Donald Trump is brash and boorish, and he seldom takes back anything he's said. So he set himself up for the garish headlines.
Still, that doesn't mean mainstream media had to write them. But (sigh) they did.
* "Trump Goes After Carson," Ken Walsh's blog in U.S. News & World Report trumpeted.
* "Trump Questions Carson's Faith, Won't Apologize," says a Newsweek headline, with an equally gossipy lede: "As the third Republican presidential debate approaches and the field narrows, Donald Trump and Ben Carson continue to use religion as a cudgel for beating each other over the head."
* "Donald Trump Attacks Ben Carson, and Highlights His Religion," says the usually restrained New York Times.
What-all did Trump say to deserve this? Not a whole lot, according to CBS News: "I'm Presbyterian. Boy. That's down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventists, I don't know about, I just don't know about."
That's it. That's what Trump said in toto.
"What did you mean by that?" Jonathan Dickerson asked on CBS' Face the Nation.
Trump's reply: "I don't know about them. I don't know about what that is. I'm not that familiar with it. I've heard about it, but I'm not that familiar with it. That wasn't meant to be an insult, obviously. It's just that I don't know about it."
Some media, including the Washington Post, tried to have it both ways: first, a j'accuse of a headline -- "Donald Trump: No apology for questioning Ben Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith" -- then a more sober recap of the facts:
"I would certainly give an apology if I said something bad about it. But I didn't. All I said was I don't know about it," Trump said during an interview on ABC's "This Week," one of three Sunday talk shows on which the billionaire businessman talked about recent polls that showed Carson pulling ahead of him in Iowa.
But ABC News itself did the same thing: first the headline "Donald Trump: No apology for questioning Ben Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith," followed by a more factual: "Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Sunday that he saw no reason to apologize for raising the issue of rival Ben Carson's Seventh-day Adventist faith during a recent campaign rally."
ABC's George Stephanopoulos noted that Carson has asked for an apology, but Trump maintained he'd said nothing offensive. But Stephanopoulos kept prodding.
"You know, some conservatives claim that Seventh-day Adventists are not Christian," he said to Trump on “This Week” Sunday. "Were you trying to send a dog whistle to them because Ben Carson is beating you among evangelicals in Iowa?"
Now, I must admit that both Trump and Carson set themselves up for this feud. Trump has a well-earned reputation for brash, abrasive statements, from which he seldom backpedals. And it was the normally mild-spoken Carson who started this fracas when he questioned Trump's faith, back on Sept. 9.
At a rally in Anaheim, Calif., reporters asked Carson the biggest difference between him and Trump:
"Probably the biggest thing -- I've realized where my success has come from and I don't in anyway deny my faith in God," Carson said.
He explained what he meant by quoting what he said was one of his favorite bible verses.
"By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life and that's a very big part of who I am. I don't get that impression with him," Carson said of Trump. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't get that."
With that jab, CNN said, Carson "essentially threw down the gauntlet … and asked evangelical Republicans to choose sides by questioning the authenticity of Trump's faith." Maybe so. But it's one thing to see a tempest in a teapot, quite another to turn up the stove.
And most mainstream media didn’t give any distinctive beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, beyond saying they weren’t accepted by most evangelicals as Christian (and without attribution). They also didn’t give differences between Seventh-day Adventists and Presbyterians -- you know, the faith of Donald Trump. Then again, Trump wouldn't know, either, by his own admission.
CNN did dig up an old story from September, offering a few SDA basics. Their brief is ambivalent but factual:
Carson is one of the 18 million Seventh-day Adventists around the globe. The church, the most diverse in the country, counts 1.2 million members in North America and about one third are African-American. Strict and health-conscious -- many believers are vegetarians -- the denomination has attracted 1 million new members each year for the last decade.
Yet, almost just as many have left the pews.
"They are in many ways like conservative evangelicals, no same-sex marriage and no abortion," said Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's a 19th-century religion that comes out of a space where health and holiness was important. But they have this leader who is a woman, Ellen G. White, and they veer off of traditional mainline Christianity."
White, whose visionary writings are still a staple of church teachings, co-founded the church in 1863, almost two decades after predictions of the second coming of Christ turned out to be premature in 1844. The return of Christ remains central to the doctrine.
It's also true that everyone seems to be demanding an apology from everyone else these days. Roger Ailes of Fox News wants one; Jeb Bush wants one for his wife; and some writers, like Abdul Kulane of the Times Writers Group, want twin apologies from Trump and Carson for their "bigoted comments and actions against Muslim-Americans."
This is where responsible journalism should kick in: focusing on real issues, rather than snark and counter-snark. Where religious differences make a real difference, sure, report them. But don’t bait and exaggerate and whip up quarrels. It may gain temporary readers and viewers, but it does nothing for the work of choosing a president -- or for the reputation of the media.
Photo: Donald Trump at a New Hampshire Town Hall on August 19, at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H. Photographer: Vadon. Used by permission via Wikimedia.