Terry Mattingly

From old Kellerism to new BuzzFeed: The accuracy and fairness debate rolls on

From old Kellerism to new BuzzFeed: The accuracy and fairness debate rolls on

I have been using the term "Kellerism" even more than normal, as of late, usually with a URL attached pointing toward a collection of GetReligion discussions of this reference to former New York Times editor Bill Keller.

Perhaps we need to pause and revisit this topic for a moment, in light of discussions of the state of American journalism in the wake of the 5-4 Obergefell decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. In particular, we will be hearing from GetReligion emeritus M.Z. Hemingway. Our own Bobby Ross, Jr., just took a look at a Poynter.org essay on this topic.

But back to Kellerism. One of the links in that URL collection links to the first of two essays marking GetReligion's 10th anniversary. Those seeking more materials on this topic should also read my original "On Religion" column -- "God and The New York Times, once again" -- focusing on some 2011 remarks by Keller (see the video at the top of this post). At the top of that column I note:

When it comes to the daily news, the recently retired editor of The New York Times has decided there is news and then there is news about religion and social issues.
When covering debates on politics, it's crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it's only natural for scribes in the world's most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.
"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "We're an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don't give equal time to Creationism."
Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: "You may not be in the right state for that."
Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."

And there is the key point, centering on the words "Aside from."

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Why do Mississippians oppose same-sex marriage? Los Angeles Times editors know, for sure

Why do Mississippians oppose same-sex marriage? Los Angeles Times editors know, for sure

On one level, the new Lost Angeles Times news story about the status of same-sex marriage in Mississippi is quite interesting, in light of the current Kellerism state of affairs in American journalism in the wake of the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The story does offer quite a bit of space for leaders of the American Family Association, which is based in the state, to voice their viewpoints on the case. Then again, the Times team seems to assume that the AFA is the perfect, if not the only, example of an organization in that state to oppose the decision.

What are preachers in black churches in the state saying? What about the local Catholic hierarchy? How about the Assemblies of God? Does any other religious group -- black, white, Latino, etc. -- back the decision by Mississippi's attorney general, Jim Hood, to reject the high court's ruling?

However, it appears that the AFA was the perfect conservative voice to balance the following remarkable passage -- which was offered as unchallenged, unattributed, factual content in a hard-news report, as opposed to being in an editorial column or an analysis essay.

So, what is this?

To understand Mississippi's resistance to gay marriage, it helps to look at its legacy as a deeply religious and conservative state. This is where three civil rights workers were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s; where James Meredith became the first black student to enroll in Ole Miss, but only after a violent confrontation; and where the Confederate symbol is still part of the official state flag.
It is where 59% of residents described themselves as “very religious” in a 2014 Gallup Poll, higher than any other state, and where 86% of voters in 2004 approved a ban on same-sex marriage.

That was really subtle.

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Post-Supremes debate begins: Freedom to 'teach' faith or 'free exercise' of religious beliefs?

Post-Supremes debate begins: Freedom to 'teach' faith or 'free exercise' of religious beliefs?

Once again, I was on the road when all heckfire broke out on the religion-news beat, leaving other GetReligionistas to dive into the breach after the U.S. Supreme Court's long-predicted 5-4 decision -- complete with majority opinion sermon from Justice Anthony Kennedy -- approving same-sex marriage from coast to coast.

Much of the coverage was a celebratory as one could have expected in this post-Kellerism age, especially in the broadcast news coverage.

Click here for an online summary of that from the conservative Media Research Center which, to its credit, offered readers transcripts of some of the broadcast items so they could read the scripts for themselves and look for signs of journalistic virtues such as fairness and balance. A sign of things to come? Among the major networks, the most balanced presentations on this story were at NBC. Will that draw protests to NBC leaders?

At the time of the ruling, I was attending a meeting that included some lawyers linked to Christian higher education, one of the crucial battleground areas in American life in the wake of this ruling. There, and online, it quickly became apparent that the key to the decision -- in terms of religious liberty -- is whether one accepts Kennedy's general, not-very-specific acceptance of First Amendment freedoms linked to religion or whether, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, one noted that Kennedy left unsaid.

Journalists must note this, if they want to prepare for the next round of battles in -- as described in previous coverage of the HHS mandate wars -- the tense church-state territory located between the secular market place and actual religious sanctuaries. That middle ground? Voluntary associations that are defined by stated doctrines, while interacting with public life to one degree or another. Think colleges, schools, hospitals, day-care centers, parachurch ministries, adoption agencies that have, for students and staffs, doctrinal covenants that define their common lives and teachings.

Think Little Sisters of the Poor. Think Gordon College.

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New York Times probes the Rev. Pinckney's 'higher calling,' with no sign of Jesus

New York Times probes the Rev. Pinckney's 'higher calling,' with no sign of Jesus

What was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney's ultimate goal in life? What drove him to do what he did?

One thing is clear, early on, in the recent New York Times news feature on the slain pastor of the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church in the heart of Charleston, S.C. From the beginning, Pinckney was ambitious -- but saw his future through the lens of the church.

This figures into the simple, but touching, anecdote that opens the story. However, the story quickly takes this image and hides it behind a bigger vision -- Pinckney's work in politics showed that he was headed to "higher things."

Really now? Did the man himself see his calling in that way? Did he automatically assume that politics was a higher calling than the ordained ministry? Hold that thought. Here is how the story opens:

RIDGELAND, S.C. -- The morning worship had ended at St. John A.M.E. Church, and as Clementa Pinckney walked through the simple country sanctuary with its 10 rows of pews, he was startled to hear a disembodied voice. It was soft, almost whispery, and yet clearly audible. “Preach,” it said. “I have called you to preach the Gospel.”
He was only 13. But, in a story he often repeated, he discerned it to be the voice of God, and within months he stood before an audience of hundreds of African Methodist Episcopal pastors to present himself as a candidate for ministerial training. The bishop, the most powerful official in the state, asked what he hoped to become. The boy did not hesitate. “A humble bishop of the A.M.E. church,” he answered, with no hint of a smile.

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Welcoming sinners? Welcoming doctrinal change? Return of the pope as Machiavelli theory

Welcoming sinners? Welcoming doctrinal change? Return of the pope as Machiavelli theory

So the powers that be at the Vatican have released a crucial document -- a “instrumentum laboris” -- setting the table for this fall's much-anticipated gathering to hash out issues related to marriage and family life. The ever quotable blogger Rocco Palmo has called it the "fight card" for Rome's "Main Event of 2015."

So there.

As you would expect, that Palmo quote -- with many others from Vatican insiders and officials -- made it into the Religion News Service news feature about the document. Quite frankly, this piece does a decent job of quoting Catholics who yearn for doctrinal change, while also stressing that the document keeps repeating and affirming major chunks of the church's moral traditions that have stood for 2,000 or so.

It's not bad. It's not an editorial-page piece hidden under a news headline.

However, right at the top, the piece gently frames the whole debate -- as usual -- in a way that seems to pit Pope Francis against the basic doctrines of his church. Here's the top of this news feature. See if you can spot the key word that frames the piece (oh, right, while ignoring the art with this post).

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Vatican officials on Tuesday (June 23) released a document on family values -- a precursor to a major meeting in October -- that underscores the ongoing tension between Pope Francis’ desire for a more “welcoming” church and the need to hew to long-standing tradition and doctrine.

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Rare mid-week think piece: That communitarian Pope Francis encyclical said what?

Rare mid-week think piece: That communitarian Pope Francis encyclical said what?

I realize that it's rare for your GetReligionistas to serve up one of our "think pieces" in the middle of the week, but, frankly, I am still digging out from the move to East Tennessee and missed this handy little essay this past weekend. So here we go.

Has anyone else been amazed that so much of the coverage of the papal encyclical Laudato Si (full English text here) has (a) tried to turn it into a truly radical political document and (b) seemed to suggest, as usual, that Pope Francis is the first occupant of the Throne of St. Peter to wade into these troubled waters.

I mean, this document has all kinds of things in it, including -- for liberals, surely -- some highly troubling language in which the pope's communitarian and Catholic moral vision is applied to, let's say, abortion:

120. Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?

Or how about that passage that many are interpreting as a statement addressing life choices facing those who see themselves as transsexuals?

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Just keep swimming, just keep swimming? When reporters fear talking about prayer

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming? When reporters fear talking about prayer

Faithful readers of GetReligion may recall the interview I did years ago with the late Peter Jennings of ABC News in which we talked about the failure of many major news organizations to, yes, "get religion." For a few years, Jennings attempted to get his elite newsroom to take religion news more seriously, with mixed results.

This interview came up the other day when I received a call from columnist Jay Evensen of The Deseret News, who was acting on a research tip from former GetReligionista Mark Kellner.

Evensen was doing a follow-up column on an amazing story about the survival of two girls after a boating accident on Bear Lake in Utah. This drew the attention of Good Morning America over at ABC News. Yes, this was a classic case of "How did you survive this ordeal" syndrome. Here is a slice of the online ABC news text.

Hang on, because we will get to the "Finding Nemo" angle in a moment.

Tiffany Stoker and Tylinn Tilley credit their friendship with helping to keep them alive. ...
The Utah girls, both 13, survived a deadly boating accident that claimed four lives after they swam for hours, singing songs and shouting prayers as they fought exhaustion in the 53-degree waters of Bear Lake.
The teens were on a ski boat with family friends Lance Capener, his wife Kathy, their two daughters and another friend from school. The weather took a turn for the worse, bringing 76-mph winds and 10-foot waves.
The boat capsized, throwing all seven people into the water. All on board were wearing life jackets, but the waves separated Tiffany and Tylinn from the group. The two tried to swim the 6 miles to shore, treading water for hours. They chanted songs and said prayers, even massaging each others' cramps.

The key to Evensen's column, and the sense of outrage felt by the families of these girls, is what appears to a fictional addition to the actual video report featured on Good Morning America (see the video at the top of the post).

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Sunday at 'Mother Emanuel': What happened to the 'J-word' in many news reports?

Sunday at 'Mother Emanuel': What happened to the 'J-word' in many news reports?

Talk to African-American pastors for any time at all -- as a journalist -- and you will almost certainly hear a common theme emerge.

Many of these preachers and civic leaders are tired of having their work and ministry reduced to political language. In particular, they are fascinated that reporters seem so afraid of specific words that are repeated over and over in worship in their churches, words such as "Jesus," "Lord," "Redeemer" and "Savior."

So if you want to understand where these preachers are coming from, watch the sermon at the top of this post -- start about 9 minutes in -- and then dig into some of the national news coverage. In particular, look for the phrase "in the name of Jesus." Cue up the key passages at 15 minutes and, again, near the end at the 25-minute mark.

So I was worried when I opened up the New York Times report this morning on the first service at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church and read this passage:

In the front pews of Emanuel, Nikki R. Haley, the Indian-American Republican governor of this state, sat among Democrats -- Representative Maxine Waters of California, who is black, and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, who is white -- and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is black and a fellow Republican. In the back of the church, an unlikely pairing sat next to each other -- Rick Santorum, the conservative Catholic and Republican presidential hopeful, and DeRay McKesson, a liberal activist who is black and gay.
The service beneath Emanuel’s vaulted barrel roof opened with an emotional hymn as nearly the entire congregation stood and sang, “You are the source of my strength, you are the strength of my life,” rounded out with a big “Amen” that was followed by a standing ovation.

You see, the name of that Gospel song in the second paragraph -- after the inevitable (and necessary) litany of political names -- is "Total Praise" and the key lyrics, as commonly used in worship, go like this:

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That Billy Graham flashback, again: Campolo, Neff and an open evangelical left

That Billy Graham flashback, again: Campolo, Neff and an open evangelical left

It's an old question, but it keeps coming up here at GetReligion and in many other settings online, in journalism and in academia: What does the word "evangelical" mean?

Is this, as many young people insist (including lots of my students), just another name for white Republicans?

Is this a sociological term, describing a movement of people in a specific subset of conservative Protestantism, one best defined in terms of culture, zip codes and upbringing? 

Is it simply a term that describes a specific marketing niche containing conservative Protestants who consume certain types of media, admire specific religious celebrities and support the same parachurch ministries?

Is this a term with precise doctrinal and historical content, one linked to specific confessions of the faith? If "evangelical" is a term with doctrinal content, who has the ecclesiastical power to define or alter that content?

People were arguing about this issue again, of course, In the wake of the media mini-storm surrounding evangelical activist Tony Campolo's long-awaited open embrace of gay marriage, as a doctrinal statement, as well as political policy. GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that this was the topic of my "On Religion" column this week for the Universal syndicate and also the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune in the Issues Etc. network version of that program.

For many commentators it was much more significant that recently retired Christianity Today editor David Neff moved to the doctrinal left on gay marriage, in comparison to the rather predictable statement by Campolo. In my column I noted:

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