Update on Atlanta fire chief war, as well as journalism -- left and right -- in the age of 'Kellerism'

When I was teaching at Denver Seminary in the early 1990s, seminary students and pastors used to ask me this blunt question: Why should I risk taking to reporters from secular newsrooms?

Their assumption was that mainstream reporters (a) knew next to nothing about the complicated world of religion, (b) had no interest in learning about religion and (c) were already prejudiced about believers in traditional forms of religion, especially conservative Christians because of biases (all of those media-elite studies began in the late 1970s) linked to hot-button topics such as abortion, gay rights, etc.

I responded that (a) their concerns were not irrational, but (b) it was simplistic to argue that all journalists were both ignorant and hopelessly biased when dealing with religion and (c) how could they expect journalists to accurately report their views on complicated topics if they didn't talk to them? At some point, clergy and other religious leaders should respect the role of the press in a free society (just as journalists need to respect our First Amendment protections for religious faith and practice) and take part in what should be a two-way learning process.

In the 20-plus years since that time, things have only become more tense and more complicated. To cut to the chase, we now face the rise of "Kellerism" (click here and especially here for a primer on this crucial GetReligion term), with more journalists openly blurring the line between basic, accurate, balanced news coverage and advocacy/commentary work. It's hard to have an edgy social-media brand without some snark, you know (said tmatt, speaking as a columnist and commentary blogger).

So what happens when elite news organizations, ones that already lean toward "Kellerism" doctrines when covering moral and religious issues, have to quote the views of traditional religious believers? The results are often not very pretty.

Here is the key: When reading a story about a debate between the cultural left and right, readers may want to look for signs that the mainstream reporters listened to the voices of real people on the left (interviews, speeches, sermons, etc.) and only consulted websites and public-relations documents on the right. I mean, why do you need to interview cultural infidels (thank you Bob Dylan) on these kinds of topics and give them credibility as sources?

But wait: What if reporters tried to talk to the traditional believers and they declined to be interviewed? What if the sources on that side are only willing to talk to advocacy reporters on their own side of the sanctuary aisle? I am sure that this is happening more and more and, frankly, it's a tragic side effect of the "Kellerism" trend.

Take, for example the latest New York Times story on the Atlanta case, the one in which Mayor Kasim Reed fired Fire Rescue Department Chief Kevin Cochran, a Southern Baptist, after he published a book in which he affirmed centuries of orthodox Christian doctrine on sex and marriage. Reed and Cochran are both African-Americans, which only complicates the political realities on the ground. Here's the top of the story:

ATLANTA -- Mayor Kasim Reed’s decision to dismiss his fire chief last week for giving co-workers copies of a Christian self-help book condemning homosexuality is fanning new kinds of legal and political flames in this city, where deeply held religious convictions exist in a kind of defining tension with a reputation for New South tolerance.
Mr. Reed fired Kelvin Cochran, the chief, on Tuesday over the distribution of his book, which condemns homosexual acts as “vile, vulgar and inappropriate.” Reached at home on Thursday, Mr. Cochran referred all questions to his lawyers, who issued a statement on his behalf.
“I am heartbroken that I will no longer be able to serve the city and the people I love as fire chief, for no reason other than my Christian faith,” Mr. Cochran said in the statement released by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based conservative legal organization that is representing him. “It’s ironic that the city points to tolerance and inclusion as part of its reasoning. What could be more intolerant and exclusionary than ending a public servant’s 30 years of distinguished service for his religious beliefs?”
Those sentiments are particularly weighty in Atlanta, where the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a hometown hero, remains a moral guidepost for governance.

You get the idea. Can the mayor afford to offend major churches -- black and white -- and thus risk his political career? Remember: Politics is real. Religious freedom? Not so real.

Thus, the Times notes that Georgia lawmakers may pass a "so-called religious freedom law." So-called? Perhaps it would be better to simply cite the name of the law.

Now, in a post the other day, I praised the Times team for its willingness to at least admit that there are two sides in the debates about the facts of this case. Readers can still see glimpses of this debate in the new piece.

The mayor argued that his firing of the chief had nothing to do with Mr. Cochran’s Christian faith, but rather with a lack of judgment on the part of a man charged with managing a 750-member department.
Mr. Reed said that the chief failed to follow proper protocol in receiving approvals from city officials to publish his book, a claim that Mr. Cochran disputes. Mr. Reed also said that Mr. Cochran opened the city to possible discrimination lawsuits.

Note, please, that almost all -- there is a key quote from a Republican politician -- of the pro-Cochran voices are quoted from online sources, press statements, etc. The voices that support Reed come from interviews. Also note that, when dealing with the Times, Cochran referred those calls to his lawyer.

So if you want to hear Cochran make his case, where do you need to go? Try Baptist Press, of course. That's where readers can find -- along with advocacy language from Cochran supporters -- an interesting look at some factual issues that, I imagine, will be argued in a court sooner or later.

There are interesting fact claims in these passages that would have been good to have seen covered and, yes, debated in the Times.

Cochran's 162-page self-published book seeks to help Christian men overcome feelings of guilt and condemnation over past sins. It discusses homosexuality for less than half a page, including a mention of uncleanness as the "opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, and all other forms of sexual perversion."
An employee of the fire department to whom Cochran did not give a copy of the book obtained one, delivered it to an openly gay city council member and highlighted the passages referencing homosexuality, Cochran said.

And later:

Cochran said his dismissal was based on three charges: failing to obtain proper permission to write his book, distributing the book at work inappropriately and writing in the book that he sought to glorify God through the fire department. Reed ... said at a press conference that Cochran's decision to make public comments during the investigation into his conduct contributed to the termination.
The city's investigation exonerated Cochran of charges that he discriminated against homosexuals, the former chief said, adding that there has never been a discrimination complaint filed against him.
"The love of a Christian is a love without condition for all people," Cochran said. "And just because we don't agree with their beliefs about sexuality does not equate to hate or discrimination."
Regarding the other allegations, Cochran said he obtained permission to write the book from Atlanta's ethics officer Nina Hickson, but Hickson told investigators "she couldn't remember the conversation."

So how many readers saw the Times piece? And how many readers saw the Baptist Press piece?

Do the math.

So here are my main journalism questions, the questions behind the head-banging image at the top of this post: In the age of "Kellerism," how are readers supposed to hear both sides? How are readers supposed to know who elite journalists tried to interview and who they simply chose to ignore? How do we know when traditional believers refused to cooperate with journalists that they now see as their enemies, as opposed to professionals sincerely trying to report voices on both sides of complicated debates? How will all of this affect public discourse on crucial issues in American life?

Is it getting harder for even the most skilled and committed of religion-beat news professionals to do journalism, now that "Kellerism" is becoming a kind of gravitational force in many newsrooms and among more and more readers?

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