Over the past few days, I have been searching for actual updates on the whole BuzzFeed vs. Chip and Joanna Gaines story and, as far as I can tell, there has been little or no news to speak of on that front.
It's clear that, for most journalists, these HGTV stars are cultural heretics who are on the wrong side of history, if not the cable-TV ratings. However, some commentators -- including a few on the cultural left (Brandon Ambrosino here in The Washington Post) -- have asked whether Kate Aurthur of BuzzFeed did the right thing when she probed the couple's silence and, in effect, blamed them for the traditional Christian teachings (on marriage and sex) voiced by their pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Seibert.
For example, Vox has issued one of its usual pieces on What. It. All. Means. The headline is logical: "Chip and Joanna Gaines and the anti-gay controversy over HGTV's Fixer Upper, explained." That's as good a place to start as any, in terms of the status of the journalism issues in this high-profile case.
After expressing lots of outrage over the religious beliefs at the center of the case, Vox reaches the summary paragraphs: "What the fight over the Gaineses’ beliefs is really about." Let's read that:
HGTV has a long history of leaning toward the progressive in the types of people it features on its shows. Same-sex couples are featured in many of its programs. The network airs programs like House Hunters International that sometimes feature non-American same-sex couples, and shows like Property Brothers and Love It or List It have had same-sex couples who had their homes renovated. And the channel stated on December 1 that all of its current programs are open to LGBTQ couples. ...
In 2014 the channel canceled a proposed show, Flip It Forward, because its hosts, David and Jason Benham, were vocally anti-gay. The Benham brothers are sons of a man named Flip Benham, the leader of an organization called Operation Save America, who has gone on the record in saying that “Jesus hates Muslims” and blamed the 2012 Aurora massacre on Democrats. David Benham spoke to a conservative talk show in September 2012 and said, “Homosexuality and its agenda ... is attacking the nation,” plus some nonsense about "demonic ideologies."
Then there is this, the only real commentary on journalism questions:
If Chip or Joanna Gaines had said something on the record similar to Seibert or to the Benham brothers, the motivation for Aurthur’s BuzzFeed article would be more clear, since HGTV seems to have a policy against discriminatory speech and practices. But the crucial detail here is that as far as we know, the Gaineses haven’t said anything similar to Seibert or the Benhams. In fact, they haven’t really publicly positioned themselves to be LGBTQ allies or enemies, nor have they used to the show as a mouthpiece for their church.
So the Gaines camp has remained silent (for the most part), offering some basic evangelical-lingo social media statements about keeping faith in the midst of an unnamed controversy. Such as:
While Smith calls the BuzzFeed editorial policy "horrible," it's pretty clear that this is the new journalism orthodoxy for many reporters and editors in the post-American Model of the press camp.
Thus, here is the policy as stated in the newsroom's online manual of style:
We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. But when it comes to activism, BuzzFeed editorial must follow the lead of our editors and reporters who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first. If we don’t, it makes it harder for those reporters to do their jobs. We encourage cross-team collaboration, but Buzz and Life staffers who wish to write on a hot-button news event should consult with News editors before publishing.
In other words, BuzzFeed journalists are supposed to be "neutral," even though their publication has made it clear that it is not neutral.
Is this policy affirming what many traditional journalists refer to as the "separation of church and state" wall between a news organization's management and editorial views and what goes on in the newsroom? If that is the case, this needs to be stated more clearly by BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and others at the top.
That style guide reference leads us back to an essential M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway piece at The Federalist.
Once again, to state the obvious, the key issue here for journalists is not whether they agree or disagree with the theology lived out (you know, that whole "free exercise" thing) by the Fixer Uppers and folks in their church, but how they will, as journalists, do fair, accurate coverage of moral issues on which Americans are so fiercely divided, usually because of clashing religious beliefs.
Thus. M.Z. noted last year:
Maybe the standards guide should define these issues a bit more. Does it consider the right to end an unborn life a “women’s rights” issue on which there are not two sides? Or what, exactly? What would be an example of a story on which there are not two sides? ...
What would it even mean to say that there are not two sides on an issue that was literally just decided on a 5-4 vote? How does BuzzFeed explain to its readers what that number four represents?
New York’s highest court issued a ruling on the same issue as Obergefell in 2006. It looked at virtually the same constitutional issues as Obergefell did and rather than discovering a foundational right to same-sex marriage, it concluded that if the legislature wanted to change the law, it could, but that defining marriage as the union of husband and wife made tons of sense.
That reference leads to an article in The New York Times, published at the time:
By a 4-2 majority, the Court of Appeals found that the State Legislature, in laws dating back nearly 100 years, intended to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman, and that the Legislature had a rational basis for doing so. ...
The majority decision, written by Judge Robert S. Smith, found that limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sexes was based on legitimate societal goals, primarily the protection and welfare of children. It could well be argued, he said, that children are better off raised by a biological mother and father, rather than by a gay or lesbian couple.
But wait, noted M.Z. What was the name of that judge?
Yep, none other than Ben Smith’s own father.
So to repeat the question: What does it mean to say that there are not two sides on an issue that has divided Americans to this degree?
Is it really possible, with the wave of an editorial hand, to state that the overwhelming majority of the world's traditional Christians (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc.), those who worship in churches that affirm ancient doctrines on sex and marriage, do not deserve news coverage in which their beliefs are handled in a way that is fair and accurate? Ditto, of course, for Orthodox Jews, traditional Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons and lots of other religious believers.
Let's end with an interesting piece by blogger Samuel D. James, who has 10 questions for the BuzzFeed editorial team. Here some of the key questions, but please read it all:
1. How many evangelical Christians do you personally know? How many evangelical Christians are employed by your company? If the answer to either of these questions is “None,” why do you believe that is?
Actually, I would note that there are lots of progressive evangelicals whose doctrinal views might fit in the BuzzFeed newsroom. But I think readers can understand what James is saying.
4. Which do you consider more journalistically noteworthy: The belief that all who do not worship Jesus Christ will eventually be in hell, or the belief that sex is meant only for a man and a woman in marriage? If the first, why is that not the story here? If the second, why is this teaching more significant than the first?
9. Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer for expressing beliefs similar to Jim Seibert? Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer not for expressing such beliefs, but upon discovering the staffer attended a religious gathering that taught them? In your opinion, does being wrong on LGBT make one a bad person?
Let me stress one more time: BuzzFeed has every right to publish whatever its editors want to publish, in terms of editorials and advocacy news pieces. Also, there is no need for BuzzFeed editors to affirm the ancient doctrines proclaimed by millions and millions of traditional religious believers -- from Pope Francis to the Rev. Billy Graham, from the Dalai Lama to St. Mother Teresa.
The issue is whether the BuzzFeed team has a clear and coherent set of editorial policies guiding its work. Is the website committed to basic news or to one-sided advocacy journalism? Please clear up the tension in those editorial guidelines. Put this on the record.