When experts are biased

If there's one thing I hate more than lazy journalism, it's when the reporters in question rely on one point of view and allow that to speak for both sides of the story. That's how, for instance, someone from a seemingly nonpartisan-sounding think tank spouts overtly partisan views, while audiences think it's coming from a neutral point of view.

The results, as we know, aren't pretty. Unsuspecting individuals get the wrong sense of a story, coloring opinions. And without this objectivity, stories may as well be Republican Party-issued talking-points sheets.

The latest example occurred this week in Ohio, a state already plagued by the petty partisanship of ruling Republicans. This time, an Associated Press reporter who should have known better unnecessarily gave readers the sense that churches' overt, one-sided political campaigning doesn't represent illegal, unethical behavior.

The opening paragraphs of AP reporter Carrie Spencer Ghose's article, misleadingly titled "Experts: Churches under fire haven't illegally endorsed candidates," begin harmlessly enough:
A group of religious leaders defended their position Wednesday that the tax-exempt status of two churches should be revoked and repeated allegations that their evangelical pastors have illegally endorsed a political candidate.

At least two dozen ministers from across the country have asked to be added to the group of 31 who signed a complaint to the IRS, said the Rev. Eric Williams of North Congregational United Church of Christ in Columbus. The complaint seeks an investigation into the political activities of the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus and the Rev. Russell Johnson of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster.

The complaint alleges that Parsley and Johnson have featured only Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state seeking the Republican nomination for governor, at church-sponsored events. Parsley has donated money to Blackwell, but says that is a personal and not a church matter.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? On the one side we've got a coalition of religious leaders filing a formal complaint against two Ohio religious officials over the latter's alleged partisanship. Throw in the über-unethical Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, an Ohio Republican gubernatorial candidate, and you've got the potential for an explosive story. A story Ghose quickly tries to diffuse:
The conservative rallies and voter registration drive Johnson and Parsley are leading don't amount to endorsing a candidate from the pulpit, political scientists who study religion and politics said. Democratic candidates frequently appear at churches, they said.

Parsley is acting as a citizen, not a pastor, when he leads a rally on the Statehouse grounds rather than his church, said Ronald Carstens, an Ohio Dominican University professor.

"There's a real problem when we think that religion or faith is merely a private matter and we can't bring religion or faith into the public realm," he said.

Here's the problem: Ghose's assertion is flat-out wrong. One the one hand she cites Carstens, who doesn't see the problem with what the accused are doing. On the other hand she cites Calvin College's Corwin Smidt, whose quote doesn't appear until the very end of the article. Smidt, in fact, does nothing to corroborate Carstens's claims when he says, "Is this an official action on the part of the church council or is this an action on the part of a pastor and part of his congregation who as private citizens are doing this kind of thing?" So, at best, we've got a split opinion. Carstens gives the behavior a pass, while Smidt - given far less prominence - raises further questions. Ghose apparently sides with Carstens and the matter is settled. Right?

Wrong.

There's reason to believe that Carstens isn't a neutral operator. Take this Carstens quote from a December Associated Press article about Parsley:

Parsley represents a new debate over the line between religion and politics, said Ronald Carstens, an Ohio Dominican University political science professor.

"The problem with the left, the reason they can't get elected, is they begin with the premise that anybody who believes in God is a moron," Carstens said.

And if you think that is an objective quote, you probably also think Parsley's not taking sides in the political process. What's so remarkable about that quote is that it sounds more like the incoherent ravings of the typical right-wing blog commenter, not a Ph.D. at a reputable university.

It's bad enough that Carstens claims Democrats "can't get elected." It's even worse that someone of his standing would say that liberals believe "that anybody who believes in God is a moron." Who among our elected Democratic officials - the majority of whom are practicing Christians or Jews - holds that belief? Certainly not someone in the professor's on back yard, Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, a former minister running for governor. What does Carstens have to say about Strickland - or any other faithful Democrat? Or does he only reserve his praise for Republicans? Does Carstens believe in the neutrality of the man - Parsley - who has said that "Gay sex is a veritable breeding ground for disease"? Or who has said, "I will rail against the idea that the God of Christianity and the god of Islam are the same being"? Yeah, sounds like a real middle-of-the-road guy to me.

While people like Parsley certainly pose a problem to constructive political debate, what's worse is when the "objective" media help further the religious right's hateful goals with biased, misleading reporting. Without a doubt, the Parsleys of the world have a political agenda. The Fourth Estate, however, shouldn't.

Tags: journalism, Ken Blackwell, Media, Ohio, Republicans, Rod Parsley (all tags)

Comments

2 Comments

Re: When experts are biased

I think you're on to something. With some more digging you may be able to expose Carstens as the wing-nut that he sounds like based on your quotes.

by EvanstonDem 2006-01-27 04:35PM | 0 recs
Re: When experts are biased
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