An award-winning Godbeat pro retires, raising a question about religion coverage at regional papers

An award-winning Godbeat pro retires, raising a question about religion coverage at regional papers

If I understand correctly, today is Tim Funk’s last day of work at the Charlotte Observer.

Funk, an award-winning religion reporter, posted on Facebook that he is retiring after 34 years at the Observer and 40 years overall of full-time news writing. (Click here, here and here for just a few of the Funk stories I’ve praised over the years.)

“As I take my (totally voluntary) leave, I’ll be rooting for those remaining on the job at the Observer,”  Funk said. “Times are tough for the news biz, but these journalists work hard and smart every day to hold the powerful accountable and tell us what’s happening and what it means.

“And, of course, I’ve been especially blessed to get to meet and write about some of the most interesting people in Charlotte.”

Among his favorite memories, Funk recalls “reporting on Billy Graham, sharing a lunch with him and wife Ruth (and my Observer colleague Ken Garfield) in their mountain-top Montreat home, and writing a 250-inch obituary of the evangelist for his hometown newspaper.”

Here’s wishing Funk all the best in his next adventure!

Meanwhile, I’m curious if the Observer — long ago the home of a religion-beat reporter named Terry Mattingly — will assign someone else to the beat. I sure hope so.

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From award-winning religion writer, a primer on how to tell a difficult story about a pedophile

From award-winning religion writer, a primer on how to tell a difficult story about a pedophile

Dear young journalists (and old ones, too): Want insight on how to report and tell an extremely difficult story?

Check out Charlotte Observer religion writer Tim Funk’s in-depth feature on the daughters of a pedophile pastor. Funk, a veteran Godbeat pro, was among the winners in the Religion News Association’s 2018 annual contest. His latest gem might well win him accolades again next year.

The 5,000-word piece (don’t let that count scare you; it reads much shorter) is both conversational in tone and multilayered in terms of the depth of information provided.

Funk’s compelling opening immediately sets the scene:

Their crusade began when Amanda Johnson visited the church of her childhood and saw a picture of her father on the wall.

She froze in fear, and felt the blood draining from her face. Then, she told the Observer, “I literally ran back to the car.”

For five years, she didn’t tell her older sister, Miracle Balsitis, who had asked her family not to mention her father’s name or any news about him.

But earlier this year, when Johnson found out from a friend that the photo was still on the wall, she finally told her sister.

Balsitis was shocked. Didn’t Matthews United Methodist Church know that Lane Hurley, their father and the church’s former pastor, was in prison because of child sex abuse crimes committed three years after he left the Matthews church?

Why, the sisters asked themselves, would a framed photo of him still be hanging next to pictures of other past clergy in a place of honor reserved for what a nearby plaque called “The Faces of Spiritual Leadership”?

The two sisters had left the Charlotte area 24 years ago — Balsitis, 39, now lives in California; Johnson, 35, in Kernersville.

They decided it was time to confront Matthews United Methodist about the picture.

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Click that URL: 'Acts of Faith' newsletter pauses to reflect on Southern Baptists and journalism

Click that URL: 'Acts of Faith' newsletter pauses to reflect on Southern Baptists and journalism

When I was the religion-beat pro in Charlotte in the early 1980s -- first at The Charlotte News and then at The Charlotte Observer, as well -- the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war was coming to a head.

Charlotte was and is a great religion town. When one of your main drags is the Billy Graham Parkway, you live in a town that gets religion.

When I was there, Charlotte was the only major city south of the Mason-Dixon Line in which there were more Presbyterians (several brands of those, however) than there were Baptists. The town was also a power center for the "moderate" Southern Baptists who turned out to be on the losing side of the great SBC showdown with those preaching "biblical inerrancy."

I spoke fluent Southern Baptist, since I grew up the home of a well-connected Southern Baptist pastor in Texas. I was ordained as a Southern Baptist deacon when I was 27 years old. In the Charlotte news market -- in which I urgently attempted to cover both sides of the SBC war -- some local conservatives concluded that I was a liberal.

Then I moved to Denver, which was a fading liberal mainline Protestant town in a region that was evolving into a power center for evangelicals. I did my best to cover both of those camps fairly and accurately and the old powers that be soon concluded I was some kind of Bible Belt fundamentalist, or something.

Why bring this up? Because there is a fascinating passage in a recent Washington Post "Acts of Faith" newsletter that, for me, called these experiences to mind.

But first, what is this newsletter thing? It's digital, but it's not really an online thing. The Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein use it as an email platform for sharing insights behind the news. Since your GetReligionistas just love that kind of info, I think everybody should sign up for this digital newsletter.

So here is the URL for this edition of the newsletter. Go to the end and there's a place to manage Post online newsletters and features.

Then click here to sign up for this digital newsletter. The all-purpose Acts of Faith website is right here.

Now, back to the SBC material, from Boorstein, that reminded me of the old Charlotte days: 

In the last couple weeks the Post religion team has been unusually focused on Southern Baptists, as one of the giants in their movement fell from power dramatically because of various comments and actions related to women.

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Pastor of America's largest parish retires, with lots of (solo) shots at Catholic conservatives

Pastor of America's largest parish retires, with lots of (solo) shots at Catholic conservatives

A long time ago -- the early 1980s -- I wrote a front-page feature for The Charlotte Observer about life in the tiny Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. The news hook was an interview with the first bishop of what was, at that time, America's smallest diocese.

Things have changed in the Queen City, when it comes to Catholic life. In fact, if you follow news about American Catholicism you know that one of the most important stories is the explosion of Catholic statistics in the Bible Belt, including the Deep South and the Southeast. The rising Catholic tide in the Southwest is, to a large degree, linked with issues of immigration. That's a factor in the South, but the growth is also linked to large numbers of converts and transplants from the North.

Just the other day, Crux ran little story -- "In the U.S. South, the Church is in ‘growth mode’ " -- focusing on a meeting of bishops from the South. It noted:

“We are all in a growth mode. That’s a good thing,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta told the Diocese of Charleston’s newspaper The Catholic Miscellany.
“We are spending part of our time here talking about the need to establish new parishes, expand pastoral outreach, and respond to growing numbers both from immigration and those moving here from other parts of the country,” the archbishop continued. “We all are sharing in this growth.”

So, the Observer recently had a perfect opportunity to dig into some of these complex and important subjects.

The hook for this long story was the retirement of Msgr. John McSweeney, the senior priest at St. Matthew Catholic Church -- America's largest Catholic parish. To add to the symbolism, the lede notes that this New Yorker was the first priest ordained in the Charlotte diocese.

This is where things get interesting. This long, long piece is based on an interview with the outspoken McSweeney and, well, that is that. The bottom line: He is highly critical of many things that would be affirmed by traditional or even middle-of-the-road Catholics in the Bible Belt. As the Observer puts it, he believes the Catholic Church often puts the "Book of Law before the Book of Love."

Who gets to respond to his views on a litany of hot-button topics?

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Journalistic malpractice: Metro daily serves up embarrassingly incomplete, one-sided abortion story

Journalistic malpractice: Metro daily serves up embarrassingly incomplete, one-sided abortion story

Oh, this is bad.

So, so bad.

If you read GetReligion with any frequency, you know we've pointed out — once or twice or a million times — the rampant news media bias against abortion opponents.

But even graded on that negative curve, the Charlotte Observer's weekend coverage of an anti-abortion rally takes slanted, inadequate journalism to a whole new level. This is, to use a term familiar to regular readers of this journalism-focused website, Kellerism on steroids.

Seriously, we're talking about a major metro daily publishing a news story built almost entirely upon quotes from a single source — an abortion clinic administrator. The Observer didn't bother to send a reporter to the pro-life rally and apparently couldn't (or didn't want to) locate a single person out of hundreds who attended the rally to comment on it. 

Nonetheless, the Observer feels compelled to report the pro-abortion official's claims as gospel truth:

The leader of a Charlotte abortion clinic claims the city improperly gave a pro-life group a parade permit, and is demanding answers after a large protest at the facility Saturday left patients feeling harassed.
Calla Hales, the administrator at Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte on Latrobe Drive, said the city had rushed approval for a permit for pro-life group Love Life Charlotte. That left Hales’ center less time than usual to prepare for the demonstration, she said.
The event was billed as a prayer march that would draw 1,000 men to the clinic to stand against abortion, according to a Facebook page. Justin Reeder, founder of Love Life Charlotte, called on men to discourage women from getting abortions, in an effort to highlight how abortion impacts men.
“The truth is that this is more of a men’s issue than it is a women’s issue,” Reeder said in a video on the Facebook event page. “We forget about the men so often in this story.”

Not only does the paper rush to publication before allowing anyone on the pro-life side to respond to the clinic leader's claims, but the story — based on my reading of the same Facebook page — unfairly characterizes the intent and spirit of the event.

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Oh no, not again: AP fails to ask school 'covenant' question in LGBTQ teacher case

Oh no, not again: AP fails to ask school 'covenant' question in LGBTQ teacher case

I know. I know.

Trust me, I know that your GetReligionistas keep making the same point over and over when digging into mainstream news coverage of LGBTQ teachers (or people in other staff positions) who, after making public declarations of their beliefs on sex and marriage, lose their jobs in doctrinally defined private schools.

We keep making the point over and over because it's a crucial question when covering these stories. When are reporters and editors going to start asking the crucial question?

The question, of course, is this: Had the person who was fired voluntarily signed an employee lifestyle (or doctrinal) covenant in which they promised to support (or at least not openly oppose) the teachings at the heart of the religious school's work?

So here we go again, this time in an Associated Press report -- as printed at Crux -- about another conflict in Charlotte:

A gay teacher sued a Roman Catholic school on Wednesday for firing him after he announced his wedding to a man, the latest in a series of legal fights over anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
The lawsuit argues Charlotte Catholic High School violated federal employment law by firing Lonnie Billard from a substitute teaching role in 2014 after a Facebook post about his wedding. While the lawsuit doesn’t invoke state law, it comes amid protracted litigation over a North Carolina law limiting protections for LGBT people.
Billard taught English and drama full time at the school for more than a decade, earning its Teacher of the Year award in 2012. He then transitioned to a role as a regular substitute teacher, typically working more than a dozen weeks per year, according to the lawsuit.

Let me stress, as always, that journalists do not have to agree with a religious school's doctrines -- in this case Catholic -- in order to accurately cover these stories. You just have to realize that many if not most private schools, both liberal and conservative, have these kinds of covenants defending the faith that they claim to represent in their work.

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Franklin Graham's $880,000 annual compensation: Charlotte Observer asks how much is too much

Franklin Graham's $880,000 annual compensation: Charlotte Observer asks how much is too much

Usually, wherever two or three microphones are gathered, Franklin Graham seems to be there.

The voice of Graham — son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham — is missing, though, from an investigative report this week by the Charlotte Observer.

The North Carolina newspaper reports that it made repeated requests to interview Franklin Graham last week but that he was not available.

However, Graham's lack of availability did not prevent the newspaper in his home state from producing a fair, solid piece of journalism:

Six years ago, Franklin Graham decided to give up his pay as head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“I feel that God has called me to this ministry and that calling was never based on compensation,” he wrote then in a memo to the BGEA staff.
But since 2011, at the urging of the Charlotte-based ministry’s board of directors, Graham has been receiving a salary again.
That’s in addition to the more than $620,000 he receives for his other full-time job, leading Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief agency based in Boone. His 2013 compensation from Samaritan’s Purse alone made him the highest-paid CEO of any international relief agency based in the U.S., according to data provided by GuideStar, the world’s largest source of information on nonprofit organizations.
Graham’s total compensation last year from the two charities was more than $880,000, including $258,667 from BGEA.
That total is less than the $1.2 million he received in 2008, but it’s still more than some nonprofit experts consider appropriate.

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Concerning all those 'fake baptisms' at Elevation Church

Long, long, ago I covered several Billy Graham crusades or other evangelistic efforts linked to his organization. In the days before these giant events, the pros doing press relations went out of their way to explain many of the fine details of what was happening and why. For example, they noted that after Graham extended his invitation for people to come forward to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or to rededicate their lives as Christians, many of the first people who came forward were actually trained counselors who would be greeting these seekers and helping to answer their questions. The counselors sat all over the stadium rather than clogging up the front rows in front of the podium.

Did this give the appearance that many people were streaming forward to make decisions, thus helping “break the ice” for those who might hesitate? That way have been a secondary affect. The key was that the counselors immediately went to work at the front of the stadium doing what they were supposed to do — work with the seekers who were coming forward. (For example, during the Colorado crusade in 1987, one of my stories focused on the cooperation between the Denver Catholic Archdiocese and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to find and train Catholic counselors to work with Catholics who came forward to make decisions.)

In other words, it was a valid question to ask about the visual effect of the counselors streaming forward. The Graham people heard the question, validated it and then provided an answer.

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One-sided look at controversial Baptist flock in Charlotte

It has been quite some time since I have used an old GetReligion term (Cheers!), so I think it might help for me to pause and explain the “tmatt trio” to new readers.

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