It's a question I have heard over and over during the nearly 14 years that GetReligion has been online. It's a question that I am hearing more and more often these days, as the reality of online economics shapes what we read, see and hear.
The question: Why doesn't GetReligion address journalism issues in opinion pieces, as well as in hard-news stories?
After all, major news organizations keep running more opinion pieces about major events and trends in the news, often in place of actual news coverage. Why does this keep happening?
There are several obvious reasons. First, as your GetReligionistas keep noting, opinion is cheap and hard-news reporting is expensive. All kinds of people are willing to write opinion pieces for next to nothing, while reporting requires lots of time and effort by professionals who, you know, need salaries.
Opinion pieces are also written to provoke and, most of the time, to make true believers shout "Amen!" before they pass along (click, click, click) URLs on Twitter or Facebook. You can usually tell a news organization's worldview by the number of opinion pieces it runs that lean one way or another, while appealing to core readers. In the South this is called "preaching to the choir." Check out the opinion-to-news ratio in the typical "push" email promo package sent out each morning by The Washington Post.
It also helps that it's hard to blame news organizations for the slant or content of opinion pieces they publish. Editors can say, and this is true: Hey, don't blame us, that's his/her opinion.
Finally, there is a deeper question behind this question: How does one critique an opinion piece on issues of balance, fairness and even accuracy? After all, it's not real news. It's just opinion.
Yes, I am asking these questions for a reason. Yesterday, my Twitter feed was buzzing with reactions to an "Acts of Faith" essay published by The Washington Post. It was written by Michael Frost, an evangelism professor who is the vice principal of Morling College, a Baptist institution in Sydney, Australia.
The headline: "Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees." Here is the overture:
They're both Christian football players, and they're both known for kneeling on the field, although for very different reasons.
One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attended a Baptist church during college.
Both have made a public display of their faith. Both are prayerful and devout.
This is the tale of two Christian sports personalities, one of whom is the darling of the American church while the other is reviled. And their differences reveal much about the brand of Christianity preferred by many in the church today.
Of course, you could also say that their differences reveal much about the brand of Christianity preferred by many media commentators and journalists, but that would mess up the structure of this Post essay (with originated as a post on Frost's blog). Tebow has lots of haters, at all levels of American life.
It's crucial to know two things about this Post essay, before I note what I think is a big hole in its content.
First, I have nothing negative to say about its Kaepernick material, which I think is strong and readers need to know more about his story. Plus, I'm a liberal on First Amendment issues and, thus, I'm in favor NFL players having the right to protest right out there in public. Those who disagree have the right to protest right back. I would feel the same way if NFL players decided to stage protests against abortion in the context of pre-game rites, but I predict that the NFL and the gods of sports media would not be as sympathetic.
Second, it's crucial to get to the end of Frost's essay, where he draws this conclusion:
It seems to me that Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick represent the two very different forms that American Christianity has come to. And not just in the United States. In many parts of the world it feels as though the church is separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores, and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation, and political activism.
One version is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest. ...
One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of political and social transformation. ...
One is rallying at the March for Life. The other is getting arrested at Moral Monday protests.
You can see where this is going. The bifurcation of contemporary Christianity into two distinct branches is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.
Amen. So what is the problem here?
This Post essay -- yes editors had to approve its contents -- places a heavy emphasis on Kaepernick's many good deeds in the world of philanthropy, his work with water projects in Somalia, his work with Meals on Wheels, etc. This is good and this topic it is certainly linked to his faith.
However, the original Frost piece, and the early versions in the Post, had this to say about Tebow:
Tebow was home-schooled by his Christian parents, and spent his summers in the Philippines, helping with his father's orphanage and missionary work.
During his college football career, the Heisman Trophy winner frequently wore references to Bible verses on his eye black, including the ubiquitous John 3:16 during the 2009 BCS Championship Game. He has been outspoken about his pro-life stance, and his commitment to abstinence from sex before marriage. ...
He has preached in churches, prisons, schools, youth groups and a welter of evangelical conferences.
In other words, Tebow has had little or nothing to do with helping the poor, the needy, the weak, the suffering, etc.
Readers are told that Tebow is living out one version of the Christian faith, while Kaepernick is living out another.
The problem, of course, is that Tebow has -- throughout his career -- been relentless in his work with a wide array of charities, investing both his money, his skills as a fundraiser and his own time and talents. Much of this work has focused on the needs of children, especially orphans, in impoverished nations (the missionary kind side of Tebow's life) as well as special-needs children everywhere. That led to this fun Tonight Show moment a few months ago.
Now, I started work on this post earlier this weekend, during waves of Twitter debate about the Frost piece in the Post.
This morning, as I came back to finish it, I noted an addition to the Frost essay that was not there the first time I read it.
(Update: As some have pointed out, Tebow has also been philanthropic and created the Tim Tebow Foundation to help children. However, I would argue he was a darling among Christians even before that came out.)
What does "before that came out" mean?
OK, it was good to add that. The problem is that Tebow was already active in these causes -- especially prison ministry and medical work with the poor -- long before he became a national sensation and the center of so much media attention and controversy. At the University of Florida, from Day 1, he led waves of service projects with other teammates.
So is the essay really about a contrast between Tebow and Kaepernick, and the lives they are living, or is it about the author's view of the "typical" fans of these men? I mean, the headline says, "Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow."
However, if that is the case, there is another problem. Remember that major survey a few years ago (Chronicle of Philanthropy link here) noting that religious believers -- especially those who frequently attend worship services -- are unusually generous when it comes to their donations to religious and secular charities? How does this fact fit into the Post piece?
So what is my point? I have praised this article's attention to Kaepernick's faith and his charity work. In fact, I would argue that this is a subject worthy of serious, hard-news journalism in the news pages of major newspapers. It would add another layer to the current drama (don't get me started on Donald Trump's blast at the players).
I also think Frost is right about the divide between salvation and social justice in some -- repeat SOME -- corners of the church. Frankly, this division is heresy, as noted by a famous document from Billy Graham and the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization almost 40 years ago. It opens like this:
Evangelicals and evangelism have always been bracketed. So much so that the adjectives ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelistic’ have often been identified in the popular mind. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that whenever evangelicals have become concerned about social issues, some eyebrows have been raised, and questions have been asked whether the cause of the gospel is not about to be betrayed.
So I am not arguing with Frost's conclusion. My question is whether -- by framing this as Tebow (one Christianity) vs. Kaepernick (another Christianity) -- Frost has been both simplistic and inaccurate. Where is the evidence that Tebow lacks a commitment to social justice, to the poor, to the weak, the defenseless and, yes, the unborn?
By the way, the Post piece noted:
Kaepernick ... was born to a 19-year-old, single, white woman. His black father had left the picture before Colin was born. His mother was destitute and gave him up for adoption. He was raised by the Kaepernicks, a white couple from Milwaukee.
Tebow, meanwhile, was born after a crisis pregnancy of a different kind, with doctors telling his mother than she should have an abortion rather than risk her own life to give birth to a potentially damaged, sick, endangered baby.
Something tells me that these two unique men would have lots to talk about if they met privately, right now. They might even kneel and pray about some of these matters.