Every week or two -- either in private emails, on Twitter or perhaps in our comments pages -- I get involved in a debate with a reader about an issue that's at the heart of GetReligion's work. The hook is usually a post in which the press, when covering a controversial issue, has focused almost all of it its attention on the views of one side of the argument while demoting the other side to one or two lines of type, usually shallow, dull information drawn from a website or press release.
The reader, in effect, is defending what we call "Kellerism" -- click here for a refresher on that term -- and says that there is no need to give equal play to the voices on both sides because it is already obvious who is right and who is wrong. The reader says that GetReligion is biased because we still think there is a debate to be covered (think Indiana), while we believe that it's crucial to treat people on both sides of these debates with respect and cover their views as accurately as possible.
My slogan, shared with students down the years: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.
This cuts against a popular "New Journalism" theory from the late '60s and the '70s arguing that balance, fairness and professional standards linked to the word "objectivity" are false newsroom gods and that journalists should call the truth the truth and move on. Some may remember a minor dust-up a few years ago when a powerful news consumer seemed to affirm this "false balance" thesis in a New York Times story:
As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. ...
Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.
This brings us, believe it or not, to our own Bobby Ross Jr. and his much-discussed (and trolled) post on the state of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's soul. Click here to catch up on that subject.
Ross focused on the New York Post interview with the inmate who killed Dahmer and the fact that the story accepts, as proven fact, this man's denial of Dahmer's repentance and change of heart about his crimes.
While Bobby had to spike many troll sermonettes, reader Jake had this response to Bobby's pleas for comments to focus on basic journalism issues, rather than commenting on whether Dahmer was "saved" or not.
So an article comments section supporting the sincerity of Dahmer's religious experience is not the place to voice one's opinions on the sincerity of Dahmer's religious experience? That makes sense.
Note the word "supporting."
In reality, Ross had said that it was strange for the Post to print the claim that Dahmer had not repented without a single reference to the testimony of those who said that he had. In other words, the reader seemed to think that simply airing testimony on the other side of the debate was the same as endorsing it. A story with conflicting testimonies, one that asked readers to read both sides for themselves, was a story offering "false balance."
Actually, Ross was saying that ignoring one side of the debate was bad journalism, since it seemed to endorse -- without skepticism -- the views of the subject of the Post exclusive. Ross asked if editors at the Post had ever considered Googling "Jeffrey Dahmer" and "repentance."
Ross knew quite a bit about this case since he covered it as a mainstream newspaper reporter. Way back in 1994, the pre-WWW era for me, I wrote a column about Dahmer's proclamations of faith and how they shed some light on modern debates about heaven and hell. In 2005, I put that full text online here at GetReligion. Here's a key passage of that column, which I wrote after reading all of the key news accounts and talking to a chaplain who actually attended Bible studies and worship services with the killer:
Dahmer died ... after he was attacked while cleaning a prison bathroom. He died while saving the life of another inmate, shielding the body of a man who was under attack. This inmate was critically injured and a third is the prime suspect.
Dahmer was serving 15 consecutive life terms after confessing to killing 17 young males. He also said he dismembered some of his victims, had sex with their corpses and ate parts of their bodies. The blond-haired, blank-faced killer became a national symbol of the demonic. Dahmer confessed his crimes, but no one seemed inclined to forgive him.
Nevertheless, he seemed to find peace through prison Bible studies and, in May, he made a public profession of faith and was baptized. After praying that God would forgive his sins, Dahmer became remarkably calm about his fate -- even after an inmate tried to slit his throat during a July chapel service.
Traditional Christians would have to say that Dahmer is heaven bound, if his repentance was sincere.
The problem is that many people seem to believe that there are two kinds of sins, and sinners. First, there are ordinary, good people who commit garden variety sins. They go to heaven, no matter what. Then there are the really bad sinners, especially those whose sins are linked to violence, drugs or sexual perversions. They are doomed to hell, no matter what.
Now, does this mean that we automatically know the state of Dahmer's soul? No, but we do know that people witnessed events in which it APPEARED that he confessed his sins. The baptism was a public act and on the record.
Now, the Post has new testimony from someone with another point of view, information that was not public in 1994 in earlier coverage. That's interesting, to say the least.
However, it is not "false balance" or biased to argue that it would be good to let readers -- today -- explore both points of view in that debate about Dahmer, sin, repentance and grace. Right? What's the argument for airing only one side?