What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

Here’s something that you don’t see every day.

I mean, it used to be perfectly normal to see a top editor at an American newspaper defend old-school virtues like balance, fairness and showing respect for people on both sides of hot-button debates. But recently, this has not been the norm — especially when dealing with news about religion and culture.

Consider, for example, recent coverage of the United Methodist Church and, especially, the trials and tribulations endured by leaders of this global denomination’s liberal U.S. establishment.

Please hear me: I have been covering this story for four decades and I know that activists and clergy on both sides have experienced lots of pain. All kinds of people have been tempted to head for the exits.

Liberal U.S. United Methodists, in particular, have seen one general conference after another vote against them, in part because the growing parts of this global — repeat GLOBAL — flock are doctrinally conservative when it comes to marriage, sex and the Bible. The left holds the high ground in American bureaucracies, but the right has more converts, more children and, thus, more votes.

Press coverage of the latest traditionalist victory, this past February in St. Louis, has been dominated by the beliefs and stories of the UMC left, usually with one quote provided by a conservative (90 percent of the time, that’s Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion & Democracy). Click here for my post on an NBC News report that — so far — gets the gold medal for bias.

So, the other day a Toledo Blade reader named Joe Strieter wrote the newspaper’s managing editor to express concern about UMC coverage. The reader send GetReligion a copy of this very detailed letter and here is a sample:

Although the writer … did not specifically express her personal opinion, it's hard to avoid the impression that her sympathies lie with the "losing side."  …

Three people are pictured — all of them opposed to the action taken at the conference. No one is pictured who voted for or defended the resolution. … (She) interviewed and quoted six people who favor LGBT marriage and ordination: Katie Kunz-Wineland, Rev. Doug Damron, Rev. Mary Sullivan, Rev. Tom Rand, Katie Collins and Pastor Larry Clark. Only one person who backed the Traditionalist Plan, layman Chris Steiner, was quoted, and he expressed a negative opinion of the vote. 

By my reckoning, the six pro-alternative plan people received 20 column inches of coverage, while Mr. Steiner received three column inches.

Several hundred words later, there is this summary:

It is not my intention to initiate a theological argument, or to discuss the pros and cons of this thorny issue. I wish only to call attention to what I see as very inconsistent with your own definition of good reporting. The article in question is an important human interest story, to be sure, but presents a decidedly one-sided view of a controversy that in the years to come may well split this important church body.  … It would appear [the reporter] had no difficulty in finding people who are opposed the action taken at the conference, and she gave them full voice. Was nobody found who would defend the same action, who would express their feelings, and give the story necessary balance? Who are those people? Where are they? What are their feelings about this controversy and why do they feel this way?  How are they dealing with the situation? When will we hear their story?

Managing editor Dave Murray responded in a column that ran with this headline: “The Blade’s job is to show many viewpoints, not judge.

I urge you to read it, since the editor went out of his way to talk with the reporter and her editor, seeking their input. The reporter noted: “I don’t think it was necessary in this story to give equal time to both sides, since I don’t think that’s reflected in Toledo.” Murray concluded by saying:

After hearing from Mr. Strieter, the reporter, and her editor, I think the story should have included more comments from Methodists who voted for the traditional plan.

That brings me to the latest Associated Press report about the UMC wars: “United Methodists edge toward breakup over LGBT policies.” As always, AP stories are incredibly important since they run in average, metro newspapers from coast to coast, framing the issue for millions of readers.

After reading the opening I had my hopes up. Here’s some of the overture:

NEW YORK (AP) — There’s at least one area of agreement among conservative, centrist and liberal leaders in the United Methodist Church: America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination is on a path toward likely breakup over differences on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT pastors.

The differences have simmered for years, and came to a head in February at a conference in St. Louis where delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal called the Traditional Plan, which strengthens bans on LGBT-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan and favored LGBT-friendly options, but they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.

Many believe the vote will prompt an exodus from the church by liberal congregations that are already expressing their dissatisfaction over the move.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that this conflict has simmered for “decades” — since the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, note the reference in the lede to “conservative,” “centrist” and “liberal” leaders in this denomination and their growing convictions that some kind of divorce needs to take place. After reading that sentence, I was convinced that AP was about to give us a truly national-angle story that featured detailed reporting about the views of people in those three camps.

Alas, that isn’t what happened. Once again, the story was built on the views of liberal and left-of-center United Methodists. Once again, there was only one quote from a UMC conservative, someone who backed efforts to clarify and defend the denomination’s Book of Disciple and its teachings on marriage, sex and clergy ordinations. That’s the book that UMC clergy, in their ordination vows, vow to honor and defend.

Want to guess the name of the one conservative who was quoted?

Traditional Plan supporter Mark Tooley, who heads a conservative Christian think tank, predicts that the UMC will split into three denominations — one for centrists, another oriented toward liberal activists and a third representing the global alliance of U.S. conservatives and their allies overseas.

“It’s a question of how long it takes for that to unfold — and of who and how many go into each denomination,” Tooley said. “A lot of churches will be irreparably harmed as they divide.”

The novelty, this time around, was that the AP team did manage to interview a bishop in a conservative region of the country.

Lo and behold, this Texas bishop appears to favor some kind of compromise that would keep two radically different approaches to the Bible and moral theology in the same denomination. Does he hold out hope that the left will accept the Traditional Plan?

Scott Jones, bishop of the UMC’s Houston-based Texas conference, says churchgoers in his region are divided in their views, but a majority supports the Traditional Plan’s concepts.

“I have urged all of us to love each other, listen to each other and respect each other, even if we disagree,” said Jones, who holds out hope that the UMC’s disparate factions can preserve some form of unity.

This latest AP story offers the left, the center left, one mysterious quote and one quote from Tooley. In other words, more of the same. Maybe. Sort of.

I have a suggestion to reporters who are working on future news stories about United Methodists or, at least, a suggestion for old-school journalists who are interested in understanding the views of leaders of the side that keeps winning the general conference votes. People on the winning side often receive coverage when journalists look toward future events.

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Reporters! Please look at this photo.

This is the board of directors (or most of it) of the Good News organization, which for decades has provided lots — but not all — of the leadership among doctrinal traditionalists in the United Methodist Church. If you want names for people in this diverse set of faces, click here. This group includes folks from the Southwest (lots of Texans), New England, Midwest, the Rocky Mountain West, the Bible Belt and the Mid-Atlantic (Washington, D.C., even).

Also, anyone who knows United Methodism today knows that many of the denomination’s pastors come from the Asbury School of Theology, an evangelical institution in Kentucky that is not backed by the denomination’s powers that be.

There are lots of lots of interview-worthy historians, theologians and educators at this seminary. Click here to explore the faculty. I predict that all these voices do not sound alike. Reporter could also, with a click, examine this list of the seminary’s board of trustees.

Some of these people might be willing to do press interviews — along with hundreds or thousands of other United Methodists in conservative pews and pulpits.

Sometimes it’s good to talk to people on both sides of a major story. On this local, national and global story, more reporters need to give it a try.

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