Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny

Earlier today I mentioned some questions I have about this crazy "court-martial" story that blew up this week. The post is headlined "I share, you evangelize, they proselytize," in reference to GetReligion reader Will Linden's saying about how the same action can be described in different ways. Much of the media coverage has been devoted to tamping down conservative Christian concern about whether Christians in the military will be court-martialed for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with fellow soldiers. And that's a good thing, since the story was clearly overblown and mishandled.

I was reading Ed Stetzer's piece "Some Thoughts on the Newest Christian Concern: Court-Martials for Evangelism," in which he goes after Christians for hyping the story (and while we're at it, here's a great Warren Throckmorton piece with quotes from the actual regulations). The comments to his post were instructive, though. For instance:

I know I for one was in an uproar when I read the story on Breitbart, but not simply because I feared that our men and women in uniform could be facing court martial for being Christian and sharing their Christian faith. My indignation was over the administration's willingness, and apparent desire, to bring in Mikey Weinstein as some sort of special advisor on the issue--a man who seemingly makes no bones about calling Christians who share their faith "monsters" and associating us with rapists. My contempt for this policy (and I'll admit that I, too, rushed to judgment) was not simply about the policy itself, but the fact that Weinstein, among others, was brought in to advise the administration on this policy. He can call it freedom from religious persecution all he wants, but how can he justify advocating such a thing when he is clearly so hostile toward men and women like you and me--men and women who desire to see people come to Christ and experience the gift of salvation from sin and death that He offers to each and everyone of us.


I appreciate your desire to be the voice of calm and reason, but I'm not reading much in your post that re-instills my faith in the pure motives and direction of this administration. Their apparent willingness to meet with the character in the Breitbart report does nothing but build legitimate suspicion, especially when all of their other priorities are taken into account.

I definitely think tamping down Christian concern by reporting this story fairly is a great journalistic service, as The Tennessean did here. But I do wonder if reporters are missing this other huge angle: that Mikey Weinstein is a player in this story!

It might be worth noting that religion reporters have different types of sources. Compare how a source such as the Jesuit Father Thomas Reese is portrayed with how a source such as Pamela Geller is. What's tricky about Weinstein is that he has a little bit of both attributes. Reporters love Reese because he is great at making journalists' jobs easier. He's always good for a helpful quote and he makes himself available to reporters. He is genuinely helpful and speaks in a quotable manner. It's great. Geller is treated less favorably for many reasons, but her extreme rhetoric when talking about Islam plays a major role in that treatment.

Weinstein is great with public relations like Reese is -- he makes himself nothing if not available to reporters and he pushes out hot-button stories on the religion beat. He (Weinstein) also speaks in the Geller manner about Christians and yet, unlike her, he gets used as a source and is treated neutrally or favorably by the media.

Back to the Religion News Service story we discussed earlier, it mentions that the controversy arose after Weinstein, the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, met with Pentagon officials:

Weinstein is known for his inflammatory rhetoric about religious believers and Christians in particular, and he didn’t disappoint this time: he told The Washington Post after the April 23 meeting that proselytizing in the military is akin to “spiritual rape,” among other things.

It's good that the "inflammatory rhetoric" is mentioned but it might understate things.

National Review Online published a piece where author David French also disputes the court-martialing for evangelicals aspect of the story, saying he's "not aware of any immediate or pending change in Pentagon policies regarding religious liberty." However, he's deeply concerned about the military's involvement with Weinstein. In an article headlined "Are Military Leaders and the MSM Embracing an Anti-Christian Extremist?," he quotes a handful of comments made by Weinstein. The first example:

Our Pentagon has been turned into a Pentacostalgon, and our DOD has been turned into an imperialist, fascistic contagion of unconstitutional triumphalism by people that want to kill us – or have their version of Jesus kill us if we don’t accept their Biblical world view.

He provides four other similar, but somehow much worse, comments (seriously, you must read them, they're amazing) and adds:

I’m sorry, but these are just ravings. And he met with generals? And the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News and others treats him as a serious commentator on faith in the military? Substitute “Muslim” for “Christian” in any of these comments and the brass wouldn’t let him darken the Pentagon’s doors. Sally Quinn might write about him, but only as a Terry Jones–like threat to peace, as the fanatical equivalent of a Koran-burner.

Sadly, because he meets with generals – because the likes of the Washington Post take him seriously — he may very well exercise influence over the military’s religious policy. I have no problem with the Pentagon meeting with a wide vareity of credible voices as it formulates and refines religious policies, but this is a man who literally demands courts-martial for speech he dislikes, a man who declares that servicemembers exposed to Christian ideas are “spiritual rape victims.”

Even more troubling, this news comes hard on the heels of training slides that labeled “Evangelical Christianity” and “Catholicism” as examples of “religious extremism” literally alongside al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. An isolated example, yes, but intolerable nonetheless.

Mikey Weinstein meets with generals because the media give him power. Blinded by their own fear, ignorance, and hate, they give voice to an extremist they would condemn in virtually any another context. It’s pathetic and embarrassing.

Now first off, it's wrong to ascribe motivations for why reporters have uncritically reported on Weinstein for years. Better to let reporters explain their own reasoning, particularly when there are less nefarious reasons for using him as a source (I've used him as a source and while it was for an opinion piece on which I was arguing a point, it wasn't because I was motivated by fear, ignorance or hate but because he helped me make my point and I didn't realize, many years ago, that his rhetoric was problematic).

Anywho, we've covered Weinstein coverage before. I thought I'd revisit some of it. I looked back at stories over the last seven years and it's definitely true that the extremism of Weinstein is celebrated in a way that, say, the extremism of a Terry Jones-type is not.

One Los Angeles Times story back in 2005 based on Weinstein's efforts to change religious practices at the Air Force Academy led tmatt to write "these reports are ... one-sided, in terms of source material." Also from that year, tmatt noted that stories neglected religious liberty concerns (imagine that!).

Later that year, I noticed the highly flattering media characterization of Weinstein left out a few details. More recently, Brad Greenberg complained about religion news stories about Paganism that ignored Pagans but mentioned Weinstein in eight of 20 paragraphs. He noted that "it appears the LAT reporter relied on [Weinstein] almost entirely to shape the tone and perspective of this piece." Just last year we learned "the NBC article treats the assertions of Mikey Weinstein uncritically."

And a few years ago, after Weinstein got Franklin Graham dis-invited from giving a prayer to the military on the National Day of Prayer, reader J.D. wrote:

With respect to journalism, I am surprised to see that Weinstein is granted credibility without critique by the media. I am also surprised that the media doesn’t question his assertions, nor quote those who critique him.

If someone said the same things about Judaism that Weinstein has about Christianity, the press would give them only a few lines before citing the host of others standing in line to hold him up for ridicule. Instead, everyone is talking about Graham, apparently legitimizing his critic without a second thought. No one is looking to see what Weinstein’s agenda is.

As a result, [the reader] above doesn’t seen the contradiction in Weinstein being free to address the military, despite his extremist views, while Graham is not. That one may parse their views a certain way is irrelevant; they are either entitled to free speech/free exercise, or they are not.

So on the big story, I think we're seeing some helpful journalism clarifying that there has been no change in policy, but I'm not sure the story of efforts to change enforcement of that policy, and who is pushing those efforts, is being covered as well. And I think questions about media treatment of Weinstein are fair.

At the same time, as extreme as Weinstein's rhetoric is, his group includes people who do not speak that way. Just to give one example of its reach, one of the men killed in that September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya was Glen Doherty, a "Dedicated MRFF Advisory Board Member and former Navy SEAL."

The group is clearly a force within the military, has effected many changes at the service academies, in regulations and enforcement of same, and deserves to be taken seriously. (While writing this, I learned that Defense News lists Weinstein on its list of 100 most influential people in U.S. defense.) If this group is pushing for a change in how an existing policy is enforced, I wouldn't pooh-pooh it at all. And some greater journalistic scrutiny of the rhetoric of the group's president is in order.

Please respect our Commenting Policy