About the Republican presidential race and that 'Christian army' assembled Sunday in Texas

A friend of mine — a progressive evangelical who doesn't always agree with GetReligion's take on media coverage — asked me what I thought of a front-page story in today's Dallas Morning News.

The story, with the main headline "Faith takes the stage" in the dead-tree edition, reports on a Southern Baptist megachurch hosting six Republican presidential candidates at a Dallas-area forum Sunday:

My friend didn't care much for the coverage:

This looks and feels to me like religious bias from The Dallas Morning News. (It was political bias by Prestonwood Baptist, but that's an entirely different story.)
Where are the interviews with progressive Christian leaders, reminding readers that these six men do not represent the views of every Christian? By not mentioning us, aren't they perpetuating the myth that all Christians vote alike?
The DMN is covering an event that was decidedly Republican (an event to which Democrat candidates declined attendance). On the other hand, isn't the DMN contributing towards the assumption that evangelical voters represent the "Christian vote" by not mentioning the rest of the Christian voting bloc?

I am, of course, familiar with Prestonwood Baptist from my time covering religion and politics in Texas for The Associated Press. When I interviewed Prestonwood pastor Jack Graham, then the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 2004, I couldn't help but notice a prominent photo of President George W. Bush welcoming him to the Oval Office.

This is the lede on today's Morning News story:

PLANO — Republican contenders for president sought to rally a Christian army Sunday.
Six candidates addressed more than 7,000 people at Prestonwood Baptist Church, discussing their personal faith and the need to mobilize like-minded believers for the 2016 election.
“Religious liberty is under threat today like it never has been in this nation,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said. “As these threats grow darker and darker, they are waking people up in Texas and the country.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also said he would work to end threats to religious freedom.
“We need to pass laws at the federal and state level to protect religious conscience,” he said, adding that the rights of gay Americans and religious values can coexist. “A big country should be able to sort these things out.”
The forum, sponsored by the Faith & Freedom Coalition, was a rare chance for Texans to see some of the top contenders in the Republican race for president. Besides Cruz and Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum participated.

My progressive evangelical friend and I don't agree on everything, but I groaned when I read that "rally a Christian army" opening sentence. (Actually, I groaned first when I saw the "6 GOP candidates try to rally Christian army at Prestonwood" headline on the story's online version.)

Does that wording represent "religious bias" on the part of the Morning News? I'm not so sure of that.

But I do think it contributes to a certain stereotype that somehow, there's a giant, like-minded group of voters out there called "evangelicals." The truth, as my friend points out, is much more nuanced than that. (We've covered this before — this is just one example.) 

More of the overgeneralizations that characterize the Morning News report:

Evangelical voters, though mighty in numbers, have seen their political clout diminished since George W. Bush’s emergence as president. And during the era of his successor, President Barack Obama, Christian conservatives have been troubled by events such as this year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
But evangelical leaders hope the tough times will renew Christian voters’ commitment to influencing the political process.

After reading the whole story, I understand — and share — my friend's concern for the lack of context.

At the same time, I feel the Dallas newspaper's pain, too.

I mean, how — in a story that runs fewer than 1,200 words — do you cover the entire breadth of evangelical politics, treat all six candidates fairly and touch fully on all the important issues raised, from religious liberty to Planned Parenthood funding to the role of faith in politics? That's a tall, tall order. (The Morning News did publish an advance piece on the forum that painted a slightly fuller portrait of evangelical politics. Still, it resorted to too many overgeneralizations for my tastes.)

Like the Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram provided front-page coverage of the candidate forum:

The Star-Telegram's lede:

PLANO — There’s no way around it — the battle for religious liberty is a key part of the 2016 presidential election.
On that, the six Republican candidates who came to North Texas on Sunday clearly agree.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and other GOP presidential hopefuls gathered at Prestonwood Baptist Church for a faith-based presidential forum were united on several other conservatives causes as well Sunday.
“Religious liberty is under threat in this country like never before,” Cruz told an estimated crowd of more than 7,000 gathered for the forum at the Prestonwood Baptist Church. “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up in Texas and across the country.
“I believe 2016 will be an election like 1980,” the state’s junior senator and son of a preacher who drew several standing ovations said. “It took Jimmy Carter to give us Ronald Reagan. So I can’t wait to see where we are headed next.”
Pastor Jack Graham said he hopes that those who attended Sunday’s forum co-hosted by Prestonwood and the Faith & Freedom Coalition— or watched it as it was live-streamed — will now have information needed to “make the right decision” at the polls next year.

Like the Morning News, the Star-Telegram attempts to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of space. But overall, the Fort Worth newspaper does a better job of sticking to the facts and not overgeneralizing.

One other thing I noticed, since this is a journalism blog: Both major D/FW newspapers led with Cruz's religious liberty quotes — but the exact words quoted by the papers are slightly different.

Were the reporters relying on handwritten notes? Did Cruz say the same thing twice, only slightly differently?

In an age when everything is recorded, print writers have to be extra careful that the words they put inside quote marks are exactly right. Otherwise, they lose credibility in a hurry. If anybody has a video of what Cruz said, I'd be curious to know which paper — if either — reported his precise words accurately.

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