What fuels fake news? Major Tennessee newspapers pledge to oppose 'anti-LGBT' bills

As you would expect, I have been asked more than my share of questions -- in face-to-face encounters and in cyberspace -- about the tsunami of post-Election Day arguments about "fake news."

What do I think of this phenomenon? As it turns out, my answer to this question is directly linked to the work we do here at GetReligion and to my "Journalism Foundations" class that I teach in New York City at The King's College (a class that was also a cornerstone of the old Washington Journalism Center program).

Let me be as brief, because we need to get to a highly relevant case study from The Tennessean in Nashville.

Fake news is real and it's a very dangerous trend in our public discourse. There is fake news on the right, of course, but it also exists on the left (think Rolling Stone). Many Americans are being tempted to consume fake news because they have completely lost trust in the ability of the mainstream press to do accurate, balanced, fair coverage of many of the issues that matter most to people from coast to coast, but especially in the more conservative heartland.

Some of this is political, but we are also talking about "Kellerism" (click here for information on this GetReligion term) and the fact that some elite newsrooms struggle when covering moral, cultural and social issues. Some journalists (thank you Dean Baquet of The New York Times) just don't "get religion."

This brings me to a business story in The Tennessean with this oh-so-typical headline: "Tennessee firms fire warning shot against LGBT laws." Let's see if we can find the key passage that, for many Volunteer State readers, will link directly to their willingness to turn to news sources that mainstream journalists, often with good cause, would call "fake."

The overture, of course, establishes the framing of this 1,300-word report:

In 2016, after North Carolina passed a law that limited LGBT protections and restricted bathroom usage for transgender people, PayPal canceled its planned location in Charlotte, the NBA scrapped plans to hold its All-Star game there, Deutsche Bankhalted expansions planned for Cary, N.C. and the NCAA pulled championship games from the state.
It’s a series of revenue losses that a group of more than 190 Tennessee businesses don’t want to see their state repeat. They have joined together as a coalition, called Tennessee Thrives, to warn lawmakers against similar legislation that they say could be harmful to the state’s economy and impinges on inclusivity, friendliness and equality.
“When everything is going so well, when there is so much opportunity and potential for prosperity, why would we throw a wrench into the works by sending out a message of exclusion?” CMT President Brian Philips said. Pointing to North Carolina, he said, “We don’t want to be that.”

At the heart of this debate, of course, is a now familiar tension between what the cultural left would call "anti-LGBT" laws and what those on the cultural right (which is not always the same as the political right) would call laws that defend the privacy of women and children, as well as the religious liberty rights of religious institutions and non-profits. Yes, the status of religious liberty claims by for-profit business owners is in the mix, as well.

As you would expect, this Tennessean (and Gannett wire) story is viewed through the "LGBT laws" lens. The story, accurately, also reflects the fact that Tennesseans are largely divided, on this issue, into familiar camps defined as rural vs. urban, Democrats vs. Republicans and church people vs. big-money business leaders.

Let me also note -- this is rather rare, in coverage of these stories -- that The Tennessean team did include at least one voice from a religious group, as opposed to (a) ignoring the cultural right all together or (b) limiting that perspective to political arguments alone. Thus, in addition to litanies of information about businesses that back the LGBT line, readers get to hear from "Dale Walker, president of the Tennessee Pastors Network."

Actually, I suspect that we are talking about the Rev. Dale Walker, who is (logically enough) an ordained minister, but who pays attention to that old Associated Press Stylebook these days?

If opponents of bathroom restrictions continue to fight against such measures, the issue will have to be addressed through legislation, he said.
“We don’t feel like a child from a Christian family that goes to school should have to be faced with a situation of that nature, somebody who is transgender wanting to come in and use that bathroom,” Walker said.
He said the corporate sector should also pay attention to the revenue that evangelical groups and church-goers bring to states’ economies, pointing to Target as an example. More than 1 million people signed a petition to boycott the store after it said it would allow transgender workers and customers to use their restroom of their choice.
“Churches and Christians can play this game too,” Walker said. “Churches can pull conventions. They don’t have to come to Nashville to spend their money, or any big city for that matter, that is not family friendly.”

Let me note that, while many people are worried about these issues in public schools and private businesses, they are also worried about religious institutions -- schools, congregations, parachurch ministries, camps, auditoriums -- being declared as "public accommodation" sites and, thus, affected by laws defining gender by standards other than DNA.

However, all of this is beside the point, when it comes to how many readers will evaluate this story when it appears in their local newspaper here in Tennessee.

I have, as journalists would say, buried the lede when it comes to this news piece about the "Tennessee Thrives" movement against these laws defending privacy and/or religious liberty.

Who has signed on to support -- financially and otherwise -- the Tennessee Thrives campaign? Read this carefully.

The businesses who have signed on range from Methodist Le Bonheur hospital in Memphis to Edley's Bar-B-Que in Nashville to the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. HCA, Bridgestone Arena and the Tennessee Aquarium are also among the large employers that have signed on, along with The Tennessean, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Yes, our state's major newspapers have signed on the bottom line and pledged their support in this effort.

So let's say you are a culturally conservative Tennessean (in a state that Donald Trump won easily in the 2016 election) and you read that honest paragraph.

Are you now more or less willing to trust these newspapers when it comes to their hard-news coverage -- as opposed to editorial-page material -- of debates about Tennessee Thrives and its efforts to defeat anti-LGBT/pro-privacy and/or pro-religious liberty bills?

Are you more or less likely -- with results that can be worthwhile or horribly skewed -- to turn to alternative sources of information about these debates? Are you more likely to distrust how these newsrooms cover other issues linked to morality, culture and religion? Are you more likely to become a candidate to consume "fake news"?

Here's one more question (one that I will be asked by locals who still read the major Tennessee newspapers): Do the leaders of these newsrooms have corporate policies that affect whether they can cover news events when their own company has pledged its support to a group that is active on one side of these debates? 

Does this mean that these newspapers will automatically slant their news coverage of these issues? I would say, "We will see. Let's watch this carefully."

Many other Tennesseans -- on both sides of this hot-button issue -- will make quicker judgments. Trust me on that.

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