Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

The news media vs. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump vs. the mainstream news media.

Who will win in this epic life and death steel-cage wrestling match?

Well, you can argue that the media has already lost this battle, in that Trump now resides in the White House.

One could also argue that Trump has successfully rewritten the rules of public discourse in a way that has forced journalists to abandon many of their most important standards linked to fairness, objectivity and even accuracy. The more journalists veer into a Trump-style screaming match, the more they fit into the stereotypes that The Donald has created for them.

This brings us to an important Esquire piece written by magazine-pro Peter Boyer. If you know this work — including his years at The New Yorker — you know that he has a reputation as a reporter with an uncanny knack for covering both sides of tense, angry arguments. (See this classic New Yorker piece on Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.)

So what does this Esquire piece have to do with religion-beat reporting? Read the following and think of former New York Times editor Bill Keller and his statement that the Times was attempting to do balanced, accuracy coverage of the news, “other than” many topics linked to culture, morality and religion.

So the scene opens with Boyer interviewing Trump:

… Amid those passing controversies was one story that Trump himself remembers clearly still. “Yep, very famous story,” he remarked to me in a recent interview. “It was a very important story...” Trump was referring to a front-page New York Times article published on August 8, 2016, under the headline "The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity." The opening paragraph posed a provocative question:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

There is more, of course:

Reporters who considered Trump “potentially dangerous,” [Jim] Rutenberg wrote, would inevitably move closer “to being oppositional” to him in their reporting — “by normal standards, untenable.” Normal standards, the column made clear, no longer applied.

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Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Question as reporters look ahead: How many United Methodists are there? Are all created equal?

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat a year or two knows that it is wise for journalists to read church membership totals with one eyebrow raised high. The professionals who work in religious institutions certainly know that membership statistics are estimates, at best.

As we always used to say when I was growing up Southern Baptist; There are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people.

But there’s no way around it — estimated membership and attendance figures really do matter. This is especially true when they directly affect the polity and governance of a specific religious body.

This brings us — #DUH — to that dramatic United Methodist battle that took place the other day in St. Louis. This was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

The follow-up coverage, with few exceptions, has focused on the rainbow-draped reactions of United Methodist leaders on the losing side of this special conference — which was charged with finding a way forward after four decades of doctrinal disagreements about marriage, sexuality (LGBTQ grab headlines) and the Bible. Could the UMC as a whole require that its clergy keep the vows they took, in ordination rites, to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline?

But let’s look at an even more basic and crucial question, one linked to membership statistics. Ready? How many United Methodists are there in the United Methodist Church?

One would think that the official United Methodist News Service would be a solid place to look for that information. A year ago, it published a report online that stated:

The United Methodist Church’s global membership now exceeds 12.5 million.

These membership figures come from the most recent annual conference journals sent to the General Council on Finance and Administration. The vast majority of the journals are from 2016 with some from 2017 or earlier years including one from 2013.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, used these totals in calculating how many delegates each conference sends to the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly in 2020. 

Yes, the word “global” is crucial. The United Methodist Church is a global institution and that reality shapes the structures that govern it.

That brings us to a post-war story in the Washington Post that contains some very interesting — I would say strange — language about church statistics.

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U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn: Maybe she deserves some balanced press coverage?

U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn: Maybe she deserves some balanced press coverage?

I met Marsha Blackburn about 16 years ago when I was in Nashville on business around 2002, when she was running for a U.S. House seat after six years in the Tennessee Senate.

She won that race and has been on the rise ever since. Now she’s the Republican nominee for an open Senate seat and, Tennessee being the red state that it is, her chances of getting it are good except that she’s running against a very likable former governor.

All sorts of folks are watching this race. Some of the coverage frames this conservative candidate in very predictable ways.

The New York Times also did a piece on her recently but the focus was an odd one. The article was more on what she was not saying than on what she was.

KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Inside the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce one morning last month, a few dozen voters sipped coffee and listened for 45 minutes to Representative Marsha Blackburn tick off all the reasons that this traditionally Republican stronghold in northeastern Tennessee should support her in one of the most high-stakes Senate races this year.

She praised President Trump. She warned of an invasion of liberal policies and a Democratic takeover of committees if Republicans lose the Senate. She stressed securing the border, fighting MS-13 and lowering taxes. She highlighted her work as a Republican House member to “get government off your back.”

But one issue was entirely absent — the one that had made Ms. Blackburn famous in Washington, and infamous in Democratic circles: abortion.

We learn that she’s more into state issues these days; no great surprise in that she’s running statewide. Then we see why the Times is interested in her.

It’s a noticeable shift for a politician who three years ago took an incendiary turn in the nation’s culture wars. Amid a divisive battle over the funding of Planned Parenthood, Ms. Blackburn led a congressional committee investigating allegations that the group had tried to illegally profit from the sale of fetal tissue, which the organization denied. Ms. Blackburn fanned the flames by making the audacious charge that the group was selling “baby body parts on demand.”

It was a particularly ugly chapter in a bitter national debate…The episode gained national attention and cemented Ms. Blackburn’s reputation as a hard-right firebrand.

Let’s see: “Incendiary,” “divisive,” “ugly chapter,” “fanned the flames,” “audacious,” “hard-right firebrand.” I see where this is going.

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Ireland and abortion vote: Guess which side the New York Times backed?

Ireland and abortion vote: Guess which side the New York Times backed?

Even by to the New York Times’ current standards, the lead sentence was a headspinner.

The topic was Ireland’s abortion vote, a matter on which the Times team had written exhaustively (google “Ireland abortion vote New York Times” and you get at least 19 stories) before last week’s vote to change the country’s constitution to allow abortion up to 12 weeks.

But do take a second look at that first sentence, then keep reading for a few more lines.

DUBLIN -- Ireland voted decisively to repeal one of the world’s more restrictive abortion bans, sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy and dealing the latest in a series of stinging rebukes to the Roman Catholic Church.

The surprising landslide, reflected in the results announced on Saturday, cemented the nation’s liberal shift at a time when right-wing populism is on the rise in Europe and the Trump administration is imposing curbs on abortion rights in the United States. In the past three years alone, Ireland has installed a gay man as prime minister and has voted in another referendum to allow same-sex marriage.

But this was a particularly wrenching issue for Irish voters, even for supporters of the measure. And it was not clear until the end that the momentum toward socially liberal policies would be powerful enough to sweep away deeply ingrained opposition to abortion.

Was there any editor on duty when this no-holds-barred editorial arrived at the copy desk? Can all opposition to abortion in Ireland truly be reduced to “generations of conservative patriarchy?”

Here at GetReligion we call this Kellerism; a term named after former Times executive editor Bill Keller that means a media outlet that has made up its mind on a certain hot button issue to the point where there is no legitimate other side to the story. Thus, only one point of view needs to be included in the coverage. Click here to read a tmatt "On Religion" column that includes the crucial Keller remarks on this subject.

Compare the Times’ treatment to the Associated Press’s take.

In the end, it wasn't even close.

Please respect our Commenting Policy is back, but Newsweek offers only one side of this crucial LGBTQ story is back, but Newsweek offers only one side of this crucial LGBTQ story

The activists at are back, with another narrow, but important, set of numbers detailing what some strategic American churches are, and are not, saying about LGBTQ issues and other causes that are crucial to the Christian left.

Anyone who cares about the development of an open, candid, evangelical left has to be paying close attention to this project. That means bookmarking two essential websites -- itself and the Religion News Service columns of Jonathan Merritt, the scribe who has done the most to provoke and define debates on the evangelical left on these topics.

The goal of the project, simply stated, is to examine the public statements of various churches -- symbolized by doctrinal documents on websites -- in order to determine where the leaders of these congregations stand on LGBTQ issues.

While some may see the project as hostile to Christian orthodoxy, the bottom line is that it's offering newsworthy material that reporters need to know about. It is also providing links to its source materials. Journalists can respect that (as demonstrated by this Rod Dreher post reacting to these surveys). 

The bottom line: Reporters can use as a key voice in an important debate.

That is, journalists can choose to do that. It appears that some will settle for a public-relations approach. For example, see the Newsweek piece with this headline: "AMERICA’S LARGEST CHURCHES ARE ALL ANTI-LGBT AND LED BY MOSTLY WHITE MEN." Yes, the all-caps thing appears to be Newsweek style. Here is the overture:

None of America’s 100 largest churches are LGBT-affirming and almost all of them are led by white men, according to, an organization that reports churches’ LGBT policies and rates congregations based on their level of clarity.

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Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

Charity push might explain The New York Times's gentle treatment of couple's faith

The New York Times's approach to religion reporting is often a paradox: When covering controversial moral issues, its national reporters will often drink from the well of "Kellerism." That's the GetReligion term created in honor of the paper's former executive editor, Bill Keller, who decreed there are subjects on which there's only one side of the argument worth covering, such abortion and gay rights.

On the other hand, the paper's metro reporters will just as often surprise, as in its sensitive discussion of the KKK-linked founder of an evangelical congregation in New Jersey. There, we learned the Pillar of Fire church of 2017 bore little imprint from the founder who praised the Ku Klux Klan, presented in a way that made the church look good.

Now we come to the Orthodox Jewish faith of Malkah and David Spitalny, who in 2012 resided in a second-floor apartment in the Sea Gate neighborhood of Brooklyn. When Hurricane Sandy hit, their apartment was flooded, their parrot drowned and the couple had to remain there for years afterward due to economic issues.

The paper is gracious in its treatment of the couple, because it turns out The Times has an ulterior motive, albeit a noble one. The headline is sympathetic: "Faith Moors 2 Victims of Hurricane Sandy in Life’s Storms," as is the story:

The violent wind. The relentless rain. The raging sea.
For Malkah Spitalny, the passage of time has done little to dull her vivid memories of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast five years ago this weekend. She and her husband rode out the storm less than 500 feet from the ocean.
“It will never pass, this experience of physically going through it,” Mrs. Spitalny, 65, said this month. “The force was unimaginable. The thunders, the fires -- it was beyond comprehension.”

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Covering Methodist preschool kerfuffle, Washington Post gives readers just one side

Covering Methodist preschool kerfuffle, Washington Post gives readers just one side

There's this preschool, you see, that's housed in a United Methodist congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the tony suburbs which seem to ring Washington, D.C.

For years, we're told by The Washington Post, the school was rather secular and all was well. Parents pitched in to help run the "cooperative" nursery school, and everyone, with or without a religion, felt welcome.

Now, however, the United Methodist pastor of the United Methodist congregation that sponsors the Concord-St. Andrew’s Cooperative Nursery School wants to teach the children enrolled there about the Christian faith.

Cue the scrupulously balanced Washington Post story on all this, headlined, "‘A breach of trust’: A preschool, a church and a change in mission."

Wait, "balanced"? Not exactly:

A small preschool in Bethesda has a big problem on its hands, and God -- or at least teaching about God -- is at the center of it.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Concord-St. Andrew’s Cooperative Nursery School has been educating young children without including much, or anything, in the way of religious instruction, say numerous parents at the school, some of whom attended when they were children. That secular approach was fine with many at the close-knit school, where families and teachers come from a range of religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds and find harmony in their divergent viewpoints.

Comes now the Rev. Sue Brown, a United Methodist cleric of more than 20 years' service in the Washington, D.C., metro area, who has been pastor at Concord-St. Andrews since 2014. Because the school is a ministry of the church -- it says so on the website linked above -- Brown has instructed Amy Forman, who directs the school, to incorporate Christian teaching into daily lesson plans. Religious ministries tend to do this sort of thing.

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Previewing SCOTUS term, New York Times views wedding cakes through familiar Kellerism lens

Previewing SCOTUS term, New York Times views wedding cakes through familiar Kellerism lens

Hmmm, let's see now. It's the first Monday in October, and that means the Supreme Court of the United States, popularly known as SCOTUS, is back in session. It's as predictable as clockwork.

Equally predictable is having journalists at The New York Times view a controversial issue involving the First Amendment and deeply held religious beliefs through the lens of Kellerism. That's the GetReligion term for news coverage that says some issues are settled, hence airing both sides of an issue is unnecessary. We all know the Earth isn't flat, right? (That's a rhetorical question, gentle reader. I know the planet isn't flat, but thank you for asking.)

The lens-deployment comes in the matter of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In a long story on the new term, we get a lengthy, chunky section on this case. It's worth wading through the details contained in this long excerpt:

The court will re-enter the culture wars in a case concerning a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple, saying it would violate his Christian faith and his right to free speech.
The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111, involves a clash between laws that prohibit businesses open to the public from discriminating based on sexual orientation and claims of religious freedom.
On one side are religious people and companies that say the government should not force them to choose between the requirements of their faiths and their livelihoods. On the other are gay and lesbian couples who say they are entitled to equal treatment from businesses that choose to serve the general public.
The Supreme Court’s earlier decisions and Justice [Anthony] Kennedy’s conflicting impulses about gay rights and free speech make the outcome hard to predict.

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Moore church-state wars: Can political reporters cover legal clashes between God and man?

Moore church-state wars: Can political reporters cover legal clashes between God and man?

So, you thought that members of the national political press had problems doing balanced, accurate coverage of wild-man candidate Donald Trump?

Get ready for the Handmaid's Tale 2.0 coverage of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, the controversial (that overused term applies here) former Alabama chief justice. This guy can turn Acela zone reporters into pillars of salt just by standing at a podium and smiling.

Now, I realize that in this day and age many reporters have little or no journalistic incentive to listen to Moore and to try and understand what he is saying, from his point of view and that of his supporters. Frankly, this man makes me nervous, too.

However, I do think there are steps journalists can take in order to provide coverage of his candidacy that escapes the boundaries of Acela zone group-think. With that in mind, here is the thought for the day.

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. ...
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

No, that isn't Moore. That's the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

No, I am not comparing Moore with King. I am also not saying that Moore's understanding of moral, just and, dare I say, even "natural" law is the same as that of King. However, don't be surprised if, during his campaign, Moore reads that Birmingham passage and praises it, big time. Reporters should get ready.

Thus, what I am saying that it might be good to get professional religion writers involved in this story. Thus, what I am saying that it would be good to get professional religion writers involved in this story. Right now. Why? Because arguments about conflicts between God's law and the laws of the state have been going on for centuries (including this famous First Things package in 1996) and this is a topic worthy of serious reporting. It would be good to have a reporter involved who (a) speaks that church-state language, (b) has solid contacts with articulate Moore supporters and (c) knows liberal and conservative church historians who are up to speed on this topic.

The bottom line: It's time to transcend shallow stereotypes.

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