Hysteria? CNN's one-sided obsession with Robert Jeffress goes way over the top

Before any inauguration, media all over town are snooping about, hoping to get unusual stories that no one else is getting. I spent 16 years working in Washington, D.C., so I know the drill.

When CNN learned who was preaching the early morning pre-inauguration sermon to the Trump family, its piece on the lead preacher sounded more like Adolf Hitler himself was showing up. I am no fan of this particular Baptist preacher, but I also don't like journalistic attempts to nuke someone using every weapon in the advocacy journalism arsenal.

Just try to count the scare quotes in this one. Note that every possible alarming fact (yes, lots of them are valid) was thrown in as one more reminder that Donald Trump likes to surround himself with people not fit for polite company. Try to find any sign that the CNN team even considered seeking voices on the other side.

(CNN) A pastor with a long history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays is scheduled to preach at a private service for President-elect Trump and his family on Friday, shortly before Trump takes the oath of office.
The pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, is a Southern Baptist who vigorously campaigned for Trump during the final months of the presidential election and is a member of his evangelical advisory board. "I love this guy!" Trump has said of Jeffress. ...
Usually the Inauguration Day service draws little notice, much less controversy. But offering Jeffress such a prominent pulpit is likely to irk religious minorities, particularly Muslims, many of whom were already angered by the President-elect's stoking of suspicions about Islam during the campaign.

Earth to CNN: You do know that Trump could care less about whether he irks anyone?

After mentioning that Jeffress called Mormonism a cult during the 2012 presidential election (many evangelicals feel this way -- for doctrinal, not sociological, reasons -- so this is not all that shocking), CNN rehashed some of Jeffress’ quotes railing against gays, the Catholic Church and so on.

It also posted a four-year-old video dating back to the 2012 election that was an interview with Jeffress as to why Christian voters have every right to elect a fellow Christian. CNN’s web editor should have chosen better stuff, as that particular video showed Jeffress smoothly outfoxing the anchor.

The article continues:

In recent years, Jeffress has frequently denounced Islam, calling it an "evil religion" that "promotes pedophilia" because the Prophet Muhammed married a 9-year-old girl. (Many modern Muslim scholars disagree about her age.) The pastor has also said that Mormons, Muslims and Hindus "worship a false god."

Evangelical Protestant denunciations of Islam are hardly new and the assertion that Muhammad consummated his marriage with nine-year-old Aisha was attested to by the girl herself in the Hadith (Bukhari 5:58:234, if you want the verse).

CNN’s main source in this story was the Rev. Luis León, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church (site of the early morning service), who said the inaugural committee picked Jeffress. It also quoted Fox TV, which had more details on what Jeffress will preach about  on the Bill O’Reilly show.

I listened to what Jeffress told O’Reilly and I wish CNN would have used more from that tape. But no, it resurrected the specter of Trump going after lesbians and gays by quoting two organizations that despise the man. As in this:

"Unfortunately, the choice of Rev. Jeffress is symptomatic of the incoming Trump administration's inclusion of notorious Islamophobes in the transition team, in the picks for cabinet nominees and, beginning Friday, in the White House," said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.
Ross Murray, director of programs for GLAAD, said he is also concerned about the inclusion of Jeffress in Friday's service.
"The inauguration and the people invited to pray at the inauguration speak to the values and the agenda of the incoming president. Jeffress' anti-LGBTQ message is now going to be tied to this administration and its policies."

Then the piece completely abandoned any pretense of being news and morphed into an editorial.

Even though the service will be private, Jeffress is an unusual choice to preach on Inauguration Day, an occasion when incoming presidents often try to unite the country's diverse religious and social strands. In 2013, the Rev. Louie Giglio, an evangelical pastor, withdrew from Obama's inauguration ceremony after an outcry about a sermon on homosexuality he had preached in the 1990s.
According to Leon, other participants in Friday's service at St. John's are a mix of old-guard evangelicals and Trump loyalists. They include: Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, televangelist James Robison and Pastor Mark Burns, who has admitted to falsifying aspects of his biography, such as nonexistent stints in the Army Reserve and a college degree he did not earn.

Yes, let’s mention what complete jerks these invitees are. The article does admit that a more diverse panel will pray and speak during the actual inauguration. Then it swung back into a second list of Jeffress’ sins:

But Jeffress' denunciations of gays and Muslims often stretch beyond the realms of sin and salvation. He has called homosexuality "degrading," and linked it to pedophilia, alcoholism, depression and suicide, while insisting that his remarks are rooted in concern for gays -- a way of showing them the true path to salvation.
In a 2008 sermon, he urged his congregation to demonstrate compassion toward gays, even as he condemned their "filthy behavior."

OK, OK, we get the message. Y’all think this guy is a Neanderthal. He's no shrinking violet and the above photo that shows him posing in the pulpit at St. John's was splashed all over his Twitter and Facebook pages.

Why couldn't this piece have been more nuanced like this Time magazine article on how Trump's religious picks for the inauguration ceremony include three people who outright disagree with him. It also has fresh material from Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Paula White, two of the six clergy who'll be at the inauguration. 

Instead, this CNN piece was a rehash, a sermon preached to its choir. By the way, a huge diversity of preachers and pray-ers will appear at the National Cathedral the following day for the traditional interfaith service celebrating the new president. Christianity Today has a list of all the speakers.

Even that service has become controversial, with the former dean of the cathedral saying that the church should not legitimize Trump’s election.

Sometimes I think media love Trump because he’s incredible clickbait. The Rev. Thomas Reese makes this point in his latest column in the National Catholic Reporter. Forgive me for quoting a large clump of copy, but I think Reese is onto something. After remarking that the media loves Trump because he draws readers like moths to a candle: 

Media executives know that stories about Trump, both positive and negative, attract readers and viewers. That means more money in ad revenues.
This is the best year in the history of cable news," the president of CNN told The Hollywood Reporter back in November.
Primetime ratings for CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC during the election were up over 50 percent from the previous year. Liberals tune in to curse Trump; conservatives tune in to cheer him. Network executives don't care as long as they tune in.
Greater viewership means greater ad revenues. Cable revenues for 2016 were expected to reach $2 billion, a 15 percent increase over 2015 and a 25 percent increase over the last election year, 2012.
Business reporters in Fortune are already speculating on how cable TV will survive a post-election slump.
The obvious way to avoid a slump is to continue to obsess over Trump. We saw that during the presidential transition, and we will continue to see it now that Trump is president.

I don’t reporters walk into work thinking, “What inflammatory story can I write about Trump today?” However, Reese's view does capture how a lot of people think the media function.

Reporters would do themselves a favor if they don't go along with the stereotypes, but rather offer new insights about Trump that may show why so many people voted for him. We already know about the bad stuff.

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