Washington Post bait and switch: When pushy Twitter posts change the rules of the game

For years now, your GetReligionistas have been explaining why it is wrong to blame reporters for the contents of the headlines that run with their stories.

Many readers never make it past the headline, you see. That's bad if the headline is, to be blunt, inaccurate or misleading, in terms of summing up the contents of the story. By the way, I spent a couple of years on a newspaper copy desk early in my career, where one of my primary jobs was to write headlines.

Nothing does more to pull readers into a story than a good headline. Nothing hurts a story more than a bad one.

Now we live in the age of Twitter, which is a completely different kettle of fish. In an effort to promote their work, while also building their personal "brands," many reporters now push out waves of tweets, many of them right on (or just over) the edge of snark. Some of these tweets deserve their own corrections. Hold that thought.

Consider, for example, that "Acts of Faith" feature that ran at The Washington Post under the headline, "God might not want a woman to be president, some religious conservatives say."

This essay struck me as interesting, since I have seen absolutely zero discussion of this issue online. I guess I don't read enough commentary by doctrinally conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims. The big idea of this piece, with Hillary Clinton on the verge of winning it all, is this:

Clinton is poised to be nominated for president by the Democratic Party next week. And so religious hard-liners of all faiths -- the most conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews -- are debating: Do their Scriptures prohibit a female president?
They point out passages in the Bible: Eve’s origin as subordinate to Adam; the Old Testament leader Deborah’s implication that it was shameful that she had to step up to lead the Israelites when male leaders faltered; the New Testament verses that say “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.”
“The Old Testament is very clear that Yahweh desires men to lead,” said Owen Strachan before he stepped down last week as president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The purpose of the organization -- to insist on separate roles for men and women in modern life -- is itself an unpopular view, Strachan acknowledged upfront. “I do stand for a culturally despised position.”

OK, but what about politics?

Frankly, I know plenty (maybe a vast majority, at this moment in time) of very conservative religious folks who would sign up right now for an American Margaret Thatcher. I know absolutely no one who represents the point of view represented in this story, when it comes to politics. However, I know that there are some people out there -- many would embrace the term "fundamentalist" -- who fit this theological profile.

This brings us to a passage near the end of this feature, focusing on the views of a very prominent Southern Baptist educator:

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he recalls this discussion happening in 2008, when Sarah Palin was running for vice president. Ultimately, he said, a candidate’s policies matter more than gender for almost all evangelical voters. ...
This time, evangelicals are starting out disinclined to vote for Clinton because of policy, not persona. Mohler said he hasn’t heard much talk about gender yet -- and he expects he soon will. “I think in general terms, there is a good reason why men tend to lead in these positions. I think embedded in creation is a natural tendency,” he said.
Mohler did note that he admires Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher and a few others -- rare women who he thinks came along at a few right moments in past centuries.

Of course, that's "the Rev." Albert Mohler, but never mind.

This is certainly an interesting perspective and I, for one, would have loved to learn more about the other female political leaders who made Mohler's list. He is, after all, a man with a long and interesting history when it comes to writings and remarks about women in church leadership posts. (Check out this recent video.)

But here is the key: It's pretty clear that Mohler was asked to to name female political -- repeat, "political" -- leaders that he admired. That is, after all, what the story is about.

How does one jump from this passage in a news feature to this edgy tweet by the reporter?

Say what? Mohler could only name to women -- period -- that he admired?

Was that the question he was asked? Just to state one of a zillion or so obvious female saints and geniuses who leap to mind, this Southern Baptist leader was asked to name women he admired, in general, and he didn't mention the great Baptist missionary leader Lottie Moon?

The follow-up tweet, clearly meant to clarify the issue, doesn't help -- appearing to state that the reporter thought that this was a matter of confusion about "respect" vs. "admiration."

Really? That's the correction that was requested?

Let me stress, once again, that journalists do not have to agree with the views of someone like Mohler. However, editors and reporters must strive to understand those views, in order to report them accurately.

But is that what is going on in this case? No, what we have here appears to be a kind of bait-and-switch tweet, meant to draw online clicks from the usual suspects. The tweet is provocative, yes, but it also appears to be inaccurate. The story addresses apples and the tweet, with a sneer, switches the subject to oranges. Or, once again, is politics the only part of life that matters for mainstream journalists, with admirable female politicians being equated with admirable women and that's that?

Correction, please.

Please respect our Commenting Policy