“I was horrified,” said John Stemberger, chairman of the board of Trail Life USA, a new, rapidly-growing scouting organization that doesn’t allow openly gay members.
Stemberger was referring to an Associated Press photograph that accompanied an in-depth story about Trail Life. The image showed a group of young boys gathered in a circle with their hands raised at an unusual angle. The AP’s original caption on the photo said they were reciting the organization’s “creed” during a meeting in North Richland Hills, Texas.
It took the AP several days to acknowledge their error. But by then, the unfortunate comparison to Nazi Germany had spread on the Internet faster than Hitler’s invasion of Poland.“New Trail Life scouting group excludes gay kids & they do a ‘Sieg Heil! Style salute,” tweeted Cathy Lynn Grossman of Religion News Service.
And that’s exactly what it looked like.
“It looks like some kind of German salute that was used during the Nazi period,” Stemberger told me in a telephone interview.
The photograph ran last Sunday in newspapers across the nation and generated hundreds of angry emails and some threatening telephone calls to Trail Life headquarters.
But it turns out that the boys were not saluting Hitler and contrary to the first Associated Press caption, they were not reciting a creed. The boys were singing “Taps,” a longtime Boy Scout tradition that the Texas Trail USA troop had adapted as their own.
The boys had gathered in a circle with their hands raised straight into the air. They gradually lowered their hands as they sang the song. It concludes with their hands flush against their side.
“It really misrepresented what was going on,” Stemberger told me. “There are children involved and that made it more outrageous. They were exploited and misunderstood.”
Subsequently, Grossman removed her tweet and apologized, according to the GetReligion.org website.
But what really infuriated Stemberger was the Associated Press’ initial reluctance to remove the photograph and correct the caption. The Trail Life leader provided me with email correspondence he had with Nomaan Merchant, the writer of the story.
“This is really unconscionable,” he wrote to Merchant on Sunday, March 2. “You told me Saturday afternoon you were going to immediately have the AP photo removed completely because children were involved and being photographed.”