Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

It's a problem that your GetReligionistas face all the time: Many readers do not understand that columnists and opinion writers play by different rules than journalists who write hard news for traditional news organizations.

Yes, it doesn't help -- see this file on what we call "Kellerism" -- that many important mainstream journalists who should know better are blurring the lines between what many textbooks would call the "American model" of the press and the older "European model" which embraces advocacy journalism. This happens a lot when journalists cover debates about doctrine, sex and law.

As a rule, GetReligion focuses on mainstream, hard-news coverage of religion. However, from time to time we pass along "think pieces" that focus on subjects directly linked to religion-news coverage or topics that we think would interest our readers. Several readers sent us a link to a recent First Things piece that takes a critical look at a recent Huffington Post piece -- about same-sex marriage, of course -- that, according to a man interviewed for the HP piece, veered into creative fiction.

This raises a crucial question: What is the HP these days? It often contains serious news reported using a straight forward , hard-news approach, but it is also packed with opinion essays and advocacy pieces that reflect its liberal editorial point of view. So, can you criticize a liberal columnist for writing a liberal column? In this case, the First Things writer is alleging far more than mere bias. Thus, I thought our readers would want to read this interesting essay -- "A Muted Conversation on Traditional Marriage" -- written from the other side of the reporter's notebook.

The author is Andrew Cuff, an Eastern Orthodox Christian (yes, that is my flock as well) who is doing a doctorate in church history at the Catholic University of America. He explains that he rather reluctantly attended the recent March for Marriage in Washington, D.C. Here is a key chunk of the overture:

... My initial fears about the event were in part confirmed: There were plenty of tasteless and offensive picket signs. A Democratic State Senator from New York waved a cowboy hat and ranted about how much more Biblical he was than other Democrats. For some unfathomable reason, an evangelical group had hoisted a massive banner proclaiming “Halt Islam!” A Moses lookalike dressed in burlap held a massive bible and blew a four-foot ram’s horn. My friends looked at me uncomfortably. I was about ready to let my people go.
But just as I was eyeing my exits, I was approached by a woman carrying a notepad who asked if she could interview me. She introduced herself as Lila from the Huffington Post, and we walked toward the Supreme Court chatting for about twenty minutes. It felt good to leave behind the raucous rally stage with its over-amplified demagogues bookended by loud rock-n-roll interludes. It was cathartic to be able to explain to Lila that people were here for many different reasons and a wide diversity of motivations, and that traditional marriage could not be reduced to platitudes.

Cuff is, in other words, a rather moderate if not liberal opponent of gay marriage. He admits that he hit the reporter with a wide range of rather complex, non-typical arguments on the subject of marriage. He noted: "Her eyes began to glaze over when I started quoting medieval philosophers."

The key is that the reporter, Lila Shapiro, works for the "Gay Voices" section of the Huffington Post. One does not expect to see balanced, nuanced journalism from such a source. Right? That would be like expecting a nuanced, balanced report on the work of Andrew Sullivan in a Focus on the Family publication.

But what about this?

I prepared myself to read her “spin” on what I said. I was surprised, though, when I saw that she disliked the interview so much that she just made up another one to replace it.
According to her, I said the following: “I’m a married human being, so what does this mean for me? It’s against the way I see marriage. It’s against the way I see myself.” Shapiro scoffed, “Same-sex marriage is wrong because, well ... because it’s wrong.”
An imaginative fabrication. Apparently I’m married? (I’m not). It was frustrating that after a twenty-minute interview in which I listed numerous reasons why government redefinition of marriage is bad for everyone, Shapiro published a (completely fictional) quote that boiled down to “it’s my personal opinion.” ...
Yet this broach of journalistic ethics is more interesting than irritating to me. Shapiro said it herself numerous times: This issue is already decided. Public opinion has ruled: There are no good arguments for traditional marriage.
So why should Lila lie? If my arguments were stupid, why not publish them?

Read it all. Clearly this is more than Kellerism. On one level, it is simple inaccuracy. But Cuff is saying that it appears he was intentionally misquoted, to ill effect. I would be interested in knowing if there are GetReligion readers who believe that is allowed in the context of what is clearly editorial, advocacy journalism.

In your comments, please stay focused on this central journalistic question.

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