Terry Mattingly

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

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That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

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Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

It’s time to venture into my “guilt file” — where I stash news stories that I know deserve attention, but breaking news keeps getting in the way.

Several weeks ago — Easter season, basically — the Washington Post ran an important story about the rise of Pete Buttigieg as a real contender among the 100 or so people currently seeking (a) the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination or (b) the VP slot with Joe Biden (the second after Barack Obama winks and hints at an endorsement).

In this case, the religion angle was right there in the headline: “Questions on race, faith and tradition confront Buttigieg in South Carolina.”

In other words, Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt to see if his mainstream Episcopal Church vibe — brainy white married gay male — will fly in a region in which black Christians are a political force. This is a culturally conservative corner of the Democratic Party tent that tends to get little or no attention from journalists in deep-blue zip codes (that Acela-zone thing). So let’s pull this story out of my “guilt file.”

The headline is solid, pointing to questions about “race, faith and tradition.” Want to guess what part of that equation gets the short end of the stick, in terms of serious content?

This is an important story, in terms of cultural diversity among Democrats. At some point, candidates will need to talk about religious liberty, third-trimester abortion, gender-neutral locker rooms and a host of other powerful cultural issues linked to religion.

The bottom line: Mayor Pete wants to be pro-faith, while attacking conservative Protestants whose views of the Bible are radically different than his own. How will that strategy play in the Bible Belt? Can he appeal to Democrats other those in what the Post calls a “liberal, wealthy and white” niche?

Here is what we are looking for in this story: Will anyone address religious questions to African-American Democrats from Pentecostal, conservative Baptist or Catholic pews? Or will the story only feature the voices of experts talking about these strange people? Here’s the overture:

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BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

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Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

It was Christmas Eve as Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the town of Godric's Hollow, searching through the snowy church graveyard for the graves of the teen wizard’s parents, Lily and James Potter.

Here’s how the scene is depicted in the final novel — “"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" — of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume set. Christmas carols are drifting out of the church when the duo discovers the tombstone for the family of the late Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The inscription is from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

That’s just the start of the faith content in the Potter-verse rooted in the author’s worldview. Hang in there with me, because this is going to link up with this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) and the national column that I wrote about the God-shaped hole in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Now, about the Potter family tombstone: In a 2007 “On Religion” column on this topic, I noted:

… The Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."

Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

This is another Bible verse — one that Rowling said stated the theme at the heart of her Potter series. It also helps to know that the Harry Potter stories grew out of the author’s grief after the death of her mother. Rowling wanted to make a statement that death is not the end.

It also matters that Rowling has been upfront about the fact that she is active in the Scottish Episcopal Church and, based on her remarks through the years, it’s pretty clear that she is on the left side of Anglicanism. Her academic background in classics (and love of Medieval Catholic symbolism) also shaped the Potter-verse.

So what is the context of the verse on that Potter headstone?

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Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

There is a reason that I held off writing about mainstream news coverage of Rep. Brian Sims and his online activism against people praying at his local Planned Parenthood facility.

To be blunt: I was waiting for some mainstream media coverage of this digital drama. The fact that this took several days is really interesting — from a media-analysis point of view.

Let’s look at this through the “mirror image” device that your GetReligionistas have been using for years.

Let’s say that a group of LGBTQ demonstrators decided to stage protests outside the doors of the Family Research Council — peacefully reading selections from the latest version of the Book of Common Prayer. The protesters include teens and an older person who is silently using a rainbow rosary.

Then a politician approaches, perhaps a GOP leader who backs the FRC. Using his smartphone to capture the proceedings for online use, he begins berating the gay activists, using language that focuses on age, race and religious beliefs. This evangelical politico also offers to pay viewers $100 for information on the teen-agers, thus helping evangelical activists to “visit” their homes.

All of this is posted online by this member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

How quickly would this draw major coverage at CNN? How about the New York Times? Note: We’re seeking serious, original coverage, not short Associated Press stories or aggregation reports built on clips from online chatter (see this Washington Post item).

Eventually, The Philadelphia Inquirer — to its credit — followed up on the explosion of Twitter activity on this topic. The lede did use a mild version of the “Republicans pounce!” theme, but took the issue seriously. Here is a key chunk of that breakthrough mainstream-news media report:

In one video, Sims approaches a woman and three girls who appear to be in their teens outside the Planned Parenthood clinic at 12th and Locust Streets and refers to them as “pseudo-Christian protesters who’ve been out here shaming young girls for being here.”

“I’ve got $100 to anyone who will identify any of these three,” Sims says in the video, adding that he is raising money for Planned Parenthood.

The unidentified woman responds, “We’re actually here just praying for the babies.”

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CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

There he goes again. “He” in this case is Brian Stelter at “Reliable Sources,'“ the CNN show that covers a wide range of news about mass media, including mainstream journalism.

In the past few months — while discussing press struggles with normal America — Stelter has asked some interesting questions about the fact that many journalists in elite zip codes struggle to, well, get religion. He hasn’t said “GetReligion” yet, but he has mentioned that there are websites that keep track of this problem. Maybe I can picket his office next time I’m camped out in New York City?

This came up recently when I wrote an “On Religion” column about the new “Alienated America” book by Timothy P. Carney, who leads the commentary section at The Washington Examiner (click here for the column and here for the GetReligion podcast that discussed this). That column included material from a Carney appearance on “Reliable Sources” that included comments about You Know What.

The context — #DUH — is a discussion of why so many journalists missed the rise of Donald Trump in flyover country. A key point: Core Trump voters talked about religion, while those whose daily lives revealed deep religious convictions tended to oppose Trump in the primaries. Here’s a chunk of that column:

Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America — in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere — clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared. …

Stelter said the problem is that religion is "like climate change." This topic affects life nationwide, but it's hard for journalists to see since "there's not a bill being introduced in Congress or there's not a press conference happening in New York."

This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well – especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West coasts.

"Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America," he said. "It's not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It's that they don't understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories."

In other words, way too many journalists notice religion — when it shows up in New York City and Beltway events that they believe are connected to their The One True Faith, which is politics.

The other day, Stelter returned to this subject while discussing the evolution of American values and public life with a very controversial author — Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro.

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Yo, New York Times editors: The Episcopal Church's leader is The Most Rev. Michael Curry

Yo, New York Times editors: The Episcopal Church's leader is The Most Rev. Michael Curry

Needless to say, your GetReligionistas understand that people in the press — on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean — are happy that there is a new baby in England’s Royal Family, and one with a complex and interesting connection to the USA.

Journalists may not be as excited as Prince Harry is, at this moment in time. But that is understandable. Check out the top of this New York Times report about the prince’s informal and very untraditional presser, which — #GASP — broke with the royal norm. I think the key word here is “amazing.”

LONDON — Prince Harry could barely contain himself. Facing a news camera to announce his son’s birth, he rubbed his hands together, bounced on the balls of his feet and seemed unable to stop himself from grinning, even for a second.

“It’s been the most amazing experience I can ever possibly imagine,” he said, standing in front of the stables at Windsor Castle, where two black horses nodded behind him.

“How any woman does what they do is beyond comprehension, and we’re both absolutely thrilled,” he said about his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. The duchess, he said, was “amazing,” and the birth “amazing,” and the love and support from the public “amazing.”

So that’s that. Later on in this Times report there is a passage — caught by an eagle-eyed reader — that draws us into a subject that has been discussed many times over the years at this here weblog.

The question: Why are more and more reporters and copyeditors ignoring Associated Press style rules when it comes to the formal titles of ordained religious leaders? In this case, I will go ahead and add a question that I have asked many times (one example here): Why do formal titles that have existed for decades (or in some cases centuries) seem to vanish when journalists write about (a) African-American clergy and/or (b) ordained women?

Here is the passage in question, in which someone at the Times (I will not assume the reporter) was caught up in informal Meghan-and-Harry fervor and, well, forgot to give a certain American clergy person the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. that he deserves.

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