Plea for journalism fundamentals (updated)

PalinImage1Let's just get right to it. This Los Angeles Times piece about the religious views of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is pretty much worthless. Considering that I am a journalist, I'm somewhat sad to report that I believe nothing I read or watch when it comes to coverage of Palin. I have seen way too high an error rate, way too much in the way of unsourced allegations presented as fact, way too much seething anger, even about issues that have nothing to do with religion.

But let's look at this Los Angeles Times piece, one of the many recent examples of this phenomenon. Here's the headline:

Palin treads carefully between fundamentalist beliefs and public policy

Which would be a fine headline. If PALIN WERE A FUNDAMENTALIST. She's not. Here's what the Associated Press Stylebook says about using the word fundamentalist:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

We get it. You hate her. She makes you kuh-razy. But don't stop following basic journalism practices just because you're enraged by a popular conservative female in power.

I wrote before that the headline would be fine if Palin were a fundamentalist. But even if she were (which, again for the slow readers at the LA Times, she is not) the term is not to be used because it has become pejorative. For how long has it been pejorative? Many, many decades. Get with the times. In the 1910s and 1920s, the term referred to a Christian who believed in the "fundamentals" of the faith -- the Virgin Birth of Christ, his sinless life, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection and his second coming in the clouds of glory. But since that time, the term has become an insult. Everyone knows this. And just because you want to insult the governor of Alaska doesn't mean that it's appropriate to do so on the news pages.

Sigh.

So should we even go past the headline? It doesn't exactly get better. The story begins with a claim (from a political opponent who runs a blog called Progressive Alaska) about Palin that isn't backed up by any independent source. Needless to say, there's no context. It's hard to even see how the claim is relevant. The claim is that Palin is, no, no, no, everyone shield their eyes, a particularly unacceptable creationist. I know. Can you believe it? The horror. You know, it's clear that the mainstream media is biased against the views held by a strong plurality of Americans, but telling readers that 48 percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form (compared with the 13 percent who believe in strict evolution and 30 percent who believe in theistic evolution) wouldn't scare people as much, would it.

Reporter Steve Braun then repeats a number of discredited claims about Palin, such as this:

Though in her race for governor she called for faith-based "intelligent design" to be taught along with evolution in Alaska's schools, Gov. Palin has not sought to require it, state educators say.

Actually, she said that if the topic came up, teachers shouldn't be afraid to discuss it. She further clarified her remarks to make sure her views were known. But why bother including that? Incidentally, more than twice as many Americans think that creationism should be taught alongside evolution as Americans who think it should just be evolution. Not, again, that you'd know that from mainstream media coverage. Braun concedes that she has governed in a manner completely different than his lede would imply, neither pushing for special legislative sessions to change abortion laws nor challenging a court ruling permitting health insurance for same-sex partners of state workers.

But . . . but . . . what do you make of this:

Her aides say Palin's caution at the intersection of religion and governance is a studied effort to share her beliefs without forcing them on Alaska.

"She's obviously an intensively religious person," said Bill McAllister, Palin's chief spokesman as governor. "She understands that she's the governor and not preacher in chief. Religion informs her decisions, but she is not out to impose her views on Alaska."

Isn't it funny how the quote from Bill McAllister in no way supports the claim Braun makes in the set-up paragraph? I've noticed a lot of that in Palin stories.

And then here we go again:

[John] Stein said Palin displayed only hints of her fundamentalist Assembly of God upbringing when he first backed her for a nonpartisan run for Wasilla City Council in the early 1990s.

Again, "fundamentalist" doesn't actually mean "church whose religious views stray from the Book of Common Prayer." It doesn't mean "rubes who actually believe the Bible."

Considering that Palin is the most popular governor in America, it's funny how every story I read about her predominantly quotes her political opponents. It's like that 80 percent of Alaskans who favor her are just more or less invisible. To that end, Braun quotes more from Stein, who, again, she defeated.

There's this:

But since taking office in December 2006, Palin has made no moves to impose the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design," the modern version of creationist thought, in Alaska schools.

Yes, the vociferous opponents of intelligent design call it "the modern version of creationist thought." But proponents of intelligent design, such as agnostic David Berlinski, have explained why such a caricature is inaccurate. And should the Los Angeles Times be taking a side on this issue in a news story? No, of course not.

Okay, Braun, did you say "fundamentalist" enough? Did you marginalize Palin enough? Do you have anything else to say?

Although she now worships in traditional fundamentalist churches in Wasilla and Juneau, Palin's formative years in Pentecostal churches have been a target for some bloggers and Democratic opponents.

11885049 Feel better now? The thing I don't get about stories like this is that they aren't really informative. Sure, they tell us what people who don't like Palin think about her. But what about some thoughtful and fair discussions of Palin's religious views? They are certainly newsworthy. Have we ever had a member of a Bible church on a national ticket? Have we ever had someone with a Pentecostal background?

If you're looking for a thoughtful analysis of Palin's religious views and how they affect public policy, you should read Terry Eastland's piece in the most recent The Weekly Standard. Even though Eastland and the Standard are conservative, most of the piece is just descriptive, such as this:

Of these four churches, two--Wasilla Assembly of God and Juneau Christian Center--are members of the Assemblies of God. Founded in 1914, the Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country. Pentecostalism--which takes its name from the day of Pentecost when, according to the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles--is a movement that began in 1901 and is best known for its emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, including speaking in tongues. The other two churches are freestanding congregations. The Church on the Rock is "charismatic," a term usually applied to more recent forms of Pentecostalism, while Wasilla Bible, the Palins' present church, is neither Pentecostal nor charismatic.

Reporters ask whether Palin has ever spoken in tongues. Her spokeswoman has said that Palin doesn't consider herself a Pentecostal. A friend of Palin's told the New York Times that her family left Wasilla Assembly of God for Wasilla Bible in part because the latter's ministry was "less extreme." Exactly what Palin may have found "extreme" at Wasilla Assembly of God is unclear. In any case, Palin retains an evident affection for Wasilla Assembly of God, as does the church for her.

It's so odd that the mainstream media piece on Palin used scare words and unsourced allegations while the ostensibly biased piece just explains basic facts in a straightforward manner and notes when information on a topic isn't known. The piece goes through various religious angles in Palin's political life and looks at what's potentially disconcerting and what's not. After noting the much discussed prayer about Iraq, Eastland writes:

Palin wasn't telling the students that the Iraq war is "God's plan." Instead she was asking them to pray that the war would in fact be a "task from God." Beliefnet's Steve Waldman, defending Palin, wrote that such a prayer is "a totally appropriate desire for a Christian--and for a Christian politician. . . . Where it gets problematic is when [Christian politicians] feel God is directing them to take particular steps or claim divine endorsement for their actions."

Palin may have entered that problematic area when she asked the students to pray for the building of the Alaska natural gas pipeline: "God's will has to be done in unifying people and companies to get that gasline built. So pray for that." Did Palin mean here to say that "unifying people and companies to get that gasline built" was indeed God's will? Or was this simply a case of misspeaking?

Amazingly, Eastland didn't use the word "fundamentalist" once.

Note: Please keep comments limited to media coverage. Not your personal views of people who believe in creation. Not your personal views of creation. Not your personal views of Palin. Discussion media coverage.

Here's a second note, from tmatt:

Let's be clear what MZ is saying. She is talking about the AP Stylebook and what these words actually mean. This has been a major theme here at GetReligion since day one. Click here to see some of that.

The best evidence is that Palin is an "evangelical" in the context of US religious history, not a "fundamentalist" as that movement defined itself. That is why the AP Stylebook says that the F-word should not be used in this kind of context, as an unsupported slur. To say that some one believes the Bible or believes that it is "literally true," whatever that means, is not enough to label that person a "fundamentalist." If the person is a Protestant, it probably is safe to say they are an "evangelical."

Now, historically speaking, you can't be a Pentecostal Christian -- some of whom are not Trinitarian believers -- and a fundamentalist. These movements actually clash on a regular basis. Ask any reporter currently covering some battles within the Southern Baptist Convention.

It is true that many newspapers have, even AP reporters have, misused the F-word in violation of their own stylebook. That's the point of MZ's post.

The stylebook does not address the blurring of definitions between creationism and evolution, but it should. Historically, the word Creationism referred to people who accepted a seven-, 24-hour day version of the biblical creation story.

Now, the word seems to apply to anyone who believes that God played any discernible role in creation -- even through a gradual, change-over-time, common descent method of creation. The key is whether this person rejects the philosophical view that the process was random and without purpose. You would think that this position would be called "theistic evolution," but it is not. The Materialist interpretations of the Darwinian mechanism are what the late Pope John Paul II spoke out against, while noting that there are multiple interpretations of Darwinian theory.

What MZ is calling for is a better use, by journalists, of these important words -- which have historical meanings. Use neutral language. Describe people's actions, without speculating on what they mean. Allow them to label themselves, the way you do other religious believers.

MZ is taking a side on the JOURNALISTIC issue, based on history and journalistic principles. When newspapers -- such as the Los Angeles Times in this case -- violate basic journalistic principles, it begins to feel like an editorial attack on a certain group or class of people.

The bottom line: It's bad, inaccurate, journalism. And, as an agnostic Jewish friend of mine once said, any industry that spends a lot of its time mocking, or at best ignoring, the most cherished beliefs of roughly 30 to 40 percent of its potential audience is not an industry that is serious about its own survival. Is the goal to produce smaller and smaller niche publications after killing mainstream journalism?

Thus, please discuss the journalism issues. Period.

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