Damage already done? Charlotte Observer replaces slanted report on gay substitute teacher let go by Catholic high school

The Charlotte Observer posted a "news story" on its local news page this week concerning Lonnie Billiard, a substitute teacher at a Catholic high school, who lost his job after revealing on Facebook that he plans to marry his same-sex partner later this year.

The Pew Research Center highlighted the story on its daily email roundup of U.S. religion headlines Tuesday.

This was the link:


Over at "The Deacon's Bench," blogger Greg Kandra — a Roman Catholic deacon who spent three decades as a writer and producer for CBS News — criticized the piece:

Editorial note: the rest of the Observer piece is a weepy, hand-wringing, breast-beating portrait of a wronged employee who expresses anxiety for all the gay students who fear expulsion simply because they’re gay. It’s a sustained exercise in victim journalism, with fully half of it devoted to quotes by the teacher talking about how this hurt his feelings and that he “never expected to be treated so badly by the diocese.” (Did it ever occur to him that he had violated the terms of his employment? That question never comes up.) It’s a biased, unbalanced journalistic shambles, beginning with the lead sentence: “The local Roman Catholic diocese is in hot water again for anti-LGBT discrimination…”

For readers who looked closely, the story identified the writer not as an Observer staff member but as someone with QNotes. The Observer link did not explain what it QNotes is — perhaps Charlotte readers are expected to know — but a Google search reveals that it's "the Charlotte-based LGBT community newspaper of North Carolina." 

Thus, the story published on the Observer local news page fell squarely into what GetReligion calls "What is this?" As in, is this news? Is it a column? Is it advocacy? 

Just this week, the public editor of The New York Times wrote about a column entitled "An Uneasy Mix of News and Opinion."  GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly plans a weekend think piece sometime soon reflecting on that column, but Margaret Sullivan's point concerning the difficulty of readers distinguishing between news and opinion online seems appropriate to the current discussion: 

The world of online journalism, which is how more and more readers encounter Times articles, presents new challenges, especially in the way opinion stories are labeled or presented. The old ways of signifying that an article is a column, including the use of logos such as “Big City” or “The Working Life,” and typographical clues, may have worked in print — or maybe not — but surely lose their effectiveness in the digital world.

I got up this morning planning to write about the story posted on the Observer website. But if you click the original link now, it goes directly to the gay advocacy website. At that original link, you'll now find a QNotes editor's note about "a minor factual correction" and a link to a piece described as "Response to diocese's attempt to bully, intimidate and silence our reporting." 

Meanwhile, an Observer staff member has produced a new version of the story — displayed prominently on the newspaper's home page — that actually presents the facts in an evenhanded manner and includes direct comments from a diocese spokesman:

On Dec. 30, Billiard said he received a call from Charlotte Catholic Assistant Principal Steve Carpenter saying that he would no longer be called in to teach. The reason: His posted wedding plans publicly violated Catholic Church teachings on marriage.
Billiard said Tuesday he remains stunned.
“This is sort of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” said Billiard, who contends that his sexuality was well known by school officials, fellow teachers and many of his students and their families.
“My response is that if I am in defiance of Catholic teachings – and I probably am – then how do you account for employing teachers who use birth control? How do you account for teachers who divorce and remarry without the blessing of the church?
“It was fine when I was living with my partner. But I was wrong when I said we were getting married? The hypocrisy is ridiculous.”
David Hains, a spokesman with the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, said the Facebook posting violated the agreement Billiard and all diocesan employees sign in which they promise not to publicly oppose church doctrine.
“We don’t even ask people to uphold church teachings. Our policy says they can’t oppose church teachings,” Hains said. “... You basically don’t want the guy working for Coca-Cola to walk around with a Pepsi in his hand.”
The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a holy sacrament reserved for a man and a woman.

The new story is a definite improvement.

Unfortunately, in an era of viral links shared online, the damage inflicted on the Observer's journalistic reputation by the original, slanted "news story" can't be entirely undone.

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