Where's the beef? What the Chick-fil-A boss really said

So, did you hear about that wild quote that the president of Chick-fil-A didn't say the other day? Here's a piece of a CNN report that is typical of the mainstream press coverage of this latest cyber-skirmish in America's battles over homosexuality, commerce and free speech (sort of).

(CNN) -- The fact that Chick-fil-A is a company that espouses Christian values is no secret. The fact that its 1,600 fast-food chicken restaurants across the country are closed on Sundays has long been testament to that. But the comments of company President Dan Cathy about gay marriage to Baptist Press on Monday have ignited a social media wildfire.

"Guilty as charged,", Cathy said when asked about his company's support of the traditional family unit as opposed to gay marriage.

"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that," Cathy is quoted as saying.

Now, one would assume -- after reading a reference to the "comments of company President Dan Cathy about gay marriage" -- that this interview from the Biblical Recorder in North Carolina (which was circulated by Baptist Press) actually included direct quotes from Cathy in which he talks about, well, gay marriage.

In this case, one cannot assume that.

While the story contains tons of material defending traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, the controversial entrepreneur never talks about gay rights or gay marriage. Why? Because he wasn't asked about those issues in the interview.

This raises an interesting journalistic question: Is a defense of one doctrine automatically the same thing as an on-the-record attack on the opposite doctrine? In this case, is it accurate for CNN (and others) to say that Cathy made comments about gay marriage when, in fact, he did not speak words addressing that issue?

But wait, readers might say, everyone KNOWS what he was talking about! And, once his actual comments were quoted, kind of, in the mainstream press, it was then possible to quote many people who offered their angry reactions to his actual words because of their interpretation of them.

This is certainly true. It would have been easy to have quoted several of the tsunami of tweets, blog comments and other commentaries blasting Cathy for his defense of basic Christian doctrines. You know, those quotes that sound like this, drawing from the actual interview:

"We don't claim to be a Christian business," Cathy told the Biblical Recorder in a recent visit to North Carolina. He attended a business leadership conference many years ago where he heard Christian businessman Fred Roach say, "There is no such thing as a Christian business."

"That got my attention," Cathy said. Roach went on to say, "Christ never died for a corporation. He died for you and me."

"In that spirit ... [Christianity] is about a personal relationship. Companies are not lost or saved, but certainly individuals are," Cathy added. "But as an organization we can operate on biblical principles. So that is what we claim to be. [We are] based on biblical principles, asking God and pleading with God to give us wisdom on decisions we make about people and the programs and partnerships we have. And He has blessed us."

And the marriage thing?

The company invests in Christian growth and ministry through its WinShape Foundation (WinShape.com). The name comes from the idea of shaping people to be winners. It began as a college scholarship and expanded to a foster care program, an international ministry, and a conference and retreat center modeled after the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove.

"That morphed into a marriage program in conjunction with national marriage ministries," Cathy added.

Some have opposed the company's support of the traditional family. "Well, guilty as charged," said Cathy when asked about the company's position. "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. ...

"We are very much committed to that," Cathy emphasized. "We intend to stay the course," he said. "We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles."

So there is the context. It certainly would be easy for journalists to talk to the company's critics and, thus, to establish a gay-rights context for this discussion, if that is the goal. But that isn't my point, of course. That isn't what CNN, and others, did in their reports. They reported that Cathy made comments, that he spoke words directly addressing gay-rights issues, that he delivered a series of negative, anti-gay remarks. In effect, Cathy is being quoted saying words that he said, as well as words that he did not say.

Thus, the author of the original Biblical Recorder story, K. Allan Blume, has since noted:

During a call-in radio interview Thursday (July 19) with WORD-FM in Pittsburgh, K. Allan Blume described his conversation with Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy as "very positive," unlike how it is being portrayed in a variety of news reports. ...

Many of those reports "turned [the original story] into a negative," said Blume, adding the term "anti-gay" never came up in the June interview while Cathy was speaking in the Raleigh, N.C., area.

"He was not saying 'guilty as charged anti-gay,'" Blume added. "[Cathy] never even brought up that subject. Everything he stated was on the positive side ... He never stated anything negative."

Picky, picky? Well, yes. It would have been so easy for the mainstream press to have reported Cathy's remarks accurately and, then, to have accurately reported the comments of those who were more than happy to criticize the Chick-fil-A leader's conservative views on marriage.

That equation is par for the journalistic course. But is it fair game to actually state, as fact, that the man said things that he didn't say?

Please respect our Commenting Policy