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Belief Beat

Why We Covered the May 21 Rapture (That Wasn’t?) & Will Cover October’s Judgment Day (That Isn’t?)

In the days since the unrapturous Rapture, I’ve seen a lot of comments here and on other religion blogs asking why Harold Camping’s prophecy got so much coverage in the first place, alternately accusing the media of snarky schadenfreude or just bad news judgment.

Here’s a good response from Religion News Service’s daily roundup yesterday:


Outside the Camping crew, some suggest that the media should don sackcloth and ashes for its role in the Hypeapocalypse. It’s shameful and cruel to laugh at the beliefs of others, TNR said.

I agree that some stories bore cringe-worthy blends of snark and condescension; and that dashed hopes are, at bottom, sad. But the antidote to shoddy journalism is good journalism, not self-censorship.

The Camping Crowd spent hundreds of thousands on billboards and paraded around town squares nationwide, telling one and all that the Rapture was coming on May 21 (in part because of gains in gay rights) and that everyone outside their angelic band was going to hell. All on the word of an 89-year-old civil engineer with a Bible and an abacus.


In fact, a good case could be made that the May 21 stories should have been tougher. A California woman tried to slit her daughters’ throats on Friday because she feared the Tribulation was coming. A man killed himself in 1994 after another of Camping’s failed prophecies. Bank accounts have been drained, reputations ruined and families torn asunder. Point is, Camping’s ideas have human costs, and thus deserve fair but incisive coverage.


Meanwhile, given that Camping is still insisting that the May 21 Rapture has happened — just in a less-visible way than he predicted (unless you’re counting the Missouri tornado and other natural disasters, though that might just be a normal summer) — we can expect that he and his Family Radio ministry adherents will continue trying to convince the rest of us that Judgment Day remains slated for Oct. 21. So, stay tuned (or prepare to ignore) more coverage this fall.

P.S. For what it’s worth, barring any major new developments, I’ll stop covering this now — as is my policy with the Westboro Baptist Church’s attention-seeking antics.


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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posted May 24, 2011 at 2:45 pm

I think you make good points. And what if it had not been covered and the world had ended? The last thoughts of a lot of newspeople would have been of missed opportunity. Of course a lot of people’s last thoughts are probably of missed opportunities.

It will be interesting to see how many people bite come October.

I expect most of the backbiting about the coverage is people hoping the public in general never notices how far the Bible can lead people astray and hoping the public doesn’t realize they may be leading them astray based on the Bible.

I understand Harold Camping now says Jesus came the other day (invisibly) and judged us and decided we’d failed. And this arrival and this judgement was predicted in the Bible. So presumable Jesus came down with an open mind and based on the evidence chose to pull the plug on us in October. And that coming and that decision was pre-ordained in the Bible.

But if it’s pre-ordained in the Bible then Jesus’s hands were presumable tied; the “judgement” was pro-forma. Was this all a put-on by Jesus or did he come down not knowing how he’d decide? If it’s the first it’s tawdry behavior for a lord and savior. If the second it indicates Jesus doesn’t know his Bible.


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posted May 24, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Ok I see two things: I use “presumably” too often and I misspell it consistently. Today.


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posted May 24, 2011 at 4:10 pm

The antidote to shoddy journalism used to be …news judgment. Now that newsrooms and blogs are governed by reality show production value, the relevance of a story no longer matters, only its potential to create “buzz” and social media chatter. When I was in the news business not so very long ago, we sometimes covered lunatics, of course, but we didn’t give them 24/7 coverage for weeks and months at a time. I’m glad I got out when I did. The industry today, almost all of it, panders to freaks and misfits and fawns over them like royalty and produces nothing that can help people become intelligent citizens or consumers.

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posted May 24, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I feel the coverage wasn’t nearly harsh enough.

Harold Camping strikes me as a typical televangelist con-man and not a nut with a sandwich board. He’s the president of Family Radio and possibly worth $122 million. But Family Radio was accepting donations last week. Now if you had that much money and really believed the world was ending, why bother accepting money?

Since his business is organized as a tax-exempt non-profit. The media should keep digging to see if it is acting like a tax exempt non-profit, or lining his pockets. The FCC should review his station licenses and see if he is acting within the license terms to act in the public good.

I have a mixture of sympathy and disdain for his followers. Sympathy that they were swindled and messed up their lives. I have particular sympathy for the children of his followers. I also feel disdain because they embraced an idea that all but 3% off humanity would die horribly.

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Robert C

posted May 26, 2011 at 9:51 am

The coverage was a pathetic testament to the rapid decline of professionalism, ethics and standards in contemporary journalism.

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posted May 26, 2011 at 10:10 am

Robert C, it’s clear you didn’t like it, but what ethics and standards were violated? How would they need to change to fix things from your point of view?

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Nicole Neroulias

posted May 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm

To put another spin on your comment, Robert C: Perhaps the coverage was a “pathetic testament to the rapid decline of professionalism, ethics and standards in contemporary journalism” — due largely to the increase in public participation in the news process? Cash-strapped and understaffed mainstream news outlets have to dish out a lot more ice cream than broccoli these days, because they need to attract an audience that can go to hundreds of other sources for news, and would rather be reading about Lindsay Lohan over at TMZ. With Twitter, blogs and reader comments, you can see what stories drive traffic — and that drives coverage, for better or worse.

You can still blame the messenger, of course. But, as with the Koran burning and Westboro Baptist Church antics (which I and other journalists try not to publicize anymore), public interest plays a big role in what gets covered in America nowadays — and if the mainstream news outlets don’t cover it, these stories still get covered plenty (with less context and more bias) on the cable shows, blogosphere, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

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Robert C

posted May 26, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Because its “popular” doesn’t make it remarkable journalism. Mass appeal lines the media moguls pockets but does nothing to raise the level of that appeal. A Hoodsie is a far cry from hand churned gelato, even without broccoli anywhere in the building. The old saying says “you are what you eat”. That is true in more ways than one.

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