Shaky journalism ethics and hypocrisy in the name of religion are a couple of my pet peeves.
I’m a little peeved now at Todd Starnes of Fox News.
Some background will help. My Digital First colleague Jeff Edelstein, a columnist at The Trentonian, broke the story Oct. 22 that MacFarland Intermediate School in Bordentown had dropped three overtly religious Christmas songs from its winter concert. You can agree or disagree with that move, and I’m not going to argue the merits of the school’s decision here, but it’s clearly newsworthy.
Starnes was one of many journalists jumping on the story after Jeff broke it, along with his Fox colleague Bill O’Reilly. The story fits their imaginary “war on Christmas,” so you can see why they would want to give it attention. But they didn’t bother to acknowledge the source of their information in any way.
I think an ethical journalist should acknowledge and link to sources. You can disagree with me on that and you’ll have some company. It’s not one of those ethical points on which journalists are mostly united, like that we should publish accurate stories and shouldn’t plagiarize.
But let’s get to the question of accuracy. Starnes tweeted this week:
It’s true that the school district announced a change of position. But that’s not the full story. As Jeff noted in a column this week, the program for the concert includes some cultural Christmas songs about Santa, but not the overtly religious songs some parents had objected to. So Starnes is boasting without crediting the guy who actually broke the story, which makes him a jerk at least, but he’s also inaccurate (or at best incomplete), and that’s bad journalism whether you believe in attribution or not.
So Jeff starts tweeting at Starnes asking for a correction and a little credit. Maybe he was a little aggressive in asking, but I’m OK with journalists who are persistent in the pursuit of accuracy and accountability.
I can understand Starnes reading the press release and thinking the school had restored the songs to the concert. But Jeff learned that wasn’t the case. When he pointed that out, do you know what Starnes did? Did he thank Jeff for pointing out the error and give him belated credit? No, he blocked him. I guess Starnes’ idea of journalism ethics is that if you block your critics, you don’t have to correct your mistakes.
As Jeff said in an email to me:
Maybe I’m a little ‘nose rubby’ about it, but come on: He took credit for something that is simply not true. (And to take credit for it in the first place … hubris, anyone?)
I wondered whether Starnes was a commentator hired for his political or journalism chops, rather than a journalist. That might explain his ignorance of journalism ethics or his lack of caring about them. The “about page” on his website, Starnes boasts about his journalism career, so he should care about journalism ethics. But I suspect a person who blocks someone who points out errors doesn’t really care about journalism ethics, so maybe I’ll address Starnes on another level.
Starnes’ book Dispatches from Bitter America describes him in the subtitle as a “gun toting, chicken eating son of a Baptist.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that Starnes is a Baptist (I’m a son of Baptists, but not a Baptist now), but clearly he is proud of that heritage (as am I). That about page does say that Starnes is “active in his church,” and the context of his post about the school’s winter concert makes it pretty clear that his church is Christian, if not specifically Baptist. A Baptist Student Union website bio says Starnes attends Journey Church in New York, which appears from its website to be non-denominational, but which holds its baptisms at a Baptist church. He also addressed the Baptist Press Collegiate Journalism Conference. I think it’s fair to consider his actions from a Baptist perspective.
I know a bit about Baptists. I’m a son of two Baptist ministers, brother of two others and brother-in-law and nephew of still more. (Insert your own stray-lamb joke here.) Baptists have been some of the strongest advocates of the separation of church and state, not as a political position, but as a Biblical position. Remember, Jesus’ position on taxes is “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Baptist settlers formed their own colony in Rhode Island because of religious persecution from other Christian churches in America, and they were early, loud and passionate advocates of religious freedom and the accompanying principle of separation of church and state. The notion of a Baptist advocating for government-run schools to be pushing religion is offensive to people who understand and embrace Baptist heritage.
Jeff speculated about how the critics of the school decision would feel about a program featuring Muslim songs if Muslims were in the majority in the United States.
I prefer real life to hypotheticals, so I’ll tell you about the experience of this Baptist kid some 50 years ago in a public school in Sunset, Utah. Dad, an Air Force chaplain, was stationed for five years at Hill Air Force base and we lived off-base. I was the only “Gentile” — non-Mormon — in my class for first through fifth grades. As schools should, this one taught history, and Utah history gets kind of entwined with the Mormon religion. At times — once, as I recall, involving songs in a pageant — my parents objected when the teaching became overtly religious and I was excused from some classes.
So even in the United States, allowing religion in public schools can place Christian children in positions that their parents find objectionable. I don’t know whether Starnes ignores Baptist tradition or didn’t learn it, but his clamor for forcing religious content on school children is decidedly un-Baptist.
But that’s really about the underlying issue of the story, not about Starnes’ treatment of Jeff. Let’s consider how he treated Jeff:
- Picked up his story without credit.
- Boasted of a supposed result without sharing credit.
- Ignored an opportunity to correct an inaccuracy (which turns it from an error to a lie).
- Arrogantly blocked someone trying to converse with him.
Since we know that Starnes is a Christian, maybe some Scripture passages will help here:
A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will not go free. (Proverbs 19:5)
May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue. (Psalm 12:3)
For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:14)
A new command I give you: Love one another. (John 13:34)
(I see no contact information for Starnes on his website, but I will tweet at him inviting comment and add the response if I get any. Or, if he blocks me, I’ll note that, too.)