy and two of their 12 children were “chrismated,” or confirmed, at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in southeast Charlotte. During the sacramental rite, a priest anointed them with oil and invoked the Holy Spirit.
And then ...
A photo of the April ceremony started popping up on evangelical news sites. Within a week, the “Bible Answer Man” had lost many of his listeners.
His sin in their eyes: Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, the world’s second largest Christian denomination and one steeped in rituals, icons and mysticism – aspects of faith that seem foreign to many evangelical Protestants. Instead of tradition, they look to the Bible as the only infallible guide and the final authority on matters of Christian faith and practice.
As the news about Hanegraaff spread on social media and the Internet, between 100 and 150 radio stations dropped his nationally syndicated show from their daily lineups.
“That picture of Hank kneeling before a Greek Orthodox priest -- that was hard for many evangelicals to see,” said Mike Carbone, chief operating officer at The Truth Network, which booted the “Bible Answer Man” show from six of its stations, including those in Charlotte and Raleigh. “Hank is as likable a guy as you’ll find, but we were not able to go where he was going.”

Of course, the Bible Answer Man is not kneeling before a priest, although priests are praying over these converts. He is kneeling before the altar of the church, with icons of Jesus Christ and the Holy Apostles.

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Same old, same old: The Charlotte Observer tilts one way in women-as-Catholic-priests story

Same old, same old: The Charlotte Observer tilts one way in women-as-Catholic-priests story

Way back in the 1970s and very early 1980s, a Christian singer named Keith Green was quite popular. At the end of "Jesus Commands Us to Go," one of his more heartfelt songs, Green addresses his audience, saying, "I don't know what you think a Christian is. I've known so many people that think [being] a Christian means going to church a lot. You may have heard this before, but going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald's makes you a hamburger."

That analogy has stayed with me, and it popped up when the Charlotte Observer informed us on the last Sunday in April that a "Rebel Catholic group defies church, ordains woman priest in NC."

Although the story somewhat begrudgingly points this out, it should be clear to serious observers that the church-Christian-McDonald's-hamburger analogy fits here: Calling yourself a Catholic "priest," even if done by a "rebel group," doesn't make you one, any more than calling myself a Big Mac would, you know....

From this oh, oh, oh so familiar article:

An international group defiantly opposed to the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women priests Sunday ordained its first woman Catholic priest in the 46 counties that make up the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.
The ordination ceremony for Abigail Eltzroth happened in Asheville at Jubilee! – a nondenominational faith community – with Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan presiding.
Eltzroth, 64, said she is the second woman in North Carolina ordained by the rebel group, called the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. ...
But reached for comment Sunday, David Hains, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, said: “I hope that Catholics in the diocese will understand that it would be sinful to receive a fake sacrament from a woman priest and that includes attending a fake Mass.”

Although the Observer puts an official Roman Catholic Church spokesman's comments relatively high in the story, the overall tone of the piece is at least sympathetic towards, if not promoting of, the pro-women-priest camp. #Surprise

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In a town called Faith, voters offers clues on who exactly supports Donald Trump

In a town called Faith, voters offers clues on who exactly supports Donald Trump

After chasing stories all over the United States, I found Faith — a town in South Dakota with a population of 421.

It turns out I'm not the only newspaper reporter drawn to Faith.

Tim Funk, award-winning religion writer for the Charlotte Observer, ventured there — to the Faith in North Carolina — for a front-page report over the weekend.

Funk's Faith story tackles questions perplexing many this election season: Who are the people supporting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump? And why? (In all fairness, the exact same questions could be — and should be — raised concerning those on Democrat Hillary Clinton's bandwagon.)

Here's what I like about the Charlotte Observer's story (and regular GetReligion readers will note that I'm praising a newspaper I've criticized in the past): The reporter goes to a Republican-leaning town, paints a vivid portrait of it and actually listens to the people he meets.

Of course, I've always enjoyed these kind of small-town takeouts. In my Associated Press days, I recall writing one from Daingerfield, Texas, and another from Crawford, Texas.

But back to the Charlotte Observer piece: Funk's lede nicely sets the scene:

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