Monday, April 03, 2006

Respectfully: Did The Wichita Eagle miss the story on Fred Phelps?

The Wichita Eagle profiled anti-gay, anti-American, anti-just-about-everybody pastor Fred Phelps over the weekend. The article by Fred Mann was nicely written, but well, a tad odd, at least to my eyes.

I don’t argue with The Eagle for publishing such an article. Phelps is certainly a newsworthy topic. I don’t even argue with the newspaper for what appears to be a fair and accurate report of his views.

Obviously, I’m no fan of Fred’s and he’s no fan of mine, so I guess many folks will find my comments to be suspect.

But the old newspaper reporter and journalism instructor in me finds it odd that the article seemed to provide such little context to what is basically little more than a visit with Phelps. The reporter repeats his words, but appears (Note that word “appears.” This may not be the reporters’ fault)… he appears to have failed to check out the truth of Phelps’ claims.

Phelps makes a couple of interesting claims in the story. Among them are that everybody, even the kids, love to picket, and that his family has been physically attacked during their picketing and at home.

Outside of noting that many people, even Jerry Falwell, hate Phelps, the article provides no outside verification of these claims or any others that Phelps makes. It does quote one daughter who left the family as saying "I felt like I was being controlled, and I didn't have any freedom."

As a mother of a recent teenager, I can safely say that statement could be made by 99 percent of the teenagers in the United States.

The article fails to mention any of the reports that Phelps has abused his children. Those reports are freely available from the Topeka Capital-Journal web site, along with denials from the family that the abuse occurred. The Capital-Journal also has a large page on Phelps, which includes all of its articles (see the 1994 series), a book chapter and these comments in an open letter to Topeka written by one of Phelps’ sons who left the family.

I also realize that my father is a very unstable person who is determined to hurt people. And because he is so bound to be hateful and hurtful, and because he's so untrustworthy, I believe it's a good idea to respond to him with caution much like the caution used when dealing with a rattlesnake or a mad dog.

This is a much different view than you get from reading the Eagle article. At the very least, Phelps should have been asked to comment on this report. Instead, all the article says is that this son and another who left the family could not be reached.

As a journalist, I’m surprised that the Eagle didn’t publish any comments from police about whether or not Phelps or his family had really been attacked. The Kansas rumor mill has always claimed that Phelps and his family exaggerate or make up those attacks. It’s not fair to Phelps or to the readers to fail to report on what police say about whether these incidents occurred.

Among the other things left out were details about why he was disbarred. Years ago when I was a reporter, I read one of the harassing letters that led to Phelps being disbarred by the federeal court. It was wild, to say the least.

I give high marks to The Eagle to tackling a difficult subject. I just wish they would have done a better job of putting the man and his actions into context.

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