Sunday, August 23, 2009

Continued Media Bias in Reporting Lutheran Story: "Sexually Active" Gays and "Monogamous" Relationships

A point I’ve been stressing in my recent postings about the ELCA assembly is the active complicity of many in the media with the attempts of well-funded, highly placed interest groups to combat full equality for gay and lesbian persons (and see here).

I’m stressing this theme re: media coverage of the Lutheran assembly because the problem is growing worse, rather than better. And my sense is that it’s going to grow even worse. LGBT Americans and those who stand in solidarity with us need to recognize that many in the media have a vested interest in combating equality for gay Americans. The more we experience breakthroughs in churches like the ELCA, the stronger the push is going to be from the right, and from mainstream media that often willingly function as mouthpieces for the right. And we need to push back—hard.

Take a look at what happened in the wake of Friday’s ELCA decision to permit ministers in “publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships” to serve in Lutheran churches. The phrase I have just quoted occurs thirteen times in the brief, two-page recommendation that ELCA delegates approved last Friday.

And how have some in the mainstream media chosen to report about this decision and this carefully worded, easy-to-read, straightforward statement that most anyone can understand? Take a look at what AP reporter Patrick Condon did with this story.

Patrick Condon chose to report the story with a headline stating, “Lutherans to Allow Sexually Active Gays as Clergy.” Condon uses the phrase that actually appears in the document—“lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships”—only once in his report, in a final sentence which follows a misleading statement (to which I will return in a moment) that the document permits gays in lifelong monogamous relationships to serve in ministry while straight ministers are required to abstain from sex outside marriage.

Because AP articles are routinely picked up by major media outlets all overt the world, Condon’s article—with its deliberately bias-provoking headline—has now popped up all over the world, including at ABC, Forbes, and New York Times, and—well, do a google search and you’ll see my point. Everywhere. As Condon and the AP no doubt intended.

I have already noted (here) Condon’s bias in reporting on the Lutheran assembly in my posting about the ELCA approval of its recommendation on sexual ethics. And I’m pleased to note that I’m not the only one tracking Condon’s bias as he reported on the ELCA assembly.

Drew Tatusko picks up on this story in an outstanding posting at his Notes from Off Center blog. As Tatusko notes, Condon’s headline plays the tired old game of reducing gay people and our lives to sex. Condon has taken a story about the decision of a major Protestant denomination to recognize ministers in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships,” and has made that story a story about sex.

About malicious insinuations that gay people are sexual objects and promiscuous, sexually driven beings unable to sustain lifelong relationships. Condon’s presentation of the story—a presentation entirely framed by a headline that is intentionally meant to go right to the sexual angle—deliberately overlooks the decision of a major church to call to ministry people in lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships. It does so both to continue bias, and because telling that story would put the lie to Condon’s misleading conclusion that, while gay people in such relationships can now serve in ministry, straight people in ministry must choose celibacy.

They must choose celibacy, that is, along with gay ministry candidates not yet in monogamous relationships, because they are not yet married. These straight ministry candidates and ministers have not yet entered into publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous relationships. And they have an option that gay persons lack in most parts of the world: they have the choice to enter into such relationships legally and publicly. With full advantage of the law.*

As Drew Tatusko notes, Condon comes to this story with some telling baggage. Back in May 2008, a blogger named Phoenix Woman reported at the Firedoglake blog about Condon’s extremely biased and very twisted reporting on the role of a right-wing Minnesota blogger Michael Brodkorb in attacks on Al Franken. Brodkorb is former Research Director for the Minnesota Republican party.

As Phoenix Woman decisively demonstrates, Condon’s “puff piece” reporting on Brodkorb’s activities ignores the thick trail of financial connections leading from Brodkorb to people like Michelle Bachmann—an interesting thing to ignore in a report focusing on the activities of a blogger with “a long history as a paid political operative.” As Drew Tatusko points out (citing a Daily Kos story about the “sleazy links” between Condon and such paid right-wing political operatives), Condon’s silence about the financial trails that connect Brodkorb to powerful funding sources in the Republican party hardly indicates that he would be predisposed to treat stories about gay rights equably:

So, a misleading piece by a less than hospitable reporter who has a past of hanging with those who would likely oppose "sexually active gays." Wonder how Get Religion will spin this one.

Well, unfortunately, we don’t have to keep wondering about how Get Religion chose to use the Condon story about “sexually active gays” and Lutheran ministry. Today, a poster named Mollie at Get Religion chooses to summarize (and she does so woefully inadequately) and then dismiss Tatusko’s critique, while arguing that “the ELCA did vote to allow sexually active gays as clergy. And it’s kind of hard to ignore that major vote when that’s what the whole story is about.”

Mollie, by the way, had already posted a piece at Get Religion last week praising the choice of one brave reporter in a sea of liberal reporters to tell the ECLA story with “an anecdotal lede with someone opposed to changing the church’s teaching on whether clergy who are in same-sex relationships should be on the church roster.” That reporter? Why, Patrick Condon of the AP, of course.

Am I surprised to see such biased reporting on Terry Mattingly's Get Religion blog, which professes to be about offering more well-rounded, well-researched reporting on religion that “raise[s] some questions about coverage that we believe has some holes in it”? No. I’m not. No more surprised than I am to see the AP deliberately misreporting (and deliberately fomenting prejudice in) a major news story that has to do with the churches and gay persons—particularly when that story is one about a church’s decision to abolish policies that discriminated against gay persons.

I am saddened, though. And angry—angry that this biased reporting continues, when it so obviously biased. And when it is applauded by some of the most noxious right-wing blogs reporting today about religion and the gay community, who rightly see that they have friends in high places in mainstream media outlets like the AP.

And don’t even get me started on the choice of Washington Post reporter Jacqueline L. Salmon to report on the ELCA ministry decision with the following headline: “‘Monogamous’ Gays Can Serve in ELCA.” “Monogamous” in quotation marks? This is clearly not intended to highlight the term monogamous as a direct quote from the ELCA document.

It has another purpose altogether, a more sinister one. It is intended to cast aspersions on the ELCA’s use of the term “monogamous” to characterize publicly accountable, life-long same-sex relationships. And to trade in ugly old stereotypes about the inability of gay people to pursue such relationships successefully. It is equivalent to headlines in the mainstream media that still routinely speak about gay “marriage.

It’s not hard to recognize Salmon’s bias when, just three days before, she reported “Lutherans to Vote on Sexually Active Gay Clergy.”

Such indefensible attempts of reporters supposedly pledged to objectivity to skew intra-ecclesial and society-wide conversations about justice for gay persons need to stop. And those of us who are gay, along with our supporters, need to stop putting up with this, and to demand accountability on the part of those who pay reporters’ salaries.

If readers of this blog can assist me in circulating information about these important matters and can help me call the media to accountability, I'll be very grateful.

*As someone who has spent much of his life studying in graduate theology and ministry programs, and later teaching in such programs, I find it astonishing that anyone really believes that ministers-to-be, whether gay or straight, are actually celibate, regardless of their religious tradition. In my experience, most ministry candidates are like other adults: sexual beings with complex lives that often include sexual activity and sexual relationships.

I am personally not enthused about the decision of churches to focus obsessively on the sexual activities of ministry candidates, whether gay or straight. In my view, regulations that promote such obsessive scrutiny of the personal lives of ministry candidates are likely to foment witch hunts that do no one any good, including the churches intent on supervising the sexual lives of ministers and ministry candidates.

This does not mean that I oppose holding clergy and ministry candidates to accountability in this and other areas. What it does mean is that the qualifications of people to serve in ministry ought to rest on broader criteria, including the quality of their relationships, their commitment and fidelity in relationships, and so forth. Not just on when and how and with whom they have slept.

And it goes without saying that I am speaking here of adult relationships. The question of clergy abuse of minors is another matter altogether.

If churches want to formulate and then enforce criteria supervising the sexual lives of ministers, married or otherwise, I do strongly support making those criteria apply across the board, to both straight and gay persons. That is not how these criteria have usually functioned in the churches, and as my previous posting today notes, prohibitions against gay clergy who do not vow lifelong celibacy were enacted in many churches only recently, with the specific intent of targeting gay people and making gay people second-class citizens in churches.

If those prohibitions had excluded monogamous straight people in life-long public relationships from engaging in ministry, and if they had just been abolished, I wonder if Condon would have written a headline shouting, "Lutherans to Allow Sexually Active Straights as Clergy"? Or would he perhaps think it not only inappropriate, but also silly, to focus attention on the sexual lives and sexual activities of heterosexual adults (reporters as well as ministers) in life-long, monogamous, publicly accountable relationships?