Ah, come on! Didn’t I just have to write one of these echo chamber, “Here we go again” posts?
Indeed, that would be the case (“Here we go again: When covering campus LGBTQ disputes, always look for doctrinal covenants“), exactly 24 hours ago.
Well, now I have to write another one, because someone at Newsweek just messed up, again, providing a variation on a screwed-up theme, once again, that has haunted copy-desk folks at that news magazine since the earliest days of GetReligion.
Here’s the new headline, in that all-caps style that appears to be the current Newsweek norm: “TRUMP IMPEACHMENT MUST BE PREVENTED THROUGH DAY OF FASTING AND PRAYER, EVANGELIST SAYS.”
Now, it helps to know that the “evangelist” in this case is the activist, counselor and author whose name is “Dr. James Dobson.” Let’s flash back to an early, early GetReligion post by Doug LeBlanc, which ran with this headline: “That’s Dr. Dobson to you, punks.” It noted a 2005 correction at Newsweek that humbly noted:
In our Aug. 1 issue, a sidebar on lobbying groups (“A User’s Guide to the Groups”) incorrect[ly] identifies James Dobson as a reverend. He in fact has a Ph.D. in child psychology and goes by Dr. Dobson. Newsweek regrets the error.
LeBlanc noted that Newsweek had to turn around and run a similar correction the following year, after the same mistake. Thus, the co-founder of this blog added, wryly:
Newsweek sure seems to have the correction in a macro somewhere. … The style guardians at Newsweek might consider adding a stylebook entry for Dobson, James, Ph.D.
Now, it’s time to slightly expand that correction. Here is the top of the new Trump-related report:
A prominent evangelist has urged religious leaders to join together for a day of fasting and prayer to protect President Donald Trump from impeachment.
Speaking on January 5 during a conference call with the leaders of Intercessors for America — a Christian group that believes in fasting to alter world events — James Dobson pleaded for his peers to give up food and ask God to help Trump.
“This country will be in serious trouble if they’re successful in impeaching this man,” he said, according to an audio obtained by Right Wing Watch, a website that monitors conservative organizations.
Now, Dobson was certainly a high-profile evangelical during his years as leader of Focus on the Family, back when his radio show and his many bestsellers were powerful forces in mainstream Christian culture. The key was that, until his arch-enemy Bill Clinton crashed into the public square, Dobson was known as an experienced counselor and medical-school faculty member who offered advice on marriage, raising children and similar topics.
Later, Dobson became more and more outspoken on pro-life issues, clashes over gay rights and gender issues. Much later he was one of the old-guard Religious Right leaders who offered strategic support for Trump during the GOP primaries and thereafter.
However, Dobson has never been an “evangelist” — think Billy Graham, of course — who focused his work on evangelistic rallies and/or media work dominated by preaching and calls for conversion to the Christian faith. Once again, Dobson is not an ordained minister. Nor is he a layperson who has focused on public evangelism. He is a religious broadcaster, counselor, author, political activist, etc.
This latest Newsweek mistake on the Dobson and/or evangelical beat reminded me of the opening paragraphs of that famous (for some, infamous) Books & Culture essay by Notre Dame professor Christian Smith that ran with this provocative headline:
Religiously Ignorant Journalists
A sociologist argues that today’s religion writers often know little about the subject on which they’re supposedly informing the public.
Here is the much-quoted overture for that 2004 essay:
Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about “Episcopals,” about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention’s approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect “Episcopals.” What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no “Episcopals”? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn’t even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.
What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance. As a scholar of American religion promoted to journalists by my university’s PR department as an alleged expert, I constantly receive inquiries from reporters wanting background, quotes, and contacts for religion stories they are writing. Usually they have one or two days to complete the story. As often as not, the journalist mispronounces the name of the religious group he or she is covering.
“Evangelicals” is one of their favorites to botch. Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as “evangelists” — as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau — or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. Hey, aren’t all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them — scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce “evangelicals” at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at “evangelics” and “evangelicalists” they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as “them.” These are the knowledge-class professionals who are supposedly informing millions of readers about religion in America.
Why does this kind of thing keep happening, especially when religion-news topics are addressed by reporters without training or experience on this complex beat?
Would editors take a similar approach with really important subjects such as, well, politics? Smith offered this:
I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the “Democrizer” or “Republication” parties, or about the most recent “Supremicist Court” ruling. Surely reporters covering business and markets do not call economists asking 45 minutes of elementary questions about how the business cycle works or what effect it has when the Fed drops interest rates. So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?
Let me stress that I think Smith needed to be more careful, in terms of drawing a bright line between the work of general assignment and political-desk reporters and that of veteran, trained, religion-beat who focus on covering religion as crucial force in events and trends in America and around the world. Yes, religion-beat pros may have blind spots (I know I have mine) that require us to read ourselves up to speed on new topics, while reaching out to experts for background. That’s a crucial part of advanced beat reporting.
But that isn’t what Smith is talking about, is it?
So this brings me back to that need for a macro correction in the computers at Newsweek.
The bottom line: Surely, by now, after all of the mistakes through the years, editors and reporters in that newsroom know who Dr. James Dobson is?