An Associated Press story this week headlined "Lawmakers turn to faith leaders" has it all, and I don't mean that as a compliment.
In a vague, strange way that makes you wonder if it's a really slow news week in Washington, the AP pulls out a big ole "religion and politics" stewpot and throws in all this:
Senators turning to a chaplain during the 2008 presidential campaign. Religious advisers helping lawmakers sort out policy issues behind the scenes. Policymakers discussing confidential matters with priests and pastors at church. Catholic leaders criticizing politicians for supporting legal abortion. Senators who espouse faith not measuring up and having affairs with staffers. President Barack Obama taking his time finding a new minister after the furor over inflammatory comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
With all that strung together in a 1,040-word report, the world's largest news organization manages to leave out a few key ingredients: A timely news peg. Comments from actual senators. Story cohesiveness. Any below-surface-level exploration of religion. And, oh yeah, the kitchen sink.
Here's the top of the story:
WASHINGTON -- When senators were tripping over one another to run for president in 2008, a number of them turned to a Senate adviser to discuss campaign challenges and opportunities. It didn't matter that their opponents were talking to the same person.
Senate chaplain Barry Black heard about all the ups and downs: The senators were exhausted or elated, optimistic or downcast, worried about poll numbers, unsure whether to run.
Black would reframe their challenges in theological or philosophical terms and reassure them that "things are going to play out in the way God would want," he said.
Since 1789, Black is the first African-American, the first Seventh-day Adventist and the first military chaplain to serve as chaplain of the U.S. Senate -- all facts left out of the AP stew. Also missing from the stew: any identification of the senators who reportedly turned to Black during their 2008 presidential campaigns.
We do get this:
Faith leaders who were interviewed declined to identify the lawmakers whom they counsel, and several senators declined requests to discuss their faith for this story. More than a half-dozen senators flirted with or ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama among them.
That's what you call reporter absolution: "Several" senators whose names we won't bother to reveal wouldn't talk to us, so we're leaving out an important element of the story. But it's not our fault.
Then again, the lede on this story takes an abrupt detour almost immediately. So the story really isn't about Black, who is referenced only once more later in the piece. Rather, we get this nut graf (which is supposed to tell us what this story is about) right after the opening:
Year in and year out, campaign or no campaign, clergymen, rabbis and faith leaders in Washington serve as part adviser, friend, counselor or ear to legislators and other political figures. At times, some even play a behind-the-scenes role in influencing public policy and help legislators sort out conflicts between their faith and policy views.
Wow, faith advisers play a behind-the-scenes role! Interesting. I can't wait to read specific examples of how religious leaders have influenced public policy and helped sort out conflicts between faith and policy views. Alas, please see my previous reference to the vague nature of this story. This story makes no attempt whatsoever to answer that question.
Instead, the piece zigs and zags through the laundry list of tangentially related items listed above, with no clear direction or purpose.
Even the sourcing of religious leaders quoted is curious.
We get the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, a former minister at Washington's Foundry United Methodist Church. We don't find out his present title or circumstances.
We get the Rev. Cletus Kiley, a former president of the Faith & Politics Institute. We don't find out his present title or circumstances.
Other quotes are attributed to "Rev. Monsignor Charles Antonicelli, pastor at St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill, as well as Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel." That's the full extent of the description of St. Joseph's and Adas Israel. Amazing.
My advice to AP: Pour out this awful pot of stew and start over.