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Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

It's a problem that your GetReligionistas face all the time: Many readers do not understand that columnists and opinion writers play by different rules than journalists who write hard news for traditional news organizations.

Yes, it doesn't help -- see this file on what we call "Kellerism" -- that many important mainstream journalists who should know better are blurring the lines between what many textbooks would call the "American model" of the press and the older "European model" which embraces advocacy journalism. This happens a lot when journalists cover debates about doctrine, sex and law.

As a rule, GetReligion focuses on mainstream, hard-news coverage of religion. However, from time to time we pass along "think pieces" that focus on subjects directly linked to religion-news coverage or topics that we think would interest our readers. Several readers sent us a link to a recent First Things piece that takes a critical look at a recent Huffington Post piece -- about same-sex marriage, of course -- that, according to a man interviewed for the HP piece, veered into creative fiction.

This raises a crucial question: What is the HP these days? It often contains serious news reported using a straight forward , hard-news approach, but it is also packed with opinion essays and advocacy pieces that reflect its liberal editorial point of view. So, can you criticize a liberal columnist for writing a liberal column? In this case, the First Things writer is alleging far more than mere bias.

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Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

In recent days, I have had quite a few emails asking what the GetReligionistas think of the fall of Josh Duggar of the Family Research Council and then the whole "19 Kids and Counting" TLC reality-television empire.

As always, people seemed to be asking what we thought of the story itself, as opposed to our reactions to the mainstream news media coverage of the story. That's two different issues.

As always, most of the coverage has looked at the story through a political lens, asking how this scandal among hypocrites on the Religious Right would impact public debates about same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage and same-sex marriage.

That's an interesting angle, since I never got the impression -- as someone who has never seen a complete episode of the show -- that the Duggars were the kinds of folks who were very effective as apologists, when it came time to changing many minds on the cultural left. They seemed, to me, to be the ultimate preaching-to-the-choir niche media product. For those who are interested, here is the family's public statement on the controversy.

It's safe to assume that folks on the cultural left pretty much hated these folks, with good cause. The more subtle point is that the Duggars were also very controversial among evangelicals, including among folks who are often accurately described as very traditional, or even patriarchal, on family issues. This television empire made all kinds of folks nervous, with good cause.

Here is the key, if you want to dig into the serious coverage. How early does the name "Bill Gothard" appear and to what degree does the coverage make it sound like Gothard and his disciples represent mainstream evangelicalism or even orthodox (let alone Orthodox or Catholic) Christianity?

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Crux leaves out crucial details in story on gay activists, Catholic education

Crux leaves out crucial details in story on gay activists, Catholic education

Crux is the Boston Globe site that covers “all things Catholic” with a staff of six. They got everyone’s attention in 2014 when they snared famed Vatican scribe (formerly with the National Catholic Reporter) John L. Allen, Jr., to be their omnipresent front-line reporter, as well as a columnist and blogger.

Many of us who watch this beat were grateful that a large newspaper put time and money into covering a flock that is so dominant in their circulation area. And Boston is a very Catholic place, in many ways the heart of progressive Catholic life in this land.

Anyway, the Crux team just ran a piece about a council of war by five organizations that are concerned that crackdowns by bishops - specifically in San Francisco -- on who may or may not teach in Catholic schools will result in employees being fired.

CHICAGO -- A group of Catholic activists gathered in Chicago over the weekend for a brainstorming session aimed at stopping the firings of gay employees, Crux has learned.
The “Church Worker Justice Strategy Session” was held at the Catholic Theological Union Friday through Sunday.
Representatives from several organizations — Catholics for Choice, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, New Ways Ministry, Dignity USA, and Call to Action — attended the meeting, along with workers from Catholic parishes, dioceses, and schools. About 30 people participated.
Participants discussed “discrimination, at-will employment, morality clauses, and how we might build some power to push for just employment practices in the workplace,” said Ellen Euclide, program director at Call to Action.

First, I think it’d be only fair to mention near the top of this piece that most if not the groups mentioned are not exactly considered Catholic by the leaders of the Catholic church itself. That factoid gives the story a lot less weight -- since the Catholic church remains, to say the least, a hierarchical church.

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Hold on: Wasn't there more to that 'Reagan Democrats' thing than money?

Hold on: Wasn't there more to that 'Reagan Democrats' thing than money?

If you are into politics in the Culture War era, then you may be familiar with the Thomas Frank bestseller called "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America."

It's kind of dangerous to summarize a book in a few words, but here is what I took away from it: For the past decade or two, elite Republicans have been able to use social and moral issues to confuse middle class and working class Americans, convincing them that the GOP understands their "values." Once you understand this nasty trick, you know why ordinary Americans have been going to the polls and voting against their own economic interests. Or something like that.

Really old news consumers will remember that, once upon a time, these voters in middle America were called "Reagan Democrats," which was another way of saying blue-collar and Catholic Democrats who were turned off by some post-1960s elements of Democratic Party life. The crucial point for this post: Social issues and religion played a major role in this political drama.

This brings me to a very interesting, but very strange, political story that ran in The New York Times the other day under this headline: "G.O.P. Hopefuls Now Aiming to Woo the Middle Class." Here is the top of the story. See if you can spot The Big Idea:

WASHINGTON -- The last three men to win the Republican nomination have been the prosperous son of a president (George W. Bush), a senator who could not recall how many homes his family owned (John McCain of Arizona; it was seven) and a private equity executive worth an estimated $200 million (Mitt Romney).

The candidates hoping to be the party’s nominee in 2016 are trying to create a very different set of associations.

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New York Times looks into Eureka Springs, the gay-friendliest Arkansas town

New York Times looks into Eureka Springs, the gay-friendliest Arkansas town

Before I get to that New York Times piece on gay tourism in the Ozarks, let me share a bit of first-person experience in that fascinating region.

About 18 months ago, my daughter and I visited Eureka Springs in northwest Arkansas. I felt like I’d been transported back into the 1960s as there were all manner of funky stores selling books, jewelry and other paraphernalia straight out of the hippie era. One walks down narrow winding streets past fountains and springs (it was quite the place to take the waters back in the 1880s) to stay at a historic hotel that has old-fashioned door keys the size of your wallet.

We didn’t have enough time to see the town’s famed Great Passion Play, overseen by a gigantic statue of Christ, but the chatter I heard at our B&B was that its future was in some danger. This is not an international phenomenon like the decennial Passion Play in Oberammergau, so the audience is limited for such spectacles. Churches and Christian youth groups used to getting entertainment off Netflix aren’t exactly racing to go to an outdoor theater to see a story they already know.

But the town itself was such a delight with stone Victorian houses out of "Arsenic and Old Lace," museums and tons of cool hikes through the canyon the city is located in. Plus, there's the beautiful Thorncrown Chapel just west of the city. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see that the Springs was trying other avenues to get people to visit. The Los Angeles Times just reported that one market was gay travelers. In this sort-of Bible Belt territory, not everyone is happy about that.

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Kellerism on right? Dialogue with atheist reader about coverage of military chaplains

Kellerism on right? Dialogue with atheist reader about coverage of military chaplains

Your GetReligionistas get quite a few emails from readers that you never hear about "out front" here on the blog. Many are from professionals on the Godbeat and others come from journalists on copy desks and on other beats. All are read carefully and appreciated.

We also have critics, of course, and we pay close attention to them, too, especially the constructive folks who are actually talking about journalism issues, rather than their own pet political or cultural issues. One long-time reader I have always appreciated is atheist Ray Ingles, who makes regular appearances in our comments pages.

The other day he sent me a Washington Times URL for a story on another military-chaplain dispute, with the simple question in the email subject line: "Do you think this was balanced?" The story opened like this:

Soon there may only be atheists in the foxholes.
Christians are leaving the U.S. military or are discouraged from joining in the first place because of a “hostile work environment” that doesn’t let them express their beliefs openly, religious freedom advocates say.

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News about 'conversion' therapies for gays? As usual, one side gets to offer its views

News about 'conversion' therapies for gays? As usual, one side gets to offer its views

Several readers have written to ask me what I thought of the recent news stories linked to President Barack Obama's endorsement of government bans on so-called "conversion" therapies for various sexual orientation and behavior issues.

I guess I didn't write about these reports because I assumed, accurately, that the mainstream coverage would be rooted in the new journalism doctrines of "Kellerism," with few if any attempts to explore the views of advocates for secular and religious counselors who support the rights of people to seek out this kind of help.

You may have noticed that, even in these first few lines, I have described these counselors and their work in ways that many readers will consider sympathetic, because I included distinctions that represent the views of some of the people on that side of the issue. In other words, these are subtleties that rarely show up in the news, because mainstream stories rarely explore the views of people on both sides of this fight.

Consider, for example, the lede on the main Washington Post report:

The Obama administration late Wednesday called for a ban on so-called “conversion” therapies that promise to cure gay and transgender people.

What? They forgot to use the phrase "pray away the gay." The key words in that lede are "promise" and "cure." Hang on to that thought.

When it came time to represent the views of these counselors, the Post team used the increasingly familiar tactic of representing the "other side" with a quote from a print source. While story -- as it should -- featured interviews with many experts and activists that backed Obama's action, the "other side" was granted this:

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Jousting with The New York Times: Yes, journalism deserves to be taken seriously

Jousting with The New York Times: Yes, journalism deserves to be taken seriously

This week's "Crossroads" podcast was supposed to be about the Indiana wars, but that's not how things turned out. The more host Todd Wilken and I talked (click here to tune in), the deeper we dug into a related topic -- the power of elite media to frame national debates.

Wilken found it interesting that, in an age in which traditional print circulation numbers are in sharp decline, that these publications continue to wield great power. What's up with that?

Here's what I told him, as a door into listening to the whole discussion. Remember that movie -- "Shattered Glass" -- about the ethics crisis at The New Republic, long before the digital wars felled that Beltway oracle? The reason the magazine was so important, a character remarked during the film, was its reputation (especially in Democratic administrations) as the "in-flight magazine of Air Force One."

In other words, the old TNR had very few readers, relatively speaking, but about half of them worked in the White House and in the office of people who had the White House inside numbers on speed dials.

And what about The New York Times, the great matron of the Northeast establishment? Yes, the on-paper numbers are down and there are financial issues. But does anyone believe that -- to name one crucial audience -- the percentage of U.S. Supreme Court clerks who subscribe to the Times has gone down? How about in the faculty lounges of law schools that produce justices on the high court?

In other words, it isn't how many people read these publications, but WHERE people read these publications. We are talking about what C.S. Lewis called the Inner Ring.

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An Easter gift: The perfect, easy solution to America’s gay marriage conflict

An Easter gift: The perfect, easy solution to America’s gay marriage conflict

While TV offered reverential bathrobe-and-sandals programs on Easter Sunday, the principalities and powers at The New York Times were helpfully offering America the perfect solution to its troublesome gay marriage conflict. Since religious conservatism underlies much of the resistance, the conservatives should simply become religious liberals. It's that easy.

That proposal from columnist Frank Bruni was reminiscent of the infamous 2009 Newsweek magazine cover article on “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage,” which never explained whether there were any reasons why some believers might dissent. With only one side to the question taking part in the debate, however, the problem magically vanishes.

In the Religion Guy’s dim past at Northwestern University, legendary journalism Prof. Curtis MacDougall  taught us that editorial,  op-ed and column writing is like formal debate. You need to study and acknowledge the strengths of the opposite side in order to effectively answer them and offer your competing viewpoint. That strategy is in decline in venues like cable news and the Times editorial pages. The business of journalism becomes not information and persuasion but group reinforcement of prior opinions.

Bruni’s reaction to religious freedom claims is important to consider because he was the newspaper’s first openly partnered gay columnist. Moreover, he’s a figure with some Godbeat credentials as the former Times Rome bureau chief and author of a 1993 book on the Catholic molestation scandals.

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