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Covering Robert Jeffress and Kim Jong Un: Some media shone, while others flailed

Covering Robert Jeffress and Kim Jong Un: Some media shone, while others flailed

It certainly made for a lot of waves on the internet: The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, describing how America's chief executive has authority from God to kill off North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

I’m still waiting for Pope Francis to come up with a statement to refute that one. But first things first: On Tuesday, Jeffress’ remarks were released to the Christian Broadcasting Network, an odd alliance if there ever was one. CBN is very oriented toward the Pentecostal-charismatic side of things and Jeffress most definitely is not, as an old-guard leader on the Southern Baptist right.

But politics always makes for strange bedfellows and with its superior contacts within the Trump administration, CBN has found itself in the unusual role of breaking national stories lately. David Brody’s three-paragraph story was part news, part editorial:

Sometimes you've got to stop evil. It's biblical. In North Korea, it's pretty clear that their dictator is downright evil. So tonight, Pastor Robert Jeffress, a longtime evangelical backer of Donald Trump, just released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to take out Kim Jong Un. This comes after Trump said today that if North Korea continues to threaten the U.S. then they will “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary -- including war -- to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un. I’m heartened to see that our president -- contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors -- will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a President who is serious about protecting our country.”
Folks, get ready. I've warned for a long time that North Korea was the biggest problem all along. Memo to North Korea: with Trump as president, you really don't want to mess with America. This could get real ugly real soon. Trump won't tolerate this for too much longer.

Later, CBN did follow up with something more nuanced from other evangelicals. 

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Coast-to-coast coverage of anti-sharia protest offers lots of heat, but little or no light

Coast-to-coast coverage of anti-sharia protest offers lots of heat, but little or no light

Arguments about religion and freedom took to the streets around the country this past weekend as a group called ACT for America staged anti-sharia law demonstrations at roughly 28 locations around the country.

I wasn’t aware of the event until I read a piece in the Seattle Times announcing the rally. The lead sentence, which began with, “Supporters of an organization considered a hate group by local Muslims will gather in Seattle on Saturday…” told me all I needed to know about the Times’ take on the event.

Once again, we have one of those news stories where editors already know who is totally good and who is totally evil (there are no variations or debates on either side, you see) and there is no need to let readers hear from other voices. It's much easier just to write an editorial.

Sadly, the Seattle paper didn’t improve things much with its post-rally story

Supporters of an organization labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center gathered Saturday in downtown Seattle as part of a national “March Against Sharia,” but were outnumbered by counterprotesters who used horns, whistles and chants to drown out their message.
The counterprotest, called “Seattle Stands With Our Muslim Neighbors,” drew a few hundred people to target the much-publicized demonstration sponsored by ACT for America. That group claims Islamic Sharia law — which is not in effect in the United States -- is a threat to American values. Sharia is religious law found in the Quran, and some Muslim-majority countries use Sharia law in their legal systems.

Did other media do better?

The report from ABC-TV quoted its Seattle affiliate and a Minneapolis newspaper about the status of rallies in both those cities, then quoted an Islamic studies professor in Hamilton, Ontario to comment on what’s going on in the States. Weren’t there any Islamic studies scholars in American universities who could be quoted?

CNN’s report was only a little better: 

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AP story on trangender man doesn't ask obvious questions about Catholic doctrine

AP story on trangender man doesn't ask obvious questions about Catholic doctrine

One thing that’s been lost in this new journalism era is the ability for critical thinking that leads to logical questions.

Now, don't get me wrong, there’s lots of critical thinking going on in coverage of the incoming GOP administration but there’s not so much regarding people who are at the opposite political pole, over on the political and cultural left.

When I read this Associated Press piece, I wondered why the reporter said relatively little about the man at the center of the article, instead of using his lawsuit as a wrap-up for other news on transgender issues. Was there no one editing this piece who couldn't send the writer back for more details? It would also help to actually talk to people who could explain details in church doctrines.

The story begins thus:

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- A transgender man sued a Roman Catholic hospital on Thursday, saying it cited religion in refusing to allow his surgeon to perform a hysterectomy as part of his sex transition.
Jionni Conforti's sex and gender discrimination lawsuit comes as new regulations hailed as groundbreaking anti-discrimination protections for transgender people are under legal attack from religious groups.
Conforti had scheduled the surgery at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson in 2015. He says a hospital administrator told him the procedure to remove his uterus couldn't be done because it was a "Catholic hospital."
"I felt completely disrespected," said Conforti, whose transition began in 2004. "That's not how any hospital should treat any person regardless of who they are."

Let’s start at the third paragraph with the scare quotes around the word “Catholic hospital.” Is there any possibility that it might not be a Catholic hospital? No? Then why the quotes?

The article goes on to list similar lawsuits in other states, including North Dakota, and includes a quote from the Catholic bishop of Fargo. Which is all well and good, but the hospital at the center of this story is located in the Diocese of Paterson, NJ.

Further on down:

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Taking down Kim Burrell: Sermon on homosexuality gets quick, one-sided media react

Taking down Kim Burrell: Sermon on homosexuality gets quick, one-sided media react

When I read about pastor and entertainer Kim Burrell’s sermon where she called homosexuality “perverted,” I knew she was going to be made to pay for that and pay big.

Not only is her name mud in the entertainment world, but her recently launched radio show on a local Texas station just got cancelled.

Believe me, that will just be the beginning. What makes this so timely is that the movie, “Hidden Figures,” in which Burrell sings for the soundtrack is opening this week.

Here’s how the Los Angeles Times explained things:

Gospel singer Kim Burrell labeled homosexuality “perverted” in a sermon she gave in her other life as a Pentecostal preacher, quickly eliciting responses from both Pharrell Williams, with whom she sings on the “Hidden Figures” soundtrack, and two stars from that film, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
Burrell and Williams were originally scheduled to perform the soundtrack song “I See a Victory,” on which he is also a producer, on “The Ellen Show” on Thursday, with Monáe also slated to appear as a guest. But on Tuesday morning, show host Ellen DeGeneres announced on Twitter that Burrell would not join Monáe and Williams on Thursday’s show.

Then followed the withering tweet by DeGeneres and then:

“I came to tell you about sin,” Burrell said in the recent sermon at the Houston church she founded and where she is pastor, Love and Liberty Fellowship Church International. “That perverted homosexual spirit, and the spirit of delusion and confusion, it has deceived many men and women.”
A firestorm of criticism was touched off when video of the sermon began to circulate and Burrell took to Facebook Live to add, “There are a lot of people that I’m aware of that struggle or deal [with] or have that spirit. Have I discriminated against them? Have I ever outright told them that I don’t love you and you going to hell? … I don’t give that call.”

That and USA Today’s account were two of the less hysterical stories on the issue.

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'Cruxifiction': Numbing media reaction after a mayor renames Good Friday

'Cruxifiction': Numbing media reaction after a mayor renames Good Friday

Come with us now to Bloomington, Ind., where Mayor John Hamilton has announcement. He says the city's 700 employees will get two paid days off: Fall Holiday and Spring Holiday.

Don’t recognize those holy days? You may know them as Columbus Day and Good Friday. Hamilton wielded his mayoral power to rechristen them.

To be blunt about it, this is a story built for mainstream media. As usual, though, much of the mainstream news coverage is better at citing the secular side than the religious opposition.

You know, like the New York Daily News:

Hamilton espoused acceptance in a memo to city employees.
"We are terrifically proud of our diverse workforce at the city. That diversity makes us stronger and more representative of the public we proudly serve," he wrote. "These updated names for two days of well-merited time off is another way we can demonstrate our commitment to inclusivity."
Bloomington, home to Indiana University's largest campus, sits in predominantly liberal Monroe County.

Like other accounts, the newspaper also gives a rundown on the meaning behind Columbus Day and Good Friday.

That's nice, but how about some religious voices on the latter? How do church leaders feel about the safe, pastelized reference to Good Friday? It's not like journalists couldn't find local people of faith -- not with Google listing 20 congregations in several denominations in the Bloomington area. Can you say, "Google"?

The issue has even drawn attention abroad. The BBC's version sprouts so many partial quotes, it read almost like sarcasm:

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Bias and inaccuracy: New York Daily News on gays and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Bias and inaccuracy: New York Daily News on gays and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Like the clichéd "pig in a python," mainstream media have been slowly digesting the story of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and its newly announced policy on gays. But some news outfits aren’t digesting the chunks well.

Time.com last week broke the news that the Christian college organization asked its 1,300 employees to fess up if they disagreed with IVCF's stated beliefs on same-sex marriage -- then make plans to leave the organization.

We're now seeing the usual reaction from bloggers and columnists: everyone from Christian Today to Gay Star News to the Huffington Post.

Except for the likes of the New York Daily News. They couldn't wait for the opinion phase -- they had to add it to the news article.

Here is the paper's idea of a news lede:

The Bible states that you "shall not oppress a stranger."
But one of the largest evangelical college groups in the country appears to be doing just that, as it recently told its 1,300 staffers that they will be fired if they support gay marriage or deviate from any of the organization's strict positions on sexuality.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA recently sent out a six-page letter saying the national group will initiate "involuntary terminations" for all staff members who support LGBTQ people's right to marry.

My first reaction: "Geez, I wonder how gays feel about a lede like that? Being called strangers?"

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'Jesus man': Franklin Graham backs Phil Robertson prayer and Charlotte Observer growls

'Jesus man': Franklin Graham backs Phil Robertson prayer and Charlotte Observer growls

Oooooooo, two trigger words: "Jesus" and "man." That brought the usual howls of outrage from the likes of the New York Daily News, which said Robertson "goosed at least half the country" with his prayer. And from the Sporting News, which said that allowing Robertson's prayer made NASCAR "look like a confederacy of dunces."

We could ask: When you request a public prayer from a backwoods fundamentalist supporter of Ted Cruz, what did you expect? But more disappointing to me is how the otherwise responsible Charlotte Observer held up for derision not only the prayer, but evangelist Franklin Graham for defending it.

In an article mysteriously bearing the byline of Godbeat pro Tim Funk, the Observer first joins those who read a ton into Phil's prayer:

Robertson, who has endorsed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for president, would seem to have ruled out a Democrat in his prayer: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a Methodist but not a man, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a man but not a Christian (he’s Jewish).
Various racing writers criticized Robertson for using his prayer before the Texas Motor Speedway’s Duck Commander 500 to further his own political agenda.
"There are Democrats who enjoy NASCAR," wrote one of them, Associated Press auto racing writer Jenna Fryer. "Jews and atheists and women, too."

Then the article segues into a kind of syllabus of errors, protesting the religio-political pronouncements on Graham's Facebook page. It tells how Graham defends a 1994 federal crime bill, criticizes Bruce Springsteen for canceling a concert in Greensboro, and endorses a bill in Alabama to recognize the fetus as a person.

Oh, and the Observer also notes Graham's support of a North Carolina law branded a "bathroom bill" by opponents. The law declares all government lockers and restrooms, including schools, to be used by people of their biological gender. It sparked anger in Charlotte for overturning that city's LGBT ordinance.

This is all written up as if it's freakish to see someone write his beliefs on Facebook. And it was all in a newspaper article labeled only "Religion" -- not "Opinion" or "Commentary" or any other warning to "Brace yourself for 700 words of my views."

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Bacon at a mosque: media don’t get to the meat of a Florida vandalism case

Bacon at a mosque: media don’t get to the meat of a Florida vandalism case

Which is worse -- a machete or slabs of bacon? No, that's not one of those riddles you'd hear in, say, philosophy class or late at night in a bar. It's a question posed in stories about vandalism of a Florida mosque.

Someone took a machete to the Masjid al-Mumin building in Titusville, near the Kennedy Space Center. The vandal used the weapon to hack at lights, windows and security cameras, then scattered raw bacon around the front door. Some cameras still worked, though: Police arrested one Michael Wolfe from surveillance images.

It's just one of a rash of vandalism against mosques around the U.S. since recent jihadi attacks like the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino. The interesting thing about the Florida incident is what the stories chose to lead with -- and whether they grasped the effect of the crime.

Among the more sensationalistic was the Religion News Service, which ran a USA Today story and headlined it "Man accused of swinging machete through Florida mosque." The original headline was a milder "Man accused of vandalizing mosque, leaving bacon." But both versions don't neglect the blade, saying Wolfe "is accused of slashing his way through the mosque, shattering lights, windows and cameras with a machete."

An official from the Council on American-Islamic Relations ties the two offenses together:

"People are afraid to take their children back to the mosque ... a machete was used," said Rasha Mubarak, the advocacy group's Orlando regional coordinator.  "They know we don't consume pork. This is something that those who are Islamaphobic tend to bring up or use."

A gold star to the story for adding this background: "Eating pork — including bacon and ham — is prohibited in the Quran. The Bible's Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy also forbid it." Pretty impressive for a secular newspaper.

The article borrows heavily, of course, from coverage in Florida Today, its affiliate in east-Central Florida. That newspaper quotes Muhammad Musri, who oversees 10 mosques in the area and, it says, has often done interfaith work:

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"Prayer shaming" -- The New York Daily News jumps in with both feet after San Bernardino

"Prayer shaming" -- The New York Daily News jumps in with both feet after San Bernardino

It was about noon Tuesday -- Pacific time -- when news of yet another mass shooting started hitting the news. This time it was in a facility for the disabled in San Bernardino, Calif. 

Of course, this produced the same sickening it’s-now-happening-every-week feeling that Americans keep getting in their gut. We followed the sounds of the cop cars racing through the streets, the press conferences by the local police chief and wishes of anger, disbelief and prayers emanating from Twitterland.

Except that something really interesting happened on Twitter that placed the blame for the whole mass-shootings trend not on the shooters but on those who prayed for their victims. I’ll let the Atlantic describe what happened next in a story headlined “Prayer Shaming:”

Directly after a mass shooting, in the minutes or hours or days between the first trickle of news and when police find a suspect or make arrests, it is very difficult to know what to do. Some people demand political action, like greater gun control; others call for prayer. In the aftermath of a violent shooting spree in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday, in which at least 14 victims are reported to have died, people with those differing reactions quickly turned against one another.

The story showed a compilation of reactions from Twitter, contrasting Hillary Clinton’s “I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now. -- H” with vapid comments from GOP presidential candidates offering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims.

No doubt Clinton got the media zeitgeist right on this one. The Atlantic continued:

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