BuzzFeed

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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Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Nostalgia for a journalistic golden age has gushed forth from an HBO documentary about New York City tabloid columnists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin, combined with simultaneous obituaries about the era’s wry counterpart at The New York Times, Russell Baker.

It’s a pleasant distraction from current realities.

Pew Research data documents the “hollowing out” of the nation’s newsrooms, as lamented in the Memo last Nov. 15. Further developments require The Religion Guy to revisit the struggles in the news business.

Why? Let me state this sad reality once again: When times are tough, specialized beats like religion get hit first, and worst.

In just the past two weeks, a couple thousand media workers lost their jobs. The ubiquitous Gannett, known for eyeing the bottom line, enacted its latest round of layoffs even while facing a takeover threat from a colder-eyed print piranha. Particularly unnerving are the drawdowns at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and Yahoo, because online operations were supposed to make enough money to offset jobs lost at declining “dead tree” newspapers and magazines.

As Farhad Manjoo commented in a New York Times column (“Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy”), there’s a “market pathology” at work. Digital advertising is simply unable to fund hardly anything except “monopolistic tech giants.” And those big players are “dumping the news” in favor of easier ways to make money. Results: “slow-motion doom” and “a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.”

All this occurs as a U.S. President emits unprecedented public hate toward reporters, with Main Stream Media outlets then taking the bait to become ever more hostile and partisan, thus sullying their stature.

On the MSM facts front, don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s list of the “10 Worst, Most Embarrassing” blunders regarding Donald Trump and Russia. And my goodness did you see those lapses about First Lady Melania in the respected London Telegraph?!

Now along come two important insider accounts of what’s been going on across the industry: “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (Farrar, Straus) by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s The Guardian, and “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” (Simon & Schuster) by Jill Abramson, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the Times. Note that both of their dailies have fared relatively well in online competition.

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Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

We live in an ethical epoch when editors at BuzzFeed and Politico have no scruples when a reporter sleeps with a prime source on her beat, after which she lands a prized New York Times job, at the very top of the journalism food chain.

Not that flexible conflict-of-interest standards are anything new. Ben Bradlee, as lauded as any journalist of his era, exploited a close friendship with President John F. Kennedy when he was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, giving fits to his competitors at Time. Bradlee was covering events that, one could argue, that he had helped shape in his conversations with Kennedy.

In 2018, such stuff matters more than ever, given the low esteem of “mainstream media” performance. The latest evidence comes in a survey reported June 11 by the American Press Institute, The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago.

We learn that 35 percent of Americans have a negative view of news organizations, and 42 percent think news coverage veers too far into commentary, while 63 percent want to get mostly facts alongside limited analysis. Importantly, 42 percent don’t understand how the use of anonymous sources works and 68 percent say the media should offer more information about story sources.

President Donald Trump’s frequently fake “fake news” attacks on reporters, of course, continually involve complaints about unnamed sources. For sure, the Washington press corps, which makes such lavish use of anonymous sources in coverage critical of the Trump administration, must do everything possible to maintain accuracy and fairness.

Once upon a time -- in 2005 -- the staff Credibility Group formed in the wake of the horrid Jayson Blair scandal advised New York Times colleagues in a report titled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust [.pdf here].” It warned that the daily should “keep unidentified attribution to a minimum” and “energetically” enforce limits across the board -- in hard news, features, magazine sections, and with copy from the growing number of freelance contributors.

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One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

One year later: BuzzFeed feature gets the 'miracle' details in GOP baseball shooting

Did you notice that Rep. Steve Scalise returned, to the best of his abilities, to the annual Congressional Baseball game the other night?

It has been a year since that stunning mass shooting, when an angry liberal Democrat came close, close, close to gunning down most of the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here is a link to a nice NPR update on how Scalise is doing, using the 1-year anniversary as a news hook,

Sure enough, the word "miracle" is a key part of the story.

The anniversary reminded me of a magazine-length piece at BuzzFeed that has been buried deep in my GetReligion folder of guilt for several weeks. This happens, sometimes, with long, long stories. They are hard to critique in a short post and, well, they rarely draw responses from GetReligion readers. We are all rather busy, aren't we?

Anyway, the BuzzFeed story focused on two primary angles of the near massacre -- one political (and rooted in journalism) and the other is religious. This is the rare case in which the religion angle was handled better than the political one. The massive headline on this piece proclaimed:

THE 9 MINUTES THAT ALMOST CHANGED AMERICA

How The Congressional Baseball Shooting Didn't Become The Deadliest Political Assassination In American History

The political angle?

Why wasn't this bizarre and troubling event a bigger deal -- a bigger news story -- than it was? Why did the story slide on A1 so quickly? This story almost, almost, almost was one of the biggest events in the history of American politics. BuzzFeed noted:

What is certain is the disquieting way June 14 slipped beneath the news so quickly. The shooting felt much further away by July, August, September than mere months. If people joke about how the weeks feel like years in the current era, there’s an unsettling truth behind the joke -- the way anything can lose scale and proportion. Two dozen members of Congress were nearly killed one morning last year, and the country didn’t change very much at all.

Was the problem blunt politics, including bias in newsrooms?

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A visit from classic MZ: Concerning 2017's sort-of news about anti-Starbucks evangelicals

A visit from classic MZ: Concerning 2017's sort-of news about anti-Starbucks evangelicals

It's that time of year, again. I know that I keep saying that, but there's no way around it.

It's time for the annual alleged cursing of the Starbucks Holiday cup design.

Once again, several major branches of elite media -- including the all-important New York Times -- are dancing with delight to know that some knuckle-dragging evangelicals are upset with some element of this iconic symbol in the lives of urban consumers of over-priced coffee.

This year, we are talking about a culture wars topic, as well as a new round in the Christmas Wars. Now, in the following Times passage, pay close attention to the sourcing on information about this alleged evangelical cyber-lynch mob. I will then turn things over to M.Z. "GetReligionista Emerita" Hemingway for her Federalist critique of this mess.

The latest controversy has focused ... on a pair of gender-neutral hands holding each other on the side of the cup itself.

Those linked hands came to wider public attention after BuzzFeed published an article about them on Wednesday. It suggested the cup was “totally gay.”
“While people who follow both Starbucks holiday cup news and L.G.B.T. issues celebrated the video, the ordinary Starbucks customer probably didn’t realize the cup might have a gay agenda,” BuzzFeed said.

Thus saith BuzzFeed. Then:

After that, it was off to the races.
Fox News picked up the story of what it called the “androgynous” cartoon hands, referring to Bible-quoting critics of Starbucks and criticizing BuzzFeed, which it said had “asserted the hypothesis is fact.”

Thus saith Fox News, one of our culture's most popular arenas for all things Christmas Wars.

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Poynter think piece proclaims: No need for 'balance' in abortion news reporting

Poynter think piece proclaims: No need for 'balance' in abortion news reporting

I've been thinking about this weekend think piece for quite some time.

The key to this post, according to journalists with whom I have discussed the topic, is that the think piece in question -- "New study shows why it's so hard to get abortion coverage right" -- was:

(a) Published on the Poynter.org website (a crucial brand name in mainstream journalism).

(b) However, it was written by a professional from an advocacy think tank on the issue being discussed, a fact clearly noted in the author bio at the end of the essay.

Thus, readers face a crucial question: To what degree do the contents of the essay speak for Poynter.org and its team? Perhaps this is the first half of a debate, with another piece -- representing the other side -- coming in the future? Then again, perhaps this piece is an endorsed statement (thinking of the newsroom policy ethics and style guide at BuzzFeed) that abortion is now a public debate that, for journalists, has only one side that needs to be covered?

I do not know. Because of my respect for the Poynter Institute and its work, I have been rather puzzled. And cautious.

I will point readers to the new Poynter piece -- in a moment.

First, I want to mention a symbolic statement on this topic from an earlier era. I am referring to the much discussed 2003 memo to Los Angeles Times section editors by John Carroll, the newspaper's executive editor at that time. The memo's subject line was: "Subject: Credibility/abortion." Readers really need to click and see the whole memo (it isn't long) for context. However, here is how it ends.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it. 

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times. 

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same. 

So what does the article published by Poynter say?

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Texas church massacre: What to do with atheism arguments on that Facebook page?

Texas church massacre: What to do with atheism arguments on that Facebook page?

In the social-media age, journalists have learned -- the hard way -- to be very careful about materials that they find online at Facebook and similar sites.

This leads us directly to Devin Patrick Kelley and the latest question for an answer to the "Why?" component in the old journalism formula, "Who," "What," "When," "Where," "Why" and "How."

Let's ignore, for a moment, the fringe websites that have what appear to be doctored online materials claiming that Kelley is an Antifa supporter who hates ordinary America.

The crucial question for reporters, today, is this: When will they discuss the contents of what appears to have been the gunman's Facebook page? The key word in this controversy is this: "Atheist." If you are reading British papers, you have been told that Kelley was a militant atheist who hated Christians. In American news outlets? Hold that thought.

As of this morning, BuzzFeed is openly stating that there was a fake Facebook page for Kelley. That annotated-list story notes:

A fake Facebook page was being spread on social media hours after the news broke, but it's not real. It was a page, not a profile, and it kept posting after the news of the shooting broke.

I'm not exactly sure what that means. Did someone build a fake page in a matter of minutes with the same photo that police are using as real? Did someone fake the friends of Kelley, connections made before the shooting and those people immediately started leaving new comments about their connections to Kelley?

At the same time, The Los Angeles Times has published coverage that seems to accept that the Facebook page is real -- but doesn't want to discuss the contents. The story states:

A Facebook profile under the gunman's name featured a photo of an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. In recent months, Kelley was adding strangers as friends on Facebook from "within 20 minutes" of the Sutherland Springs area and starting Facebook fights with them, according to area resident Johnathan Castillo.
Castillo accepted Kelley's friend request a couple of months ago, thinking that maybe he or his friends had met Kelley but hadn't remembered him. But Kelley soon proved to be troublesome.
“A lot of people were deleting him” for “starting drama” on Facebook, including sending insulting Facebook messages, Castillo said.

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Brownback has critics and supporters: All these voices matter when covering religious freedom debates

Brownback has critics and supporters: All these voices matter when covering religious freedom debates

If you have followed news about the many, many clashes between the emerging doctrines of sexual liberty and the First Amendment's "free exercise" of religion clause, you know this isn't a tidy, simple story with two sides and that's that.

Coverage of Sam Brownback's nomination to a key global religious freedom post is the latest fight.

Yes, there are LGBTQ activists in these debates and there are cultural conservatives. But there are also economic and libertarian conservatives who embrace gay-rights arguments and old-style liberals (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind) who back gay rights and the defense of religious liberty, free speech and the freedom of association. There are Catholics on both sides. There are self-identified evangelicals on both sides.

In the mainstream press, this conflict has put extra pressure on journalists, with some striving to accurately and fairly cover voices on all sides, while others have thrown in the editorial towel and embraced open advocacy in their coverage. BuzzFeed remains the most candid newsroom on this front, with its "News Standards and Ethics Guide" that states:

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.

Leaders at the New York Times have not been that candid, at least while in power. There was, of course, that 2011 talk by former editor Bill Keller (days after he retired) in which he said America's most powerful newsroom never slants its news coverage "aside from" issues -- such as gay rights -- that were part of the "liberal values, sort of social values thing" that went with the Times being a "tolerant, urban" institution.

Is this "Kellerism" ethic, or doctrine, still being used? Let's take a look at a key chunk of a recent Times news story that ran with this headline: "In One Day, Trump Administration Lands 3 Punches Against Gay Rights." The overture paints the big picture:

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration abruptly waded into the culture wars over gay rights this week, signaling in three separate actions that it will use the powers of the federal government to roll back civil rights for gay and transgender people.

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GetReligion drinking game? tmatt visits 'Catholic Answers' to explain why this blog exists

GetReligion drinking game? tmatt visits 'Catholic Answers' to explain why this blog exists

Our partners on the Issues, Etc., radio and podcasting team took this week off -- in part to get ready for their June 9-10 "Making the Case" conference in Collinsville, Ill.

I will be one of the featured speakers at that conference, addressing the challenges of finding solid journalism in an age of fake news. There is a second conference Nov. 10-11 in Houston that will, among others, feature M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway and Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher.

In other words, we didn't record a new Crossroads podcast for this week.

However, I did do a radio interview the other night with the national Catholic Answers program that I think will be of interest to many GetReligion readers -- especially newcomers. The topic was pretty obvious, with this title: "Why Don't the Media Get Religion?" Click the title to listen.

In a way, this was a GetReligion 101 mini-seminar, in terms of talking about the goals of this blog and why we think the mainstream press is -- when it comes to religion news -- worthy of serious criticism, as well as praise.

As you would expect, in a chat about that topic recorded this past week, the whole subject of the death of The New York Times Public Editor slot did come up, as discussed in this post ("Disturbance in the Journalism Force? New York Times spikes its public-editor post").

But the discussion went all over the place, with explanations of many topics that are familiar to GetReligion readers.

For example: What is a "religion ghost"? That literally takes us back 13 years, to the first paragraphs in the blog's first post:

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