Apocalypse (almost) Now: Gullible media fall for clickbait from 'Christian Numerologist'

Yes, gentle reader, I guess I'm almost as guilty as the media outlets hyping this coming Saturday -- Sept. 23 -- as the date for the end of the world. After all, I'm hoping you will click on this blog post and read it. Share it with your friends via social media, too. #ClicksWanted

But I'm going to be as straight about this weekend's "apocalypse" as I can. The other media, including a story picked up by the Drudge Report? Not so much.

Here's what Drudge found fascinating. It's a story from the local CBS-TV affiliate in Philadelphia headlined, "Christian Numerologist Says World Will End On Sept. 23."

Key words? That would be "Christian numerologist." Focus on that adjective. Let's go:

If you had plans for the weekend, a Christian numerologist says you won’t get to them because the world is about to end.
David Meade, a self-proclaimed “researcher,” is predicting that a series of apocalyptic events will begin on Sept. 23 and, “a major part of the world will not be the same.”
According to Meade, the mysterious rogue planet Nibiru, also known as Planet X, is on a collision course with Earth, which will bring world-ending tsunamis and earthquakes. The numerologist claims the dates of recent events like the Great American Solar Eclipse and Hurricane Harvey’s flooding of Texas were all marked in the Bible. Meade now says his “Planet X theory” lines up with more bible codes and ancient markers on the Egyptian pyramids.

Sigh. Where to begin? I've been consciously hanging around things Christian since Richard Nixon's first term as president of the United States -- in other words, a long time. I've also had an interest in journalism for that long, if not a bit longer.

But to see a supposedly respectable media outlet -- which a CBS-TV affiliate station surely must be -- fall for this flapdoodle is a little heartbreaking. Especially when the obligatory scare quotes are placed not around "Christian numerologist," but around "researcher."

My journalism problem here is that the station's reporters and editors should know better: There's no such thing, really, as a "Christian numerologist," any more than there's a "Christian unicorn" loping around a pasture somewhere.

Just ask pundit Ed Stetzer, leader of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, in a post at ChristianityToday.com:

[T]here is no such thing as a legitimate ‘Christian numerologist.’
Sure, the writers of Scripture do, indeed, use numbers to point to a few things -- that’s first-year seminary. But it stops at first-year seminary because there are not secret numerical codes that require a profession called “Christian numerology.”

This article, which appeared days before the Philadelphia clickbait, was easy to find via a basic Google search, even in Google News. I'm guessing KYW-TV's people didn't look all that hard.

In his commentary, Stetzer points out that this sort of media coverage makes Christians look silly, or worse. Religion News Service's "'Splainer," Kimberly Winston, explains that this is not the first time some folks have come out with predictions that didn't hold up:

And yes, there has been a long string of predictions in the last two decades. Who can forget Harold Camping, the Christian radio media mogul who picked two dates in 2011, hit the airwaves, put up billboards, solicited money -- and nada. He joined some rather famous names — Edgar Cayce, Sun Myung Moon, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (at least twice, but before he had access to the White House) and John Hagee among them -- of failed futurists. Heck, Sir Isaac Newton himself, great astronomer and mathematician, bet that Jesus would return in the year 2000.
Even the man who explained gravity was wrong. So relax. Make some weekend plans. See you Monday.

I'm sure the web traffic gurus at KYW-TV popped a cork -- or perhaps a button, as their chests swelled with pride -- over the cargo-container ship-sized load of clicks they got. But as far as promoting understanding, they fell far short. Not a single religion scholar in or near Philadelphia was quoted, or apparently even contacted. Yuck.

At some point, one hopes, media bosses will come to the realization that the only way to report crackpot stuff like this is to make sure you have responsible expert voices commenting on the subject.

While this kind of story may make some Christians look bad, to me, at least, it makes good news organizations look even worse.

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