A Few Words About Two Words

Posted by Michael Getler on

The two words in the headline refer to the words “religious prejudice.” They were used in a segment of the PBS NewsHour last Thursday evening by veteran economics correspondent Paul Solman as he reported on the financial benefits that can accrue to businesses in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

Farther down in this column, another two words used in a NewsHour series on Cuba last month—“socialism” and “communism”—become the subject of discussion.

The segment on the business impact of the gay marriage ruling was set in Ohio with Solman interviewing, among others, a number of small business owners. The first one was Jan Kish, described as one of the country’s top 10 cake bakers and owner of a small business that helps cater weddings worldwide. Solman pointed out that Kish “is part of a new group of local wedding specialists called Pride Perfect…to bring together top talent friendly to the LGBT community.”

A few minutes into the segment, this exchange takes place:

PAUL SOLMAN: But, of course, even the sweetest rose has its thorns. Jan Kish has brandished the rainbow flag on her Web site since she launched it years ago. But a recent hire apparently didn’t realize the business was sexual orientation-blind until this weekend.

JAN KISH: Because of her religious beliefs, she has decided to step back from La Petite Fleur.

PAUL SOLMAN: She quit?

JAN KISH: Yes. She is leaving.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because you serve gay customers?

JAN KISH: Right. Because we support the gay community, she feels that she doesn’t want to be part of that because of her religious background. And that’s fine. You know, that’s her moral stance, and she has a right to that.

PAUL SOLMAN: You didn’t try to talk her out of it?

JAN KISH: I asked her for two weeks’ notice.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Even in gay-friendly Columbus, Ohio, then, religious prejudice can still trump economic self-interest.

But there are economic benefits aplenty in legalizing gay marriage, and not just in Ohio.

Immediately after the broadcast, I began receiving letters from viewers, about a half-dozen or so, complaining about Solman’s use of the words “religious prejudice” to describe the bake-shop employee’s decision to quit rather than continuing to work for a firm that serves the gay community. A sampling of those letters is posted below. I sent the letters to the NewsHour and to Solman for a response. There were other comments making the same point on the NewsHour’s own site, just below the video and transcript for that segment.

The NewsHour and Solman Respond

I received the following response from NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just:

“We appreciate the viewer’s concerns. Paul Solman adds that he reviewed the definition of the word [prejudice] before using it.  Merriam-Webster’s definition: ‘a (1): preconceived judgment or opinion.’  In the context of this story, and the sentence, we are comfortable with the word choice.”

My Thoughts

I will give the benefit of the doubt here to Solman in the sense of the dictionary definition he cited and also because his long-running weekly segment on the NewsHour called “Making Sen$e” routinely offers imaginative and informative explanatory looks at business and economic news and, as far as I am aware, has been free of charges of any prejudice or bias.

But my personal view is that this was a poor choice of words and was not in context with this specific interview, story or sentence because it uses the action of this specific employee as an example to conclude that: “Even in gay-friendly Columbus, Ohio, then, religious prejudice can still trump economic self-interest.” That is not at all how the owner of the business described the employee. So I’m sympathetic to the letter writers.

I may be mistaken, but the term religious prejudice, in my understanding and in what I believe is a common understanding, has a more pejorative tone than the dictionary reference cited in the NewsHour response. Indeed, I think part of the harsh political rhetoric nowadays comes from accusing people who have strong religious backgrounds, beliefs and convictions of being prejudiced. Certainly, there are some that are and some that are not.

The PBS-issued “Webster’s II New College Dictionary” on my desk, says this about prejudice: “1.a. an adverse opinion or judgment formed beforehand or without full knowledge or complete examination of the facts. b. a preconceived idea or preference : bias. 2. The act or state of holding unreasonable preconceived judgments or convictions. 3. Irrational hatred or suspicion of a specific group, race or religion.”

The business owner, Jan Kish, who knows the employee, provided, in my view, the accurate context with respect to this situation. Under questioning by Solman, she said on two different occasions about the employee: “Because of her religious beliefs, she has decided to step back from La Petite Fleur…Because we support the gay community, she feels that she doesn’t want to be part of that because of her religious background. And that’s fine, you know, that’s her moral stance, and she has a right to that.”

Here Are the Letters

I love PBS, the News Hour, donate and watch, and appreciate the usually balanced approach. Even when I don't agree, I can accept a different idea. However, Paul Salmon's July 2nd characterization of "religious prejudice" was a cheap shot in his story about economic impacts of same gender marriage. I don't agree with people who would rather quit their job than serve same gender couples, but it is unfair to them to judge their choices or criticize them. This is a difficult time for many people and they need the same fairness we give to those who are thrilled about same gender marriage. Quitting a job is, for most people, a pretty big deal and a decision not lightly made. PBS, of all places, should be more gracious about a person's sincerely held moral/religious beliefs.

Salt Lake City, UT

~ ~ ~

I am an Episcopal priest, and am proud to be a part of a denomination that has done a lot to forward the cause of gay and lesbian people. However, in Paul Solman's feature on businesses catering to gay weddings, this evening, his reference to the action of an employee resigning because of her religious beliefs on marriage as an act of “religious prejudice” was a clear assault upon the evangelical Christian community. How about it being an act of “religious conviction?” I am afraid that Mr. Solman, and PBS, are showing their own prejudice, against conservative Christians. Has anyone at PBS considered the courage it must have taken for this person to act on her beliefs, contrary to the tide of public opinion? Apparently not.

Daniel Heischman, New York, NY

~ ~ ~

PAUL SOLMAN: says: “Even in gay-friendly Columbus, Ohio, then, religious prejudice can still trump economic self-interest.” What does religious PREJUDICE mean exactly? And why on earth would you portray anyone’s religious beliefs as “prejudice”? I take personal offense to such terms and would prefer that when referring to one Religion, that it not be referred to in such a derogatory tone!

Miwaukie, OR

~ ~ ~

Reporter on The NewsHour used the term "religious prejudice" in reference to objections to gay, lesbian marriages. Prejudice is a preconceived belief not based on reason. Religious objections to homosexual unions are not only reasoned but also are historically affirmed.
I believe a retraction is in order.

G.M. Minton, Ada, MI

Two Other Words Attract Attention

Those words are “socialism” and “communism.” One of them, socialism, appeared a couple of times in a five-part series of reports from Cuba last month by the PBS NewsHour’s chief correspondent for arts and culture, Jeffrey Brown, titled “The Cuban Evolution.” The other word, communism, did not appear and a couple of viewers took great offense to that.

Setting aside for a moment whether socialist or communist is the most accurate way to describe the Cuban government and political system, I thought the Brown series as a whole was excellent in capturing what is happening in Cuba these days. I had been in Cuba early in November with a university group a month before the historic announcement of a new relationship by President Obama. The relatively quickly produced series by the NewsHour airing in mid-June struck me as alert, timely and informative. It also seemed to me as a viewer as intending to deal with capturing the sense, culture and feel of the place, and whether it is changing, rather than the politics.

Officially, it’s the Republic of Cuba and its constitution established it as an “independent, sovereign and socialist state.” But Cuba since the early 1960s has been and remains a single-party, Communist state. The former East Germany was officially called the German Democratic Republic and the former Soviet Union was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but these were single-party states ruled by the Communist Party. Everybody knows that and my sense is that Americans know that Cuba is ruled, still, by the Communist Party.

Here Are the Letters

I'm writing to say that to my mind your NewsHour's repeated referral to Cuba as "socialist" rather than communist plays into the hands of right wing propaganda, which persistently calls anything it doesn't like "socialist," when in fact it is not. I was taught, and firmly believe, that the distinction between socialism and communism is that the former is NOT totalitarian, while the latter is. The Scandinavian countries have socialist governments, where the welfare of the people is primary, and free enterprise and other freedoms exist, and the rights of people are put above those of corporations and the wealthy, which is palpably not true of some supposed democracies, including our own in the USA. As far as I'm concerned by persisting to refer to communist countries as socialist, you are compromising your journalistic integrity by effectively endorsing right wing propaganda and disinformation. The sad fact of the matter is that this country is in far more in danger of fascist totalitarianism than communist totalitarianism, and your persistent refusal to distinguish between the two only exacerbates that danger. With advance thanks for your consideration of my comments,

John Honecker, Vancouver, WA

~ ~ ~

Jeffrey Brown, your report on Cuban art was INFURIATING! You repeatedly used the term "socialist" and "socialism" when you SHOULD have used the terms "Communist" and "Communism." Socialism is not necessarily, nor historically, nor even usually, atheistic, dictatorial or totalitarian. Communism has historically been ALL of these things wherever it has been enacted, and so it is in Cuba. Even if they, the Cuban Government, (and every other Communist Government) want to describe themselves as "socialist" or Socialism, they have not been nor are they now! This is a distinction with a gargantuan difference, and your failure to recognize it furthers the agenda of the far right everywhere, which is to smear this very distinction and thereby block common sense reforms that serve to benefit everyone, not just the 1%. You do great work, but I just could not let this pass.

Carlsbad, NM

Jeffrey Brown Replies

Thank you for forwarding the comments. I went back to look at the scripts of my reports from Cuba. I'm actually a bit surprised by how little I used of what the writers see as political descriptions for Cuba today. Then again, the series was aiming for something different -- a ground-level look at changes underway, to see where things stand and where they might lead.

I used the word "socialist" several times: In part one, on new openings that are allowing for more tourism and some privatization, I referred to the presence of AirBNB as "a bit of fledgling capitalism in the home of the hemisphere’s socialist revolution." In the story about the Havana Biennial, I showed how Cuban art has become a big player in the international art market and spoke of "the seeming contradiction of making art in a socialist country for Americans from Beverly Hills." In the final story, on organic farming, I described the farms as "a rare private-public enterprise in a socialist economy." (In one story, in reporting on the work of a young dissident, I said he and others "want Americans to see the Cuba they see: for all the tentative openings, still a one-party, repressive state.")

In each case, I'd suggest the use of 'socialist' works in context, particularly in drawing a contrast between economic models. (The addition of the word 'revolution', in the first instance, would seem to me to draw a distinction to, say, Scandinavia.) I know these are very charged terms — everything about Cuba is charged — and I may not have parsed the terms as some of our viewers would have wanted. Please assure them, though, that it was certainly not my intention to advance or endorse anyone's political agenda. Taking the series as a whole — in the end a large and fairly ambitious body of reporting for us — I feel confident that was not the case.

As always, my thanks to the viewers for watching the NewsHour.

Posted on July 7, 2015 at 3:48 p.m.

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