I doubt that many news consumers who do a quick read of the recent Associated Press news feature about the growth of Trail Life USA -- a small, explicitly Christian alternative to the Boy Scouts -- will hear loud warning sirens. But the main photo that accompanied that story? That's another matter.
You simply must CLICK HERE to see it.
This is a hot-button topic, of course, because it involves centuries of Christian doctrine and America's growing acceptance of homosexuality, both in terms of orientation and sexual behavior. The Boy Scouts voted to accept openly gay Scouts, but not openly gay leaders, a tricky stance that angered both conservative religious groups and the cultural left. Boy Scout executives stressed that they still expect Scouts to keep sex out of their lives as scouts.
The AP report by Nomaan Merchant does have a bit of that neo-National Geographic tone to it as readers are introduced to this strange tribe of Christians who dare to enroll their sons in a voluntary association that teaches the doctrines affirmed in their homes and churches. But these believers get to defend their beliefs in their own words, which is good.
Let it be noted, however, that this story -- for some strange reason -- gives zero attention to the views of those who criticize Trail Life USA. Why not include the secular and Christian left in this picture? The story does give a small amount of space to BSA leaders who defend the evolution in their membership guidelines. And there is this concise summary of the conflict at the heart of this story:
Trail Life promotes itself on its website as the "premier national character development organization for young men which produces Godly and responsible husbands, fathers and citizens." Its official membership standards policy welcomes all boys, but adds, "We grant membership to adults and youth who do not engage in or promote sexual immorality of any kind, or engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the program."
For over a century, Scouting banned openly gay youth and leaders, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to defend its right to do so. Leaders who were revealed to be gay were excluded, and some boys were denied Eagle Scout awards by regional councils that were notified of their sexual orientation.
But the Scouts eventually began to face pressure from sponsors and CEOs who serve in Scouting leadership but lead companies with anti-discrimination policies. BSA surveys also showed that youths and parents of Scouting-age children were supportive of allowing openly gay Scouts. Scouting leadership proposed a compromise: Accept openly gay youth, but exclude gay adult volunteers. BSA's National Council voted in May to enact it.
Readers who have closely followed this story will note, of course, that Trail Life stresses that if will not admit those who "promote sexual immorality of any kind" -- note the loaded word "promote." The Boy Scouts now allow "openly" gay Scouts, while local leaders struggle with the precise meaning of that term.
The story also includes this telling detail:
The boys and their parents are still getting used to a world of new names, new ranks and new uniforms that haven't arrived yet. They hold up five fingers while reciting their oath, instead of three. Scouts are now "Trailmen," and troops are now units. There is a new handshake and a new salute.
This brings us to that troubling Associated Press photo that ran with this story. Those who follow Twitter may have noted this tweet (which now appears to have been deleted):
— Cathy Lynn Grossman (@CLGrossman) March 3, 2014
Grossman, to her credit, has apologized for that dashed-off tweet. But this only raises another question: What was going on in that photo? How did this image end up on top of the AP story?
First of all, anyone who does a bit of digging will learn that there is no "salute" in that picture.
Alas, the original AP cutline for the photo -- still on the host website as I type -- inaccurately stated what is happening in the photo.
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 2, 2014 AND THEREAFTER -- In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 photo, Trail Life members form a circle and recite the organization's creed during meeting in North Richland Hills, Texas. Trail Life USA, the new Christian-based alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, excludes openly gay members. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Is that what is happening? And what "creed" might that be, with the boys appearing -- repeat appearing -- to have their arms raised in a rather provocative position with the five-finger Trail Life salute?
A Business Insider report noted that leaders of this "Anti-Gay Scouting Group" were horrified by the photo and the false information in the cutline. Again the key question: What is happening in the photo? Why do the boys' arms appear to be raised in this position?
The leader of a Christian alternative to Boy Scouts that does not allow gays said the group was "horrified" when news organizations published a photo from one of its meetings in Texas that appeared to show a group of children giving the Nazi "Seig Heil" salute. John Stemberger, the chairman of the board for Trail Life USA, told Business Insider he initially saw the picture in a story that was published on MSN on Saturday.
"We were horrified when we saw the photo in question on the MSN site and immediately investigated the situation," Stemberger said in a statement Monday. "This is what we learned. ... Many Boy Scout Troops have a tradition of ending their troop meetings with the boys gathering in a circle and then singing the song 'Taps' which is a slow ceremonial piece of music played or sung at the end of the day. The Boy Scouts that do this closing ceremony start singing the song with their hands raised straight into the air with the scout sign and then gradually lower their hands till they get to the end of the song when hands are at their side. This longstanding Boy Scout tradition was being followed with this Texas Trail Life troop using the Trail Life sign."
Yes, note the false statement that Trail Life "does not allow gays," as opposed to its police of excluding those -- straight or gay -- who oppose the doctrines advocated by the organization. A thin red line, but that line is real, as demonstrated throughout the Boy Scouts controversy.
Back to the photo and its cutline.
By the publication date for that San Jose Mercury News report -- the story to which Grossman originally linked -- it appears that copy editors knew enough to produce this improved cutline:
In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 photo, Trail Life members move their arms as they sing "Taps" in a circle during a meeting in North Richland Hills, Texas. Trail Life USA, the new Christian-based alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, excludes openly gay members. (LM Otero/AP)
So the arms of the Trail Life members are moving, but there is no way for the reader to know that just by looking at the photo.
Isn't it amazing that journalists at the Associated Press decided to focus on this precise and rather dangerous -- in terms of negative symbolic content -- moment in the arc of those slowly descending young arms? What a coincidence!
Or perhaps this was an innocent mistake.
Meanwhile, if there are any former Scouts out there, like me, let's all flash back in our memories and sing along with "Taps," while searching these lyrics for dangerous hints of fascism. This goes for Girl Scouts, too, since they have their own traditions linked to this familiar tune.
Day is done, gone the sun, From the lake, from the hills, from the sky; All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Fading light, dims the sight, And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright. From afar, drawing nigh, falls the night.
Thanks and praise, for our days, 'Neath the sun, 'neath the stars, neath the sky; As we go, this we know, God is nigh.
Sun has set, shadows come, Time has fled, Scouts must go to their beds Always true to the promise that they made.
While the light fades from sight, And the stars gleaming rays softly send, To thy hands we our souls, Lord, commend.
That was nice. Now, let's all recite this relevant -- perhaps -- Associated Press policy (.pdf):
"AP staffers must be aware that opinions they express may damage the AP’s reputation as an unbiased source of news. AP employees must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum and must not take part in organized action in support of causes or movements."
That's all for now. Stay tuned.