Tuesday, November 11, 2014

When Christian News Reporting is All Three

Across most of the journalistic firmament, is there any greater validation than being covered by the New York Times?

Not that the Times is the best media enterprise out there.  Or that it is always fair, balanced, or correct.

Yet the Times manages to exude a confident - and yes, urbane - air of authority in most areas of modern civilization, from business to politics to the arts.  Its coverage of international affairs is respected around the globe, if not for its lack of liberal bias, then at least for its breadth and scope.  Few other media organizations have the financial wherewithal and credible pedigree to report on so much and be read by so many influencers of the world's stage.

Meanwhile, for all of its sophisticated prestige, its blatantly liberal bias on key topics such as ecology, abortion, Obamacare, and gay marriage normally makes the Times a pariah for conservatives in general, and evangelicals in particular.  So it was perhaps with a grave level of suspicion that World magazine, a proudly evangelical news concern in the deep South, allowed a Times reporter to interview them in their North Carolina headquarters.

Mark Oppenheimer is a religion writer for the otherwise overtly secular Times, and his beat covers a broad cross-section of faiths and belief systems, with Christianity simply one of many.  And evangelicalism an even narrower subset among the world's religious paths.  Nevertheless, Oppenheimer was drawn to World by its surprisingly accurate track record recently of sniffing out sordid scandals within our evangelical sub-culture.

But what kind of story would he make out of such notoriety for something like the Times?

One always seems to get the impression that whenever anybody at the Times talks about evangelicals, it's with blatant disdain, a few hedonistic chuckles, and a dismissive smirk.

Surprisingly enough, Oppenheimer treats his subject with a fair amount of respect, even if he seems to have himself been somewhat surprised by what he found at World's headquarters.  Considering the types of stories World has helped to break - from Mark Driscoll's misleading PR stunt for a newly-published book, to Dinesh D'Souza's extramarital affair - Oppenheimer could have been excused for expecting to walk into some some sort of National-Enquirer-for-Christians operation.

Oppenheimer still can't resist calling World's reporting "muckraking."

Instead, what he discovers is a bit more complex than that, even if he doesn't know what to make of it.  "Evangelical Protestant journalism is generally more public relations than reporting," he explains.  "World stands out as an exception."

It's almost as if we evangelicals are supposed to keep our dirty laundry in a closet someplace.  When staffers at World learn that something is amiss in our evangelical ghetto, they're supposed to either ignore it, or try to spin something saintly out of it.

Outside of Christianity, such behavior is called enabling.  Within evangelicalism, however, it's mistakenly called being gracious.  Non-judgmental.  Even Christ-like.

But is it Christ-like to subversively purchase thousands of one's own newly-published book to rig the Times' best-seller listing?  Is it Christ-like for a well-known man to attend a religious conference with a woman who is not his wife?  The one, Driscoll's book fraud, was done in secret, because if it were exposed, it would damage his career.  The other, D'Souza's affair, was brazenly public, but he apparently presumed his charisma made him privileged.

Has bringing these stories to light been muckraking on World's part?  Why shade World's reporting of these two men as somehow undesirable?  After all, "muckraking" doesn't have the best of connotations.  Did World's employees have axes to grind?  Were they in pursuit of Driscoll and D'Souza out of some sort of vendetta?  Even Christ called the Jewish leaders of His time on Earth to account for their corruption.  It wasn't like Christ was gossiping then, and neither was World's reporting gossip.  It wasn't slander, it wasn't false, and it wasn't arbitrary.

But yes, it was news.  At least to us evangelicals.  To jaded journalists outside of our subculture, perhaps rigging the Times best-seller list and having an extramarital affair sound like provincial topics, but to people who purportedly believe that the Bible's teachings on morality are inviolable - particularly for our leaders - such stories represent worthy opportunities for journalistic exploration.  The fact that both items became the tip of the iceberg in terms of other problems exposed in each man's career is almost beside the point.

Indeed, World's research simply compounded other missteps by both Driscoll and D'Souza that, together, have significantly tarnished each one's personal reputation.  Driscoll lost his church empire after legions of his subordinates accused him of being a bully, and D'Souza pled guilty to violating election laws, and is currently on probation.  D'Souza has a strong following among non-religious right-wing conservatives, so his notoriety hasn't dulled their attraction to him much, but Driscoll has dropped out of the spotlight, except for a cameo appearance at a pastor's conference at a megachurch in affluent Southlake, Texas.

A lot of Christians blame World magazine for exploiting the problems these two men have had, and even exacerbating those problems by publicizing them.  So, does that mean that evangelicals shouldn't run any sort of news media that isn't a glorified PR mechanism?

Or does it mean that some evangelicals have a problem with hero-worship within our subculture?  Driscoll appears to still command a significant fan base, not just in his hometown of Seattle, but across North America.  And D'Souza has retained his partisan political allies.  Should World have treated these men as untouchables, and refused to draw our attention to warning signs that they're currently not fit leaders for Christ's body?

In his postmortem on Driscoll's sad saga, World's editor, Marvin Olasky, carefully explained why his magazine did not pretend that the saga didn't exist.

"World is a strange creature within the journalistic world," admits Olasky.  "We’re a Christian publication but not a movement organ, so we publicly criticize Christian leaders and organizations when they haven’t responded to the private criticism that always follows abuses of authority... We investigate problems within the redemptive hope that God turns weakness into strength."

A typical knee-jerk reaction to bad news is to blame the messenger.  And if World had been malicious in its intent, biased in its reporting, and taunting in its editorializing, then we'd all have had cause for complaint.  However, reporting bad news is not, in and of itself, bad or wrong.

In fact, the onus is particularly pronounced for Christians when it comes to reporting the news.  Being responsible for conveying accurate information is important enough; being responsible with the reputations of people who claim to be brothers in Christ should make any Christian organization more cautious.

So far, World has not shown itself to be irresponsible.  It's merely been reporting how other public figures within evangelicalism have been.

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