Brownback has critics and supporters: All these voices matter when covering religious freedom debates

If you have followed news about the many, many clashes between the emerging doctrines of sexual liberty and the First Amendment's "free exercise" of religion clause, you know this isn't a tidy, simple story with two sides and that's that.

Coverage of Sam Brownback's nomination to a key global religious freedom post is the latest fight.

Yes, there are LGBTQ activists in these debates and there are cultural conservatives. But there are also economic and libertarian conservatives who embrace gay-rights arguments and old-style liberals (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind) who back gay rights and the defense of religious liberty, free speech and the freedom of association. There are Catholics on both sides. There are self-identified evangelicals on both sides.

In the mainstream press, this conflict has put extra pressure on journalists, with some striving to accurately and fairly cover voices on all sides, while others have thrown in the editorial towel and embraced open advocacy in their coverage. BuzzFeed remains the most candid newsroom on this front, with its "News Standards and Ethics Guide" that states:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.

Leaders at the New York Times have not been that candid, at least while in power. There was, of course, that 2011 talk by former editor Bill Keller (days after he retired) in which he said America's most powerful newsroom never slants its news coverage "aside from" issues -- such as gay rights -- that were part of the "liberal values, sort of social values thing" that went with the Times being a "tolerant, urban" institution.

Is this "Kellerism" ethic, or doctrine, still being used? Let's take a look at a key chunk of a recent Times news story that ran with this headline: "In One Day, Trump Administration Lands 3 Punches Against Gay Rights." The overture paints the big picture:

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration abruptly waded into the culture wars over gay rights this week, signaling in three separate actions that it will use the powers of the federal government to roll back civil rights for gay and transgender people.
Without being asked, the Justice Department intervened in a private employment lawsuit on Wednesday, arguing that the ban on sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not protect workers on the basis of their sexual orientation. The friend-of-the-court brief, filed at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, was a striking shift in tone from the Obama administration, which had shied away from that question.
The move ended a day that began with a tweet from President Trump announcing a ban on transgender people serving in the military, surprising Pentagon leaders and reversing a year-old Obama administration policy.
Also ... Mr. Trump announced that he would nominate Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas and a vocal opponent of gay rights, to be the nation’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

The usual Trump-ian chaos surrounded two of these stories, which led some cultural and moral conservatives to note that there were times when it was hard for anyone to defend this president's tweet-zap approach to policy decisions.

What interests me is the part of this report covering the nomination of Brownback to the international religious freedom post.

Now, it's clear that Brownback -- an evangelical convert to Catholicism -- is a controversial figure for the cultural, religious and political left, for a variety of reasons. Any well-researched and balanced news story about his nomination to this post would have to cover the views of LGBTQ and abortion-rights activists who oppose him. Is that clear?

Thus, the Times piece ends with this summary material:

Gay rights groups also denounced the nomination of Mr. Brownback, a longtime opponent of gay marriage. As a senator, Mr. Brownback pushed for a federal ban on same-sex marriage, and in 2015, as governor, he signed a broad executive order in Kansas prohibiting the state government from acting against religious groups that refuse to provide services to gay people.
Activists said the administration’s embrace of Mr. Brownback, along with the other moves on Wednesday, suggest its renewed interest in rolling back gay rights.
“Yesterday, he went after everyone with a direct assault. He truly declared war on our community,” said Chad Griffin, the president of Human Rights Campaign. “I promise you, this is a battle we are going to win.”

That was that. End of story. Apparently, there was no need to mention Brownback's years of work on religious freedom issues or the views of those supporting his nomination.

Over at The Economist, the editors sided with the Brownback critics. However, the story made sure that readers knew there were multiple issues linked to his nomination and that he had supporters, as well as critics.

The headline: "America’s point-man on religious liberty is contentious: Why Sam Brownback divides religion-watchers." The word "divides" certainly implies that this is a debate in which there are multiple points of view. The story also includes this:

Mr Brownback seemed to anticipate those criticisms in an emotional public appearance after receiving the nomination. The governor, who became Catholic in 2002 but sometimes attends an evangelical church, began by declaring he had just done something for which people in certain parts of the world could be put to death: he had taken part in holy communion, Christianity’s most important rite.
Without denying that the welfare of Christianity would be his special concern, he said he would be inspired by the maxim of Mother Teresa, who had said she loved all religions, but was “in love with” her own faith alone.

If readers want to know the views of people who support Brownback, they can -- naturally -- turn to coverage in conservative and religious publications.

But note the implication here. It would appear that one-side, pro-Brownback coverage is "religious" and "conservative."

So, if that is the standard, what is the coverage in the Times, which frames his nomination totally in the reactions of LGBTQ activists and offers zero information that would be cited by his defenders? Is this mainstream journalism these days or a less-candid form of advocacy?

Who could Times journalists have called, seeking input about Brownback's work on religious freedom? Lots of names leap to mind, but this Georgetown University scholar -- featured in a Christianity Today piece -- would head the list, in my opinion.

Last time I checked, faculty members at Georgetown do not work in a mecca for the Religious Right or right-wing Catholicism.

Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute ..., told CT that Brownback “has the experience, passion, and gravitas to make the advancement of international religious freedom an all-of-government policy that will engage all US foreign affairs agencies.”
“As Governor Brownback knows, advancing religious freedom will not only reduce the spiking persecution that is afflicting millions of human beings and religious minorities around the world. It can also enhance economic growth, increase political and social stability, and undermine violent religious extremism and terrorism,” said Farr, the first director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) from 1999 to 2003. “In short, under his leadership US IRF policy can advance human rights and, at the same time, make substantial contributions to the national security of the United States at very low cost.”

In conclusion, let me repeat: It was essential for reporters to note the strong liberal opposition to Brownback's nomination to this post.

It was also essential, if the goal was to help readers understand the dynamics at play here, to include the views of those familiar with his years of work in causes linked to religious freedom, including those who strongly support his nomination.

So what happened here? What journalism doctrines were in play?

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