PR

CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

About six years ago, the Rev. Rob Bell was -- in terms of mainstream news -- hotter than hell.

In other words, lots of reporters thought he was totally cool because he was turning the world of megachurch celebrity culture inside out with his headline-friendly attacks on centuries of Christian doctrine about heaven, hell and salvation (plus some other predictable topics linked to faith, culture and politics).

It's all part of a news-media equation that is familiar to all public-relations professionals who promote religious books to the mainstream. If an evangelical writer wants great press, all he or she has to do is attack the core beliefs of evangelicalism. The same works for Catholics, Anglicans (Newark Bishop Jack Spong wrote the book on this), Mormons and pretty much everyone else.

The bottom line: Rebellion against conservative orthodoxy is almost always news. So Bell's "Love Wins" book was a big deal, for many.

So Bell took his post-congregation revival tour to Atlanta the other day and CNN.com was all over it, producing a long, long, print feature with this headline: "Outlaw pastor Rob Bell shakes up the Bible Belt."

Let me stress that an update on Bell is a valid subject for a feature story, even if the former megachurch pastor is no longer making headlines. Also, there have been lots of interesting responses to Bell's redefinition of heaven and hell, some of them book length (see "God Wins"), which means that it would ultra-easy for CNN editors/reporters to find articulate responses -- from a variety of theological perspectives -- to what Bell is still saying.

No, honest. Don't laugh. It would have been so easy for CNN to produce an interesting, complex, accurate, balanced news feature on this Bell event.

Want to guess what happened?

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Flashback to Godbeat past: Several symbolic stories from front lines of the SBC wars

Flashback to Godbeat past: Several symbolic stories from front lines of the SBC wars

Here is an idea for the current leaders of the Religion Newswriters Association.

What if we held a reunion for the army of Godbeat pros who worked in the 1980s and '90s? You know, gather up the folks who used to trek from one annual denominational gathering to another -- two, three or, for reporters from big newsrooms, even more events -- each summer. Call up Bruce Buursma and let him organize the whole thing. Louis Moore and Virginia Culver can plan the program. Russ Chandler can handle the after-party (more on that in a minute).

Then everyone can get together and tells stories about what life was like back in the age of travel budgets. I promise you that, within 10 minutes, folks would start telling Southern Baptist Convention stories. Everybody who worked the beat during that era has several great SBC civil-war stories.

This is sort of what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

We started talking about the news from this year's SBC gathering in St. Louis -- click here and then here for GetReligion background. But we ended up focusing on how important it is for journalists who cover this kind of gathering to actually know something about the religious group's life, past and present. Try to imagine having a Super Bowl and newsrooms sending reporters who know little or nothing about football.

Of course, very few news organizations spent money to send reporters to this year's SBC gathering. In the 1980s there would be 30-plus religion-beat pros at SBC meetings, scribes with folders packed with background material and notebooks full of sources. This year? At best, some organizations asked religion-beat reporters to watch the video feeds. It's like being a hoops reporter and covering the NBA finals -- without being at the games.

Does this affect the coverage? You think?

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Strangely anonymous anti-Catholics come to Beltway land

Strangely anonymous anti-Catholics come to Beltway land

Something rather interesting and important is missing from the Washington Post story that ran under the headline, "Anti-Catholic protesters with bullhorns appear at several D.C.-area parishes." However, and this is the strange part, it does not appear that the Post team is to blame.

See if you can spot the problem at the very top of this report:

Roman Catholic leaders have sent e-mails of warning to dozens of Washington and Maryland priests after protesters with bullhorns yelling anti-Catholic slogans appeared at several parishes and in a couple of cases “stormed the inside of the church just before Mass,” a bishop-administrator wrote in the e-mail.
A spokeswoman with the Archdiocese of Washington, which oversees 139 parishes in the District and suburban Maryland, said Wednesday that “really small” groups of protesters have appeared on the property of three or four parishes in the past couple of weeks near Mass time. They were shouting at parishioners going in and out and were handing out “fundamentalist” Christian literature, said Chieko Noguchi.
She would not identify the parishes or share the literature or what it said, saying it was unclear whether the protesters had created it or were using something they got elsewhere.

No, it's not the scare-quotes use of the familiar and often abused "fundamentalist" epithet that troubles me. 

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