Yes, Journalism Has Consequences. Get Over it.

Illustration By John Tomac

Illustration By John Tomac

For 45 years, Penn State never endured the offseason drama of losing a head football coach. Until this year, the rumor mill and the subsequent hiring free-for-all that occupies the sports pages of most major universities during the winter months never pierced the State College bubble.

So it was odd to see the contorted reactions locals had when Bill O’Brien left town for a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. The backlash was predictable; fans who praised O’Brien’s loyalty and winning record turned around and painted him as a traitor with a mediocre record. Soon the gossip bubbling under the surface came to light.

Then the secondary consequences filtered in. Stores found themselves with unsellable O’Brien-related merchandise. Recruits second-guessed their decisions to commitment to Penn State, The families of assistant coaches were forced to leave town for new jobs.

All of this is mind-numbingly obvious, of course. Sure it stinks for the people who find themselves leaving friends or taking a financial hit. These are real people with real friendships and budgets. But it’s part of the business.

I see a lot of similarities between Penn State’s jarring realization that college sports involves broken promises and uprooted families and the web’s histrionic reaction to Grantland’s investigation into Dr V’s Magical Putter.

Caleb Hannan investigative profile of Dr V is a compelling story that starts with a late night encounter with a Youtube video and ends with the death of the con woman behind the video. As you can imagine, it’s that last part that has people upset.

Most of the outrage has revolved around the fact that Dr V turned out to be transgender, and whether it was ethical to “out” her against her will. But the people who are fixated on that aspect are ignoring Hannan’s primary discovery: Dr V ( who chose the name Essay Anne Vanderbilt after her gender reassignment surgery)  was a con woman who lied about her credentials and connections in order to get wealthy investors to fund the golf putter she had invented.

Among the tall tales she told, Vanderbilt claimed to be: an aeronautical physicist from MIT; her clearance level within the government equaled those given to federal judges; a member of the exalted Vanderbilt family; a private contractor for the Department of Defense; a key researcher on the stealth bomber; and a clearance level is so high that her names cannot be found on government record; and someone who knew former Vice president Dan Quayle.

I want to point out two critical elements of Vanderbilt’s story that keep getting lost in the shuffle. The first is that her name change was explicitly made to deceive people and raise funds for her putter. If she had chosen to rename herself Essay Anne Smith, then that’s no biggie. But she chose Vanderbilt, and she used her new name to mislead investors.

The second point is that her initial condition for agreeing to talk to Hannan wasn’t simply because she wanted his report to focus on “the science and not the scientist.”  She wanted to protect her “association with classified documents” and her fictional government clearance level. In other words, she was most interested in preventing an investigation into her phony scientific credentials.

Back in the 80’s I wrote for Penn State’s college newspaper, the Daily Collegian.  While we weren’t exactly breaking major scandals, but we did learn a lot about Journalism 101. And one the key lessons drilled into us was to be tenacious. Never settle for anything less than the whole truth, and go where your investigation takes you no matter how unexpected the twists and turns are. To be honest,  being a good reporter means being a jerk: break promises; lie if you have to get to the bottom of a story; and if someone tells you not to look into their background and gives you wild, melodramatic warnings if you do so, then by all means dig into their background.

By and large, good journalists are rude, aggressive, selfish, and restless. If you want people to like you, then don’t become a reporter. If you ‘re more concerned about the potential consequences of your investigation than the investigation itself, then don’t become a reporter.

One of the reasons I quit was because the environment even at the college level was so ruthless. I don’t know if Caleb Hannan is a nice guy – he strikes me as affable enough and I commend him for being willing to pursue his story to its end, even if his phrasing in a few parts is poorly chosen. But everyone is assuming that Vanderbilt killed herself for fear of being outed. They’re ignoring the fact that she has a long history of mental illness and at least one previous suicide attempt. It’s also possible that Vanderbilt feared being outed as a Sunoco mechanic and bartender more than any public disclosure of being transgender.

I imagine many people already assumed that a 6 foot 3 woman with an unusually deep voice would be transgender. And we should never forget that no one would have probed into Vanderbilt’s past if she hadn’t spun such tall tales about her credentials and deceived so many people.  She’s the one who chose to con wealthy people and adopt a name after her surgery that would aid her scheme. Being transgender should not let her off the hook for her dishonesty in every other facet of her life.

I think it’s a good that reporters err on the side of being insensitive. Investigative journalism on all levels is suffering because journalists care too much about getting chummy with the people they’re supposed to be watching. As result of the Dr V story, people are coming to grips with the mind-numbingly obvious revelation that investigative journalism impacts real lives, and it often does so negatively.

But it’s always been that way: thanks to the media, a company that dumped toxic waste into a river has filed for bankruptcy. We should (and do) focus on the lives harmed by the chemicals and the hazardous drinking water. But breaking open the story of the corrupt chemical plant also causes lost jobs for the people who worked there, uprooted families, and down the road it could mean divorces and even suicides.

The reporter who scored the revelation that a New Jersey governor may have used his power to punish mayors who wouldn’t endorse him should be commended. But people were fired, reputations ruined, friendships were likely broken and down the road there might be divorces and broken homes. There’s a lot of misery to go around when reporters get big scoops.

So get over it. Journalism is cold-blooded, even if some reporters aren’t. Broken lives are an inherent byproduct of big stories, Given that Hannan’s investigation involved a wild attempt to profile a self-claimed physicist who conned people to create a revolutionary golf club, there would be no way to expose Vanderbilt’s fraud without mentioning who Dr V was before she was Dr V.  And lets not forget that lots of people have lost thousands of dollars in this mess. Who knows how many savings and retirement nest eggs were lost?

Life Finds A Way (And So Do Teens)

Conservative evangelicals have tried hard to fight back against modernity. In a perverse way they should be admired for their tenacity. We’ve seen purity balls, screeds against dating (and the real lives that have been damaged by this kind of ideology), the quiverfull movement, and the list goes on and on. All of it is rooted in complementarianism, which is a modern name for good old-fashioned sexism and patriarchy. 

I read a short article  today that gave me hope. It’s written by Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, so you can imagine that they’re not as happy about it as I am. All of these attempts to suppress teenaged sexuality try to remove choices from Christian teens: no casual dating (or dating at all); no private time with any member of the opposite gender, and no friendships with the opposite gender. All of this is intended to create an asexual environment where teens conform to strict gender roles and pine for marriage.

It’s a suffocating environment, but to my pleasant surprise, there are signs that teens may have figured out a way to game the system a little bit. It’s called “talking.” The writer of the article illustrates this better than I could:

“You misunderstand,” he said, “we aren’t dating – we’re just talking.”

“Talking?” I replied, a little confused, “you mean like we’re talking right now.”

“No,” he explained, “we’re at the stage of the relationship just before dating. It’s called talking.”

Dumbfounded and feeling a little old and disconnected, I decided to investigate this new pre-dating phenomenon. “Talking,” I discovered, is a widely accepted stage in current guy/girl relationships wherein a young man and a young woman get to know each other without better defining the relationship. This isn’t even a real stage of the relationship; it’s a pre-stage. They’re not just friends; they’re not really dating or pursuing marriage; they’re “talking.”

I know that a lot of people will read this and seethe with outrage. And their outrage is justified. But I love how these teens have taken a rigid system and added a radical new element to it: talking. Hanging out with each other without taking pains to define the purpose of the relationship. Enjoying the uncertainty that comes with all relationships. Experiencing disappointment.

Jeff Goldblum’s quote from Jurassic Park above says it all: life finds a way. Even in oppressive systems, teenagers find small ways to interact with each other that resemble normal, human communication. Since noncommittal dating and hanging out are forbidden, they found a new outlet: talking. Maybe it won’t lead anywhere and they’re stay on the course their parents have mapped out for them. But maybe – just maybe – Christian teens are fighting back in way that is subversive in its normalcy.


Small Group Nightmares Pt 2

pride_prejudice_2005_1024x768_527565In the first part of my series on church small groups, I described some of the problems all small groups face. In case you don’t have time to read it, I want to emphasize that I think that small groups are a positive model for creating church community. I’m also not sure how a new model of fellowship could resolve the problems I’ve dealt with.

Both of my posts began as a response Todd Engstrom’s post at The Gospel Coalition. He envisions a model of small groups that cultivates a more family-like social atmosphere, leaving Bible Study to take place in small groups  of two or three people within the larger group. I  think he makes a lot of good points, and a majority of Christians will probably gain a lot from his model.

But when I think about small group dinners, I cringe.  Nothing brings out the bad side of people like a small group dinner. I used to dread them whenever they came up, and even though I attended every single small dinner I was invited to, I can’t think of a single one that ended well. Small group dinners are where you find out how little you have in common with people, or worse yet, how little you matter. Small group dinners are when people rant about how evil liberals are without realizing that they’re talking to a liberal. Small group dinners are where your Bible Study leader asks you how you can tolerate the n*****s in your class, or how n*****s are predisposed to animalistic behavior.

In my last post, I discussed how the biggest problem plaguing small groups is that longtime friends use them to catch up with each other, while ignoring newer members. Extroverts -especially if they’re a married couple – can adapt to this problem more easily than introverts, and they stand a better chance of getting included in the core group’s reindeer games. But if you’re shy or if the novelty of your presence has worn off, forget it. You might get extra attention at first because you’re new, but once you’re a regular attender, you’ll find yourself in this weird zone where everyone knows you, likes to talk to you, but couldn’t give a rip about you. You might be pleasant conversation, but you’re not their best friends, so you find yourself jostling for openings.

Over the years I learned to overcome this by training myself to become a extrovert. I also learned that if I was going to connect with the people in my small groups, I had to talk about the things they were interested in. And given my gender, I had to be carful who I spoke to.

Small groups have a way of sorting themselves out by gender. There’s an unspoken rule that women are expected to hang out in one room and socialize, while men go to the other room. When it’s time for Bible Study or dinner, everyone gets back together. A few years ago, I found myself with a dilemma: the women were talking about Jane Austen, while the men were talking about car repair. I love Jane Austen, and talking about cars bores me to tears. It’s assumed that, since I’m a guy, I’ll go hang out with the menfolk. This time, I decided to hang out with the women. Besides, I had endured a hundred conversations about car repair, and I was tired of hearing the guys rehash the same stories.

At first I was content to just listen to the women. I wanted to figure out which book they were talking about (it turned out to be Pride and Prejudice) and get a feel for the rhythm of their conversation. I didn’t want to be the guy who came in and hijacked the conversation.

Then the guys gave me funny looks. Why wasn’t I in the kitchen talking about cars? Then one of the women pointed towards the men and directed me over to them. That’s when I announced that I love British literature, and I thought Pride and Prejudice was a great read. Stone cold silence. I had broken not one but two taboos: I was fraternizing with the wrong gender, and I expressed interest in an author I wasn’t supposed to like. Five cold shoulders sent me to go listen to the guys talk about cars.

As awkward as these conversations could be, sitting down for dinner could be worse. Dinner time was when you found out how you really stood with the group. If you were doing well, someone voluntarily sat down next to you even if there were plenty of seats available. If you weren’t, you got pushed off to the far end of the table by people who politely asked you to get out of the way because they wanted to sit across from their friends. I got pushed to the end a lot.

Campus Crusaders Pt 2: Incident At Not-Quite-Wounded Knee

tumblr_lyc33eh9uC1qf6o4wo1_500In my first post about my adventures with Campus Crusade, I began with  tale of flowers, group dates, and not-quite-flirting. Things went south after what I’ll call “the knee incident.”

Part 1 gives a more detailed summary, but to recap: I was having a great time with the Bible Study, especially the women. I didn’t know it, but people began to suspect that I was scouting for a wife. After inviting Marcy out to lunch because she seemed depressed (FYI these aren’t their real names.), I lost my balance as I rose from my chair and used her knee to brace myself and regain my balance.

I didn’t know it the time, but after I left Bible Study on the night of the knee incident, a huge argument erupted in my wake. On one side were Barry and Jason (again,  not their real names.) Barry saw me stumble and insisted that grabbing Marcy’s knee looked like an accident to him. Jason didn’t see any of it, but he was my closest friend in the group,  and he couldn’t imagine me doing something so crass.

On the other side were all of the women. A third guy (we’ll call him Dwight) didn’t witness any of it but figured that since my salvation was already in doubt, the women were likely telling the truth.  I’m not sure who saw what when it happened because the incident wasn’t a big deal to me at the time. As far as I was concerned, I slipped, stumbled, got back to my feet and said my goodbyes for the night, so I wasn’t paying attention to who saw what.  The only reason why I know what the guys saw is that they were willing to talk to me about it.

Jason had to describe the incident to me from Marcy’s viewpoint (that is, that I was making a blatant move on her, and I had unsavory plans in mind). It wasn’t until he went through the details a second time that I started to piece things together and remember how I had lost my balance. I learned that Jason had given me a passionate defense, and he thought that anyone who distrusted me was “whacked out of their minds.” He also filled me in on the whole “they don’t think you’re a Christian” warning, but at that point I wasn’t surprised. Not only did I not speak Christianese, I often had to ask for translations, and in evangelical circles it’s assumed that the initiated know the lingo.

What happened next reveals a lot about the eccentricities of an evangelical group like Campus Crusade.  In spite of the distrust that had grown against me,  I wasn’t asked to leave the group. If anything, they wanted me to stick around because I was surely unsaved, and gosh darn it, Campus Crusade’s mission is to take in the unwashed like myself.  Since no one wanted to tell me off, I showed up at the next Bible Study knowing things might get ugly.

My reception was chilly but civil. I figured I could pull Marcy aside after prayer requests, talk to her about it, and apologize. Marcy didn’t have the same plan. At the end of prayer, everyone congregated into the kitchen, so I asked her if I could talk to her. She wouldn’t acknowledge me, so I told her that we needed to follow scripture and take the Matthew 18 approach.  Normally I wouldn’t pull Bible quotes out like that, but I figured a little Christianese might help heal things up, and I genuinely did want to apologize. When she didn’t respond, I started to apologize there in the kitchen. She looked at me as if I was nuts and walked out of the house.  In her absence, I was able to get the women’s side of things.

While they trusted Marcy’s version of the events, the women had determined that it was largely her fault that the knee incident happened. Because she had agreed to a private lunch with a man (especially an unsaved man), and because she was wearing short shorts that revealed her naked knee, my temptation was forgivable. This put me in the odd spot of defending Marcy, so the conversation turned into a bizarre meta-debate where I was arguing that a woman should be allowed to wear shorts and not expect to get groped, yet at the same time I didn’t actually grope Marcy. But no, they determined that it was Marcy’s responsibility to not dress so seductively, and provided that I kept my hands to myself and stopped treating the Bible Study as a meat market, I was welcome to stay.  I protested about this depiction of course, and that’s when I learned that they viewed my flowers-and-dinner routine as an attempt to thin the herd.

The final word on my behalf – and the one that ultimately smoothed things over and led to the women forgiving me  -was Kaitlyn’s. Kaitlyn was the painfully shy women who first invited me to the Bible Study. As she explained it, she figured that I accepted her invitation to the Study because I was attracted to her, and my decision to send flowers to a party she hosted somehow reinforced her suspicions. Now, don’t get me wrong: Kaitlyn wasn’t at all attracted to me (she had her eyes set on Dwight). But somehow all of these events led her to believe that Marcy couldn’t be of interest to me because she was my real target all along.

Fight Club Theology Pt 1

If you troll the web even a little bit, you might notice that Christians are fixated on gender roles, and over the past few months it’s almost impossible to avoid the debate. I’m not going to pretend that this is anything new, but it seems as though the debate has escalated in the last few years.

But before I dive into this, I’ll give you a little context. Unlike most of my evangelical peers, I never bought into the standard Christian propaganda regarding gender roles, modesty, and premarital sex. (I’ll delve into homosexuality at a later time, but for now I’ll just say that I’ve always held a liberal view of that topic as well.)

So why was I even bothering with a bunch of Christians whose social values so clearly clashed with my own?

The answer lies within the unspoken spiritual contract I had with the Church. And that contract was: if Jesus is more important to you than your politics, then I’ll let the political stuff slide.

As a Christian Vagabond, I’ve spent most of my life wavering between liberal churches who emphasized the values I believed in but fell short on my religious convictions, and conservative churches that were more in line with my religious beliefs but fumbled badly on  applying those beliefs to the world around them.

After a lot of bouncing around from church to church, I joined an evangelical church. The people were friendly, and they were very serious about the Bible and Jesus. I think it would surprise a lot of liberal Christians just how willing they were to set aside political disagreements for the sake of living like Christ and getting along with fellow believers.

And I am still drawn to their daily commitment to reading scripture (even the messy parts that liberal churches like to skip over), and despite their crazy interpretations of gender roles, I could look past it because I resided in a demographic black hole that largely shielded me from it.

I was (and still am) a single guy who was content with being single. I was too old for college ministries and youth pastors, and my singleness meant that I didn’t have to deal with the pressure to live according to the traditional marriage model. More importantly, my church picked up on my personal contentment, so not once did anyone ask me when I was going to get married. And no one thought I was gay, either. It was a perfect arrangement: they accepted me as I am, and in turn I gladly set aside the differences I had with them.

So despite my distaste for the patriarchal values my church upheld, I could ignore them. It was staring back at me  from the bookshelves of the people who invited me into their homes, but these were polite people who were content to talk about football and TV and leave any haggling over gender roles off of the table. Our church’s sermons were (for the most part) nonpolitical and focused on easy to digest topics like using Jesus as a role model.

All of that started to end when the gender wars heated up. I realized that the priorities of the people around me had shifted, and winning the gender wars (and the political wars) had become more important to them than living like Jesus.

I’ll explore more of this in Part 2.