"Don't take the bait: What Pat Robertson said about Las Vegas isn't really news."
Somebody made that case the other day.
OK, maybe that somebody was me.
But after hearing some excellent feedback from respected Godbeat colleagues (more on that feedback in a moment), I've reconsidered my position. Have I actually changed my position? You'll have to read on to find out.
In case you missed my original post, a few mainstream media organizations — including the HuffPost — reported on Robertson blaming disrespect for President Trump, in part, for the Las Vegas mass shooting in which 59 people died and more than 500 were wounded.
Others mentioning his remarks — and I discovered this only after publishing the first post (thank you, Cheryl Bacon!) — included the New York Times.
The relevant paragraph from that Times article, headlined "Terrorizing if Not Terrorism: What to Call the Las Vegas Attack?":
Then the F.B.I. knocked down the Islamic State angle, noting that the group has a history of false claims. The guessing game resumed: Was it a plot by “deep-state Democrats” (Alex Jones of the conspiracy site Infowars) or perhaps divine punishment for the “profound disrespect”shown to Mr. Trump and the national anthem (the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson)? Was it something to do with country music, given the concert crowd Mr. Paddock targeted? Could it be linked in any way to the long-ago history of Mr. Paddock’s father as a bank robber on the F.B.I.’s most-wanted list?
The gist of my original argument against turning Robertson's comments into news:
When there's a major tragedy, here's another thing you can count on: Pat Robertson opening his mouth.
So yes, Robertson weighed in on Las Vegas. Was there any doubt that he would? But is there any possibility that what he said amounted to actual news?
Probably not, as a million (only slightly exaggerating) past GetReligion posts make clear.
"The key is that there are so many people within evangelicalism who are — for better and for worse — more interesting and influential than Robertson at this point in his career," GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly wrote way back in 2005. (That same year, Poynter.org published another excellent Mattingly piece on this subject, titled "Excommunicating Pat Robertson.")
The pushback against my position came on my personal Facebook page, where I had shared a link to the post.
From Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a former GetReligionista and a national religion writer for the Washington Post:
I think you make good points! One question I have, though, is: does this change that Robertson has pretty good access to Trump? He interviewed him recently, he was a strong supporter of him. He's not a small Westboro Baptist leader. He's actually very influential among a certain subset. Normally I'd say ignore, but I also wonder if maybe we did too much ignoring during the campaign.
It doesn't change "my" opinion. But you certainly raise a relevant question. Is it your impression that Robertson is an influential Trump adviser, at the level of, say, Robert Jeffress or Paula White? And do you think Robertson's overall influence is any greater in the Trump era than it had fallen previously?
I don't think he's gone to the White House, no. But I think CBN and his other creations are pretty important. Its hard to say who he's influencing and how much, but I don't think we can write him off as easily as I might have in the past, maybe under Obama. I think the election raised the q of whether the obituaries for the old religious right were premature.
Interesting. I'd read that story. 😀
At that point, Bob Smietana — the Nashville, Tenn.-based veteran religion writer who is a former president of the Religion News Association — weighed in:
Sarah is right.
His show claims a million viewers a day. It's in most major markets. Broadcast all over the world. It's a big player http://www1.cbn.com/about/cbn-partners-history
If you want to see how big the Christian broadcasting audience is-- come the NRB conference. They fill the Opryland Hotel. Exhibition hall is packed out.
I mean, we did not cover this as news (due to staff avail), so I don't feel super strongly. I just think you could make a case either way, since he does this kind of thing.
Bob, Are you saying major news orgs should report on Robertson's Vegas comments?
I noticed that both the Post and RNS published opinion pieces, but not news stories (unless I missed them).
I'd say Robertson is worth covering. Not everything he says is newsworthy.
In fact, covering the crazy might distract us from covering the actual access that CBN has to the White House.
Tony Carnes, publisher/editor of A Journey Through NYC Religions, chimed in:
I would rather hear about the sermon on Psalm 23 entitled "Hurricane Christianity" that the pastor at Calvary Chapel Puerto Rico preached right after Hurricane Maria hit. Trump visited that church today. Does that mean Pastor Jason Dennett is more influential than Pat Robertson? Over 3000 churches were damaged or destroyed in PR.
Thanks your comment, Tony. I'm not quite sure I understand your point concerning Dennett being more influential than Robertson. Help me?
Trump came to Dennett while Robertson can't even get into White House. A jokey comnent. Most impt is that we need to focus on repirting on the chuches and people in Puerto Rico.
Likewise we should focus on the actual people and churches helping after the shooting at the concert.
As you can see, the first post generated some terrific discussion — even if not everyone agreed with me.
Overall, I stand by what I said originally. But context is everything. If a media org can quote Robertson in such a way that puts him and what he said into a proper context, then I'd be more apt to consider it newsworthy and take it seriously.
Meanwhile, if you're looking for some actual religion journalism worth your time in the wake of Las Vegas, The Tennessean's religion writer, Holly Meyer, has a thought-provoking piece that's certainly interesting:
Spoiler alert: Meyer mentions a certain televangelist with the initials "P.R." Feel free to comment and let me know what you think of his presence in the story and how he's quoted. I'll save my thoughts so as not to prejudice your opinion one way or another.