Terry Mattingly

Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Every week or two -- either in private emails, on Twitter or perhaps in our comments pages -- I get involved in a debate with a reader about an issue that's at the heart of GetReligion's work. The hook is usually a post in which the press, when covering a controversial issue, has focused almost all of it its attention on the views of one side of the argument while demoting the other side to one or two lines of type, usually shallow, dull information drawn from a website or press release.

The reader, in effect, is defending what we call "Kellerism" -- click here for a refresher on that term -- and says that there is no need to give equal play to the voices on both sides because it is already obvious who is right and who is wrong. The reader says that GetReligion is biased because we still think there is a debate to be covered (think Indiana), while we believe that it's crucial to treat people on both sides of these debates with respect and cover their views as accurately as possible.

My slogan, shared with students down the years: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

This cuts against a popular "New Journalism" theory from the late '60s and the '70s arguing that balance, fairness and professional standards linked to the word "objectivity" are false newsroom gods and that journalists should call the truth the truth and move on. Some may remember a minor dust-up a few years ago when a powerful news consumer seemed to affirm this "false balance" thesis in a New York Times story:

As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. ...
Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

This brings us, believe it or not, to our own Bobby Ross Jr. and his much-discussed (and trolled) post on the state of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's soul.

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Lo! A Washington Post scribe gets the religious-liberty angle in the Supreme Court story

Lo! A Washington Post scribe gets the religious-liberty angle in the Supreme Court story

Well this is awkward.

Going into the coverage of the great U.S. Supreme Court debate on same-sex marriage, I knew that most of the coverage would -- for valid reasons -- focus on the strictly legal, political and social elements of this major story.

I knew everyone would -- for valid reasons -- focus on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the leader of our nation when push comes to shove. Duh. I knew that religion would play little or no role in most of the mainstream coverage, since concerns about "religious liberty" (with scare quotes) and related First Amendment concerns are now "conservative news."

So I went into this with a simple task in mind. I wanted to know if anyone in the mainstream media recognized the ultimate church-state end game, which, if sexual orientation equals race, would include calls on the cultural left for doctrinally conservative religious institutions (especially schools, social-service agencies and parachurch ministries) to be stripped of their tax exemptions. The key: Search for "Bob Jones University" in the coverage.

As expected, the religious-liberty angle was covered in many alternative, "conservative" news reports (such as this, this and this). As expected, elite newsrooms didn't explore that angle in their main stories, since old-school First Amendment liberalism has suddenly become a "conservative" thing.

But lo and behold, one story in The Washington Post focused in, tight, on this angle that is of great interest to millions of Americans in doctrinally conservative churches, synagogues, mosques and their related ministries. So what's the problem here at GetReligion?

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Looking for pastors on Baltimore front lines and, back at church, on their knees

Looking for pastors on Baltimore front lines and, back at church, on their knees

As you would imagine, I am receiving quite a few emails from friends and readers who are asking variations on this question: What is going on in Baltimore?

A few personal comments: First of all, I have very little experience covering politics and the police beat, the two subjects that, for better and for worse, are currently at the heart of the coverage of this story. Second, I live on the Baltimore beltway south of downtown (in a blue-collar, interracial suburb with roots back to Colonial times) and I am not an expert on urban life in this complex city. I do know that -- as some journalists are noting -- there is a special poignancy to seeing smoke and flames rising from neighborhoods that still haven't recovered from the 1968 riots after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like many locals, I spent hours yesterday watching the news and trying to keep up with the social-media hooks in this story. As of this morning, talk radio is full -- as it was yesterday -- of reports of another wave of "purge" notices calling for more violence this afternoon. True?

Of course, I have been watching and listening as a religion-beat specialist and there has been much to note. Another question people keep asking me is why embattled Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn't call for a curfew LAST night. Well, the locals can tell you that Baltimore is a city that doesn't have massive resources and they were stretched to the total limit last night. There weren't enough police and firefighters to go around, on a night with about 140 car fires and major action in neighborhoods in the west and east. Could a curfew have been enforced?

So who was there to respond, until the National Guard and back-up firefighters rolled in from outside of town? If you watched CNN, Fox and other networks last night, you know the answer to that -- clergy and activists from black churches, that's who.

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Baltimore Sun, before the fire began falling, talks to (a few) black pastors about Freddie Gray

Baltimore Sun, before the fire began falling, talks to (a few) black pastors about Freddie Gray

It's time to give a salute to The Baltimore Sun for trying to do a timely, highly relevant religion-beat story in the midst the civic meltdown ignited by the still mysterious death of Freddie Gray. If you have a television, a computer or a smartphone (or all of the above) you know that the situation here in Charm City is only getting more complex by the hour.

This past weekend's story -- "What's the role of the church in troubled times? Pastors disagree" -- reminded me of some of the work I did in a seminary classroom in Denver while watching the coverage of the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots. Facing a classroom that was half Anglo and half African-American, I challenged the white students to find out what black, primarily urban pastors were preaching about the riots and I asked the black students to do the same with white, primarily suburban, pastors.

The results? White pastors (with only one exception) ignored the riots in the pulpit. Black pastors all preached about the riots and, here's the key part, their takes on the spiritual lessons to be drawn from that cable-TV madness were diverse and often unpredictable. The major theme: The riots showed the sins of all people in all corners of a broken society. Repent! There is enough sin here to convict us all. Repent!

So when I saw the Sun headline, I hoped that this kind of complex content would emerge in the reporting. The African-American church is a complex institution and almost impossible to label, especially in terms of politics. There are plenty of economically progressive and morally conservative black churches. There are all progressive, all the time black churches that are solidly in the religious left. There are nondenominational black megachurches that may as well be part of the religious right. You get the picture.

So who ended up in the Sun, talking about the sobering lessons to be learned in the Freddie Gray case, in a story published just before the protests turned violent?

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Sign that marriage license? Ancient sacraments vs. battles over civil contracts

Sign that marriage license? Ancient sacraments vs. battles over civil contracts

This week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen in) grew out of my latest "On Religion" column, rather than a GetReligion post, so here is a bit of background on the subject -- which is the growing debate about whether clergy in traditional faiths should continue to sign marriage licenses from the state.

If you want to know more, a good place to start is with "The Marriage Pledge," a document posted by the conservative, interfaith journal First Things. The key statement therein: "Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage."

At that point, move over and scan some of the short essays included in the journal's forum called "The Church and Civil Marriage," in which eight scholars and popular writers -- Evangelical, Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic -- debate the merits of religious congregations cutting the ties that bind their marriage rites to the current legal debates about marriage and sex.

As you do so, I hope you notice something interesting, which is that some people who are normally stuck under the simplistic "conservative" umbrella do not agree with one another on this issue. I will go further and say that there are progressive reasons, as well as conservative reasons, to separate civil unions and holy matrimony. This is -- no matter that the newspapers say -- not an issue that is simply left vs. right.

To demonstrate, let's play a game. The following quotations are from two Southern Baptist leaders. One is a progressive position and the other conservative. Which is which?

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Stephen Curry can do all things? Public-service note for scribes covering NBA playoffs

Stephen Curry can do all things? Public-service note for scribes covering NBA playoffs

Hey, old people who read GetReligion and know rock 'n' roll history (Hello Ira): Do you remember the days when people would write "Eric Clapton is God" on walls in London?

I think we are just about to hit that point with the so-hot-he-might-hurt-your-eyes hoops comet named Stephen Curry. Yes, I saw "The Move" against the Clippers (video above). Yes, I have seen the social media tsunami linked to "The Shot" last night to send that playoff game against New Orleans into overtime.

The press coverage of young master Curry is ramping up and, at some point, the mainstream news scribes are going to have to talk about his Christian faith. If you know the history of Curry and his NBA elite family, you know that this will at some point lead to his shoes and things written on his shoes. Think of it as the sequel to the black paint First Amendment Zones underneath Tim Tebow's eyes.

As a public-service announcement for journalists, I would like to flash back to some earlier GetReligion commentary about the press commentary about the biblical commentary on Curry's shoes -- starting when he was in college at Davidson. Does anyone remember this? A reporter wrote:

On the red trim at the bottom of his shoes, Stephen Curry has written in black marker, “I can do all things.”
Yes, yes he can. And because of him, Davidson is marching on.

Ah, but should that have been "Him" instead of "him"?

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Whoa! Is 'brunch' an urban sacrament for child-free hipsters, 'nones' and Jews?

Whoa! Is 'brunch' an urban sacrament for child-free hipsters, 'nones' and Jews?

So a reader sent me this URL the other day that took me to a typically hip Washington Post feature about the lives of the shiny elect in this newspaper's prime demographic -- the young, mostly white, single people in the power elites that run the nation's capital.

The note said this was prime GetReligion territory. The headline: "How brunch became the most delicious -- and divisive -- meal in America."

Say what? I read a few paragraphs into this long feature and then set it aside. I just didn't "get" it, I guess.

But the second time through it I started seeing the key points in the piece. The bottom line: Brunch is, in a mild sort of way, a culture wars thing. It's a near-religious rite on Sunday mornings that stresses where you are and what you are doing, as well as where you are NOT and what you are NOT doing.

Brunch is a secular sacrament? Read carefully:

... Interest isn't universal. A review of Google search data ... shows how heavily talk about brunch is concentrated around the coasts -- and how barren the Midwest brunch scene is. Any Midwesterner who tells you otherwise is likely an outlier, an urban transplant.
"Cultural trends tend to go from the coasts to the center," said Farha Ternikar, the author of Brunch: A History. "The Midwest is slower on food trends with the exception of Chicago."

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Churches into condos: Great story, but where did the people in the pews go?

Churches into condos: Great story, but where did the people in the pews go?

Location, location, location.

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a news trend -- stories about urban churches being closed and going up for sale? Try to imagine the property values involved in that wave of change that's hitting the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. How many angels live in the air-rights space over some of those prime addresses?

These stories tend to focus either (a) on church politics involving which churches will close and which will stay open or (b) the business deals involved in redevelopment. Both are logical angles for news, yet I have often wondered why journalists are not all that interested in the often painful, poignant and significant stories linked to WHY the churches are closing.

Not all urban churches struggle and die. What are the forces that are at play in these structures, which often have played historic roles in their communities. GetReligion readers will know that, in particular, I am intrigued with the interesting mix of doctrine and demographics that affect many fading Catholic parishes. Demographics is destiny? Ditto for doctrine. You see this in the death of many oldline Protestant churches, as well.

So where are the faithful going? What happened to the families and children in many of these flocks? Among Catholics, what happened to the priests and nuns? Are the families leaving? Shrinking? Non-existent? All of the above?

Look at this new Boston Globe story (a very interesting one, methinks) about some historic churches that are going condo.

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And now for something completely different: Let's pause to praise Rolling Stone on ISIS

And now for something completely different: Let's pause to praise Rolling Stone on ISIS

If you have followed the journalism wars over the Rolling Stone anti-story on the University of Virginia and the mystery rape, you know that this openly liberal advocacy publication has taken a few gazillion valid shots in recent weeks.

However, I'd like to point GetReligion readers toward a very different long read in RS -- "The Children of ISIS" -- that focuses on those three Chicago-area teens who tried to flee the United States to join forces with the Islamic State (lots of mainstream coverage in this file), but were caught at the airport. We are talking about Mohammed Hamzah Khan and his younger brother and sister.

Now, this Rolling Stone piece does have its quirks when it comes to hint, hint, hinting that much of the blame for this sad story can be pinned on the parents who, well, were maybe a bit too faithful to their faith and protective of their children, in the same way that you can imagine this magazine going after homeschooling parents in other cultures. We'll come back to that.

But praise for the story? Yes. It has lots of on-the-record voices and info and, to my shock, it probably takes the details of Islamic faith more seriously than similar mainstream-news stories I have seen -- including a solid thesis that notes that it's hard, in postmodern America, for the young to practice traditional forms of faith, period. Here's where things start:

On the day he planned to make his sacred journey, or hijra, to the Islamic State, 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan woke up before dawn at his house in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Illinois, and walked to the nearby mosque to pray. It was Saturday, October 4th, 2014, an unusually cold morning, though Hamzah, a slender young man with a trimmed black beard, was dressed for warmer weather in jeans, boots and a gray sweatshirt. By sunset, he'd be gone for good: leaving his parents, his friends, his country and all he knew for an unknown future in the "blessed land of Shaam," as he called Syria. He would be taking his teenage brother and sister with him. Allahu Akbar, he prayed with the men in his family, and tried to banish his doubts: "God is great." ...
"An Islamic State has been established, and it is thus obligatory upon every able-bodied male and female to migrate," Hamzah had written in a letter he left for his parents, explaining why he was leaving the comforts of suburbia for the khilafah, or caliphate. "I cannot live under a law in which I am afraid to speak my beliefs."

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