Elvis statues, segregation: Atlanta paper lays Deep South template over Nashville news

The Atlanta Journal Constitution raises Deep South, Civil War-era caricatures in its weekend story on cultural stresses in Tennessee.  And it does so in almost a robotic, paint-by-the-numbers style.

The article strains mightily to contrast urbane, liberal city dwellers with backward, "ignorant" -- yes, one source uses that word -- country folk. It takes a patronizing attitude toward these yahoos and pits people on the street against scholars and think-tankers. It even compares so-called "bathroom bills" in some states with "White" and "Colored" signs from segregation days.

How else to read paragraphs like:

Across the country -- the South in particular -- a wave of bills, proposals and court fights in recent months are again ramping up the culture wars. The measures come in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, a decision many religious conservatives see as an assault on their beliefs.


The South finds itself in the middle of that conflict. It’s a place where city folks may have a decidedly different take on social issues than their peers in the country, a region where progressive notions rub up against more traditional, conservative values.

For context, the article brings Georgia's"religious liberty" bill -- complete with sarcasm quotes -- vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal. There's also Gov. Bill Haslam vetoing a bill to make the Bible the state book in Tennessee, then signing a bill to let counselors refer out people who conflict with their "sincerely held principles" -- yes, more sarcasm quotes -- to reject gay, lesbian, transgender and other clients. Would it be better for these religious counselors to handle these cases, even though they have a clear conflict of interest?

Finally, there are the "bathroom bills" in Virginia and North Carolina. Bathrooms, you know, were "a flashpoint in the Civil rights era when they were segregated for blacks and whites," AJC says. It admits that such bills are being considered in more than a dozen states -- including Kansas, Washington and Massachusetts -- yet it still makes them a symptom of southern bigotry.

I called this a paint-by-the-numbers story, but the numbers section is especially weak. In trying to show how the nation is changing, AJC cites the U.S. Census counting more than 640,000 households six years ago. "The numbers have not declined since then." How does that show change?

Then the article mentions UCLA's Williams Institute think tank, which says nine million Americans, roughly 3 percent of the population then, self-identified as LGBT back in 2010. What percentage since then? Doesn't say.

Various survey results, in fact, wander. In 2012, for instance, Gallup said about 3.4 percent of Americans identify as LGBT. But two years later, the Centers for Disease Control said that 1.6 percent of adults identified as gay, while another 0.7% identified as bisexual -- a lower-than-usual count, Time magazine notes. AJC doesn't acknowledge this fuzziness.

Then we get talking heads from the ACLU and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, talking about ignorant conservatives taking power and passing laws. No, I'm not exaggerating: "They're using their ignorance to say, ‘We are uncomfortable with these people'," an ACLU attorney says of legislators.

What do scholars and lawyers on the other side say? AJC doesn't say. Instead, it visits a Nashville street "where music piped from one storefront competes with tunes rolling out of the next place, where Fiberglas Elvises fix passersby with a permanent lip curl."

Interviewees include a girl selling bracelets made from guitar strings. Also the owner of Ernest Tubb Records and the manager of a candy store. I'm a little surprised the paper didn’t look up someone in a gray Confederate uniform to quote.

And the conservatives don’t get to say much -- just things like "It's our culture" and that change "begins with religion." But they're apparently not militant enough, because AJC flits back to Atlanta for a God-and-country rally:

"We are at war!" said the Rev. Garland Hunt, senior pastor at The Father’s House, a nondenominational church in Norcross. "Who would ever believe that man would redefine marriage? Who would believe anyone would redefine men’s and women’s bathrooms?"
Hunt gestured toward the governor’s office in the Capitol, standing stark and white against the gray sky. "He (Deal) does not have the authority to veto God out of the state of Georgia!"

Why him? Probably because the newspaper had quoted him in March, criticizing Gov. Deal for vetoing the religious objections bill. I guess Nashville doesn't have similar pastors.

This is just one example of the lengths some mainstream media -- even southern ones like the Atlanta Journal Constitution -- will go to impose the template. They not only divide the nation into the urbane, sophisticated North versus the primitive, prejudiced South; they also divide the South into the urbane, sophisticated cities versus the primitive, prejudiced countryside.

Sadly, the situation seems to be worsening after some signs of hope. In 2000, Nashville-based Vanderbilt University updated its landmark Bridging the Gap study of religion and media. The original 1993 document found that most coverage was about "familiar-formula stories on religious celebrities, sectarian tragedies, sexual scandals and offbeat claims of supernatural activity."

The 2000 update found that newspapers delegated more space to religion news. Unfortunately, "[M]any of the reasons cited for misunderstandings between organized religion and the news media, are unlikely to disappear." Those reasons include:

An unhealthy distrust exists between religionists and journalists, even a fear of each other in many cases. Religious figures fear being misunderstood and misrepresented; journalists fear making mistakes and incurring religious wrath. The resulting apprehensions inhibit the free flow of information and only add to misunderstanding.

Sixteen years later, things are arguably worse. Newspapers are shrinking, staffs are dwindling, and Godbeat pros (among other specialists) are being laid off. The papers still cover religion, but often use a blend of contempt and culture war templates. And they wonder why people don’t seem to trust the media.

Picture credit: Image from "The soldier in our Civil War : a pictorial history of the conflict, 1861-1865, illustrating the valor of the soldier as displayed on the battle-field, from sketches drawn by Forbes, Waud, Taylor, Beard, Becker, Lovie, Schell, Crane." Thumbnail image from "Confederate echoes: a voice from the South in the days of secession and of the Southern Confederacy" (1907).  Both from Internet Book Images on Flickr. No known copyright restrictions.

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