Washington Post on God, food, work: What did the politician say? Does that matter anymore?

It's a question that keeps bothering me, even though I know the answer.

Why do major newspapers keep cranking up the number of opinion, analysis and commentary pieces in their daily buffet of "news" these days, even when "covering" events that in the past would have received ordinary, hard-news, "let's try to be accurate and balanced" coverage?

This phenomenon is linked to the Internet, of course, with its emphasis on attracting loyal readers who will click on your links day after day after day and then forward them on to their like-minded friends. The old business model -- exposing advertisers to as many people, and as many kinds of people, as possible -- is fading fast. More and more, news is about preaching to the choir.

Ask the people signing up all of those angry post 2016-election digital subscribers at The New York Times (I signed up in the mid-1990s). Ask the producers of the opinion-talk shows at MSNBC and Fox News. Ask the folks at BuzzFeed and Breitbart.

So how does one judge the quality of "news" that is openly labeled "analysis"? You already know that it is commentary that is going to favor one side. Do you expect the analyst to be fare to viewpoints on both sides of a debate? No. Do you expect them to be open about the worldviews of their sources? No.

But how about mere accuracy? That's the main question raised by conservative Sean Davis at The Federalist, in a piece in which he -- opening with a they don't "get religion" rally cry --  digs into a liberal Washington Post analysis piece that ran with this scorching headline: "GOP lawmaker: The Bible says ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat’."

There's lots to discuss here, but the main Post material being debated is this:

One lawmaker is citing a godly reference to justify changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) recently quoted the New Testament to question the strength of current work requirements.

The biblical passage, 2 Thessalonians 3-10, was a rebuttal to one of the hearing’s expert witnesses, a representative of the Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON. (He referenced Leviticus.) It is also a familiar refrain to anyone who has watched past debates about SNAP.

House Republicans have historically cited the verse -- “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” -- as justification for cutting some adults’ SNAP benefits. Arrington referenced the verse in a discussion about increasing the work requirements for unemployed adults on the food stamp program. But critics say that advances a pernicious myth about the unemployed who receive SNAP.

There are a few problems here, noted Davis.

There are a few problems, however, with that story from Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey: the lawmaker never said that, the Bible never says that, and the Washington Post article never even quotes the Texas Republican as saying that. In fact, the article doesn’t quote Arrington a single time. Not one word. Because democracy dies in darkness, or something.

Now, one of the safest things that a reporter can do, when struggling with complex material, is to simply offer readers direct quotes that put people on the record.

That's where things broke down in this case. Thus, Davis offers readers a link to the actual text, as recorded in a YouTube video (at the top of this post). The key quotes are at the end, near the 2:38 point::

I did hear, Mr. Protas, your opening remarks where you quoted Leviticus, I believe, and I think that’s a great reflection on the character of God and the compassion of God’s heart and how we ought to reflect that compassion in our lives.

But, there’s also, the scripture tells us in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.'” And then he goes on to say, “We hear that some among you are idle.”

I think that every American, Republican or Democrat, wants to help the neediest among us. And I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements. I think that gives more credibility quite frankly, to SNAP. Tell me what is a reasonable and responsible work requirement as part of the SNAP program?

Thus, Davis notes:

At no point did Arrington ever declare that the Bible requires that the unemployed shall not eat. Not once. At no point did Arrington ever say, “The Bible says the unemployed shall not eat.”

There is much more to this debate and I would urge GetReligion readers to check out both the commentary by Davis and the commentary by the Post.

Of course, there is my point again: Why did the major news source inside the D.C. Beltway choose to cover this hearing with an opinion piece, as opposed to a normal, balanced news story? That leads to the other question: What standards of journalism do we apply to commentary, advocacy work of this kind? Does the writer NEED to let readers know what the congressman said, in terms of a direct quote? Or does the editors get to edit according to an editorial template of what is true and what is not?

Let me know what you think, in our comments section.

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