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Concerning evangelicals, Trump and Stormy Daniels, named sources are more credible

Concerning evangelicals, Trump and Stormy Daniels, named sources are more credible

First is not always best.

That's my quick critique of the NPR story that made such a splash Friday. You know, the one that reported evangelical leaders are very concerned about swirling allegations "about the president and a payout to a porn star to cover up a sexual encounter." 

Those leaders, NPR said, "are organizing a sit-down with President Trump in June."

Alrighty, but where's the story coming from?

The answer would be "four sources with knowledge of the planned meeting." In other words, we have what has become all too frustratingly common in the Trump era: a narrative based on anonymous voices.

Bottom line: Such sources know what they're talking about. Or they don't. You can trust them. Or you can't. And therein lies the problem.

I'll admit my bias: I wish major news organizations would stop using anonymous sources (who have an agenda or wouldn't be talking). Make people go on the record (so readers will have more information on which to judge a source's agenda). Or simply don't quote them. It's that simple.

Anonymous sources do nothing to improve the credibility of journalism in an age in which the president of the United States scores cheap political points by criticizing what he calls the #FakeNews media.

After quoting the anonymous sources, NPR includes a named source — yah! — who pooh-poohs much of the earlier storyline:

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Hugh Hefner the moral theologian: He tried to escape from personal pain into a new life

Hugh Hefner the moral theologian: He tried to escape from personal pain into a new life

So let's put together the pieces of the Hugh Hefner puzzle that was at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which grew out of my earlier GetReligion post, "The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary."

This is a journalism puzzle, but one rooted in theology.

Start with Hugh Hefner's frequent references to his Puritan heritage (with a large "P" and a small "p"). Then you add the details of Methodist faith in which he was raised, in the conservative Midwest of the late 1940s and '50s. We need more than the word "strict."

Then you add the remarkable detail that Hefner was a virgin on his wedding day (with the help, he stressed, of lots of foreplay). In other words, young Hefner thought that true love waits. Ponder that.

Only he learned, as a married man, that his fiance had not waited. She had been unfaithful while he was away in the Army. In its lengthy Hefner obituary, The New York Times noted:

A virgin until he was 22, he married his longtime girlfriend. Her confession to an earlier affair, Mr. Hefner told an interviewer almost 50 years later, was “the single most devastating experience of my life.”

The Los Angeles Times added, literally, the doctrinal fallout from this event, in terms of the moral theology written into the Playboy philosophy.

Years later he said the experience set him up for a lifetime of promiscuity because “if you don't commit,” he told The Times in 1994, “you don't get hurt.” He said it also showed him what was wrong with traditional attitudes towards sex: “Thinking sex is sacred is the first step toward really turning it into something very ugly,” he said on another occasion.

Put all that together and you have what? Is this a "secular" story, as in a story devoid of faith content and issues? You can make a case that the old Hefner, after this crushing blow during his first marriage, died and then he sought escape from his past, seeking to rise again as a new and changed man -- the ultimate playboy.

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The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

The crucial 'M' word -- Methodist -- that needed to be in every Hugh Hefner obituary

This is how I will remember him: Articulate, witty, with a probing intellect, He was a strong First Amendment liberal, a lover of music, magazines and books. And there was the pipe, of course. He'd look over the top of his glasses, puffing on the pipe, while he was thinking.

I'm talking about Theodore Peterson, of course, the legendary journalism professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign whose class on modern magazines was a rite of passage for thousands of young writers and editors.

Take Hugh Hefner, for example.

If you took Peterson's class (as I did in graduate school), you learned quite a bit about the back-story on Hefner and the class-project dream that years later turned into a magazine celebrating sex and grown-up toys, linking consumerism with moral libertarianism.

Peterson had a theory about modern magazines, which was that -- while providing niche content for readers and advertisers -- they needed to make some kind of statement about the personality and beliefs of the founder. They needed to sell a worldview. Hefner was the perfect example and the key was the Playboy-in-chief's desire to shed his past and escape.

Escape what? That is where morality and religion -- the old Methodism -- is an essential part of the Hefner story and, thus, any obituary that attempts to sum up his life. I'm not joking: Editors may want to consider allowing religion-beat reporters to take part in the coverage of Hef and his legacy. After all, the Sexual Revolution was a new take on a very ancient religion.

As you would expect, the Hefner obituaries are packed with colorful symbolic details. There's speculation on the number of women he bedded. What about the implications of his emotional immaturity, when linked to a 152 IQ? Do the math and you end up with the 2,500-plus volumes of his personal scrapbook, which probably featured images from the $40,000 video-camera system above his 7-foot round bed.

News consumers can expect, in the follow-up coverage, lots of debate about Hefner as feminist or anti-feminist. Was he a figure of liberation, oppression or addiction? Was his fierce support of abortion rights rather self-serving? Someone should ask fake-bunny Gloria Steinem, or perhaps Holly Madison, author of "Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny."

In most of the obituaries, there is some kind of reference to Hefner's parents and their religious convictions. The Associated Press feature, as one would expect, had less room with which to work, but did manage this telling passage:

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Bracing for Trump, Clinton TV: Are Americans as cynical as the French about morality?

Bracing for Trump, Clinton TV: Are Americans as cynical as the French about morality?

If you hang out with lots of #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary people, either in digital or analog life, you know that one of the things pushing them toward despair right now is the knowledge that in the near future the White House will be turned into a reality TV franchise.

Anyone who lived through the Clinton years (or checked out the book) knows what that was like. And does anyone doubt that -- win or lose -- Citizen Donald Trump will find a way to increase his brand's profile via opinion and entertainment screens large and small?

Can you imagine the lurid advertisements the Democrats could run about Trump's private and business affairs if they were running a candidate other than Hillary Rodham Clinton?

This brings me, logically enough, to that Washington Post feature that ran with this headline: "2016 is the year of the messy private life -- and the year when it no longer matters." As best I can tell, the goal of this story was to ask two painfully valid questions:

(1) Is this the year when Americans finally achieve the maturity of the French and and admit that the moral lives of politicians don't matter?

(2) How are so many evangelical Christians rationalizing their support for Donald "You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass" Trump?

As you would expect, the emphasis is on the second half of that equation:

HOLMES COUNTY, Ohio -- In this deeply conservative part of Ohio, full of cornfields and horse-drawn Amish buggies, people know all about Donald Trump’s two very public divorces, his extramarital affair with a beauty queen who became his second wife and his five children from three marriages.

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It's the (oh, no, not again) art of Trump’s deal with many old-guard evangelicals

It's the (oh, no, not again) art of Trump’s deal with many old-guard evangelicals

From the You Can’t Make This Up Department: During Donald Trump’s summit with nearly 1,000 evangelicals (GetReligion podcast here), Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. proudly tweeted out a photo of himself and wife Becki greeting the man who would be president.

Seen on the wall behind them was a framed Playboy magazine photo of Trump alongside a nubile Playmate.

Online liberal satirist Sarah Wood noted the Playmate is currently in prison for drug smuggling, and wondered why Falwell was “honored” to associate with “a thrice-married man who has more than insinuated that he wants to date his daughter, is currently racist, made money off screwing people over, and has posed for Playboy. Praise Jesus!”

Less derisively, Professor Tobin Grant, a Religion News Service columnist, quoted Trump’s new friends who not long ago warned he “can’t be trusted,” needs to “repent,” is “embarrassing,” a “scam,” and a“misogynist and philanderer” laden with “untruthfulness.” 

A second Grant piece listed words Trump never uttered during the 90-minute encounter: that would be Jesus, Christ, Bible, prayer, faith. “God” was mentioned once, however.

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The state of Donald Trump's soul: Lots of chortles and, so far, few factual questions

The state of Donald Trump's soul: Lots of chortles and, so far, few factual questions

At least once a month, I receive some kind of angry email (or perhaps see comments on Facebook) from someone who is upset about mainstream press coverage of President Barack Obama that identifies him as a Christian.

Very few of these notes come from people who think Obama is a closet Muslim. Mostly, they come from doctrinally conservative Christians whose churches clash with the Obama White House on moral and cultural issues, most of them having to do with the Sexual Revolution. What they are saying, of course, is, "Obama isn't one of us." His actions show that.

Of course he isn't one of them. But it's perfectly accurate for journalists to note that the president has made a profession of faith (numerous times) as a liberal mainline Protestant. He walked the aisle and joined a congregation in the United Church of Christ, the bleeding edge of the liberal Protestant world, and has, functionally, been an Episcopalian while in the White House. Before becoming president he was quite candid about the details of his faith (the essential interview here). Obama has a liberal Christian voice.

This, of course, brings us to the God-and-politics story de jour right now -- the online interview in which Dr. James Dobson, once the creator of the Focus on the Family operation, says that he knows the person who recently led Donald Trump to born-again faith.

You can imagine the Twitter-verse reaction to this news, coming so soon after that closed-door New York City meeting between Trump and about 1,000 selected evangelical leaders. Here is the crucial material from The New York Times, which, as you can imagine, opened with a question lede. Then:

In an interview recorded ... by a Pennsylvania pastor, the Rev. Michael Anthony, Dr. Dobson said he knew the person who had led Mr. Trump to Christ, though he did not name him.

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Retired Playboy editor gets airbrushed treatment in newspaper profile

Retired Playboy editor gets airbrushed treatment in newspaper profile

Ever wonder about the morality or spirituality of a Playboy editor? Well, when you read a newspaper profile on one of them, you'll still be left wondering.

The Sunday feature, in the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune, drops a hint or two in telling of Gretchen Edgren, who worked as an editor for 25 years in the Playboy empire. She's a "churchgoing mother of two." Now living in retirement in Holmes Beach, she was "brought up in a religious but open-minded household" in Oregon. But aside from those glancing blows, the article pretty much rambles for 800+ words.

The hook is apparently that this calm, silver-haired lady once edited a magazine and several books for Hugh Hefner's libertine realm. As a further paradox, although she's on nickname terms with "Hef," she never even visited his Playboy Mansion.

The Herald-Tribune takes pains to say that Edgren was a "serious journalist" whose first gig was at the The Oregonian before becoming an assistant editor for VIP, the magazine for Playboy Club members. She then edited annual collections of Playmates and a 40-year retrospect of the flagship magazine.

How did she regard the focus of her trade -- which one of her annual projects celebrated as The Year in Sex? No problem, says the Herald-Tribune, but it doesn't really say why:

“I considered myself a feminist, but the whole feminist thing about 'Playboy' exploiting women wasn't right,” says Edgren, whose first job was as a reporter for The Oregonian. “Women were not being rounded up and forced to pose. They were lining up at the door, and for a lot of reasons.”

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About God and that best/frequent/satisfying sex report ...

Every now and then, reseachers/activists in a think tank somewhere pull out a major study from the past, compare its data with that in similar studies and then announce a few specific conclusions in a press conference.

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