Rocky Top, you'll always be good for a great debate on the Bible's place in Tennessee

They're at it again in the Volunteer State.

A year ago, we noted Tennessee lawmakers' debate over whether to make the Holy Bible the official state book:

In that 2015 post, I suggested:

If a reporter just listens to both sides and reports what they say, this is one of those stories that almost writes itself — and, in the process, makes for pretty entertaining reading.


I'm not so sure that journalists with national media outlets such as The Associated Press and the Washington Post got that memo. Take the AP coverage, for example. Mark Hemingway — former GetReligionista, senior writer for the Weekly Standard and, most importantly, husband of Mollie — passed along the wire service's report.

The subject line on Hemingway's email:

The snark in this lede ...

Uh huh:

Having already made a .50-caliber sniper gun the official state rifle, Tennessee lawmakers on Monday gave final approval to making the Holy Bible the state's official book.
The state Senate voted 19-8 in favor of the bill despite arguments by the state attorney general that the measure conflicts with a provision in the Tennessee Constitution stating that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."

Opponents argued the Bible would be trivialized by being placed alongside other state symbols such as the official tree, flower, rock or amphibian. But both chambers of the Legislature brushed aside those concerns to send the bill to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. He opposes the measure but hasn't said whether he'll issue a veto.

Keep reading, and the AP declares:

In solidly Republican Tennessee, heavy doses of God and guns are considered reliable election-year politics.

Actually, I don't doubt that statement. During my AP days in Nashville, I followed Tennessee's U.S. Senate nominees as they donned camouflage, armed themselves with shotguns and scoped out doves. 

But I'm not certain that turning the Bible debate into a God-and-guns story is good journalism. In a commentary, yes, a writer might make the above argument. But in a news story, shouldn't the journalist get out of the way and let actual sources debate the issue? That is, if AP is interested in impartial reporting as opposed to thinly veiled editorializing.

Like the AP, the Post put its own spin on the debate in a report heavily weighted toward the opposition:

A tomato, a raccoon, limestone and milk — what do these things have in common? All are state symbols of Tennessee, and soon, they may be joined by the Holy Bible.
Tennessee senators approved 19-8 a bill to designate the Holy Bible as the official state book on Monday. The legislation passed the House last April, and now awaits Gov. Bill Hallam’s approval or veto.
Meanwhile, the prospect of seeing the Bible among the state’s slate of official symbols has set both Christian and non-Christian hearts astir.
The most overt opposition has come from those who view the bill as unconstitutional in privileging the views of one religion over others. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said as much in a legal opinion obtained by the Associated Press last April, in which he quoted a provision of the Tennessee Constitution: “no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” There’s also the small matter of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars the establishment of religion by the states and U.S. government.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has also been fighting the bill.

At this point, you may be wondering if it's even possible for a mainstream media report to cover this subject in a fair and evenhanded manner. 

Good news: Yes, it is!

Enter The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper, with this refreshingly old-school approach:

Tennessee is poised to make history as the first state in the nation to recognize the Holy Bible as its official book.
After nearly 30 minutes of debate, the state Senate on Monday approved the measure, sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, with a 19-8 vote, sending the legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.
While proponents stressed the historic significance of the holy book and its religious meaning, some opponents argued that the bill trivializes something they hold sacred while others stressed constitutional reservations.
Haslam and Attorney General Herbert Slatery have raised similar questions about the constitutionality of the legislation. Last year, Slatery issued an opinion suggesting the measure would violate separation of church and state provisions in the federal and state constitutions.
Southerland tried to allay those fears, arguing that his bill relies on the historical and cultural impact the Bible has had on the state.
"The Holy Bible is a history book," he said, quoting comments he received from a Jewish friend, during an at times emotional plea in favor of the legislation.
Arguing against the measure, Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, said he believes the measure would degrade the Holy Scriptures.
"The Bible is a book of history, but it is not a history book to be placed on the shelf," he said.

Where's the snark in that lede? (Not any.) What's the reporter's opinion? (No idea.) Who can tell where The Tennessean stands on the measure? (Nobody.)

If only more news organization would provide such journalistically impressive answers.


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