Rubio and the atheist: For the best coverage, look to the media inside Iowa

It's starting to look like local media do better reporting on religion and politics -- i.e., less pejorative, viewpoint-tainted reporting -- than national outlets.

Case in point: Marco Rubio's exchange with an atheist in Iowa. From what I saw, the farther from Iowa, the more breezy and/or sarcastic the story -- and the harder to tell it from commentary.  Consider first the Des Moines Register:

Forgive me for the six-paragraph string here at the start, but the story is almost a perfect model for writing what you see and hear, not what you think of it. This is essential reading:

WAVERLY, Ia. -- Confronted by an "activist atheist," Marco Rubio said he’ll champion a country where "no one is forced to violate their conscience."
"No one is going to force you to believe in God, but no one is going to force me to stop talking about God," said the Florida senator, prompting applause and a whistle of support from the crowd.
During a town hall on Monday morning, Justin Scott, 34, of Waterloo asked about Rubio’s new ad, explaining that atheists such as him are "looking for somebody that will uphold their rights as Americans, and not pander to a certain religious group," he said.
In the commercial, Rubio does not mention specific political policy but discusses how "our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our creator for all time. To accept the free gift of salvation offered by Jesus Christ."
"You have a right to believe whatever you want," said Rubio, a Roman Catholic, in response. "You have a right to believe in nothing at all."
Rubio went on to explain how his faith has been the "single greatest influence in my life, and from that I’ll never hide."

Nor is it a mere puff piece. The Register suggests that the Rubio ad is an outreach to "social conservatives, in addition to the business-minded voters who are backing him" -- quoting not itself but a political science professor.

My only quibble is that the article says Rubio has vowed to unite Republicans, but the party is split in Iowa -- between evangelicals, who supported Rick Santorum in 2012, and "establishment voters" who voted for Mitt Romney. It doesn't cite any sources for this.

Fortunately, the story is not the lone example of fair, accurate reporting of the Rubio-atheist exchange.  We also have the Globe Gazette in Mason City, Iowa:

WAVERLY -- Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio pushed back at the notion he would be a "pastor in chief" if elected, but he also offered a passionate defense of faith in his private life and as a leader.
"I’m going to share my faith, especially when I’m asked, because my faith influences who I am in every aspect of my life," Rubio told an atheist voter at a stop at the Waverly Country Club on Monday morning. "You shouldn’t be worried about my faith influencing me. In fact, I think you should hope my faith influences me."
He said that’s because his faith teaches him he has an obligation to care about the less fortunate, to love his neighbor, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and to minister to those in prison.

I also admired the non-snide reporting of this Rubio quote: 

"I don’t believe in discrimination but I can tell you this: We shouldn’t have a country where a pastor is threatened for losing their tax-exempt status because they refused to conduct a same-sex ceremony. I don’t think we need to live in a country where a baker or a florist is threatened with a fine because they refused to participate in a specific event."

The Globe Gazette then quotes a couple of listeners who liked what they heard. It even says Rubio praised Scott for raising his question, "recognizing he was likely the minority in the room."

Contrast that with The snark starts in the headline, calling Marco Rubio a "man's man." Then Stephen Koff, the Washington bureau chief, yuck-yucks a lede -- "Today's Marco Rubio news: What would an atheist do?"

The rest is pretty much a patch job, excerpting from the Register, the Gazette in Cedar Rapids, the Washington Post and other newspapers. It's fairly straight on Rubio's answer to Justin Scott, the atheist questioner. Then it relapses into mockery -- "On a lighter note, Rubio wants to be a macho man" -- bringing up detractors' gibes about his boots and how "baby-faced" he is.

Time, too, does a New York minute on the meeting. And its headline -- "Marco Rubio Finds God with Atheist Question in Iowa" -- may have sounded funny in the publication's elitist offices, but it limps on the open Internet.

From there, Time launches an analysis/commentary:

For Rubio, the moment couldn’t have been scripted better, providing a window he wanted to highlight his faith as he courts this state’s passionate evangelical Christian voters. In recent months, those voters have consolidated their support behind another freshman senator, Texas’ Ted Cruz, whose own belief and rhetoric more closely aligns with the state’s conservative strain of evangelical Christianity.

Sounds like the Des Moines Register, no? But without attribution. Also, as I say, Time at best blurs the line between fact and opinion.

What of the much-quoted Associated Press, often used in media that can't afford national reporters? Well, it quotes Rubio respectfully …

"No one's going to force you to believe in God. But no one's going to force me to stop talking about God," Rubio told the atheist, Justin Scott, of Waterloo.
Added Rubio, "Not only am I a Christian, not only am I influenced by my faith, but it is the single greatest influence in my life. And from that I'll never hide."

… yet doesn't tell us what Scott asked. It says only that Rubio was "confronted by an atheist during a town hall-style meeting." Then it moves to what AP apparently considers more important: Rubio's alleged rightward swing in order to interest Iowan social conservatives.

AP does, however, return to Rubio's faith toward the end. It has him telling Scott that "I think you should hope my faith influences me," because Christianity "outlines an obligation to care for the less fortunate, to love his neighbor and feed the hungry."

Which, of course, is what the Globe Gazette said. Oh well, if you have to borrow, at least borrow good stuff.

Thumbnail photo by Albert H. Teich /

Please respect our Commenting Policy