“Scare-quoting” Religious Liberty

Mississippi passes controversial ‘religious freedom’ bill.

Mississippi Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Into Law.

Mississippi Senate Passes Sweeping ‘Religious Liberty’ Bill.

All three of those headlines have two things in common. First, they all put scare quotes around the phrase ‘religious liberty,’ the ostensible purpose of which is to introduce doubt or skepticism that the law in question is really about religious freedom. Second, all of these headlines are from news dispatches, and not op-eds. In other words, what you’re looking at is reporting rather than editorializing.

Now, it could be that these publications feel they are sidestepping the debate over the legislation, and merely reporting the words used by one side and the accusations of the other. Those in favor of preventing the state from suing bakers and florists whose religion prohibits them from participating in a same-sex wedding say it’s all about religious freedom; those who want such coercion say “religious freedom” is code for discrimination. So why not just report what everyone thinks by using words in quotes?

The problem here, in my view, is a conflation between a point of order and a point of debate.

In parliamentary procedure, a member can raise a “point of order” at any time. Often a member seeking to do so will be recognized by the Speaker in the middle of a debate or other discussion. The point of order is by definition intrusive. A member raising it is telling the Speaker and the House that something needs to be fixed, not about what is being said but about the process itself.

The easiest way to get a scowl from a Speaker is to claim you have a point of order, but then, once recognized, to talk about a point of debate. For example: Imagine a governmental group you are part of is debating the merits of the income tax. A person next to you, not recognized heretofore by the Speaker, raises his hand and says “Point of Order!” The Speaker then turns to your neighbor and recognizes them to raise a point of order, an issue with the way the debate or the session is proceeding.

But then, after being recognized for a point of order, your neighbor says: “Yes, Mr. Speaker, I have a point of order. Mr. Jones is simply incorrect about the amount of revenue that can gained by the state through a progressive income tax. He’s not using the best numbers and the members of this House should be aware of that.” At this point, a Speaker who knows Parliamentary procedure would stop your neighbor and (gently, hopefully) rebuke him for raising a point of order when what he really had to say was a point of debate. It’s inappropriate–and more than a tad dishonest–to claim to have a point of order, and then raise a point of debate.

The scare-quoting of religious liberty is like this. For a newsroom to put religious liberty in scare-quotes in reporting is to raise a point of order when what really is being said is a point of debate. Regardless of whether you think the supporters of HB 1523 are honest people, the bill is written as a religious liberty bill; it calls itself a religious liberty bill; and it was signed by a governor who has said that a religious liberty bill is what he was signing. It is a religious liberty bill, as a matter of record. No argument as to the deceitfulness of its advocates can change that.

Now I do find interesting some of the arguments being raised to the contrary. It seems that many of the same people who have argued that same-sex marriage, by virtue of Obergefell, is now unfixable legal reality, are now saying that not even the passing of law by a legislature can do the same for HB 1523. In other words, the argument seems to only cut one way. It’s wrong, we are told, to say same-sex “marriage” in a post-Obergefell world, because, well, same-sex marriage became real and that’s that. For supporters of same-sex marriage, the force of law scrubs the quotation marks off of “marriage,” but not off of “religious liberty.”

That’s why I don’t think we should passively accept the scare-quoting of religious liberty. Whether or not you think that HB 1523 is about discrimination is a point of debate. But the law says religious liberty, the legislature that passed it says religious liberty, and the voters who elected the legislature say religious liberty. You might say they’re wrong, but that’s a point of debate, not a point of order. The public record is what it is, and the debates should be clearly demarcated from that. Putting quotes in the headlines obscures record from rhetoric, and that’s precisely the opposite of what we need from our journalists.

Kill the Comments Section

Online trolling has obliterated the value of allowing anonymous comments.

Once upon a time, open, anonymous commenting sections were a staple of online journalism. The vast majority of digital publications made allowance for readers to respond to content directly on-site. This had multiple benefits for the sites themselves; traffic increased as users engaged not only with the author but with each other, and authors developed “followings” of particular commenters who practically guaranteed that no piece would perform poorly.

One notable exception to this trend was Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, who pioneered blogging in the early 2000s and has since retired from it, was well-known for his refusal to host comment threads directly on his site. Sullivan invited readers to contact him directly and would regularly publish the best emails. But he believed firmly in not making his own site a place for users to spar publicly.

In 2016, Sullivan’s thinking appears prescient. More and more publications, blogs and news sites are either scrapping commenting altogether or, in the recent case of Tablet magazine, charging readers a fee for the ability to leave comments on posts. Reasoning for each of this closures vary as much as the sites themselves, but one reason comes up in virtually every case: Trolls are killing online forums. Continue reading “Kill the Comments Section”

The Ethics of a Planned Parenthood Sting

Count me in full agreement with the editorial board at National Review, who have just written in support of Center for Medical Progress chief David Daleiden and his video expose of Planned Parenthood. Calling the Daleiden’s indictment by a Houston grand jury “dubious,” National Review’s editors contend–rightfully I believe–that this entire case reeks of gross political bias.

And while there is no investigative-reporting exception to criminal statutes (though a reporter’s purpose can be relevant in establishing whether there is the necessary criminal intent), one can’t help but notice the double standard. NBC’s David Gregory once waved an illegal high-capacity magazine at the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre during a contentious interview on Meet the Press. Gregory wasn’t prosecuted, even though District of Columbia police explicitly warned his news editor prior to the program that possessing the magazine was illegal under D.C. law; the police recommended showing a photograph instead. The prosecutor simply exercised his “prosecutorial discretion” to let Gregory off, scot-free, although Gregory had intentionally and knowingly defied the law. But there Gregory was taking on the NRA, the Left’s favorite bogeyman. Here, Daleiden had the misfortune of confronting the corporate heroes of the sexual revolution.

Supporters of Planned Parenthood have been quick to celebrate the indictment, insisting that Daleiden and the CMP’s alleged law-breaking is the real issue. As I wrote before, I don’t know what evidence was brought to the grand jury, so I cannot say with certainity or authority what verdict should have been reached. But the point is simple: It’s simply not conscionable that a whistleblowing organization that produces credible, on the record evidence (you don’t have to think its proof, but it is evidence, hence the congressional inquiries) of illegal activity and medical malpractice inside a major healthcare facility would be considered more liable to legal repercussion than the healthcare provider depicted. Yes, journalists are accountable to the law, but that is simply a smokescreen and misdirection; it is not at all rare for journalists to practice some forms of deception to gain information on a major story.

For some perspective, consider this checklist for journalists, written by Bob Steele and cited in this article from The Columbia Journalism Review. Steele asks when is it appropriate for journalists to use deception, including hidden cameras, in investigation.

  • When the information obtained is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing great “system failure” at the top levels,or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.

 

When all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.

 

When the journalists involved are willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it.

 

When the individuals involved and their news organization apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of time and funding needed to pursue the story fully.

 

When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.

 

When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision making process on the ethical and legal issues.

I cite Steele’s list not because I am convinced beyond all doubt that the CMP fulfilled each of these requirements, but because it is absolute fantasy to insist that the approach taken by CMP was somehow exceptional or unheard of. Both the journalism industry and the courts know from precedent how to think about a reporter who goes undercover for a major, socially relevant story. My concern here is whether, in this instance, Daleiden and the CMP are being handled like journalists in pursuit of a major human interest story, or are being presumed to be pro-life agitators without a cause.

Again, I cannot say whether CMP broke the law. I don’t know. But it should be obvious to all that this watchdog group was motivated by (what they felt at least) truth-telling, and a desire take seriously the testimony of people like Holly O’Donnell. Their methods are not above suspicion, and neither are Planned Parenthood’s. The fog of politics looms heavy over this indictment.