Watching Westboro: Does News Coverage of Phelps Help the Haters or Serve the Community?

Fred Phelps is coming!

Fred Phelps is coming!

Fred Phelps... didn't come.

After the collapse of Interstate 35W, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., dashed off a pair of news releases announcing members of its congregation would come to the Twin Cities to protest at the memorial services of some of the victims. For the past 17 years members of the church -- most, if not all, of its current 70 members are relatives of its pastor, Rev. Fred Phelps -- have picketed funerals of gay men who've died from HIV/AIDS and, more recently, soldiers killed in Iraq. The sin they see in those who perished when 35W fell? Living in the "land of the Sodomite damned," an area that tolerates homosexuality -- and where the Phelps clan was met with resistance on their last visit.

But church members didn't end up making the drive, as planned, and their news releases failed to drum up a single like-minded supporter to disrupt the funerals on Wednesday and Thursday.

Which raises the question: Does media coverage of the church's vitriol, including Minnesota Monitor's, serve the community -- or does it serve the Phelps family and their peculiarly zealous brand of intolerance?

Matt Felling, writing for the CBS News blog The Public Eye suggests the story should be off-limits. "The media need to stop empowering and validating these hatemongers with publicity," he said, citing stories on the planned Minneapolis protests by the Chicago Tribune and the Twin Cities Daily Planet, which reran Minnesota Monitor's story by Eric Black. "It's a bad enough that they're saying these things, but what makes things worse is the fact that their message was picked up and disseminated by two different publications."

Black and I discussed this story before he posted it. We agreed it was a "good story" and that the community service aspect -- alerting locals to the protest so they could choose, as the Patriot Guard often does, to show up in solidarity with the families -- had to be weighed against the spike in publicity we'd be providing to people intent on injecting pain into an already grieving community. Then there's the fact that the Westboro clan is notorious for no-shows in such cases.

Jason DeRusha, a WCCO reporter, told me he thinks journalists should be cautious about giving publicity to a group with less than perfect attendance at its own demonstrations. While he questions reporting on a Phelps visit before it actually happens, he said, "I think it was appropriate for you guys to run a story, but it would have been troublesome for WCCO to run a story."

Coverage of news on the internet is less limited by time or space, and the format allows for audience feedback and discussion. Plus there's not the captive-audience effect. "On the internet, people can choose to click on the story, or they can choose to not click on it," he said in an email. "People who read Eric's story, chose to read it. On television, we're linear, and I think there's more of a responsibility to be cautious about a story like this one.

If he were news director, DeRusha adds, he would've sent a crew to a memorial service, but he wouldn't have run a piece on the Phelps visit in advance or if no conflict arose because of their presence.

Would we run such a piece again? Definitely. This opinion was reinforced on Thursday when I called Westboro Baptist Church to ask why the family hadn't shown up as threatened. Among Shirley Phelps-Roper's explanations was the belief that people in the Twin Cities are too darn mean: "When we have to divert a group because there's something we need to get to more importantly, or we divert the group because we see the location where we're headed to is so filled with rage that the gloves are off -- they're unabashedly breathing out threatening and slaughter -- then we won't come."

The more important work they were tending too, she said, was picketing a military funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. The war is proof that God is punishing the United States for immoral ways, she said, citing scripture. "[God] said, 'I'll drag you into a war you cannot win, and I will dash your children to pieces.' Now how are we gonna connect that dot, if we don't get to those dead soldiers' funerals?"

She said five groups from Westboro Baptist will be on the road this weekend heading to destinations on both coasts and "all points in between" to demonstrate against Americans who "keep insisting -- doggedly insisting -- in going the way of Sodom."

Concluding our call, she said, "We've got all the time in the world. You're going to be fishing bodies out of there for weeks. There will be more memorial services and there will be more funerals, and along the way we will pick some of them off."

"You're gonna see us," she promised. "Absolutely."

[Photo: Westboro church member protesting a 2007 Pride Week event at Kansas University.]

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