Presbyterians, 9/11 and the digital-news era

Sept11WTCSouthTowerUA175Once upon a time, news stories used to break at the local level and then, gradually, work their way up the news food chain through the wire services until they reached, or failed to reach, the national newspapers and networks. Like I said -- once upon a time.

Today, it seems that more and more stories are starting in cyberspace -- in niche media, but at the national level -- and then, from time to time, they work their way back down the food chain to the local level. This is where editors in one-newspaper towns choose to cover, or not to cover, major local stories that they should have had the news savvy to break in the first place.

Want to see a perfect example of this process?

Start by clicking here to go to Christianity Today's web coverage of the controversial decision by the Presbyterian Publishing Corp. -- which is based in Louisville, in the great state of Kentucky -- to publish the book Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action.

Note the 7/31 date on the original story posted by reporter Jason Bailey. Here is the lead:

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government, according to a book to be released later this month by Westminster John Knox Press -- a division of the denominational publisher for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action is the third book on the subject by David Ray Griffin, a professor emeritus of theology at Claremont School of Theology who is also a well-published and prominent process theologian.

As Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher noted over at Beliefnet, this is a really interesting step by leaders in a denomination that has already had a rough couple of months in public relations. Remember that "Mother, Child and Womb" story about the Trinity or the local-option decision on the ordination of sexually active gays, lesbians and bisexuals?

So, in terms of making headlines, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was hot. This does not even take into account flare-ups about the denomination's statements on Israel. So you would think that this story about a troubled mainline denomination handing a big pulpit to a 9/11 iconoclast would jump straight into the headlines or, at the very least, the local newspaper. This is a story, clearly, that is going to resonate in the pews.

Think again.

The staff at Religion News Service saw the Christianity Today story and, a few days later, the wire service shipped its own report by Daniel Burke, with a nod to CT. This story ran at Beliefnet under the headline "Sept. 11 Conspiracy Book From Presbyterian Press Raises Eyebrows." The report noted -- no surprise here -- that conservatives in the denomination were not amused. Take, for example, the Rev. Toby Brown in Cuero, Texas.

"Why, out of all the things they could be publishing, would the church choose this?" Brown asked in an interview. "What business does the church have getting involved in theories about 9/11?"

Brown predicted "this is going to be a big deal" and said many Presbyterians gathered at blogs and chatrooms are planning a boycott of the publisher. "It makes it look like our church might be endorsing the book's ideas, or at least close to that kind of notion, and that would be false," he said.

Now this brings us, more than two weeks later, to a report (on Aug. 14) in the Louisville Courier-Journal about the uproar over the book. Here is my question, just as a reporter: Isn't the story about the uproar supposed to be the local newspaper's follow-up story? I mean, the local newspaper is supposed to break this kind of story. It's a hot story about a national church -- based in your city -- and it is linked to the biggest, most emotional story in decades in the United States of America (that would be 9/11). So you write the first story, it makes waves and then the local newspaper gets to write the follow-up story about the reaction.

AAACross1This is journalism 101 stuff. All news is local.

Reporter Peter Smith ends up writing a hard-news report about a story that is already national in scope and several weeks old. He does, however, a fine job of linking this new story into wider PCUSA trends from recent years. Smith makes it clear that this is not a fluke. The story has legs.

The book, "Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11," written by David Ray Griffin, a professor emeritus at Claremont School of Theology in California, accuses the Bush administration of carrying out the attacks as a pretext for expanding America's "demonic" imperial power.

Griffin argues, among other things, that the World Trade Center towers collapsed because of secretly planted explosives -- he quotes eyewitnesses who claim that's what it looked and sounded like -- and not because airliners crashed into the buildings, causing fires.

Writers on conservative Presbyterian Web sites have been responding by saying officials of the Louisville-based denomination are out of touch with members and by calling for a boycott of Presbyterian Publishing Corp. The corporation funds itself from book sales and has editorial independence in deciding what to publish, although its board is elected by the denomination's legislative General Assembly.

But as word of the book spreads, some Presbyterians lament that it comes as the 2.3 million-member denomination struggles with financial troubles, declining membership and a controversial General Assembly vote to open the door to ordaining gays.

So here is the ultimate question: Where was the Courier-Journal when the story broke?

Why did it take digital waves from online publications, a wire-service report and a few thousand items in the blogosphere to get this story into the Monday edition (the day when you use weekend stories that editors sort of overlooked) of the newspaper in the city in which the story began in the first place?

Just asking. Any guesses?

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