Damned by association: BuzzFeed 'news' story goes after the 'Fixer Upper' couple

Yesterday, the quasi news-entertainment-gossip-vent site BuzzFeed posted a piece about a couple who has put together a very popular HGTV show about home remodeling. Their crime: They attend a megachurch where, the subhead said, "Their pastor considers homosexuality to be a 'sin' caused by abuse -- whether the Fixer Upper couple agrees is unclear." 

BuzzFeed was angling to rally a digital mob after this couple, but that's not quite what happened.

Yes, this click-bait piece did get a lot of traction on social media within a few hours, much of which was furious reaction from liberals and conservatives alike who felt the article was nothing but a hit piece. Responses on Twitter ran quite the gamut from calling BuzzFeed “the new Inquisition” to one poster who wondered, “I thought it was the alt-right folks who were bringing back McCarthyism.”

Here's how BuzzFeed started it all:

Chip and Joanna Gaines’ series Fixer Upper is one of the most popular shows on HGTV. The couple has recently graced the cover of People magazine; their book, The Magnolia Story, has been on the New York Times’ best-seller list for five weeks; and they were the subject of a long profile in Texas Monthly that credited them with revitalizing the city of Waco, Texas, where the show is set and where their businesses are located.

So far, so good. Then:

They are also, as they detail in The Magnolia Story, devout Christians — Joanna has spoken of and written about her conversations with God. (God told her both to close her store to spend time with her children, and then to reopen it a few years later.) Their church, Antioch Community Church, is a nondenominational, evangelical, mission-based megachurch. And their pastor, Jimmy Seibert, who described the Gaineses as “dear friends” in a recent video, takes a hard line against same-sex marriage and promotes converting LGBT people into being straight.

The BuzzFeed folks may not realize this yet, but a lot of evangelical pastors oppose same-sex marriage. Many also endorse conversion therapy, the name most often used for counseling for people who seek help (or seek help for their children) with unwanted same-sex attractions and behaviors. Is this news that Seibert feels this way? 

BuzzFeed goes on to admit it doesn’t have a real news story here, but it’s going to work awfully hard at creating one:

So are the Gaineses against same-sex marriage? And would they ever feature a same-sex couple on the show, as have HGTV’s House Hunters and Property Brothers? Emails to Brock Murphy, the public relations director at their company, Magnolia, were not returned. Nor were emails and calls to HGTV’s PR department.
Fixer Upper has fans of all stripes: Christians, feminists, and LGBT viewers have all found something to love in the Gaineses. So in the absence of a response from them or their representatives, it’s worth looking at the severe, unmoving position Seibert and Antioch take on same-sex marriage.

“Severe, unmoving?”

The article then rehashes a sermon Seibert gave on the matter after the Obergefell decision. At this point, most people would think: So what? Did we -- meaning pros in the mainstream press -- blame President Barack Obama for the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons? Do we blame Mitt Romney for every jot and tittle of Mormon theology?

Of course we shouldn’t but we’re in a new era these days when you’re not only damned for the company you keep, but the church you attend.

What was amazing after this sorry excuse for a story broke on Wednesday morning was how within a few hours, we had everyone from the New York Times to Cosmopolitan either giving the Gaines the hate treatment or wondering what the people at BuzzFeed were smoking.

Ross Douthat of the Times was one of the first responders:

By early afternoon BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith was defending the article on Twitter.

I can’t reproduce all the replies here but do read them, as many of the responders were talking about BuzzFeed’s journalistic errors, starting with creating a non-story after not getting a response from the couple.

Some of the better response tweets that had to do with basic, hard-core journalism issues:

And pay special attention to the BuzzFeed URL in this one:

And more:

Of course bloggers had a field day with this heresy hunt. I’ll just lift one paragraph from what Gospel Coalition blogger Trevin Wax wrote

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen reality TV stars come under fire for Christian beliefs. It’s happened to the Duck Dynasty patriarch, the Duggars (before their other scandals), and the Benham Brothers. After an initial “uncovering” of the disturbing perspective, outrage ensues, ultimatums are given, the stars are expected to recant, or the company is pressured to punish the heretics by cutting ties.

Although some folks in the BuzzFeed comment section were railing against the “bigotry” on the part of the couple, more were posting scathing comments about Buzzfeed’s motives.

 "I mean they are TV hosts who do construction," said one. "Do they do good design? Yes. Good construction? Yes. Ok we're done here. ... Who cares if they think homosexuality is a sin. Are they campaigning for hate of these people? No. Stop!"

Said another: "This is a tired, forced witch hunt. You are inciting a wave of negative attention on this couple for something that indirectly links to them. That's not journalism, it's petty bullshit."

By Wednesday evening the fracas had made it to some of the larger conservative media, including Fox TV, the Washington Times and the Daily Caller, which blogged here and here about the issue. This morning, it was in the Washington Post, albeit an opinion piece by a gay writer who called BuzzFeed's article "a hit piece."

(In case anyone wants to read some real journalism about the Gaines and their remodeling show, this recent piece in Texas Monthly is a good start. The writer is a bit bemused by their Christian beliefs, but she also reports that Joanna Gaines sent a gay waiter (who was new in town) and his partner a large bag of swag from the show. A USA Today story that ran a few weeks ago didn’t even touch on the couple’s beliefs.)

This blog has long wondered why people even consider BuzzFeed a news source, as it’s a bewildering mix of entertainment, personal outrage and editorials with a sliver of actual reporting. However, it's clear that BuzzFeed matters in the world of social media.

What’s frightening is how quickly the digital lynch mob forms. Fortunately, a lot of the mainstream news outlets ignored the story, seeing it for what it was. The Gaines wisely stayed under the radar all day although Chip Gaines posted the following:

 

What's disturbing is the groupthink that web sites such as BuzzFeed's wish to force on anyone who disagrees and the power media have to destroy a career -- or a TV show -- in a day. I'm glad that saner voices have prevailed for now. I'm sure we've not heard the last of it. I'm betting that BuzzFeed is going to be nipping at this couple's heels, demanding a position statement on gay marriage.

Remember, it only takes a few wolves to bring someone down.

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