Death of the Chick-fil-A patriarch: A classic religion-news story with two sides

It's safe to say that Chick-fil-A patriarch S. Truett Cathy was famous, or infamous, for two very different reasons with two radically different flocks of people. After his death, mainstream news organizations faced an obvious news question: What's the lede? What's the angle on this remarkable entrepreneur's life that deserved the spotlight at the top of the story?

You can see that struggle in the summary paragraphs near the top of The New York Times obituary:

Mr. Cathy, who died on Monday at 93, was by all appearances a humble Christian man from Georgia with little education who sold a simple sandwich: a breaded, boneless chicken breast on a soft, white, buttered bun with nothing more than a couple of pickles for garnish.
But as the founder of the Chick-fil-A fast-food empire, he was also a billionaire several times over and, as a conservative Christian who ran his business according to his religious principles, he was at once a hero and a symbol of intolerance. Many admired him for closing his outlets on Sundays and speaking out against same-sex marriage. Others vilified his the chain as a symbol of hate.

The Associated Press went with a very similar twin-angle, famous-infamous lede:

ATLANTA (AP) -- S. Truett Cathy, the billionaire founder of the privately held Chick-fil-A restaurant chain that famously closes on Sundays but also drew unwanted attention on gay marriage in recent years because of his family's conservative views, died early Monday, a company spokesman said. He was 93.

By contrast, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution opened with six paragraphs fleshing out the details of the life of this simple Southern Baptist man (he was named after the great evangelist George W. Truett) who "lived the American dream" on his way to becoming a multi-billionaire. When it came time to talk about the controversial side of his career, this was what his local big-city daily had to offer:

There were some missteps along the way. Cathy tried to grow the brand internationally with stores in South Africa, only to retreat. The company’s Christian identity also rubbed some the wrong way, with accusations and lawsuits that claimed the chain discriminated against non-Christians, gays and others with different viewpoints.
And some in the business community questioned the privately-held company’s wisdom in closing on Sunday, a potential loss of billions of dollars in annual revenue. The genial Cathy stuck to his guns, explaining that it was more important that Sunday be a day of rest for the company’s workers and customers.

Operating six-days a week, the company had sales of $5 billion in 2013 and toppled KFC a year earlier as the top U.S. chicken chain, though KFC is larger in worldwide sales.

I don't think there is any way around the two-subject approach in mainstream coverage. I do know that there are people out there who think it's unfair that Cathy and his family were attacked for convictions that they backed with money from their own foundation, as opposed to the support of their corporation.

We live in an age, however, in which it is controversial to give free chicken sandwiches to church marriage retreats. That's the news reality, these days. Of course, the moral and religious left would word that totally different and it's important for those views to be in mainstream coverage (for a typical list of Chick-fil-A sins, see this sermon from

So a mainstream story needs to take into account that many on the left were offended by the Christian beliefs of Cathy and his family. No question about that.

My question is whether the stories also needed to take into account the fact that some people surged past mere offense into acts of anger and even violence.

There were Chick-fil-A opponents who merely protested, of course, and in at least one case received free sandwiches for doing so. You had your LBGT kiss-in rites and some buildings defaced with "Tastes Like Hate" graffiti. 

In other words, even the controversy about Cathy, his faith and his chicken sandwiches had two sides. If it was valid to include the negative controversies about this man's beliefs (I would say that content was essential), was it also important to include the degree to which his company was attacked by its opponents? In other words, if Cathy was accused of hate, did journalists need to include any information about the views and actions of those who responded with hate? Is that part of the story?

At the extreme edge, should the stories have mentioned Floyd Lee Corkins? Who? You might recall this New York Daily News story:

The Virginia man charged with shooting and wounding a security guard at a conservative Christian lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. was carrying 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches and ammo in his backpack at the time of the incident.
Floyd Lee Corkins, 28, allegedly told the guard that he was against the organization's politics just before pulling out a gun at the downtown D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council, which strongly opposes gay marriage and abortion.
Corkins, who had been volunteering at the front desk of a local LGBTQ center as recently as two weeks ago, was charged in federal court Thursday with intent to kill and bringing firearms across state lines.

Why was he carrying the sandwiches? Of course, the Family Research Council leadership had been backing Chick-fil-A during the "Tastes Like Hate" controversy. In a Washington Post story about what appeared to be an attempted mass shooting, it was reported that the gunman was "spouting opposition to social conservatism" -- or words to that effect.

Was this incident typical? No way.

But this was a highly symbolic moment that symbolized just how bitter the Chick-fil-A wars became. If the soft-spoken Cathy was accused of hate, and he was, then it would have been good for journalists to cover the other side of that hate storm, as well. I would imagine that if a Chick-fil-A employee had attempted to gun down folks at one of the kiss-in rites, it would have made it into these stories. Maybe?

Please respect our Commenting Policy