'Truth' is, 'scare' quotes are biased?

As you would expect, I spend a very high percentage of my time surrounded by religious believers of various kinds -- especially academic leaders from the middle of the evangelical Protestant world (and Eastern Orthodox folks from my own parish). When you do what I do, this means that I spend a lot of my time listening to religious believers complain about the state of American journalism. In return, they listen to me argue that mainstream journalism isn't perfect (we live in a sinful, fallen world), but that the classic American approach to journalism has more strengths than weaknesses and that it beats the alternatives.

I mean, do you want to live in a world in which journalism is defined as Rush Limbaugh yelling at Jon Stewart? OK, please don't answer that one.

Truth be told, there are a great many things that non-journalists do not understand about life in a real newsroom. For example, I have found that very few news consumers understand that reporters do not write the headlines that grace (or twist) their stories. Many, many, many people do not understand that there is a difference -- OK, there is supposed to be a difference -- between a hard-news story on A1 and an op-ed column in the editorial pages. Many people turn on MSNBC or Fox News and do not understand that there are different editorial standards for the basic news programs than there are for the spin-spin-spin talk festivals led by the high-profile blowhards. (Read this timely piece by Ted Koppel and weep.)

So where am I going with this? For many readers, you see, journalism contains more than its share of mysteries and some are rather aggravating.

Let's say you are in Douglas Country, Oregon, and you pick up your copy of The News Review and note the following story about yet another clash between a religious believer and a government office, between gay rights and religious liberty. Here's the top of the story, which echoes events in several other settings across the nation:

A federal jury is scheduled to decide in the spring whether a Douglas County clerk was wrongly fired after she objected on religious grounds to registering same-sex couples as domestic partners.

Kathy Slater, who worked for the county for more than a decade before she was dismissed in February 2008, is seeking unspecified damages and attorney fees. A judge recently ruled that the lawsuit, which was filed last year in U.S. District Court in Eugene, can go to trial, rejecting a county motion to dismiss the suit as unfounded.

Slater, 49, contends the county could have accommodated her "sincerely held religious belief" by having the other five clerks in the office register same-sex couples, which takes about 10 minutes per couple.

County Clerk Barbara Nielsen said granting Slater's request would have posed an undue hardship on her office. It would have meant pulling clerks away from other duties and could have caused couples to wait. As a result, Nielsen said she was not legally obligated to accommodate Slater.

Now, I understand that the phrase "sincerely held religious belief" is a direct quotation, although I would predict that the clerk said "beliefs" -- plural. I also predict, based on previous cases, that Slater faced another issue in her workplace. What are the odds that the office, logically enough, also had a firm conflict-of-interest policy in which clerks were required to refer cases to another clerk if there was any chance that their own beliefs might negatively impact their handling of cases? In other words, a Catch 22.

But we don't know that. We do know that Slater is a conservative Christian, due to material that is clearly reported in the story. Now read the following passage closely and make sure that you read until the final zinger.

(Slater) said she objected to homosexual activity because it's an "abomination." In her deposition, Slater said registering same-sex couples would have made her feel she was condoning homosexuality.

"I knew in my heart I couldn't do it," she said in the deposition.

Slater, who attended Boise Bible College in Boise, Idaho, for two years in the 1980s, said she was guided by the Bible, which she described as the "truth."

Now, the "abomination" quote is biblical material. It's possible that the clerk put that term in a more broadly defined context or maybe she didn't. It may be that the reporter thought it was a simple statement of her opinion and did not know that this believer was using a biblical term. To say that this is a controversial issue is a wild understatement.

So, no scare quotes there. The use of those quotes wasn't a journalistic abomination.

No, the quotation marks that probably raised a few eyebrows are a few sentences later -- when readers are given the shocking news that Slater believes that the Bible contains "truth."

Raise your hand if you think that the sentence in question could have ended after the word "Bible."

Now, raise your hand if you are surprised that religious believers -- liberal and conservative -- in a wide variety of faith traditions believe that their scriptures contain "truth."

Well, there go a few more newspaper subscriptions. Sigh.

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