Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

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This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

This month, Riverside’s governing council refused to renew Dr. Butler’s contract, shocking the 1,750-member congregation. The decision followed a series of charges and countercharges over sexual harassment, sexual mores, culture and hypocrisy in a church where past leaders had marched for civil rights with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Dr. Butler’s supporters said she lost her job because she had spoken out about sexual harassment and she had complained in particular about an incident in which a former member of the church’s governing council left a bottle of wine and a T-shirt on her desk, both with labels that read “Sweet Bitch.”

OK, you can already see — in that Times passage — why Riverside is not your ordinary large oldline Protestant congregation.

To put it in journalism terms, this is the kind of church in which members who dare to read the Post in public probably hide it inside the front section of the Times, like young boys several decades ago slipping a copy of Playboy inside a Life magazine while lingering at their local drug-store magazine rack.

It is clear, however, that some Riverside church members turned to the Post to air their convictions about Butler’s tenure. Then leaders on the other side in this war went to the Times. This is how journalism works, these days.

As I read both stories, I kept trying to find out what Riverside stands for in terms of Christian doctrine — as opposed to political and personal stances (Butler wrote an op-ed in USA Today about her decision to have a late-term abortion). I also was curious to know how the church is doing in terms of membership totals and the age of its active members. And, by the way, what are this church’s denominational ties, if any? How did a female Baylor grad get there?

This Times passage is about as close as we get, at the moment:

Riverside Church is recognized for its soaring Gothic sanctuary in Morningside Heights, built in 1930 by John D. Rockefeller and styled after a cathedral in France. Yet it has gained wider prominence for its devotion to social justice causes. 

The church has ministries that fight climate change, support immigrants seeking asylum in the United States and help former prisoners after incarceration. It has also issued many “faith-based proclamations,” including one declaring the church’s embrace of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. (“Our sexuality,” it said, “is a gift from God.”)

The announcement that Dr. Butler’s contract would not be renewed came in a July 1 email to the congregation, signed by Dr. Butler and Marilyn Mitchell, the chairwoman of the church’s governing council. It hinted at none of the turmoil.

The email praised Dr. Butler’s contributions to the congregation and asked members to pray for her “continued ministry as a leader in the progressive Christian world.”

Digging back to coverage of Butler’s arrival, the Times story five years ago did include these details:

Riverside Church, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church, has 1,670 members, compared with the 2,700 members it had when its last longtime pastor, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, retired in 2007.

Ah, the American Baptist Church. It would appear that Butler made a journey from the “moderate” wing of Southern Baptist Baptist life over into the ABC and also the UCC, the freewheeling mini-denomination that, for several decades, has represented the bleeding edge of liberal Protestant doctrine. During her Washington, D.C., years, Butler led a small Baptist flock.

I kept wanting to know more (silly me) about what this pastor believed about basic issues of Christian life and faith. However, that does not appear to be a relevant subject on newspaper racks in the world’s most powerful city.

The Post team did include one biblical reference near the end of the “Oh God!” news report.

Wait for it.

Even before the vibrator incident, the two parties were “far apart on negotiations,” as Butler had hired a lawyer to help her try to score a $100,000-a-year raise, a source said.

Butler’s successor, interim Senior Minister Michael Livingston, broke the news of her departure during his sermon at a Sunday worship service on July 7.

A congregant who was present — and aware of the allegations against Butler — said several of the Biblical readings “seemed to allude to the current turmoil,” most notably Galatians 6:7, which says, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”

Stay tuned: Now the Washington Post as entered the picture, reporting that Butler supporters have requested a vote to bring her back.

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