Alabama

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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Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Here’s your periodic reminder that — from “Save Chick-fil-A” legislation to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals — the Dallas Morning News sure could use a religion writer.

When police this week raided Diocese of Dallas offices related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the Texas newspaper — to which I subscribe — put a team of reporters on it and produced two front-page stories (here and here).

The team included a projects/enterprise writer, two police/crime reporters and a city hall writer/columnist. A Godbeat pro on the team? Sadly, the Dallas Morning News doesn’t have one, despite the importance of religion in that Bible Belt city. (There’s another Page 1 report today, again by a public safety reporter.)

Ironically, the paper’s initial coverage included an opinion piece (“Why it's good Dallas police ran out of patience with the Catholic Diocese on sex abuse”) by metro columnist Sharon Grigsby. Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Grigsby founded the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section (now defunct) and oversaw a team of six religion writers and editors.

Those were the days!

Turning from the Big D, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Alabama’s passage of a law banning abortion in almost all cases tops the week’s headlines.

Since my post pointing out the holy ghosts in much of the news coverage, the religion angle has received major treatment from the New York Times (here and here) and showed up in The Associated Press’ headline on the state’s governor signing the anti-abortion bill into law.

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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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Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Before we consider news coverage of Alabama lawmakers’ vote to ban abortion in almost all cases, it might help to be reminded of two simple but key facts:

1. Religious beliefs and the importance — or not — of religion in one’s life play a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion, as illustrated by these charts from the Pew Research Center.

More from Pew:

About six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%).

Catholics are somewhat more divided; 51% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42% say it should be illegal.

2. Ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.

I kept those facts in mind as I reviewed various major news organizations’ reporting from Alabama, a state where The Associated Press pointed out a few years ago, “You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop.”

I wondered: Would God show up in any of the stories? And, how fair — to both sides — would the coverage be?

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Yes, we'd love to know more about the 'God thing' in viral story of woman invited to eat with strangers

Yes, we'd love to know more about the 'God thing' in viral story of woman invited to eat with strangers

“A wonderful story beautifully told” is how ESPN’s Mike Greenberg described a recent CBS News report on an elderly widow invited to eat with strangers.

“It will restore your faith in humanity,” a Syracuse, N.Y., television news anchor said of the piece.

On both counts, I’d cheerfully agree.

But — and you knew a “but” was coming, right? — I’d suggest this otherwise inspiring tale is haunted by a holy ghost. (In case you’re new to GetReligion, here’s an explanation of what I mean by “holy ghost.”)

Before I embark on ghostbusting duties, however, here’s the compelling opening of the report by CBS’ “On the Road with Steve Hartman,” explaining how the woman came to eat dinner with three strangers:

For barbecue lovers, Brad's Bar-B-Que in Oxford, Alabama, is heaven on Earth. But 80-year-old Eleanor Baker said her visit here earlier this month was especially divine.

"I think it was a God thing. I think God sent me there," she said. 

Eleanor is a widow and lives with her dog. While she has a big family, they mostly live out of town, so she was alone the night she went to the restaurant. 

Security footage shows her entering, and at about that same time, three young men arrived.

"We were all sitting there talking," said Jamario Howard, who noticed Eleanor, describing her as "older woman, sitting by herself."

Jamario said hates seeing people eat alone. "And I seen that," he said.

When most of us see someone eating alone we feel that way, but our sympathy never solves anything. And Jamario really wanted to fix this, so he got up from his table and sat at hers.

"He just came up and he said, 'I saw you sitting over here alone.'  And he said, 'Do you mind having some company?''"

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Friday Five: Lent trends, Methodist fight, Alabama tornado, Ira Rifkin update, epic NYT correction

Friday Five: Lent trends, Methodist fight, Alabama tornado, Ira Rifkin update, epic NYT correction

I’m traveling to Israel next week on a tour with a group of religion reporters. So spoiler alert: My next few posts will allow me to clear out some of the items in my “guilt folder” as I analyze a few stories that I’ve been wanting to mention for a while.

If you have a comment or a question about those posts, I’d love to hear them. But it may take me longer than normal to get back to you.

I believe that GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly also will be traveling a bit next week, as well, and sources say he, too, may be a bit preoccupied (read: playing with grandchildren). So things may be a little bit looser than normal around these parts.

In case you missed it, there’s a piece of major news involving our team. I’ll mention it below as we dive into the Friday Five.

1. Religion story of the week: It’s wonderful to have Sarah Pulliam Bailey back covering religion at the Washington Post.

I’m no fan of paper straws, but I really enjoyed the former GetReligion contributor’s timely piece on “The latest Lent challenge for churches: Give up plastic.”

Other Lent-related stories to give a click this week (Eastern Orthodox churches start Great Lent this coming Sunday) include Kelsey Dallas’ Deseret News delve into “Can a good meal bring people back to church? A growing number of congregations think so” and this Southern California newspaper’s report on a church offering drive-thru ashes, which is turning into an annual feature topic somewhere or another.

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God in the rubble: Look for strong faith angle in aftermath of killer Alabama tornado

God in the rubble: Look for strong faith angle in aftermath of killer Alabama tornado

When a disaster strikes a Bible Belt location, it’s no surprise when faith reveals itself in the aftermath.

We saw it after major hurricanes last fall.

Already, we’re seeing it again in the spot-news coverage of the tornado that devastated a rural Alabama community on Sunday.

The Associated Press’ main report on the tornado that killed at least 23 people in Beauregard, Ala., contains three strong references to religion.

The first:

“I’m still thanking God I’m among the living,” said John Jones, who has lived most of his life in Beauregard, an unincorporated community of roughly 10,000 people about 60 miles east of Montgomery near the Georgia state line.

The second:

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Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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Washington Post story on unhappy Jews in a small Alabama town draws praise — and criticism

Washington Post story on unhappy Jews in a small Alabama town draws praise — and criticism

A lot of people really enjoyed a recent front-page story in the Washington Post on a New York couple who accepted $50,000 to move to small-town Alabama and help build up the small Jewish community there.

The great religion writer Emma Green of The Atlantic said on Twitter that she “loved” it.

Others have been more critical of the couple’s assertion — given prominent national attention by the Post — that they’ve experienced frequent anti-Semitism in Dothan, Ala., population 65,000, and plan to leave.

Me? It’s taken me a while to write about the piece because I’ve been contemplating it.

On the one hand, I appreciate in-depth narrative journalism by outstanding Godbeat pros such as the Post’s Julie Zauzmer, whose work I have praised a number of times. On the other hand, as a resident of Bible Belt flyover country (Oklahoma City, in my case), I am sensitive to out-of-town journalists painting places such as my home state with broad, overly negative brushes.

To be fair, the Post does reference other Jews besides this couple who offer a different perspective:

Lately, though, they’ve started to feel worn down by the demands of the tiny Reform synagogue with 56 families and to yearn for the vibrant congregation ten times larger that they left behind. While most of the Priddles’ Jewish friends in Dothan say they have never experienced ­anti-Semitism in the town, Lisa and Kenny can quickly recount times when they’ve felt the sting of discrimination. Since 2016, they’ve also watched warily as anti-Semitism has worsened around the country.

Eleven families have moved to Dothan since Blumberg started paying them, and Blumberg says he’ll pay for at least six more who commit to stay at least three years. But almost a decade into the experiment, seven of the 11 families have left.

Now, Lisa and Kenny wonder whether they might make eight.

It’s just that the positive voices never really get a hearing in this story. Part of that is how storytelling works: The best reporters tell a larger tale by focusing on a specific case study or, as in this instance, a specific couple. The idea is that this couple epitomizes the bigger truth in this Alabama town. For me, the question is: Is this couple truly representative? Or is it possible that they are the problem — and that they should have stayed in New York and not moved to a culture so different from their longtime home?

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