Graham and Trump? Charlotte Observer's coverage shows a kind of fixation

Decent story idea: Cover Franklin Graham's 50th and last God-and-country rally. Did it somehow mutate? Because more than half of the Charlotte Observer's article was about Graham's purported relationship with Donald Trump.

Yes, the story dealt with other things. Prayers for victims of Hurricane Matthew. Fallout from HB2, the law in North Carolina that bans all cities from making gender-identity bathroom ordinances. Graham denouncing Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts for her tight relationship with the LGBT community. The wrap-up of Graham's 50-state Decision America tour (although, for some reason, that title doesn't appear in the article).

But the lion's share of the 1,100 words probes every possible link between the evangelist and the politician. It even insinuates that he all but endorses Trump:

Addressing the presidential race, Graham said many Christians have told him they don’t like either Republican Donald Trump, who has lately come under fire for lewd comments about women, or Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has been widely criticized for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Graham’s recommendation: "Hold your nose and go vote" for the would-be president who will appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who will protect "religious liberty" and stand against abortion.
"This election is not about (Trump’s) vulgar language. And it’s not about (Clinton’s) emails that are missing," Graham told his flock. "It’s about the Supreme Court."
Since Trump has pledged to nominate justices approved by conservatives – he even released a list of possibilities – Graham’s comments sound to many like a tacit endorsement of Trump.

Ummm, yeah. Two devices that roll our eyes here at GetReligion.

First, those sarcasm quotes around "religious liberty." As if the phrase isn’t worth respectful reporting. As I've said other times, imagine similar quotes for phrases like gay "rights" or gender "identity" or abortion "providers." As long as the Observer was paraphrasing, why didn't it choose a less-pejorative expression like "what Graham termed religious liberty"?

The other gaffe in the above excerpt: "Graham’s comments sound to many like a tacit endorsement of Trump." This is, of course, the device we call "Sources Say." Without an attributed source, it looks like either (1) "I heard it somewhere, but I can't find anyone who actually said it," or (2) "I can't put my opinions in a news article, so I'll pretend someone said it."

The Trump-Graham connections are explored not at the Decision America rally, but in two interviews: one with the Observer, the other with WBTV. Those interviews are valuable for the chance to raise issues that don’t come up elsewhere.  Also for giving Graham a chance to reply in something better than an email or a Facebook post.

One subtopic is the money link:

In 2012, at Graham’s request, Trump instructed his family foundation to contribute $100,000 to the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which Franklin Graham heads.
Graham told the Observer the money was used to help pay for full-page newspaper ads just before that year’s election urging Christians to vote for candidates supporting "biblical values." The ads, which featured a likeness of Billy Graham, were widely interpreted as a way to boost the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney.

I know: "widely interpreted" is another form of "Sources Say." So, a half-point there: allowing Graham to reply, but then spinning it as more politics.

The other money matter was $25,000 from the Trump Foundation in 2012 to Samaritan’s Purse, a relief agency that Graham founded and still runs. Graham says Greta Van Susteren, a former Fox News anchor, told Trump of her trip to Haiti and urged Trump to donate. Doesn't say whether Graham asked her to ask Trump, though.

Elsewhere in the talk with the Observer, Graham downplays recent allegations about Trump and sexual harassment, although he denounced the candidate's crude 2005 boasts. He says that much of the Trump bashing is standard political mudslinging.

Then there's this mystifying section:

Graham also disagreed with those who have charged that evangelical leaders like him are being too easy on the thrice-married Trump, who owned gambling casinos and who has been besieged by charges of racism, xenophobia and, most recently, vulgar sexism.
"I’m concerned about where we are as a nation today," Graham said. "Trump is 70 years old. And I just don’t think that his interest in women and those types of things are as strong as they were 15 years ago."

So the paper loads on the Trump trashing, but records what sounds like a dodge from Graham. Is that really all he said back? Why didn’t the Observer add a follow-up question like: "Perhaps, but what about Trump's lifestyle and attitudes, which seem so different from that of the evangelicals that he's courting? How do you view that?" You know, making sure Graham answers what was asked?

The article does relay Graham's belief that, "unlike most politicians, Trump was really running to help the country":

"Why, at 70, does Trump care about doing this?" Graham said in the interview. "He doesn’t need money, he doesn’t need fame. He’s certainly not going to use the government to make money for himself. It’s going to cost him money. I think maybe he’s doing this for the right reason. Maybe."

Now, nothing I've said is a criticism for bringing up Graham's views of Trump, or even the two financial links. When someone inserts himself into politics, he opens the door to public scrutiny.

Praise, too, for media in getting a sit-down interview with Franklin. So many articles settle for statements sent by email or posted on websites or Facebook pages. Face time between the veteran evangelist and North Carolina's largest newspaper was good for everyone, including the readers.

What is not so good was the near-obsession with Trump questions. What contacts, if any, has Graham had with Hillary Clinton? What does he think about criticisms against her? How does he appraise her motives for running? Does she not want to help the country, as Trump does?

When an article asks question after question about Graham and one candidate, and none about the other candidate, it's shaky to suggest he may have made a "tacit endorsement" of that one. From where I sit, it's evident who is really fixated on Trump: the Charlotte Observer itself.

Thumb: Franklin Graham, courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

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