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Journalists Implicity Downplay Extreme Political Positions by Labeling Them "Personal"

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GOP Senate candidate Ken Buck says his support of a ban on abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, is a personal belief.

In response to this, a fair-minded journalist - even a commentator - shouldn't set up a false dichotomy between Buck's "personal" political views and all the rest of his policy positions.

That's what Denver Post opinion writer Chuck Plunkett did in a Spot blog post Aug. 13. He wrote:

Some of Buck's personal beliefs will hurt him. If he doesn't get out in front of the labeling game, they could hurt him a lot. [Plunkett linked to a story about Buck's abortion stance.] But his central interest - what truly animates him - isn't the social-issue stuff that drove old-school conservatives in Colorado like Marilyn Musgrave.

I asked Plunkett via email if he thought it was factually accurate to separate Buck's position on abortion from his other policy positions, by describing it as "personal."

I mean, any political belief can be defined as personal, as guided by ethics or religious morals, or at least a politician can claim that it is -- just like a candidate's belief about abortion.

The "personal" label unfairly implies that the issue should be taken off the table, or at least partially ignored.

Plunkett responded quickly, saying he'd amplify later but the short answer is that Buck's abortion positions "stem from religious beliefs -- so, beyond just 'personal.'"

This gave me the opportunity to point out to Plunkett that Buck told KHOW's Craig Silverman that his position on abortion wasn't derived just religion anyway but from a combination of his "upbringing," "faith," and "life experiences."

I wrote Plunkett that this looks like the same process I use as the basis for some of my own political views, and I'm an atheist. (So I'd re-define "faith" to mean "faith in fellow homo sapiens.")

Ethics or religious morals can be tied up with almost any legislative decision, like, for example, whether everyone has a right to health care or how much money to spend on education or whether we should house the homeless. As Jim Wallis likes to say, the federal budget is a moral document.

Plunkett responded:

I don't think the way a person's religious beliefs affect his views on abortion is the same -- at all -- as how that faith shapes his approach to policy issues involving the homeless, or educating children or ensuring that everyone has access to quality health care. There are many ways to approach those issues, but if you believe that life begins at conception and that it would be murder to end that life, what are you supposed to do? You don't have a choice but to advocate for that fertilized egg to follow its natural course. If that means a baby is born, that means a baby is born -- even if that child is the result of an unholy union brought on by a rape or incest.

Trouble is, any ideology can control a person, whether it's religious or, as I pointed out to Plunkett later, antinuclear.

I've seen this conviction in non-religious activists on the left, who come out, for example, against the entire nuclear fuel cycle from mining and uranium processing to nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and x-rays.

I mean, think of a political issue, from homelessness to education, and you can find an ideological advocate, often principled ones.

How about the hunger activists who says America's wealth is unconscionable and we have no choice but to spend a tiny fraction of our federal taxes to feed the millions of children who die annually from hunger? A personal view? Ideological? Whacko?

So Buck's ideological religious faith shouldn't give journalists the right to put his abortion views in a separate "personal" category, just like you wouldn't expect journalists to label the marginalized views of ideological hunger or antinuclear activists as "personal."

Plunkett, who's pro-choice and finds Buck's view "too extreme" yet "understandable," didn't accept my argument, but I think he hit the nail on the head when he wrote back:

I could argue to you that anyone who lets their no-nukes belief get in the way of beneficial uses -- like green (minus the radiation) energy -- is a whacko. But in our society, if you want to be taken seriously, it's difficult to say that about people with religious faith.

He's right, unfortunately, even if religious people make marginalized, whacko arguments like abortion should be banned if a father rapes his daughter.

But journalists shouldn't implicitly excuse them by calling these beliefs "personal."