Some NPR listeners were clearly offended after a 48-second spot by Barbara Hagerty about the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. The group is composed of roughly 70 members and boasts a website with the not-so-charming URL of www.GodHatesFags.com. Primarily known for their protests of soldiers’ funerals, displaying signs such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” the sect has recently garnered more attention by picketing the funeral of the late Elizabeth Edwards, who recently passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. Westboro thinks dead soldiers are God’s vengeance for homosexuality.
NPR’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard wonders out loud how much coverage NPR should give groups like Westboro in this post.
The broadcast raises issues regarding the obligation of a network like NPR to dedicate time even to a radical group with a small following and extremely offensive views. Does this type of broadcast represent the public interest? The term “public interest” has always been a bit weighted, so it may be best to view this through analogy. The Ku Klux Klan, for example, traditionally has held a number of extremely offensive views, yet, legally, even they have the constitutional right to assemble. Similarly, the Westboro Baptist Church, although its small following holds a number of extremely offensive views, is also, in theory, entitled to enjoy the benefits of a public radio network.
NPR’s original description of the Westboro Baptist Church went like this:
Members of Westboro Baptist Church plan to protest the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards on Saturday. As NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the fundamentalist church says she brought on her cancer by doubting God.
The Topeka based church run by Fred Phelps is best known for its view that God hates gay men and lesbians… and frequently pickets military funerals. Now they’re turning their wrath on Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards. They plan to picket her funeral in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her crime? After her son died in a car accident in 1996, she said that God could not protect her boy… and that she was not asking God to cure her cancer. The Westboro website said because of this, she is, quote, a resident of hell.
It may also be helpful to consider the following coverage of the Westboro Baptist Church by NPR, the only additional coverage by NPR since the original spot. In this article on Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral, the group received a relatively brief mention:
People came out with posters and banners to create a line of love, to block an anti-gay group from Kansas picketing the Edwards memorial service. The Westboro Baptist Church is known for protesting outside military funerals. But there was far more love than hate at this gathering. Cate Edwards wanted her mother to know that.
Should NPR really be expected to uphold such a high level of equality? People should know that idiotic, radical groups like this exist, but the question remains: How much time should they receive? What do you think?
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