As we've lamented a few times (or a million) here at GetReligion, nobody puts on a staged-for-media hatefest like the spiritual termites of the Westboro Baptist Church. This week, the Westboro nutjobs brought their tired, "God Hates Fags" spectacle to the Rev. Billy Graham's North Carolina backyard. The local paper — the Asheville Citizen-Times — provided front-page coverage.
I've said it before, but I'd be perfectly happy if I never had to read another word about Fred Phelps, Westboro's certifiably wacky pastor, or his family. In most cases, I believe the best media approach to Westboro is to ignore it. In the case of the Asheville story, I don't know enough about the circumstances to say whether the paper should have covered the "protest" or not.
But if for whatever reason — be it the splash Westboro made in the community or the law enforcement resources assigned to the protest — the Citizen-Times determined that coverage was necessary, then it could have been improved in a few ways.
The top of the story:
ASHEVILLE — A controversial Topeka, Kan., church known for its anti-gay protests at events across the country took aim Tuesday at Billy Graham, saying the renowned evangelist was more interested in wealth and power than preaching the Gospel.
About a dozen sign-carrying protesters from Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the Billy Graham Training Center in Swannanoa, then traveled to nearby Montreat to continue their protest.
Also on hand were about 20 counterprotesters from Asheville, who called Westboro members a hate group not welcome in North Carolina.
A dozen officers from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, N.C. Highway Patrol and Black Mountain and Montreat police departments stood by to maintain order.
“Billy Graham is one of the most influential men in the world, but he has not used his bully pulpit to preach the Gospel,” said Westboro member Paulette Phelps, daughter-in-law of the church’s pastor, Fred Phelps.
Keep reading, and the story pits Westboro's extreme anti-gay statements against the views of counterprotesters who suggest that a loving God has no problem with homosexuality. Graham seems almost an afterthought.
Not until the 17th paragraph of the story — two paragraphs from the bottom — does the paper provide Graham's response:
In its only comment on the protests, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association noted in an emailed statement, “The central message of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association today is the same message Mr. Graham has faithfully preached for more than 70 years — it’s a message of God’s love for all people and the hope that only comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ. While they have the right to express themselves, we don’t share their opinions or condone their methods.”
Shouldn't that statement have appeared much higher in the story?
Meanwhile, while Graham's teachings/views/beliefs on homosexuality seem to be at the center of the story, the paper never provides any context on his past comments on that issue.
Maybe everyone in Asheville already knows exactly where Graham stands, but someone new to the issue might be left wondering. If the Graham camp wouldn't talk, surely a Graham expert could have been found to explain to readers what he has said and where he stands, if anywhere, on the issue.
"At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage," Billy Graham's statement said. "The Bible is clear — God's definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment" Tuesday.
That background would have been helpful in the Asheville story.
Another omission that GetReligion has stressed repeatedly in its critiques of Westboro stories: The paper does not make clear that Westboro is an independent, fundamentalist outfit that has no ties to other Baptist groups — such as the Southern Baptist Convention, to which Graham belongs. Again, that background would have been helpful.
Now, please slither away, Westboro.
Billy Graham image via Shutterstock