media bias

Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

For a brief period of time in 1987, U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder made headlines by attempting to win the Democratic Party nomination to run for president.

This is the kind of thing that leads to press conferences, especially in Denver.

Schroeder was, to say the least a freethinker on a host of cultural and political leaders, including gay rights. At one press conference, I asked the congresswoman a question that went something like this (I am paraphrasing): You have said that you believe people are born gay. Do you believe that, at some point, there will be genetic evidence to back this stance and strengthen your case?

She said “yes,” but didn’t elaborate. However, she did allow me to ask a follow-up question. I asked: If that is the case, and this genetic information could be shown in prenatal tests, would you support a ban on parents choosing to abort gay fetuses?

The press aide in charge was not amused and shut that down immediately. However, I was not accosted by other journalists in the room. A few Rocky Mountain News (RIP) colleagues used to refer to this as “that Mattingly question.” They may not have approved, but some thought it was logical and, thus, fair game.

This anecdote popped into my mind when I read a re-posted 2015 think piece by Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway at The Federalist. The headline: “Why Do The Media Keep Helping Nancy Pelosi Avoid Abortion Questions?” While, obviously, she offers commentary about abortion, Hemingway is primarily asking a journalism question about bias linked to mainstream news coverage of an issue that always involves religion, morality and culture.

This media-bias question remains relevant, after all of these years — as readers could see in the comments attached to this recent Bobby Ross post: “Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote.” Thus, let’s look at this older Hemingway work.

Here’s my take: Yes, I have seen some improvement in abortion coverage, if your goal is balanced, accurate reporting that shows respect for people on both sides of the debates. Some religion-beat reporters have worked hard to talk to both sides. However, in my opinion, political-desk coverage of abortion issues has been as bad as ever — or worse.

This brings us back to that Hemingway piece.

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That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

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That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

There is a reason that I held off writing about mainstream news coverage of Rep. Brian Sims and his online activism against people praying at his local Planned Parenthood facility.

To be blunt: I was waiting for some mainstream media coverage of this digital drama. The fact that this took several days is really interesting — from a media-analysis point of view.

Let’s look at this through the “mirror image” device that your GetReligionistas have been using for years.

Let’s say that a group of LGBTQ demonstrators decided to stage protests outside the doors of the Family Research Council — peacefully reading selections from the latest version of the Book of Common Prayer. The protesters include teens and an older person who is silently using a rainbow rosary.

Then a politician approaches, perhaps a GOP leader who backs the FRC. Using his smartphone to capture the proceedings for online use, he begins berating the gay activists, using language that focuses on age, race and religious beliefs. This evangelical politico also offers to pay viewers $100 for information on the teen-agers, thus helping evangelical activists to “visit” their homes.

All of this is posted online by this member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

How quickly would this draw major coverage at CNN? How about the New York Times? Note: We’re seeking serious, original coverage, not short Associated Press stories or aggregation reports built on clips from online chatter (see this Washington Post item).

Eventually, The Philadelphia Inquirer — to its credit — followed up on the explosion of Twitter activity on this topic. The lede did use a mild version of the “Republicans pounce!” theme, but took the issue seriously. Here is a key chunk of that breakthrough mainstream-news media report:

In one video, Sims approaches a woman and three girls who appear to be in their teens outside the Planned Parenthood clinic at 12th and Locust Streets and refers to them as “pseudo-Christian protesters who’ve been out here shaming young girls for being here.”

“I’ve got $100 to anyone who will identify any of these three,” Sims says in the video, adding that he is raising money for Planned Parenthood.

The unidentified woman responds, “We’re actually here just praying for the babies.”

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Totally pro-LGBT slant? Religious liberty in scare quotes? Well, that's Fox News for you ...

Totally pro-LGBT slant? Religious liberty in scare quotes? Well, that's Fox News for you ...

You really have to love readers who pay close attention and are willing to tilt at windmills every now and then.

Consider this note from a GetReligion reader — a radio pro — who kept his skepticism meter turned up, even when looking for liberal bias in a rather unusual place. The headline on this rather ordinary politics-meets-business story (with religion lurking in the background, of course) is: “Amazon opposes anti-LGBT Tennessee legislation amid activist pressure.”

Yes, that’s Fox News for ya. Our pro-journalism reader sent me an email that noted the following:

Fox is usually considered friendly to conservatives, right? Then why isn't there a single quote — count 'em, ZERO — in this story from someone defending the legislation? And why did they do this: "Sponsors of the bills claim they are trying to protect 'religious freedom'"? Scare quotes around "religious freedom"? Really?

The only thing that I disagree with in that note is that I don’t think one needs to be a “conservative” to defend the old-school, liberal model of the press that asked journalists to talk to people on both sides of a hot, divisive issue, while treating their views with respect. Then again, I am also old enough to remember the church-state good old days (that would be the Clinton administration) when you didn’t need to be a “conservative” to back an old-school liberal take on religious liberty (minus the scare quotes).

What does this Fox News story have to say? The problem isn’t that it includes lots of material from LGBT activists who oppose this legislation. That’s a big part of the story. The journalism problem here is that the story totally embraces, as neutral fact, the cultural left’s views on what the legislation would do. This starts right up top:

Amazon has signed a letter opposing a raft of anti-LGBT legislation in Tennessee as the tech giant plans to expand its presence in the business-friendly state.

"Legislation that explicitly or implicitly allows discrimination against LGBT people and their families creates unnecessary liability for talent recruitment and retention, tourism, and corporate investment to the state," the open letter to Tennesse legislators states.

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What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

Here’s something that you don’t see every day.

I mean, it used to be perfectly normal to see a top editor at an American newspaper defend old-school virtues like balance, fairness and showing respect for people on both sides of hot-button debates. But recently, this has not been the norm — especially when dealing with news about religion and culture.

Consider, for example, recent coverage of the United Methodist Church and, especially, the trials and tribulations endured by leaders of this global denomination’s liberal U.S. establishment.

Please hear me: I have been covering this story for four decades and I know that activists and clergy on both sides have experienced lots of pain. All kinds of people have been tempted to head for the exits.

Liberal U.S. United Methodists, in particular, have seen one general conference after another vote against them, in part because the growing parts of this global — repeat GLOBAL — flock are doctrinally conservative when it comes to marriage, sex and the Bible. The left holds the high ground in American bureaucracies, but the right has more converts, more children and, thus, more votes.

Press coverage of the latest traditionalist victory, this past February in St. Louis, has been dominated by the beliefs and stories of the UMC left, usually with one quote provided by a conservative (90 percent of the time, that’s Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion & Democracy). Click here for my post on an NBC News report that — so far — gets the gold medal for bias.

So, the other day a Toledo Blade reader named Joe Strieter wrote the newspaper’s managing editor to express concern about UMC coverage. The reader send GetReligion a copy of this very detailed letter and here is a sample:

Although the writer … did not specifically express her personal opinion, it's hard to avoid the impression that her sympathies lie with the "losing side."  …

Three people are pictured — all of them opposed to the action taken at the conference. No one is pictured who voted for or defended the resolution. …

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You know what? Peter Boyer does have some thoughts on religion news, Trump and the press

You know what? Peter Boyer does have some thoughts on religion news, Trump and the press

I recently wrote a think-piece post about an Esquire piece by Peter Boyer on how Donald Trump has successfully baited many elite mainstream journalists into switching from classic American Model of the Press journalism and into advocacy mode.

If you didn’t see that GetReligion post, please click this link: “Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels.”

Boyer, of course, is best known for his years of work with The New Yorker. I have always thought that he has an incredible ability to write about hot-button topics while showing respect for the beliefs of people on both sides of those emotionally charged issues. Yes, that includes religion. Check out this example from 2005: “Jesus in the Classroom.”

In my earlier post, I wondered how Boyer might apply his thesis about Trump and the press to, well, the whole issue of journalists not “getting” religion. It helps that Boyer started reading GetReligion back in 2005 and that we’ve been in touch over the years.

Now, I have something to share, from Boyer, about that religion-news question. But first, here is a crucial section of my earlier post to help introduce readers to this discussion. In the Esquire piece, a key 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?”

Here’s another key statement:

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.

This reminded me, of course, of the famous remarks that Times editor Bill Keller made several days after his retirement — the 2011 remarks that led a GetReligion reader (a D.C. area scholar) to create our “Kellerism” term.

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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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Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

This may sound simplistic, but here goes. With most news events that involve elections, or votes to settle disputes inside an organization, there will be a winning side and a losing side.

Life is more complex than that, of course, and the “winners” of a single vote may not be the winners over the long haul. But let’s say that the winners keep winning the big votes for a decade or two.

At that point, journalists need to do one of two things. First, journalists can produce a story that, as Job 1, focuses on what the winners plan to do (since they won) and then, as Job 2, covers how the losing side plans to respond. The alternative is to write a major story about the winning group and then, to offer needed balance, to write a second story about how this outcome will affect the losing side.

With that in mind, please consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: “U.S. Methodist leaders lay plans to resist vote against same-sex marriage.” That is one way to state the issue — looking at this from the losing side of the equation.

It would be just as accurate to say that this was a vote — the latest of many — defending the United Methodist Church’s stance in favor of ancient (thinking church history) doctrines on marriage and sex. You could also say that the key votes focused on whether UMC clergy can be required to honor their ordination vows to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline. However, that would be the point of view held by the winners, after that special global UMC general convention held recently in St. Louis.

So the Post team doing? The headline states the editorial approach: This is a feature story built on the reactions on the losing side in St. Louis, the plans of the left-of-center establishment that has long controlled UMC life in the United States. That’s it. That’s what readers get. Thus, the overture:

When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.

In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision.

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