Got spin? Winds of change

tornado-1Anyone who knows anything about the work of the conservative journalist and historian Marvin Olasky knows that he loves the old-fashioned advocacy journalism of America in the early 19th Century. In other words, he liked the days -- before the growth of the "American model" of the press that stressed balance, fairness and the goal of objectivity -- when newspapers printed their point of view right on the masthead. A pro-labor newspaper said it was a pro-labor newspaper, a Christian newspaper called itself a Christian newspaper, etc. This approach is often called the "European" model of the press and, in the United States, you see it used most often in journals of news and opinion, such as National Review, The New Republic, The Nation and, in religious circles, World and nonNewsweek.

With that in mind, click here and check out a recent Olasky essay -- headline "Remarkable Providence" -- about that timely tornado that hit Minneapolis during the much-publicized convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You may recall that oceans of ink were spilled about that gathering because of the vote to ordain as clergy gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are living in lifelong, faithful, monogamous same-sex unions.

Olasky notes that:

No severe weather warnings were in place, and no tornado had come into downtown Minneapolis for a long time -- at least 90 years, according to one archivist. Nevertheless, as delegates met, a tornado damaged the roof of the Minneapolis convention center where they were meeting and knocked the cross off the host church next door.

Doing a quick media survey, Olasky notes that there were three journalistic options in writing about the tornado and the vote in the ELCA gathering. Please note that these are journalistic options within, let's say, liberal and conservative approaches to "European" journalism and the more neutral "American" model.

So what are the three options?

Right: It is acceptable to say that God sent the storm to express displeasure with the ELCA gathering and its unorthodox actions.

Center: In order to stay neutral, journalists should have reported what people on the scene said, on their own or in response to questions about the tornado. You then needed to print both sides so readers could make up their own minds.

Left: Since it's clear that God does not act in such a manner (if in fact there is a God who can act in creation), and since it's clear that the ELCA's vote was a good thing, journalists should ignore the tornado -- going so far as to ignore what was said about the storm during the meeting itself.

church_tornado-thumb-250x445So who did what? A local pastor and author named John Piper took the conservative option, noting that this is precisely the kind of connection that believers would have made in the past (and Olasky would note that this viewpoint would have been assumed in some newspapers).

Toward the middle of the spectrum, Olasky said:

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the news and noted one interpretation, with a raised-eyebrow "even": "Some conservatives even saw signs of divine anger when a tornado touched down on the Minneapolis Convention Center just hours before the vote." The Associated Press also reported the incident, but in a more sardonic way: "A few jokes about God's wrath proved inevitable. 'We trust that the weather is not a commentary on our work,' said the Rev. Steven Loy, who was helping oversee the convention."

Another question: Were there no conservative Lutherans at the convention who mentioned the tornado in public remarks or in interviews?

On the left, the Minneapolis Star Tribune said that, "The storm largely escaped the notice of the 2,000 Lutherans involved." Oh really? Olasky noted that Julia Duin of the Washington Times reported that "inside the center, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson read the 121st Psalm -- which talks about God's loving care -- to the nervous assembly."

Meanwhile, the New York Times failed to even mention the tornado in its two stories on the ELCA vote. Did Olasky miss a reference in a later report?

Of course, Olasky is on the opposite side of the advocacy aisle. But even his theological viewpoint is nuanced.

... God controls the winds, so any tornado is a warning to all of us that we do not control even the next hour of our lives. We need to be careful about citing tornado hits or misses as proof of God's specific disfavor or favor: Episcopalian prelates who approve sin should not rest easy because their conclaves have not caved in. In WORLD we avoid stating as fact that which cannot be proven from the Bible or from careful observation, but we do not follow the Times in ignoring remarkable providences.

The issue is not whether one agrees with Olasky's interpretation of the event, since he is openly using a conservative advocacy approach. You are free to disagree with his view.

But I am left with this troubling question: What is the journalistic justification for using a liberal advocacy approach on this story, one that would require omitting the actual discussions of the storm that took place during the event that was being covered?


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