Mollie brings up a great point in comments on my earlier post on sensational, misleading headlines at the Atlantic. She notes that this kind of hype isn’t limited to The Atlantic’s Web site.

The magazine had a reprehensible headline on its December cover, which asked “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

Uh, no.

Not only did The Alantic (ludicrously) tar an entire religion there, it also took the blame-the-borrowers meme to new heights. Literally. Like way up in the sky.

Of course, Hannah Hanna Rosin’s story, a pretty good piece on the problematic spread of the so-called prosperity gospel, was more nuanced than the magazine’s tabloid headline, which was one of those things that causes the folks in flyover country to loathe the bigtime media.

Why? First, the “Christianity” the Atlantic refers to—the prosperity-gospel movement—is, in the eyes of most Christians, a day-is-night perversion of their 2,000 year-old religion. In other words, heresy. What was that about “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”?

Second, the answer to the question is obviously “no” and The Atlantic knew it.

Third, it serves to shift most of the blame for the housing crash away from lenders, brokers, and their funders on to borrowers That’s wrong. I might as well quote Audit Dean Starkman here on a past blame-the-borrowers story:

If the premise of this story is true, we need to seriously rethink the mortgage dilemma and tighten safeguards to protect lenders, Wall Street securities dealers and institutional investors against hordes of unscrupulous borrowers. And yet, the Federal Reserve has neglected to do anything of the kind in proposing new lending rules. Instead, these deal entirely with unscrupulous lending practices.

Headlines like The Atlantic’s—and let’s face it: the headline is the most memorable and important part of any piece—serve to muddy the waters of what actually happened. That may sell magazines, but it’s bad journalism.

And it’s a short-term gain. You may not destroy your credibility with a single one of those headlines (though “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” is one that might), but it certainly doesn’t help when your readers realize they’ve been snookered by hype.

I don’t mean to pick on The Atlantic all of a sudden. I still consider it one of my favorite publications, by the way. But these kinds of things can dilute a reader elationship and a reputation very quickly.

ADDING In comments below, Mollie Wilson O’Reilly points us to an article she wrote in Commonweal back in December on Rosin’s piece. I focused on the headline here, but she took on the much more difficult task of analyzing the entire piece—and did it when the issue was actually, you know, on newsstands.

For instance, Rosin says this:

It is not all that surprising that the prosperity gospel persists despite its obvious failure to pay off. Much of popular religion these days is characterized by a vast gap between aspirations and reality. Few of Sarah Palin’s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they’ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce. As Garay likes to say, “What you have is nothing compared to what you will have.” The unpleasant reality—an inadequate paycheck, a pregnant daughter, a recession—is invisible. It’s your ability to see beyond such things, your willing blindness to even the most hopeless-seeming circumstances, that makes you a certain kind of modern Christian, and a 21st-century American.

To which O’Reilly responds:

I’m generally not interested in defending Sarah Palin against charges of hypocrisy. But for heaven’s sake: it’s not a paradox to have a pregnant, unmarried teenage daughter and still believe that premarital sex is wrong. Having moral convictions despite the existence of sin and human weakness is not “willing blindness.” On the other hand, believing that a preacher like Garay is sincere, or that “Jesus loved money” is a Christian message, is clearly a form of self-deception, motivated by a complicated mix of ignorance, vulnerability (especially among poor immigrants), and greed. Investigating those dynamics would be worthwhile, but it would require a genuine interest in religion — and a willingness to abandon a cutely contrarian framework once it proves unsupportable.

That’s some good media criticism.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.