Humbug Square - Who put the 'JC' in the AJC?

Was paper born again in time for Christmas?

It would be hard for anyone to defend Christmas as fiercely as Fox News sexual healer Bill O'Reilly.

"[N]obody sticks up for Christmas except me," O'Reilly said on his radio show Dec. 9. "Did Peter Jennings stick up for Christmas last night? I don't believe he did. How about Brian Williams, did he? Did Rather stick up for Christmas? How about Jim Lehrer — did he? Did Larry King — hello, I love Christmas — did he? No."

Clearly, O'Reilly hasn't been reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

At the top of its Dec. 11 Faith & Values section, the AJC ran a blurb trolling for Christian testimony from readers: "How do you keep Jesus Christ in Christmas? ... We'll run stories of 100 words or less on Christmas Day in Faith & Values."

That sounds awfully close to the latest battle cry in the culture war on right-wing radio and TV, namely the conservative hysteria that the "liberal elite" is trying to take Christ out of Christmas. O'Reilly is the major loudmouth on the issue, but WSB's Neal Boortz got the memo and said Monday the liberal elite "wants you to worship the state."

As Frank Rich of the New York Times noted Sunday, O'Reilly's bogus Christmas campaign is part of the post-election "winner-takes-all power grab by the 'moral values' brigade."

When I saw the Faith & Values solicitation, I figured our local daily newspaper was catering to the religious right. The blurb came during a tidal wave of religious coverage. Whenever I finished reading the paper, I had an overwhelming desire to bow my head and say "Amen."

It started innocently enough Dec. 9 when the paper ran a front-page story headlined, "New Atlanta archbishop may be announced today." That's big news. That's cool. For the next few days, the AJC was all over the story, with four follow-up articles and an editorial about new Archbishop Wilton Gregory.

But that was just the angel on top of the Christmas tree. Also in the Dec. 9 paper were the following stories with a heavenly peg:

- Metro section front: "Gospel games: Youth groups test their knowledge at Bible trivia night," with a reader-friendly sidebar, "Bible trivia questions," such as "Name Job's three friends, and for an extra point, name the tribes they were from." The answer, on page C-7, was, "Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite." I didn't get that one right.

- Living section front: "Christian band converts rock hits and rap," a story about Apologetix, a Christian parody band that turned "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne into "J.C.'s Mom," which the paper says is "about the relationship between Jesus and Mary at the wedding at Cana."

- And a headline in the DeKalb edition announced: "10,000 predicted at Saturday march." This was just the beginning of an avalanche of coverage about a march scheduled for Dec. 11 to be led by black clergy, including New Birth Missionary Baptist Church Bishop Eddie Long and Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They were marching primarily to oppose gay marriage.

By the morning of Dec. 11, the anticipated march had doubled in size. The AJC ran a story that said, "Organizers of the demonstration said about 25,000 marchers were expected ... ." The article reported the controversy surrounding the march — that is, the ludicrous irony of black Americans clamoring to add discriminatory language to the U.S. Constitution.

Then, on Dec. 12, the AJC pulled out all the stops with its coverage of the march, putting it on the front page of the Sunday paper under a headline that declared "March pushes moral agenda."

A reader, Molly Read Woo, fired off an e-mail to the AJC reporters and editors involved with the story, saying, "Since when is discrimination and deliberate divisiveness 'moral'?"

The story itself began, "Thousands of Christian soldiers marched through one of Atlanta's most storied neighborhoods Saturday, opposing gay marriage and promoting what they see as a moral agenda for the country — especially African-Americans."

Woo also jumped the paper for using the fawning "Christian soldiers" description, as if the marchers actually were Christian soldiers and for not estimating the size of the march beyond "thousands."

You go, Molly!

The paper had four reporters on the story. They could have counted the crowd, for God's sake — especially after using the organizers' wildly erratic and possibly inflated predictions prior to the event.

I asked AJC Managing Editor Hank Klibanoff about the large number of religious stories Dec. 9-12.

"I don't think it's anything other than an aberrational rash," he said, adding, "I don't think you adequately or sufficiently reflect what's going on around us if you don't cover that. And we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't."

He said editors don't sit around thinking about how much religious coverage the paper should have. "There's no discussion about it," he said. "I've not sat in any single meeting where that has come up."

At the same time, Klibanoff, an Alabama native who came to the AJC two years ago from the Philadelphia Inquirer, said religion is much more a part of the lives and conversations of Atlanta readers than their northern counterparts.

He acknowledged the "moral agenda" headline was "probably not the best choice," but felt the story about the march was balanced. I asked him if the paper had joined the O'Reilly bandwagon with the keep-Christ-in-Christmas solicitation. No, he said. Newspapers have been writing about the secularization of Christmas for years.

"I feel certain we're not responding to something we heard on Bill O'Reilly," he said. "None of us sits around listening to radio, you know what I mean?"

I do listen to radio. I can't help but notice the constant state of hysteria right-wing Christians are creating with the help of those talk shows. They make it sound like they're an oppressed minority when, in fact, the vast majority of Americans are Christians. Christians always have had enormous clout. And now, both in Georgia and on the federal level, they have even more.

The reason I worry about right-wing Christians is that I grew up around them. I know what bullies they can be. I remember their opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. I remember how my son felt when a Mabry Middle School counselor demanded to know if he worshiped Satan because he wore a Metallica T-shirt.

I believe Klibanoff when he says editors don't sit around plotting how to pander to the Christian right. It's more subtle than that. The AJC has spoken pretty explicitly about its underperforming suburban circulation and that part of the solution is to understand issues from the point of view of the majority of readers there.

But the paper's editors are walking a fine line between understanding Christian right-wingers and pandering to them. I think the AJC tends to slip on the pandering side. For example, reporters often write from a Christian perspective, such as saying, without attribution, that Eddie Long was "called" into the ministry.

In the years ahead, the paper will have quite a balancing act between covering the increasing role of Christianity in the lives of metro Atlanta residents and the outright malevolence of a growing fundamentalist theocracy.

But at least we can be thankful that the AJC hasn't gone as far as the Colorado Springs Gazette. With every Sunday paper this week, the Gazette delivered a New Testament.

Humbug Square was Atlanta's 19th-century venue for soap-box orators and snake-oil salesmen. Senior Editor Doug Monroe, who worked at the AJC for 13 years, continues that tradition in his column. You can contact him at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com .