'Fred Phelps has been excommunicated' and other gossip

OK, folks. We need to keep news over here and gossip over there. First, we have multiple stories that Fred Phelps -- of Westboro Baptist Church fame, of "God Hates Fags" fame, of picketing veterans' funerals fame -- is "on the edge of death".

Now he was supposedly kicked out of the Topeka-based church for advocating "kinder treatment of fellow church members."

And what are the sources for this "news"? Facebook postings by Nate Phelps, an estranged son, who left the church 37 years ago. Here's what he says, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal:

On Nate Phelps' Facebook page, Nate Phelps posted: "I've learned that my father, Fred Phelps Sr., pastor of the 'God Hates Fags' Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the 'church' back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.

"I'm not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.

"I feel sad for all the hurt he's caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I'm bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes."

The other main source is another son who is also estranged:

However, a second Phelps brother estranged from Westboro Baptist Church confirmed Sunday morning that Fred Phelps Sr. is in poor health and has been excommunicated.

"Just a quick note to assure you the information you wrote and published this morning is accurate," Mark Phelps emailed to The Capital-Journal at 10:30 a.m. "I do not know anything more than you know, at this time, but what you wrote I know to be true, personally, just as Nathan (Nate Phelps) knows to be true also."

Not exactly the same as hard evidence, is it? Especially given that Nate now says he's an "LGBT Advocate"?

Years ago, when I worked at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, an investigative reporter told me how he worked: Whenever a source denied something, he would have it confirmed by four other knowledgeable sources. Only then would he go with it.

The mainstream media I've checked today don’t meet that standard. Besides Nate Phelps' assertions, all they have is Westboro spokesman Steve Drain -- who has denied that Fred Phelps is dying:

Drain acknowledged Fred Phelps Sr. has been admitted to Midland Care Hospice, adding he "has a couple things going on" but disputed the gravity of his health.

"The source that says he's near death is not well informed," Drain said Sunday.

The Capital-Journal stories have been picked up uncritically by major media, including Reuters, Huffington Post and The Blaze.

Instead of looking critically, they’ve simply been piling on, like a particularly brutal football scrimmage.

"No one's going to protest against this guy’s death," the New York Daily News said in its lede sentence. That may be true, but it sure doesn't sound like a news lede, does it? In other news, it called Westboro's activities "sick" and cited the Southern Poverty Law Center for calling the church a "hate group."

The Independent in London dug deep into its archives, dredging up decades of activities -- not only the pickets, but Phelps' disbarment in Kansas, and Westboro's Supreme Court victory in 2011. It also took as gospel truth the stories of Phelps being expelled from his own congregation and lying on his deathbed.

And the International Business Times merely cobbled together several other reports. Well, it also added its own mini-verdict:

The WBC is notorious for their cruel and harsh nature: picketing funerals and celebrating the death of soldiers and even children. The Phelps family is widely regarded as one of the most hated in America.

Among the few innovations was BuzzFeed returning to Nate's Facebook page to note his uncertainty:

The ex-communicated part is still not clear to me. I only have hearsay on the reason, and two different versions, so I won't comment at the point other than to say he was moved into another house and watched over so he wouldn't harm himself.

Never thought I'd like BuzzFeed more than the actual newspapers.

Photo: jenny w. via sxc.hu

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