Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

It was the key moment in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast-radio session. Host Todd Wilken asked a relatively simple (you would think) question about mainstream news coverage of the Rev. David Platt’s decision to pray for President Donald Trump during a worship service at McLean Bible Church, a very influential D.C. Beltway megachurch.

This turned into a hot mess on Twitter (#NoSurprise). I wrote a GetReligion piece about the online controversy with this headline: “Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter.

The initial coverage, of course, focused on the true religion in most American newsrooms — politics. This brings me to the substance of Wilken’s question.

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Toward the end of the first wave of coverage, Emma Green off The Atlantic wrote an essay — “On Praying for the President” — that paused and examined what actually happened at McLean  Bible Church. She considered the history of pastors praying for presidents. She looked at the record of this particular minister. She also (#Amen) wrote about the actual contents of the prayer.

In the body of the piece Green concluded:

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

Wilken asked this question: Why was Emma Green able to write that? Why did she “get” this story when many others did not?

The short answer is that Green is a religion-beat professional.

I could add, of course, that she is talented, works really hard and tries to accurately report the views of a wide range of religious believers, while working at a mainstream, left-of-center magazine of news and opinion. At this point, all of that goes without saying and Green consistently draws praise from religious conservatives as well as progressives. Anyone who reads GetReligion knows that, while we may debate with Green every now and then, this blog consistently praises her work. She often does more factual reporting in analysis pieces than others do in “hard-news” reports.

That’s the easy answer to Wilken’s question. In the podcast I used a rather long and complex sports metaphor (getting somewhat emotional in the process) that, I hope, went a bit deeper.

Here’s a print version of that, focusing on another “religion” in American and world culture — football. Ah, but are we talking about American”football” or global “football”?

Let’s say that elite American newsrooms decided to cover the FIFA World Cup. However, editors decided to send reporters with years of experience covering American pro football — but zero experience covering the sport some people call soccer.

Thus, we’re talking about reporters who think American football is the most important thing in the world. It’s a topic that they take seriously. They live and breathe it. They know the rules. They know the history. They know the subtle differences between different teams, players, coaches and cultures.

What do they know about the World Cup? Next to nothing, other than that it’s a big deal, for some reason, and millions of people around the world really care it. Some of these believers get rather emotional about the beautiful game.

So what would happen if a lot of American football pros attempted to cover the World Cup?

Well, the odds are very good that they would (a) make basic mistakes about the rules, language and strategy at the heart of this complex and subtle sport, mistakes that infuriate people who know soccer. They (b) wouldn’t know anything about the long, detailed and emotional history and traditions of some of the teams (their doctrines, so to speak). And they wouldn’t (c) know much about the players, either.

One more big idea: Even if they didn’t realize it, they would (d) cover “global football” while looking through the lens of “American football.” Even the stuff that they got right would be framed by assumptions built on their love of “American football.” Think: Why don’t they score more goals? What’s the deal with that insane “offsides” rule? Why do so many people get so crazy about this boring sport?

So why do so many American journalists struggle to cover religion news, especially news — as in the Platt prayer story — combines religion and politics?

To be blunt: They are “American football” pros trying to cover the World Cup. Looking past that metaphor: Their game is politics and they fail to grasp the facts, history, traditions, doctrines, rules and style of religion news.

Why was Emma Green able to deal accurately and fairly with the content of this story? She was a soccer pro covering an important soccer match. She covered the religion basics — CRUCIAL FACTS — as well as seeing some of the political layers of the story.

Now, here’s the question that has haunted me for four decades: Why do so many newsroom managers send political pros to cover major religion stories, including the ones that overlap with politics? Why don’t more newsrooms contain religion-beat pros, when you consider the massive impact that religious beliefs (and unbeliefs) have on life in America and around the world?

That’s a blunt statement of the thesis at the heart of GetReligion’s work over the past 16 years.

Enjoy the podcast.

P.S. Please see this important follow-up at The Washington Post:My aim was in no way to endorse the president’: Pastor explains why he prayed for Trump.” Here’s a key chunk of that, covering material similar to that in the Green essay:

For anyone familiar with Platt’s history, seeing him standing next to Trump onstage Sunday was an unusual sight. Platt, who has been a pastor at McLean Bible Church for two years, is best known for authoring the New York Times best-selling book, “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream,” in which he calls out materialism. According to the Christian Post, Platt has also preached that churches shouldn’t promote nationalism. Before coming to the Washington-area church, Platt served as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.

Also this, about the prayer itself:

“Many of you may have seen that there was a call to, particularly on this Sunday, pray for our president,” Platt said. “We don’t want to do that just on this Sunday, we want to do that continually, day in and day out.”

Platt then walked over to a smiling Trump and placed a hand on the president’s back.

“I want to ask us to bow our heads together now and pray for our president,” he said.

For the next several minutes, Platt delivered a lengthy prayer in which he asked God to bestow grace, mercy and wisdom on Trump. Platt also included prayers for other national and state leaders, including those in Congress and the courts.

I would add this interesting detail from the video itself: Platt prayed for the forgiveness of “his sins” and “our sins.” That’s normal religious language, but not normal political talk.

FIRST IMAGE: CBN screen shot.

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