The Memphis Commercial Appeal

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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What fuels fake news? Major Tennessee newspapers pledge to oppose 'anti-LGBT' bills

What fuels fake news? Major Tennessee newspapers pledge to oppose 'anti-LGBT' bills

As you would expect, I have been asked more than my share of questions -- in face-to-face encounters and in cyberspace -- about the tsunami of post-Election Day arguments about "fake news."

What do I think of this phenomenon? As it turns out, my answer to this question is directly linked to the work we do here at GetReligion and to my "Journalism Foundations" class that I teach in New York City at The King's College (a class that was also a cornerstone of the old Washington Journalism Center program).

Let me be as brief, because we need to get to a highly relevant case study from The Tennessean in Nashville.

Fake news is real and it's a very dangerous trend in our public discourse. There is fake news on the right, of course, but it also exists on the left (think Rolling Stone). Many Americans are being tempted to consume fake news because they have completely lost trust in the ability of the mainstream press to do accurate, balanced, fair coverage of many of the issues that matter most to people from coast to coast, but especially in the more conservative heartland.

Some of this is political, but we are also talking about "Kellerism" (click here for information on this GetReligion term) and the fact that some elite newsrooms struggle when covering moral, cultural and social issues. Some journalists (thank you Dean Baquet of The New York Times) just don't "get religion."

This brings me to a business story in The Tennessean with this oh-so-typical headline: "Tennessee firms fire warning shot against LGBT laws." Let's see if we can find the key passage that, for many Volunteer State readers, will link directly to their willingness to turn to news sources that mainstream journalists, often with good cause, would call "fake."

The overture, of course, establishes the framing of this 1,300-word report:

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More on Mississippi religious liberty bill: Some views are more equal than others

More on Mississippi religious liberty bill: Some views are more equal than others

Can you endorse differences of opinion and reject them at the same time?

The Memphis Commercial Appeal did it in its look at Mississippi's new religious liberty bill.

The Mississippi bill, like the one Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia vetoed last week, would allow people to decline to perform certain services because of religious objections. The sponsoring legislators said it was prompted by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The Commercial Appeal news article, in its DeSoto County edition, doesn't leave you guessing its slant. Not when it gives the lede to someone who attacks the law:

Differences of opinion don't bother Kelly Harrison as long as they're just differences of opinion. When those differences potentially become a matter of life or death, that's another matter.
"If you don't want my money, I don't want to give you my money," Harrison, of Nesbit, wrote on her Facebook page last week. "But what if I or my family needed your service, life or death, and this could stop you from providing it without any worries? No matter how you paint this picture, it's discrimination."
Harrison was referring to Mississippi's "Freedom of Conscience" Act, a measure that would allow government employees or private business operators to cite religious objections as a basis to deny services to gay or lesbian couples. The bill, House Bill 1523, has passed in both legislative chambers and is on its way to Gov. Phil Bryant. The Republican governor said Friday he would look at the bill and decide what to do when it reaches him, but he has said he doesn't think it discriminates and has supported religious liberty bills previously.

Only toward the end of the article, BTW, does the newspaper reveal that Harrison and her mate are the first same-sex married couple in DeSoto County. She has a right to her opinion, but it's hardly an impartial one.

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Sweating a few fine (even fried) pope details in the wake of #PapalGoofs

Sweating a few fine (even fried) pope details in the wake of #PapalGoofs

Just the other day, Father James Martin started a Jesuit Twitter fest with #PapalGoofs, a hashtag dedicated to helping journalists who -- forced into religion-beat duty with the arrival of Hurricane (Pope) Francis -- could use a online Catholicism 101 course.

While the padre, who is best known outside of bookstores as the official chaplain to the old "Colbert Report," has yet to jump back into the Twitter fray, others have picked up #PapalGoofs and are using it as a hook for social-media discussions of fumbles and outright errors in coverage of events and trends linked to the arrival of Pope Francis.

For example, consider this a nomination for the most simplistic (folks, the competition is fierce) use of this pope's most famous out-of context soundbite. This comes to you care of The Memphis Commercial Appeal:

When Francis was asked whether homosexuality is a sin, he replied, "Who am I to judge?"

Not even close, as one can see with even a glancing look at the actual transcript of that off-the-cuff papal press conference. The actual question?

I would like permission to ask a delicate question: another image that has been going around the world is that of Monsignor Ricca and the news about his private life. I would like to know, Your Holiness, what you intend to do about this? How are you confronting this issue and how does Your Holiness intend to confront the whole question of the gay lobby?

The pope was asked about rumors concerning a specific Vatican priest and, in his answer, stressed -- using the word "sin" over and over -- that those who confess their sins can be forgiven and those sins are gone, in the past.

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