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Francis links abortion with abuse, yet press doesn’t follow: GetReligion, April 16, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Abuse, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The Italian press has placed an interesting interpretation on Pope Francis’ Friday comments on the clergy abuse. It reports that in the pope’s mind clergy abuse of children is tied to the “abomination” of abortion. Look for this theme in the Anglo-American press and tell me if you can find it? I can’t.

Francis’ comments to the International Catholic Child Bureau meeting at the Vatican on April 11 received wide spread coverage. CNN reported:

Pope Francis made his strongest condemnation yet of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Friday, asking for forgiveness and pledging to impose penalties on “men of the church” who harm children.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests — quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests — to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” the Pope said in remarks quoted by Vatican Radio.

As an aside, I chose CNN’s story over the others because of its aesthetic and journalist quality. It is really quite good. To my mind Daniel Burke is one of the most highly skilled writers covering religion and this article shows why he deserves that accolade. The language is tight, conveying the story in a minimum of words.  The story is told well with very little fluff or filler. The article is balanced — offering comments from abuse activists while also allowing Francis to speak. The author’s views on the issue can be discerned by the layout of the story — paragraph placement is one of the key elements in constructing an article — yet there is no preaching or bombast in a topic (clergy abuse of children) that is often spoilt by opinion masking as news. A great job all round.

Yet, Burke is back in America and must rely on material provided by others when reporting on Rome. Has he been given the full story by his stringers in Rome?

For on the same day as the pope spoke to the International Catholic Child Bureau, he addressed a pro-life group. For the Italian press, the messages Francis offered on the clergy abuse scandal and abortion were intertwined. The lede to the story ”Pedofilia, il Papa chiede perdono per gli abusi commessi dai sacerdoti” in the Milan-based Corriere della Sera makes this clear. (N.b. with a circulation of over 350,000 Corriere della Sera is one of Italy’s largest and most influential newspapers. It’s main competitors are the Rome’s la Repubblica and Turin’s La Stampa.) It states:

Pope Francis has asked “forgiveness” for the child abuse perpetrated by men of the Church. In unambiguous tones, Francis said: “I am called to this burden” to “ask for forgiveness”, and to assure you that we will not take any “step back” in addressing this problem and seeing that “penalties will be imposed.” Children should be protected and have a family, the pontiff said. “They have a right to grow up with a father and mother.” And before that children must be protected in the womb, he added, because “the unborn child is the innocent par excellence.” Drawing upon the words of the Second Vatican Council Francis added “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”

The Corriere della Sera article gives a fuller picture of Francis’ views on the clergy abuse scandal than the CNN piece by stressing Francis’ argument that both are crimes against children and against God.

 

It could be argued that a pope condemning abortion is not news. However, Francis was the center of a media frenzy last year when in an interview the the Jesuit publicationAmerica, he said:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.” …“The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

This was interpreted by some media outlets as evidence that Francis would change, perhaps not the substance, but certainly the tone of church teachings. The New York Times lede to its September 19 story on the interview followed this line:

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.

Why the silence from the Anglo-American press on the pope’s latest abortion comments? GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly has addressed the dichotomy between the coverage and reality of Francis’ views on abortion in other posts. Is there something in the mindset of American reporters that prevents them from making the link between abuse and abortion that the Corriere della Sera has made?

Vatican Radio and the Holy See Press Office / Vatican Information Service released reports on the addresses made by the pope, but these came out in separate stories. If all you had to work with were the press releases, connecting the dots may not have been obvious to US based reporters.

The “why” should also be examined in the context of “should”. Should CNN and other news outlets linked the abortion and abuse stories? Is this an editorial step too far byCorriere della Sera? Or have they offered the insight and context expected of quality newspapers?

My imperfect knowledge of the situation does not allow me to say CNN or the Corriere della Sera had it right. My instincts though tell me the Italian report gives a broader, and ultimately better, picture of what is actually happening in Rome.

Camels and tigers and bears, oh my!: Get Religion, February 15, 2014 February 17, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Biblical Interpretation, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The silly season is early this year. With editors and most top-tier reporters away in August on vacation (along with the subjects of their stories — need to set the proper precedence of seniority at the start of this story) the late summer is the time when the second team knocks out stories that leave readers asking: “what were they thinking?”

True — there are exceptions to this venerable custom. What would Easter or Christmas be without stories proclaiming what “the science” tells us about such events. Perhaps the massive snowstorms in the Northeast have kept the A-team in bed for some publications? Otherwise I would be hard pressed to explain the thinking behind the editorial line taken in a spat of stories reporting on a paper published by two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University.

The gist of the report in publications like the Huffington Post, IBT and the Fashion Times (yes the Fashion Times) among a score of others is that “No camels = No God.”

The absence of camel remains at an archeological site in Israel dated to the time of Abraham demonstrates the Bible is false — or as the Fashion Times headline tells us “Historical ERROR in Bible’s Old Testament, REVEALED: Radiocarbon Dating of Camel Bones Shows Inconsistency.”

I like the screaming ALL CAPS used for error and revealed — one need read no further to see where that story is headed.

The New York Daily News was a little more cautious in its story “Israeli archeologists’ discovery suggests the Bible is wrong about camels.” It reported:

New archeological evidence is throwing cold water on the biblical image of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph riding camels through the desert. A team of Israeli archaeologists has studied the oldest-known camel bones from this ancient period and the results are in — camels reportedly started plodding around the eastern Mediterranean region centuries after the Bible tells us they did.

After analyzing the facts from radioactive-carbon dating, Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University claim the domesticated animal arrived on the biblical scene near the 10th century B.C. Scholars believe Abraham lived at least six centuries before that, Time reports.

Still, stories about the Jewish patriarchs contain more than 20 references to the domesticated camel, according to The New York Times. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant traveled on his master’s camels.

I laughed out loud when I read this. Perhaps it was out of caution that its reporter might not have been able to verify the information the New York Daily News cites the New York Times for the flash news that there are camel references in Genesis.

Time does a much better job with this story. Reporter Elizabeth Dias lays out the facts and then proceeds to pour cold water on the hyperbole — taking as her target the New York Times’ account.

The New York Times, in a story about the finding today, announced, “There are too many camels in the Bible, out of time and out of place … these anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.” Behold, a mystery: the Case of the Bible’s Phantom Camels.

The discovery is actually far from new. William Foxwell Albright, the leading American archeologist and biblical scholar who confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued in the mid-1900s that camels were an anachronism. Historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University explored the topic in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, and concluded that “the occasional mention of camels in patriarchal narratives does not mean that the domestic camels were common in the Holy Land at that period.” Biblical History 101 teaches that the texts themselves were often written centuries after the events they depict.

Time also puts this story in context, noting Biblical scholars have long been aware of apparent anomalies. It quotes a number of liberal Biblical scholars to flesh out the conundrum of Biblical history v. a Biblical faith.

The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook, explains Choon-Leong Seow, professor of Old Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, he says. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual message about Jesus’ last night with his disciples. “For us who believe that this is Scripture, Scripture is important as it has formative power, it forms the people, and it transforms,” Seow says. “It is poetic truth rather than literary truth.”

Understanding the Case of the Phantom Camel as a fight between archeological evidence and biblical narrative misses the entire spiritual point of the text, as far as scholars are concerned. Anachronisms and apocryphal elements do not mean the story is invalid, but instead give insight into the spiritual community in a given time and place. In this case, camels were a sign of wealth and developing trade routes, so it is likely that the biblical writer used the camel as a narrative device to point out power and status. “We needn’t understand these accounts as literally true, but they are very rich in meaning and interpretive power,” [Duke University's] Eric Meyers says.

I would have liked to have seen Time ask conservative Biblical scholars — say someone from the Dallas Theological Seminary — for their view on the camel controversy. It would have improved an otherwise great story.

Contradictions and difficulties with the historical veracity of the Pentateuch were a major news item at one time. That would have been in 1862 when the Anglican Bishop of Natal (South Africa) John William Colenso released the first of what became a seven part series of books examining the historicity of the first six books of the Old Testament.

Colenso, a one time mathematics teacher at Harrow and the author of the standard mathematics textbook for secondary schools in the mid-Nineteenth Century, demonstrated that some of the claims laid down in the Pentateuch were mathematically impossible. The battle has raged back and forth for the last 150 years, but some newspapers will always report the latest developments as breaking news that will shatter the foundations of faith.

It is a commonplace of the Jewish and Christian scholarly tradition that the Torah or Pentateuch was not written contemporaneously with the events it describes. Conservative scholars who follow the traditional teaching that Moses was the author of the Torah would not dispute the fact that he lived long after the events described in Genesis.

The author or authors of Genesis who transcribed the oral tradition of Abraham may have understood a word to have a meaning in their day that differed from its historical past.

Perhaps the word gamal was one such word. Could it have meant a beast of burden in Abraham’s time and by the time the stories were set down in writing a gamal came to be understood to mean the domesticated dromedary, the one-humped Camelus dromedarius?

As an aside, I find it amusing that some of the newspaper stories on this issue are assuming Abraham was a true historical figure, but the stories of camels in Genesis is a myth. Much of the historical critical Old Testament scholarship of the Twentieth century would believe the camels were real, but it was Abraham who was the myth.

Walter Beltz for example dismisses Abraham as mythical character akin to Aeneas.   … eine mythische Person… Die Gestalt Abrahams ist eine mythische Schopfung. (Walter Beltz, Gott und die Gotter: Biblische Mythologie, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin und Weimar, 1975, p. 109.) Or they have held that the accounts of Abraham’s life as portrayed in Genesis “is an inextricable tangle of history and myth.” (Manfred Barthel, Was Wirklich in der Bibel Steht, trans. by Mark Howson, What the Bible Really Says, Wings Books, 1992, p. 63.)

Time does the best job of all in presenting this story. But it too could have used a bit more balance. Better yet, read the original piece from Tel Aviv University and decide for yourself. You might be surprised in light of the press reports cited above to discover there is only one reference to the Old Testament in the paper when in the first paragraph the authors state the “Patriarchal narrative” had led some scholars to suggest an earlier date for the domestication of the camel in Israel than could be supported by their archeological finds. That’s it.

First published at Get Religion.

Is new Calvinism new news for the New York Times?: Get Religion, January 6, 2014 January 6, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Mark Antony:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar …

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Act 3, Scene 2.

Should we bury the New York Times today, or praise it for reporting on the resurgence of Calvinism?

Mind you, the Times does not have the story wrong, but it’s timing is bit off. This story has been making the rounds of the religious and secular press for close to a decade, while claims of a Calvinist revival have appeared every few generations in America.

Has the New York Times made the same error as the Washington Post, which last month reported as new news the interest in liturgy by non-liturgical Christians? Or, has the Times gathered the disparate elements of this story and repackaged it for a secular, theologically illiterate audience?

In the circles in which I travel, this story was greeted with ridicule. The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s  Barton Gingerich (with pith and vim) encapsulated the views of  the critics.

Johnny-Come-freaking-Lately. The Restless and Reformed Movement has been running at full steam for at least half a decade now. Remember when religion reporters for newspapers had to, you know, keep on the cutting edge of things?

Ridicule or praise? Perhaps snark? Which shall it be?

The article entitled “Evangelicals Find Themselves in the Midst of a Calvinist Revival” published in the January 4, 2014 edition reports:

Evangelicalism is in the midst of a Calvinist revival. Increasing numbers of preachers and professors teach the views of the 16th-century French reformer. Mark Driscoll, John Piper and Tim Keller — megachurch preachers and important evangelical authors — are all Calvinist. Attendance at Calvin-influenced worship conferences and churches is up, particularly among worshipers in their 20s and 30s.

The article defines its terms stating:

Calvinism is a theological orientation, not a denomination or organization. The Puritans were Calvinist. Presbyterians descend from Scottish Calvinists. Many early Baptists were Calvinist. But in the 19th century, Protestantism moved toward the non-Calvinist belief that humans must consent to their own salvation — an optimistic, quintessentially American belief. In the United States today, one large denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is unapologetically Calvinist.

Also, it briefly mentions the battle over Calvinism within the Southern Baptist Convention, noting that “in the last 30 years or so, Calvinists have gained prominence in other branches of Protestantism.”

Support for the Times‘ thesis comes through an interview with Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a “man in the street”, Collin Hansen, the author of “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey With the New Calvinists” and academics who in turn condemn the phenomena and opine that it might catch on even in liberal denominations. (Oh, and as an aside, why has the Times dropped the use of the honorific “the Rev.”? It does not appear in this story but several ordained ministers are quoted or cited. Get an Associated Press Stylebook, people.)

 

The article closes out with a quote from a doctoral student working on the topic of the new Calvinists.

“Ten years ago, everyone was talking about the ‘emergent church,’ ” Mr. Vermurlen said. “And five years ago, people were talking about the ‘missional church.’ And now ‘new Calvinism.’ I don’t want to say the new Calvinism is a fad, but I’m wondering if this is one of those things American evangelicals want to talk about for five years, and then they’ll go on living their lives and planting their churches. Or is this something we’ll see 10 or 20 years from now?”

All well and good — but Collin Hansen’s book was published in 2008 and in 2006 he was writing about this topic in articles published in Christianity Today.

In 2009 Time magazine listed Calvinism as one of the 10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” The article stated:

Calvinism is back, and not just musically. John Calvin’s 16th century reply to medieval Catholicism’s buy-your-way-out-of-purgatory excesses is Evangelicalism’s latest success story, complete with an utterly sovereign and micromanaging deity, sinful and puny humanity, and the combination’s logical consequence, predestination: the belief that before time’s dawn, God decided whom he would save (or not), unaffected by any subsequent human action or decision.

Time‘s 2009 story makes the same general points as its 1947 article “Religion: Calvinist Comeback?”, which posited a new interest among younger clergy in traditional Reformed doctrines. And on a personal note — when I was a student in the 80′s and 90s the Calvinist comeback was a lively topic of debate. I distinctly recall (then Fr. but later Cardinal) Avery Dulles waxing lyrical on the errors of the new Calvinism from across the tables at Mory’s. New and neo-Calvinism was then engaged in a battle with Narrative Theology or the Yale School for the minds of conservative theological students — a battle that still is being waged today between the Calvinists and the followers of Stanley Hauerwas or Alasdair MacIntyre.

How then is this new news? Did the Times err in ending its story with the fad quote? While the top of the story mentions that this has been an issue for thirty years, the close leaves the impression that this is a new issue. The criticisms that this a “late to the story” story would not be as compelling were it not for this closing paragraph.

The story as it stands, however, falls short. While there are ample quotes about this phenomena along with a brief discussion of its merits, the New York Times erred in not placing this story in a wider historical context, nor addressing what to knowledgeable readers is the obvious problem of this being an old story.

Verdict: I have come to bury Caesar the Times, not to praise him it.

First printed in Get Religion.

Interview: Issues Etc., November 15, 2013 November 15, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Interviews/Citations, Issues Etc, Press criticism.
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Here is an to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 15 November 2013.
Crossroads 11 14 13.mp3 Conger on religious liberty and CS Lewis

GetReligion contributor George Conger discusses an editorial by “The New York Times” on religious liberty and the Affordable Care Act and a Religion News Service story about C.S. Lewis

Direct download: Crossroads_11_14_13.mp3
Category:general — posted at: 5:49 PM

New York Times shilling for Obamacare: Get Religion, November 12, 2013 November 12, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Religious liberty claims advanced in opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) are a cloak for bigotry, the editorial powers that be at The New York Times tell us.

In an editorial published on Nov. 7 under the name of the editorial board, the Times summarized the Nov. 1 decision handed down in Gilardi v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Service by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. By a 2-1 vote, the court held ObamaCare violated the First Amendment to the Constitution by forcing business owners to purchase insurance that would provide contraception or abortifacients.

The court ruled wrongly, the Times believes, hoping the Supreme Court will overturn the decision.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide by Thanksgiving whether it will take up the issue. Its duty is to resolve the conflicting opinions by firmly rejecting the dangerous view that private employers can use their religious belief to discriminate against women.

One may not agree with the Times‘ reasoning, and reject its moral stance that religious liberty must be subordinated to the state. In its editorial the Times propounds the view that religion is a private activity that must not stray from the inside of churches or the human heart into the public square. Acting upon, or being true to the dictates of ones faith in civic life must take second place to the higher moral goods of abortion and contraception, the Times editorial team tells us.

This is, after all, an editorial.

Important for voicing one of the contending ethical and moral views in the healthcare debate — but it is merely one voice among many. Ignore it. Adore it. Do what you will. This is an opinion piece.

Where the GetReligion team has a problem — from the point of journalistic integrity — is when the editorial line overwhelms the news reporting. The Nov. 2 news article about the Gilardi decision is less strident and avoids the infelicitous language found in the editorial. But the attitudes to which the editorial gives voice are just as strong in the story “Court Rules Contraception Mandate Infringes on Religious Freedom.”

Let me show you how newspaper folks can rubbish a decision with which they disagree.

Start off with a neutral voice — channel Joe Friday. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

WASHINGTON – A federal court on Friday ruled that the health care law’s mandate that employers provide free coverage for contraception infringed on individual religious liberty.

The case, Gilardi v. the Department of Health and Human Services, was the latest setback for the Obama administration as it struggles to fix the crippled insurance enrollment website, HealthCare.gov. However, the fight over the mandate long preceded the law’s enactment and will most likely go to the Supreme Court.

The mandate “trammels the right of free exercise,” Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote for a divided three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

But, just as Joe Friday never actually said “Just the facts, ma’am” –  to shade a story without being called out for its biases, a newspaper just gives the facts — but only some of them. We see this unfold in this article. Paragraph three gives the sole quote from the decision. Paragraphs four and five background, paragraphs six through eight offers commentary from lawyers opposed to the mandate coupled with paragraph 11′s “no comment” from the government. The article then trails off and ends with two paragraphs that could be cut from the story without harm. Filler.

The hook comes in paragraphs nine and 10 where the dissenting voice from the court is heard.

 

Judge Harry T. Edwards wrote a dissent to the main part of the ruling, calling the Gilardis’ claim that a requirement on their companies imposed a burden on their freedom of religion “specious.”

Judge Edwards continued, “It has been well understood since the founding of our nation that legislative restrictions may trump religious exercise.”

Why is this significant? More space is given to the dissent, which is in line with the Times‘ editorial policy than is given to the controlling decision. What we never learn from this story is why the court ruled against the government. It is not as if there were not some powerful lines in the majority ruling. The court held:

The contraceptive mandate demands that owners like the Gilardis meaningfully approve and endorse the inclusion of contraceptive coverage in their companies’ employer-provided plans, over whatever objections they may have. Such an endorsement—procured exclusively by regulatory ukase — is a “compelled affirmation of a repugnant belief.” That standing alone, is a cognizable burden on free exercise. And the burden becomes substantial because the government commands compliance by giving the Gilardis a Hobson’s choice. They can either abide by the sacred tenets of their faith, pay a penalty of over $14 million, and cripple the companies they have spent a lifetime building, or they become complicit in a grave moral wrong. If that is not “substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs,” we fail to see how the standard could be met.

In this paragraph we have the “why”. Which leads me to ask why the Times chose to fill out its article with half a dozen subordinate paragraphs that offer opinions, forecasts, or non sequitors when it could have reported what actually happened.

Yet the Times felt it necessary to use the “specious” quote from Judge Edwards, but omitted Justice Brown’s statement: “The Framers of the Constitution embraced the philosophical insight that government coercion of moral agency is odious.”

Would not it have been better to balance “specious” with “odious”?

So what is going on here? Can this mistake be laid at the door of sloppy journalism? Perhaps, but this story passed through the hands of editors, whose job it is to ask questions. Why did they not ask the obvious (to me at any rate) question, “why did the court rule the way that it did?” Did the mistake happen here? Did an editorial hand slice out the court’s ruling in favor of filler?

Or are we seeing the Times engaged in the European advocacy model — in this case its news is written, unashamedly, from a a left-liberal point of view which espouses a liberal, even secularist line. Is this another case of Bill Keller syndrome, where there is no need for balance on a story about religion and culture?

Religion has no business in the public square most European newspapers and the Times believe. This argument is not confined to the salons of Manhattan. In the Proposition 8 case in California, Federal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker invalidated the California ballot initiative that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. Judge Walker held the “moral and religious views” behind Proposition 8 were not “rational,” hence it was unconstitutional.

President Barack Obama, a former law professor, has argued that “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”

While individuals may demand this, the basic rules of journalism do not. Ignoring the religious arguments in public policy disputes, or dismissing them out of hand is an attack on freedom — religious freedom and democratic freedoms. It is also poor journalism as it omits one of the essential elements of the story. Voices on both sides of the debate should be accurately quoted.

The solution to this problem in Europe is to take more then one newspaper. Unfortunately in the U.S. newspaper market few if any newspapers acknowledge their biases, and two newspaper towns are few and far between. The consumer then must read with a jaundiced eye, aware that he is playing journalism’s version of the three card monte — and must open some newspapers with the foreknowledge that he is not getting the whole story, but what the particular newspaper he is reading believes to be important.

First printed in Get Religion.

China’s Material Girls: Get Religion, September 5, 2013 September 6, 2013

Posted by geoconger in China, Get Religion.
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Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they’re O.K.
If they don’t give me proper credit
I just walk away

They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cashIs always Mister Right, ’cause we are

Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl

Material Girl (1984)

Madonna was not always the frightening figure she is today. Once upon a time she seemed to symbolize the enthusiasm and vitality of the 1980s — that golden age of conspicuous consumption, big hair, shoulder pads, Dallas,  and Thatcherism. An article in the Wednesday New York Times film section entitled “A Film-Fueled Culture Clash Over Values in China” brought those memories back (sans Margaret Thatcher), while also reminding me that I view the world through the lens of Christendom. What I assume to be vice can be celebrated as virtue by others.

The article reports that China is grappling with the consequences of the conspicuous consumption of its gilded youth — the vulgar ostentation of the children of the newly rich as captured in two light, but wildly popular films from director Guo Jingmin. The Times reports the films

have also made an impact beyond the box office. They have become a lightning rod for this nation’s evolving view of its growing youth culture. Many established Chinese cultural commentators are outraged by these works’ overt celebration of materialism, and this anger has spurred a surprisingly robust counterattack by the movies’ many young fans.

Just as Ian Fleming’s sex, sadism and snobbery spy thrillers of the 1950′s captured the imagination of England as it emerged from the grim post-war years, Guo’s books and films speak to the voracious appetite for luxury in post-Maoist China. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (without the sex and drugs) Guo’s work chronicles the void — but he does not condemn, he celebrates. The Times article states:

His books are stuffed with English-language brand names like Chanel and Gucci and choice phrases. (“Economy class kills me!” and “I hate Beijing!”) His films show the actual designer goods and include dialogue that has also riled commentators, like this exchange in “Tiny Times 1” between two star-crossed young lovers:

“I like you,” the young man says, “not because you’ve had a driver since you were little, and not because you have designer bags, and definitely not because you gave me expensive boots. Even if you didn’t have a cent, I would still like you.”

The woman then turns on him: “Let me tell you, love without materialism is just a pile of sand!”

How far China has come. The “love without materialism” line could have been spoken just as easily a Red Guard in the 1960s as by a Shanghai sybarite today. Materialism — the philosophical basis for Marxist thought — has been construed to mean economic materialism — the desire for possessions. The article nicely notes the clash of ideologies between the two materialist cultures — between China’s rural past and its urban present — before returning to a discussion of the films place in the contemporary Chinese psyche.

Yes, I know I am taking a sledgehammer to a souffle when I critique The Times movie page for not getting religion, but is there not a third, or even fourth element at work in this “clash of values”?

A 2010 article in Jing Daily reported China was unsure of the virtues of conspicuous consumption.

While many newly wealthy Chinese are quick to outfit themselves head-to-toe in luxury brands or have themselves chauffeured around in limited-edition Bentleys, and the pursuit of wealth is largely considered a societal imperative and not entirely without merit, broader social attitudes toward the wealthy are decidedly mixed. Last year, a study by the Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences found that 96% of respondents said they feel resentment toward the wealthy, and another survey conducted earlier this year by the People’s Daily found that 91% of respondents believe that the country’s nouveau riche has leveraged government connections to build their fortunes.

Is this entirely class based, or does China’s Confucius culture play a role in this clash of values? Or does its emphasis on the family above all over against the Maost ethic of self-denial.fuel conspicuous consumption?

Confucianism omitted out of the social relationships man’s social obligations toward the stranger. While theoretically care for one’s fellow man was provided for in the “doctrine of reciprocity” the relationship toward “others” was not one of the five cardinal relationships. The center of existence in the Confucian system was the family — and its prosperity was paramount.

The Hong Kong based psychologist, Michael Harris Bond, developed this theme in his book Beyond the Chinese Face:

The only principle that might guide behavior towards strangers is the Chinese ‘golden rule’ of Confucius, ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.’ This counsel, however, is in the negative and prohibits harmful acts rather than promoting helpfulness. It is quite different in its consequences from doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. This Judeo-Christian dictum is another universal principle, but one that endorses an active reaching out to strangers. It finds its expression at the broader political level in constitutional safeguards for minority rights and a social welfare system; at the interpersonal level, in a greater willingness to assist the underdog. Such a principle operates less strongly in Chinese society.

But traditional Chinese culture also eschewed vulgar displays of wealth. Confucius’ doctrine of the Golden Rule promoted a humble, calm way of life that frowned upon self-publicity and personal ostentation.

What is being reported in this article? Are the Shanghai society girls the moral monsters of Less than Zero, or do they represent religious and cultural flux underway in China.  Or — am I assuming a Christian worldview that sees gluttony and self-aggrandizement as a sin which separates me from God and my fellow men.

Since the liberalizations of the early 1980’s one of the key challenges that Chinese individuals have faced is the question, “What is the meaning of life? For what purpose do I live?”  A century of warfare culminating in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) not only undermined traditional Confucian values but shook the rhetoric and ideology of revolutionary Maoism. The new emphasis on individual freedom, prosperity and happiness stands in sharp contrast to the Maoist vision of self-sacrifice, self-discipline and self-restraint.

And into this mix comes the burgeoning Christian church in China with its tens of millions of new converts. Where does this Judeo-Christian worldview come into play?

Perhaps this is a bit too much for a review of a review of frothy Chinese films, but it does permit me to speak to the biases I and almost all Western journalists bring to their reporting on the non-Christian world. Whether atheist, Christian, agnostic or Episcopalian — a Western reporter has been reared in Christendom (post-Christendom) where there are shared norms of good and evil. From time to time it is good to remind ourselves that the truths we assume to be universal are not always so.

First printed in Get Religion.

Was Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet?: Get Religion, August 31, 2013 September 1, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Religion’s never mentioned here,’ of course.
‘You know them by their eyes,’ and hold your tongue.
‘One side’s as bad as the other,’ never worse.
Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung
In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable.

So begins Section III of Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever You Say Say Nothing”, found in his 1975 collection of poems North. In a 2000-word 30 Aug 2013obituary entitled “Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74″, The New York Times offered an appraisal of his life and work, noting that:

In 1995, he became the fourth Irishman to win the Nobel in literature, following Yeats, who received it in 1923; George Bernard Shaw (1925); and Samuel Beckett (1969).

In describing Heaney’s place within literature, The Times obituary makes repeated reference to the poet’s Catholic identity and the religious language found in his work.

A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. … Throughout his work, Mr. Heaney was consumed with morality. In his hands, a peat bog is not merely an emblematic feature of the Irish landscape; it is also a spiritual quagmire, evoking the deep ethical conundrums that have long pervaded the place. … Mr. Heaney was enraptured, as he once put it, by “words as bearers of history and mystery.” His poetry, which had an epiphanic quality, was suffused with references to pre-Christian myth — Celtic, of course, but also that of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically dazzling, was nonetheless lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.

The obituary also notes Heaney’s close identification with Catholic Ireland.

Mr. Heaney was deeply self-identified as Irish, and much of his work overtly concerned the Troubles, as the long, violent sectarian conflict in late-20th-century Northern Ireland is known. But though he condemned British dominion in his homeland (he wrote: “Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen”), Mr. Heaney refused to disown British tradition — and especially British literature — altogether.

The Times also quotes a passage from his 1974 lecture, “Feeling into Words to describe his love of language, rhyme and alliteration.

 “Maybe it was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland, Faroes, Finisterre; or with the gorgeous and inane phraseology of the catechism; or with the litany of the Blessed Virgin that was part of the enforced poetry in our household: Tower of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted.”

Does all this make Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet? While his work has long been associated with Catholicism, is this a sociological or religious description? There is no doubt that Heaney is a Catholic poet in a sociological sense. Writing in The Listener in 1975, Conor Cruise O’Brien argued that in North, Heaney was giving voice to a tribal Catholicism. It was “the tragedy of a people in a place: the Catholics of Northern Ireland.” While critic Edna Longley stated Heaney’s North concentrated on the “Catholic psyche as bound to immolation, and within that immolation, to savage tribal loyalties.”

Was Heaney’s Catholicism merely communal? An accident of his Northern Irish nationalist Catholic birth? Or was it informed by belief in the tenets of the Catholic faith?  As a young man, Heaney spoke of his work as a “slow obstinate Papish burn’, but by 2002 he said that his Catholicism was more of a “‘sociological term than anything else.” In the 2002 book, In the Chair: Interviews with Poets from Northern Ireland (p 83) Heaney said:

‘Papish burn’, I’m sorry to say, caves in to that same old clichéd idiom. It doesn’t help. It’s not further language. Catholic is less conniving than Papish, but if you describe yourself as a Catholic in the North, it can still sound like a defiance or a provocation. In certain circles in the South, it might even be taken to mean that deep down you are unrepentant about child abuse by priests and not altogether against corporal punishment in orphanages. I exaggerate, I know, but only in order to emphasize the way the common mind tends to react when faced with the fact of religion and religious practice and religious value.

Which takes me back to The New York Times obituary. In what sense can Heaney be called a Catholic poet? He certainly was an Irish Catholic poet — in terms of sectarian identity. But should the sociological label — the ideological stance of nationalist and Catholic over against Protestant and loyalist — be applied to his faith life? I expect that in years to come academic monographs and dissertations will examine these questions, and I offer no dogmatic assertion that he was or was not a Catholic poet. Yet should not a newspaper be careful on this point — conflating ideology with faith?

Was The Times correct in leading its description of Heaney as “A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland” without inquiring into the content of his religious beliefs?

Or does the use of Catholic image, language and symbolism in his poetry enough to make him Catholic? Can we call him a Catholic poet though “Religion’s never mentioned here,” of course.

First printed in Get Religion.

Does The New York Times hate Timothy Dolan?: Get Religion, August 29, 2013 August 29, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Abuse, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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”The question is, should this indictment have ever been brought? Which office do I go to to get my reputation back? Who will reimburse my company for the economic jail it has been in for two and a half years?”

So said former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan to The New York Times following his acquittal on state charges of fraud and theft in 1987. Accused by the Bronx DA of attempting to defraud the New York City Transit Authority of $7.4 million on a subway construction project in the late 70′s, before he entered the Reagan Administration, Donovan and his co-defendants were found not guilty on all charges — with one jury telling the Times she believed the prosecution was politically motivated. While rejoicing in the not guilty verdict after his two year ordeal, Donovan lamented that it was not fair that the news of his being a decent man would receive far less publicity than the accusation he was a criminal.

What should a newspaper do in this situation? How can it restore the reputations of those falsely accused? Human nature being what it is, the news of an evil man is far more interesting than that of a good one. Critics often accuse newspapers of printing only bad news — senior church leaders upbraid me from time to time for focusing on scandal, corruption and hypocrisy and downplaying the good works performed by church. It does little good to respond that I dutifully report on the good news, but no one reads it. Stories of church sponsored campaigns to stop child marriage in Africa or of female genital mutilation, for example, are read by only a few, while a naughty vicar story is good for tens of thousands of hits, while an Al Gore in bed with the Church of England will get picked up by Drudge and crash the servers.

In the Donovan case The New York Times acted properly and professionally according to the dictates of the craft. They reported without bias, cant or agenda. To have done more would have been special pleading, engaging in propaganda to sway public opinion to think as our masters tell us.

What then should we make of The Times coverage of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee abuse lawsuit? On 1 July 2013 The Times printed a story entitled “Dolan Sought to Protect Church Assets, Files Show”. This was followed on 3 July 2013 with an editorial entitled “Cardinal Dolan and the Sexual Abuse Scandal” and a 6 July op-ed piece by Frank Bruni entitled “The Church’s Errant Shepherds”. Apart from a correction on 16 July The Times does not appear to have followed up on the story.

Which is curious as the first article starts off with a bang.

Files released by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Monday reveal that in 2007, Cardinal Timothy F. Dolan, then the archbishop there, requested permission from the Vatican to move nearly $57 million into a cemetery trust fund to protect the assets from victims of clergy sexual abuse who were demanding compensation.

Cardinal Dolan, now the archbishop of New York, has emphatically denied seeking to shield church funds as the archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009. He reiterated in a statement Monday that these were “old and discredited attacks.”

However, the files contain a 2007 letter to the Vatican in which he explains that by transferring the assets, “I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.” The Vatican approved the request in five weeks, the files show.

The article continues in this vein, proffering evidence and arguments that while Archbishop of Milwaukee, Cardinal Dolan acted disreputably by moving church assets out of the reach of creditors. The Times editorial doubled-down on this assertion writing:

Tragic as the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has been, it is shocking to discover that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while archbishop of Milwaukee, moved $57 million off the archdiocesan books into a cemetery trust fund six years ago in order to protect the money from damage suits by victims of abuse by priests.

While not labeling him a crook, the editorial board was quite clear in its opinion the archbishop had engaged in shady dealings and had not lived up to the high moral standard The Times expected of the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. The censure of the op-ed pales in comparison to the rage that seethes through Frank Bruni’s piece. The underlying acts of abuse were bad enough, but the institution’s response has been worse.

I mean the evil that an entire institution can do, though it supposedly dedicates itself to good.

I mean the way that a religious organization can behave almost precisely as a corporation does, with fudged words, twisted logic and a transcendent instinct for self-protection that frequently trump the principled handling of a specific grievance or a particular victim.

However, Bruni’s column is a column. A reader may agree with his sentiments or find them unhinged. They are written to provide entertainment based on current events — they are not reporting in and of themselves. The Times‘ op-ed piece is also only the opinion of the editorial board. One either agrees with its sentiments or does not. The underlying news stories however, are what makes or breaks the newspaper’s reputation for reporting. And here the paper disappoints.

On 30 July the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a Federal District Court had ruled that Cardinal Dolan and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had acted properly — and morally — by shielding cemetery funds from creditors. The Journal Sentinel story entitled “In win for Milwaukee Archdiocese, judge shields cemetery funds from creditors” reported:

In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for religious institutions around the country,a federal judge has ruled against forcing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to tap its cemetery funds to pay sex abuse claims in its bankruptcy.

In issuing the ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa said including the funds would violate free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and a 1993 law aimed at protecting religious freedom. Randa cited the Catholic belief in the resurrection, which teaches that the body ultimately reunites with the soul, and the role of Catholic cemeteries in the exercise of that belief under canon law.

“The sacred nature of Catholic cemeteries — and compliance with the church’s historical and religious traditions and mandates requiring their perpetual care — are understood as a fundamental exercise of this core belief,” said Randa in overturning an earlier decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley.

Yet there has been nothing from The New York Times on this issue. When the ruling was handed down, I expected to see something. Perhaps another angry Bruni jeremiad on the courts protecting an evil institution, tut-tutting from the editorial board — but nothing. Perhaps it being August the staff are on holiday and no one was about to write this piece. Yet The Times has an AP subscription and could have run the wire service story.

What message is The New York Times sending by not reporting the court verdict, which as the Journal Sentinel story points out, stressed the judge’s decision that what Cardinal Dolan did was not only lawful, but was a moral act based upon the Catholic Church’s doctrines. Is The Times motivated by animus towards the Roman Catholic Church? Does it hate Cardinal Dolan?

I doubt the newspaper has a grudge against the archbishop. Life’s events are more often motivated by mistake and omission than deliberate aggression. Nevertheless, this does episode does not do credit to The New York Times.

Caveat: The New York Times may have reported this decision — if so, I have not seen it, nor been able to find it on their website. Times image courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

First printed in Get Religion.

The NY Times misses the battle for Belarus; Get Religion, August 9, 2013 August 10, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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I would like to draw your attention to a 28 July 2013 piece in the New York Times entitled “Putin in Ukraine to Celebrate a Christian Anniversary”. The article reports on the interplay of religion, politics and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Yet the mention of religion in a story does not necessarily mean the reporter “gets religion.”

The article opens by focusing on what the Times sees as the political significance of the event, and then moves to an appreciation of the interplay of religion with politics.

MOSCOW — In an apparent attempt to use shared history to make a case for closer ties, President Vladimir V. Putin attended religious ceremonies in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday to commemorate the 1,025th anniversary of events that brought Christianity to Ukraine and Russia. At a reception in Kiev, the capital, Mr. Putin spoke of the primacy of the two countries’ spiritual and historical bonds, regardless of political decisions that often divide them. Relations have been rocky in part because of attempts by Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to formalize its political and economic ties with the European Union.

“We are all spiritual heirs of what happened here 1,025 years ago,” Mr. Putin told church hierarchs at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, one of the holiest sites of Orthodoxy, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “And in this sense we are, without a doubt, one people.”

Mr. Putin’s trip was also the latest sign of the deepening ties and common agenda of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The events last week commemorated Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s decision to convert to Christianity and baptize his subjects in 988, an event known as the Baptism of Rus, … The attention has also lent apparent endorsement to church criticism of Western democracy and secular culture, particularly homosexuality….

Patriarch Kirill invoked the concept of the Holy Rus, referring to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as a unified spiritual expanse united under the faith. … The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

The article then looks at the church’s illiberal teachings, pulling quotes from Cyril made outside the Kiev celebrations.

The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

“This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything so that sin is never validated by the laws of the state in the lands of Holy Rus, because this would mean that the people are starting on the path of self-destruction,” he said at a Moscow cathedral, according to the Web site of the Moscow Patriarchate. He previously said that such “blasphemous laws” could prove as dangerous to believers as the executioners of the Great Terror during the government of Stalin.

Before I move to an analysis of the distortions to the story caused by the particular worldview of the Times, let me say a word about nomenclature beginning with names. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is called Kirill in this article and in other outlets is named Kyrill and Cyril. They are all the same name, but coming as I do out of an older style of journalism that anglicizes everything because that is how God intended it to be, I use Cyril — just as I call the pope Francis. And some regions of the world and nations are prefaced by “the” — the Sahara, the Arctic, the Sudan, the Ukraine — less frequently the Lebanon and the Yemen. I am not making a political statement when I call the host nation “the Ukraine”, implying it is a region rather than a nation state, or a mystical idealized place like la France of Charles de Gaulle, rather it is the style in which I was educated. That having been said …

The word “apparent” in the first line is problematic. It begs the question “apparent to whom?” The Times states this is Putin’s political goal and offers extracts from his speeches to illustrate this point, but spends little time in offering other views.

I am not saying the Times was incorrect in stating the trip for Putin was an opportunity to bring the Ukraine closer to Moscow. This theme was noted in the Russian press also. Moskovsky Komsomolets a Moscow-based daily with a circulation of approximately one million, called Putin’s Ukrainian visit “the second baptism of the Rus”, implying shared spiritual values make Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians “one people”.

The official text of Putin’s 27 July 2013 speech Putin makes this point clear.

The Baptism of Rus was a great event that defined Russia’s and Ukraine’s spiritual and cultural development for the centuries to come. We must remember this brotherhood and preserve our ancestors’ traditions. Together, they built a unique system of Orthodox values and strengthened themselves in their faith …

Putin then moves from spiritual unity to national economic solidarity, arguing the Ukraine’s strategic choice lies with the Eurasian and not the European integration project.

Competition on the global markets is very fierce today. Only by joining forces we can be competitive and stand a chance of winning in this tough environment. We have every reason too, to be confident that we should and can achieve this.

The stress placed on this point by the Times is not misplaced, but it is unbalanced. We are hearing only Putin and Cyril in this story — and what the New York Times thinks about them.

The article does not contrast Putin’s vision to the Ukrainian premier Viktor Yanukovych’s administration’s goal of Kiev assuming a leadership role in bringing not only the Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus closer to Europe. It may well be the Moscow-based reporter’s job to write all-Putin all the time stories, yet the article’s emphasis on Putin clouds the issue.

The content of Putin’s speech is news as is the fact of the celebration of the anniversary of the Baptism of the East Slavs, but the significant event from a political and religious perspective is the boycott of the proceedings by the Premier of Belarus — a fact mentioned only by the omission of his name from the heads of state list given by the Times.

In other words, it is not new news the Russian Orthodox Church believes nationality, or Russianness is born from Orthodoxy. Nor is it news the Orthodox Church is opposed to gay marriage. Nor is it news that Putin is seeking to pull Kiev into Moscow’s orbit. Nor is the Times‘ comments about the rapprochement between church and state new news. Putin has been moving the state closer to the church for over a decade — and as the article states Putin revealed he had been baptized as an infant in the Leningrad during the Stalinist era. By focusing on the familiar — of how the ceremony relates to Putin, the Times missed in its coverage is the significance of the boycott of the ceremony by the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka.

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A Vatican Gay lobby or a gay Lobby? : Get Religion, June 20, 2013 June 20, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Where should the stress be placed in Pope Francis’ phrase the “gay lobby”? Upon the first word “gay” or the second, “lobby”?

This semantic game animated my discussion this week with Todd Wilken, the host of Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues, Etc. program.  In our conversation broadcast on 18 June 2013, Todd and I contrasted The New York Times coverage of Pope Francis’s comments that a gay lobby existed at the Vatican to the coverage in the European and religion press.

Todd began to show by asking if this was new news? I was polite and responded that this is only 100 years or so old,  which I admit was a misstatement on my part. But it would’ve been bad form to quote Pope Pius V on a Lutheran program.

In his Constitution Horrendum illud scelus of 30  August 1568, Pius stated:

In his That horrible crime, on account of which corrupt and obscene cities were destroyed by fire through divine condemnation, causes us most bitter sorrow and shocks our mind, impelling us to repress such a crime with the greatest possible zeal.

Quite opportunely the Fifth Lateran Council [1512-1517] issued this decree: “Let any member of the clergy caught in that vice against nature, given that the wrath of God falls over the sons of perfidy, be removed from the clerical order or forced to do penance in a monastery” (chap. 4, X, V, 31).

So that the contagion of such a grave offense may not advance with greater audacity by taking advantage of impunity, which is the greatest incitement to sin, and so as to more severely punish the clerics who are guilty of this nefarious crime and who are not frightened by the death of their souls, we determine that they should be handed over to the severity of the secular authority, which enforces civil law.

Therefore, wishing to pursue with greater rigor than we have exerted since the beginning of our pontificate, we establish that any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit, and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, let him be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be put to death, as mandated by law as the fitting punishment for laymen who have sunk into this abyss.

Pius did not mince words.

One can say that this is not new news, but Pope Francis’ discussion of the problem was new. But should the news reports stress the homosexuality angle or the clique? The New York Times emphasized the gay in their report unlike the European press which focused on the lobby. Is this the difference without significance? I would say no.

Had this been the first instance accusations have been raised about gay clique at the heart of the Catholic Church then the emphasis would best be placed on what members of the clique had in common. But as this is not new — apart from the Pope’s admission to the existence of such a problem — the better story is a discussion of the clique.

We need to step back however and recognize the “gay lobby” phrase is not a quote but a third-party summation of Francis’s words. In Spanish and later in the Italian reports the word translated into English as lobby has connotations of a Mafia or a cabal — not merely a political a pressure group. The European reporting highlighted the problem of priests having a higher loyalty to members of this Mafia then to their ecclesiastical superiors or to the discipline of the church.

While sex is always a good story — and homosexuality is a meme the New York Times cannot do without — the deeper story is the cleansing of the Curia of an old boys network.This story focuses on the gay old boys network, but there are other networks in the Curia who have stymied reform. And in this area, I told Todd it was my belief that the agenda of Popes Benedict and Francis are almost identical — Francis is not the anti-Benedict beloved of op-ed writers on this side of the Atlantic.

Well, that is what I wanted to say anyway. Listen and tell me what you think.

First printed at Get Religion.

Interview: Issues Etc., June 19, 2013 June 19, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Issues Etc, Roman Catholic Church.
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Here is an to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 18 June 2013.

3. Media Coverage of a “Gay Lobby” at the Vatican – George Conger, 6/18/13

Podcast: Download (Duration: 14:19 — 5.9MB)

 

Are gay blinkers distorting the New York Times reporting on the Vatican?: Get Religion, June 16, 2013 June 17, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The New York Times is shocked, shocked to hear Pope Francis say there is a gay lobby at the Vatican.

The suggestion that a gay mafia exists within the Curia has been a major news item in Italy and has generated stories round the world. The reactions have been diverse — and have reinforced the stereotypes of the major news outlets.

The New York Times‘ report is thorough, earnest and a bit dry, but misses the real story. Some of the Italian newspapers are having fits of joy in reporting on shadowy cabals of gay monsignori  cavorting in the Vatican — I am waiting for Freemasons to enter the story any day now. However the Italian press, along with the religion press, appreciate this story is not about homosexuality but doctrine, discipline, and divided loyalties within the Vatican.

For those not in the know — the story so far:

In a 6 June 2013 meeting with members of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious Pope Francis was purported to have said in a discussion of reforming the church’s administration: “In the Curia, there are also holy people, really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true. … The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there … We need to see what we can do.”

Why “purported”? Because the remarks were recorded in a summary of the meeting posted on a Chilean Web site, Reflection and Liberation, and later translated into English by the blog Rorate Caeli. The Milan newspaper Il Giornale reported that after Rorate Caeli released the transcript, Vatican reporters John Thavis and Marco Tosatti reported the news as did AFP and the Madrid newspaper El Mundo — and the world followed.

The Times begins its report by stating the suggestion there is a gay lobby is not shocking. What is shocking is that the pope would admit it.

For years, perhaps even centuries, it has been an open secret in Rome: That some prelates in the Vatican hierarchy are gay. But the whispers were amplified this week when Pope Francis himself, in a private audience, appears to have acknowledged what he called a “gay lobby” operating inside the Vatican, vying for power and influence.

The Times news account lays out the story in detail, offering context and diverse opinion as to the importance of the remarks. Yet for all its thoroughness the Times misses the bigger picture of clergy cliques and divided loyalties.

But never fear — on the op-ed pages of the Times compounds its misinterpretation of the facts as Frank Bruni savages the church for not being gay enough.

What was clearer was his acknowledgment — rare for a pope, and thus remarkable — of the church’s worst-kept secret: a priesthood populous with gay men, even at the zenith. And that underscored anew the mystery and madness of the church’s attitude about homosexuality. If homosexuality is no bar to serving as one of God’s emissaries and interpreters, if it’s no obstacle to being promoted to the upper rungs of the church’s hierarchy, how can it be so wrong? It doesn’t add up. There’s an error in the holy arithmetic.

It also offers this snippet of information:

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit and an editor at large at the Catholic magazine America, told me that he’s seen thoughtful though not scientifically rigorous estimates that anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of Catholic priests are gay. His own best guess is 30 percent. That’s thousands and thousands of gay priests, some of whom must indeed be in the “deep-seated” end of the tendency pool. Martin believes that the vast majority of gay priests aren’t sexually active. But some are, and Rome is certainly one of the many theaters where the conflict between the church’s ethereal ideals and the real world play out.

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Abortion blindness in the New York Times: Get Religion, April 13, 2013. April 13, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Three cheers for my Get Religion colleague Mollie Hemingway! She has done a fantastic job this week pointing out the professional failures of the national press coverage of the Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia. The self-censorship of the New York Times on this issue is of Walter Duranty-like proportions.

But the Gosnell case is not an isolated incident when it comes to questionable abortion reporting — they have form. There is a blindness in the Times coverage of abortion — they see only what they want to see. Or, there is a sleight of hand at work here — like the three card monte dealer they promise you a fair game as the cards pass before your eyes — but the hand always comes out in favor of the dealer — and in this game the rightness of abortion always comes up aces.

Take the Irish abortion controversy that dominated the media for a few weeks after the election. Last November/December the Times ran six stories on the death of Savita Halappanavar.  The lede of its first report set the tone of its subsequent coverage:

The death of a woman who was reportedly denied a potentially lifesaving abortion even while she was having a miscarriage has revived debate over Ireland’s almost total ban on abortions.

The stories that followed focused on Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws — and upon claims that an abortion was not performed when the life of the mother was in danger because of Ireland’s Catholic culture.

Dr. Halappanavar contracted a bacterial blood infection, septicemia, and died Oct. 28, a week after she was admitted to Galway University Hospital with severe back pains. She was 17 weeks pregnant but having a miscarriage and was told that the fetus — a girl — would not survive. Her husband said she asked several times for an abortion but was informed that under Irish law it would be illegal while there was a fetal heartbeat, because “this is a Catholic country.”

The coroners inquest this past week in Ireland has seen blow by blow reports in the Irish and British press — with some papers publishing updates after each session. The Times returned to the story on 11 April 2013 with an article that backed the editorial line taken last year.

A woman who died after being refused a potentially lifesaving abortion even while she was having a miscarriage was told that her repeated pleas could not be granted because Ireland is a Catholic country, an inquest has confirmed. In a case that has reignited tensions over Ireland’s strict abortion laws, Ann Maria Burke, the midwife who attended to the pregnant woman, said at the inquest in Galway on Wednesday that the remark “had come out the wrong way” and that she had not meant it to be hurtful.

The Times reported:

Dr. Halappanavar’s husband, Praveen, has said the couple were told that the country’s Catholicism was the reason for the refusal to terminate the pregnancy, even though his wife was in severe pain and they had been informed that the fetus had no chance of survival. In Ireland, abortion is legal when there is a fetal heartbeat only if there is “real and substantial risk” to the life of the woman. Dr. Halappanavar, 31, was 17 weeks pregnant when she sought treatment at University Hospital Galway on Oct. 21, complaining of severe back pain. Dr. Katherine Astbury, a senior obstetrician who had attended to Dr. Halappanavar, said at the inquest that although the fetus’s prognosis was poor, she had refused to conduct a termination until the fetus’s heartbeat had ceased. “I recall informing Ms. Halappanavar that the legal position did not permit me to terminate the pregnancy in her case at that time,” Dr. Astbury said, referring to a conversation they had on Oct. 23. She also recalled telling Dr. Halappanavar, who she said was physically well at that point but emotionally distressed, that her only option was to “sit and wait” for as long as the heartbeat persisted.

The article then noted that mistakes were made:

The inquest has also heard testimony that several hospital protocols were not followed, amounting to system failures that contributed to Dr. Halappanavar’s death. Dr. Astbury said she might have intervened sooner had she been made aware of the results of earlier blood tests. Instead, she relied on clinical signs, none of which pointed to sepsis.

The article starts with the “you can’t have an abortion because we’re Catholic in Ireland” and then builds upon this theme with the doctor’s testimony about the country’s “Catholic” abortion laws. The question of medical error is mentioned in passing though. Compare this account to that reported by the Irish Independent of same proceedings.

THE DOCTOR at the heart of the Savita Halappanavar case admitted she had not read “significant” medical notes on the chart that would have resulted in her performing an earlier termination. She also accepted that there were a number of “system failures” in Ms Halappanavar’s care.

Dr Katherine Astbury said she had not seen a notation on the 31-year-old’s charts that would indicate a deterioration in her condition. She also conceded that she had not seen Ms Halappanavar’s blood results, which had changed and could have been indicative of severe sepsis. The consultant obstetrician told the inquest that had she been aware of these details she would have brought forward plans for a termination to the Wednesday morning. Dr Astbury had earlier told the inquest that she had been unable to accede to Ms Halappanavar’s requests for a termination on the Tuesday because her health was not in any danger and she feared it could become a legal issue.

In other words the doctor made a mistake.

The Irish Independent reported the doctor as having said she was guided by the legal requirement that there be a threat to the life of the mother before performing the abortion.

The court heard that Dr Ikechukwu Uzockwu, known as Dr Ike, had noted a deterioration in Ms Halappanavar’s condition at 6.30am on the morning of Wednesday, October 24. He made notes of a “foul-smelling discharge” on her chart along with details of a raised pulse and temperature. However, despite receiving this chart, Dr Astbury told the inquest she had not read it. The inquest also heard from Dr Anne Helps, a registrar attached to Dr Astbury, that she may not have passed on significant information on the deterioration of Ms Halappanavar to the consultant.

Dr Helps recalled her colleague, Dr Ike, passing on details to her as they switched rounds on Wednesday. She recalled him telling her of a spike in temperature and that Ms Halappanavar felt unwell but said she could not recall receiving any further details from him. Details of the discharge were included in Dr Ike’s notes, which were also handed over, but Dr Helps said: “I can’t remember reading those notes.” Dr Helps also admitted it was possible she had not mentioned the discharge while reading the notes to Dr Astbury.

Dr Astbury said she would have taken steps to begin a medical termination earlier had she been aware of the issue. She accepted the discharge was a “very significant” finding. “Obviously it should have been communicated,” she said. When it was pointed out that it had been written down on the chart she added, “I should have been aware of it, yes”. Dr Astbury confirmed it was her intention to induce the pregnancy on the Wednesday after forming the opinion that there was a “real and substantial” risk to Ms Halappanavar’s life, but said she would have begun this earlier had she been aware of the discharge.

Yes, the midwife did tell the coroner’s court she was sorry for having made the Catholic remark the Irish Independent stated. The Times was not wrong in having reported this. But in choosing to play up the thoughtless remark and bury the testimony about malpractice, the Times laid itself open to the charge of journalistic malpractice.

What were they thinking at the Gray Lady? The testimony presented makes it quite clear the Catholic comment by one of the midwives played no part in Savita Halappanavar’s care or her death, yet the “Catholic bad” / “abortion good” theme is still being played. I cannot tell if the editors are knaves or fools when it comes to abortion reporting — but what they are not is fair, balanced, accurate or thoughtful.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in Get Religion.

God or mammon in Iran: Get Religion, April 8, 2013 April 9, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Iran, Islam.
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The New York Times article “Power Struggle Is Gripping Iran Ahead of June Election” offers a detailed examination of the Iranian political scene as the country prepares to elect a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Well written and intelligently crafted, the article, as the lede notes, discusses the:

power struggle ahead of the June election between Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction and a coalition of traditionalists, including many Revolutionary Guards commanders and hard-line clerics.

However a religion ghost lurks beneath the surface of this front page story. A knowledgeable reader will be able to discern what lies behind the political dispute from the text of the New York Times story — but though the information is there the article will likely not inform the typical reader as to what is really happening.  The article does aptly summarize the recent moves by Pres. Ahmadinejad to undercut the power of his opponents. The Times notes:

At the funeral of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader, he was photographed embracing the former president’s mother, a display that was denounced by the clerics, who forbid physical contact between unmarried men and women who are not closely related. But urban Iranians, many of whom have moved far beyond the social restrictions set by the Islamic republic, viewed his action as a simple gesture of friendship.

Despite his early advocacy of Islam’s role in daily affairs, the president is now positioning himself as a champion of citizens’ rights. “He more and more resembles a normal person,” said Hamed, a 28-year-old driver in Tehran who did not want his last name used. “He doesn’t allow them to tell him what to do.”

In speeches, he favors the “nation” and the “people” over the “ummah,” or community of believers, a term preferred by Iran’s clerics, who constantly guard against any revival of pre-Islamic nationalism. He has also said he is ready for talks with the United States, something other Iranian leaders strongly oppose under current circumstances.

Writing at Commentary magazine’s blog Jonathan Tobin argues the article’s liberal/conservative, left/right worldview masks the issues.

The differences between Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are, no doubt, quite real. But they ought not to be interpreted as a sign that the regime is in danger of falling or there is any significant divergence between them and their followers about keeping an Islamist government or maintaining the country’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.

But unfortunately that is probably the conclusion that many of the Times’s liberal readers will jump to after reading the piece since it brands Ahmadinejad and his faction as the “opposition” to the supreme leader. That may be true in the literal sense but, as even the article points out, that is the result of the fact that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei worked together to wipe out any real opposition to Islamist hegemony in 2009 as the United States stood silent.

The religion ghost materialize towards the end of the Times article when it touches upon Pres. Ahmadinejad’s support for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as the next president of Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s support of Mr. Mashaei, his spiritual mentor and the father-in-law of his son, is a particular stick in the eye for the conservatives, as well as a subtle appeal to more progressive Iranians. In messages filled with poetic language, Mr. Mashaei repeatedly propagates the importance of the nation of Iran over that of Islam.

Leading ayatollahs and commanders say that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been “bewitched” by the tall, beardless 52-year old, whom they have called a “Freemason,” a “foreign spy” and a “heretic.” They accuse Mr. Mashaei of plotting to oust the generation of clerics who have ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and of promoting direct relations with God, instead of through clerical intermediaries. He and his allies, they say, are part of a “deviant” current.

Buried in the paragraph above is the theological or ideological grounds the dispute between the two factions. In 2011 the New York Review of Books reported that Pres. Ahmadinejad’s clerical opponents “hate” Mr. Mashaei.

The mullahs who make up the country’s conservative establishment hate Mashaei because he is reputed to be in contact with the Twelfth Imam—a messianic figure who, according to the dominant branch of Shiism, has been in a state of “occultation” (in effect, hiding or concealment) since the tenth century.The ramifications of Mashaei’s alleged “gift” of having relations with the Twelfth Imam are enormous. Most Shia Muslims endorse a dynastic line of claimants to the leadership of Islam that began with Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, who was elected caliph in 656 and murdered five years later. There were eleven more of these hereditary imams, or guides, and all but one of them met a violent death at the hands of their enemies—the forebears of today’s Sunni community, who had rejected the dynastic principle and established their own caliphate. According to the Shia tradition, in 941 the Twelfth Imam was occulted, promising to reveal himself at an unspecified moment in the future to end vice and confusion.

The prospect of an infallible imam who might return at any moment (having miraculously retained his youth) holds obvious attractions for an embattled minority religious community, and the history of Shiism is full of controversial figures who have alleged—or let it be alleged on their behalf—that they have met the Twelfth Imam. But these claims are a challenge to Shia clerics, who regard themselves as the rightful intermediaries between God and the community. What if someone from the community claims to be in direct contact with the imam, and can transmit his wishes to society? In that case, the clergy becomes superfluous.

What are the motivations at work among the various actors? The prospect of financial gain or the accumulation political power are certainly present. But it is also important to stress the place of ideology or religion in the affairs of men. While the outward workings of the dispute between Pres. Ahmadinejad’s faction and the clergy are taking place on the material or carnal plain — I would argue the real battle is over revelation. How does God communicate to his creation?

Which leads to the journalistic question. How much context is too much? It is easy to report on power struggles — but hard to report on ideology, on motivation. I would argue that when reporting on a theocracy such as Iran the theological divisions are more important to understanding the story than any other factor. Can a reader understand story unfolding in Iran without an appreciation of the Twelfth Imam? No.

Catholic yes to yoga?: Get Religion, February 21, 2013 February 21, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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I have been waiting for the American press to pick up an article found in Saturday’s edition of La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian daily, on the Catholic Church and yoga. But as five days have passed with no mention of Bishop Raffaello Martinelli I expect we will not be seeing anything for the moment.

This is shame really as the the intersection of yoga and state, as GR’s editor TMatt has described it, is a live issue. My colleague, Mollie Hemingway, has written about the intersection of yoga and American culture — noting the consternation Hindus feel when its non-Hindu devotees reject claims they are appropriating a spiritual exercise of their faith.

Last December the New York Times ran a detailed article on a dispute in a California school system that had introduced yoga classes for students. On 20 Feb 2013 the Associated Press reported the dispute had now become a law suit with parents suing the school district saying their children are being taught religious doctrine by public school teachers. The school district’s response to the lawsuit is to deny that yoga is religious and that the ends justify the means.

Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not directly comment on it, but he defended the district’s decision to integrate yoga into its curriculum this year. The district is believed to be the first in the country to have full-time yoga teachers at every one of its schools. The lessons are funded by a $533,000, three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Asthanga yoga. Since the district started the classes at its nine schools in January, Baird said teachers and parents have noticed students are calmer, using the breathing practices to release stress before tests.

“We’re not teaching religion,” he said. “We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It’s part of our overall wellness program. The vast majority of students and parents support it.”

The kids are calmer after practicing yoga and therefore it is a good thing. Would the superintendent have been willing to accept money from a Catholic charity to hire someone for each school to teach kids Christian meditation? Or if the issue is movement of the body, would it have engaged a Falung Gong instructor to teach Dharma Wheel Practice if the group had put up the cash?

Into this mix  comes Saturday’s La Stampa article entitled “Vescovo Italiano apre a Yoga” ["Italian bishop open to Yoga"]

The lede states:

Un vescovo italiano, Mons. Raffaello Martinelli (consacrato vescovo il 2 luglio 2009), che è stato per un lungo periodo collaboratore di Joseph Ratzinger quando era Prefetto della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, “apre” a forme di meditazione orientale, da utilizzare in un quadro di spiritualità cristiana.

Which I translate as:

An Italian Catholic bishop states he is “open” to the use of Eastern meditation by Catholics in their prayer life. However, Msgr. Raffaello Martinelli, the Bishop of Frascati, (consecrated 2 July 2009), who served as an aide to Pope Benedict XVI when the pope was the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said these practices must be used in the framework of Christian spirituality.

The article goes on to say that Msgr. Martinelli in December 2010 published a catechesis that is being sold in Catholic book stores in Italy that says meditation practices from non-Christian religions such as Zen and yoga “can be a suitable means for the faithful to stand before God.”

The explanation the bishop offers is that:

Since the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions [Nostra Aetate, 2], a Catholic should not be prejudiced against controlled breathing, mantras and other Eastern practices as being non-Christian. The Catholic can, however, take from them what is useful, provided he does not lose sight of the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and its needs since it is within the Christian spiritual sphere these practices must be employed.

Quite a strong statement from the bishop — and if it finds a way into the yoga and state debate in the U.S. will likely need to be clarified by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Newspaper articles about Catholic parishes refusing to rent space to yoga classes appear from time to time, but the question has not been definitely addressed for Catholics by the Magisterium.

When he was an aide to the then Cardinal Ratzinger, Msgr. Martinelli was involved in the preparation for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation which warned against syncretism. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life also argues that there must be a complete separation of a yoga exercises from their Hindu religious or philosophical roots — and Southern Baptist commentator Albert Mohler has argued Christians should not practice yoga at all due to the dangers of syncretism.

I do hope we will see some quality reporting in this area — there is an abundance of material for the journalist covering the story to find.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. First published in GetReligion.

A political puff piece on the Office of Faith-based Partnerships: Get Religion, February 8, 2013 February 9, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The New York Times has published a letter of reference for Joshua DuBois, President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Unless I am much mistaken, the theme of  “White House Director of Faith-Based Office Is Leaving His Post” is to help the 30-year old Pentecostal minister launch his private sector career following his resignation from his White House post this week.

I would be hard pressed to describe the story on  page A17 of the 8 Feb 2013 New York edition as a news article. There is no balance, no curiosity, no context here. While political allies of DuBois sing his praises in the article, there is no voice questioning the wisdom of the transformation of the office to an adjunct to President Obama’s perpetual political campaign.

Let me say out the outset that I offer no criticism of Mr DuBois’ tenure at the White House. My concern is with the Times‘ coverage. The article opens with high praise, noting:

Mr. DuBois played a central role when Mr. Obama was making his first run for the presidency, cultivating relationships on his behalf with religious leaders of many faiths. Mr. DuBois, 30, has also served as an unofficial in-house pastor to Mr. Obama, sending the president an e-mail each morning with Bible passages intended to prompt reflection or prayer. At the prayer breakfast, the president called Mr. DuBois a “close friend of mine and yours” who “has been at my side — in work and in prayer — for years now.”

The article states that when President George W. Bush created the post in 2000, it “proved contentious because many critics said the office and its actions often violated the constitutional separation of church and state. But Mr. Obama preserved the office and appointed advisory councils that represented a broad range of religious leaders, including conservative evangelicals and openly gay ministers.”

The Times reports Mr. DuBois changed the focus of the Office from a White House-based agency that would help provide a level-playing field for religious groups in seeking federal social service grants to what Josh Good in the National Review called a community organizing focus.

Mr. DuBois, a black Pentecostal minister, steered the office toward engaging religious leaders to address broad social goals like reducing unwanted pregnancies, helping people cope with the economic downturn, encouraging fathers to take responsibility for their children and improving child and maternal health.

Two voices appear in the story: the omnipresent Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who objects to the idea of a White House faith office and the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland:

a network of churches based in Longwood, Fla., [who] said that he observed significant changes in the faith-based office after Mr. Obama inherited it from Mr. Bush. “Before it was basically about which organizations got funded,” said Mr. Hunter, who served on the first faith-based advisory council appointed by Mr. Obama. He said that Mr. DuBois focused on connecting religious leaders with policy makers, adding, “What has resulted is this accessibility to policy conversations by faith communities that really wasn’t there before.”

An example of this change in orientation was Mr. DuBois’s bid to mobilize support amongst religious groups for the DREAM Act.

“This is a critical moment for the government, for our educational and military institutions, for the faith community, and most importantly for the young people all across our great nation,” says Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “Through the DREAM Act we are on the verge of bringing a greater degree of rationality and compassion to our nation’s immigration system and at the same time improving our economy as well.”

Among those participating in the DREAM Act conference call were the above mentioned Mr. Hunter, who told Charisma Magazine:

In terms of the larger immigration reform picture, Hunter says helping youth by passing the DREAM Act is the easiest and most sensible part of the challenge to address. As he sees it, it’s morally wrong to punish kids for something their parents did. The voice of any religion, he says, is to transfer people from the wrong path to the right one.

No voice is heard in this story that criticizes the transformation of the office into a political appendage of the administration to get out the vote, build coalitions and consensus among religious groups in support of its agenda. The National Review wrote about Mr. DuBois’ tenure:

The most marked departure from the Bush years is that the office has consistently tried to drum up overt support for the administration’s legislative priorities. It has done so in a way that I believe the press, and certainly Democrats, would have harshly criticized if the Bush administration had done it.

Tell me GetReligion readers, is this an example of cheer leading by the Times? Or do you see this as a fair account? Am I looking at this through partisan glasses, or are my criticisms that the story is a soft news puff piece correct? What say you?

First printed in GetReligion.

Rape and religion in Israel: Get Religion, February 6, 2014 February 6, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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Here’s a proposition for GetReligion readers: The quality of a news article should be measured not by how well it is written, but by how well it is read. The reporter’s task is to provide facts, context, and balanced interpretation of an event. However, if the reader is not able to grasp the meaning or context of a story the work, while being technically proficient, is unsuccessful as journalism.

The reader, then, is as important as the writer in the evaluation of merit. Unless the reader is able to bring a level of knowledge to the encounter to make the story intelligible, the article can be said to have failed. But where does the fault lie for this failure? In the reader or the writer?

A story in Tuesday’s English-language edition of Israel Today entitled “Rabbis suspected of hampering child rape case investigation” prompted these thoughts. Israel Today or Israel HaYom is Israel’s largest daily circulation newspaper. Written from a conservative perspective, it has about a quarter of the Israeli daily newspaper market share. Owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson the newspaper has an online edition that competes with the Jerusalem Post for the English-language Israel-centered news niche.

(Self-disclosure: I was a London correspondent for the JPost for a number of years, but have not written for them in sometime.) (N.b., the article in question is on the top right of the page above.)

The article begins:

Judea and Samaria District Police suspect their investigation into the rape of a 5-year-old girl in the ultra-Orthodox city of Modiin Illit is being deliberately hampered by rabbis who ordered all involved parties, including the victim’s parents, not to cooperate with police. As a result, police have still not identified a suspect.

The article describes what the police have learned so far about the rape of the girl by a “haredi youth, apparently from an established family in the city,” and states the child’s school teacher alerted the parents and took her to a hospital. However, the rape has not been reported to the police, who only learned of the attack after a reporter contacted them for details.

We then have these statements:

neither the school nor the parents filed a complaint with police out of fear that the city’s rabbis would ostracise them.

And …

When investigators began looking into the incident, they were met with a wall of silence. Those few who did agree to speak told police that the girl had been taken to the emergency room of a hospital in central Israel, but refused to divulge her details. The law requires hospitals to report sexual assaults, and investigators sought a court order to force the hospital to give them the victim’s details. But the presiding judge denied the request and ordered the investigators to find the parents and get permission from them first. However, police cannot contact the parents as they do not know the identity of the victim.

The article closes with a paragraph describing the frustration of the police.

Police in Modiin Illit have compiled enough information to deduce the neighborhood in which they believe the incident took place. They have questioned numerous people in the community, but those questioned claimed to not know anything about the event.

From a reporter’s perspective, this is a nicely done story. He has been able to unearth cover up of a sex crime ostensibly committed by the son of one of the town’s leading citizens. But I suspect most GetReligion readers will be unsatisfied with the story, asking themselves, “why would rabbis cover us such a crime?”

The New York Times has run several stories on this issue, focusing on the ostracization parents of abuse victims face from their communities. Unlike this Israel Today story, the Times addresses the religion ghost — the religious roots of the cover up — in this 2012 article.

Their communities, headed by dynastic leaders called rebbes, strive to preserve their centuries-old customs by resisting the contaminating influences of the outside world. While some ultra-Orthodox rabbis now argue that a child molester should be reported to the police, others strictly adhere to an ancient prohibition against mesirah, the turning in of a Jew to non-Jewish authorities, and consider publicly airing allegations against fellow Jews to be chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

This may be the situation in Brooklyn, but do the ultra-Orthodox of Israel consider their government to be non-Jewish? The question why the haredi do not cooperate with the police is not asked in this story. But, would not the original audience, an Israeli audience, know the answer to that question based upon the context of their culture and country?

Is this a failure, then of the writer or the reader? In today’s Morning Jolt newsletter, National Review Online’s Jim Geraghty raises the issue of reader/audience response in a discussion of political satire. He argues that satire works only with an informed audience, with readers who have a common intellectual culture. “Tying this back to my earlier point about satire,” he writes:

think of the times we’ve seen Jay Leno make a joke about some story that’s big on the political blogs or back in Washington, and the studio audience just titters nervously. They didn’t hear about the story, and so they don’t get the joke; Leno usually pivots back to “boy, Americans are getting so fat” jokes.

Is the joke bad, or is the audience ignorant? Geraghty criticizes Leno earlier in his piece for the quality of his work, comparing it unfavorably to his earlier work — as well as noting the decline of political humor from its heights twenty years ago.

Looking back to the 1980s and early 1990s, this meant Saturday Night Live, particularly Dennis Miller behind the anchor desk. Spy magazine. Jay Leno’s monologue when he was guest-hosting for Johnny Carson – believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Leno was funny and very, very news-oriented, instead of the increasingly-chubby guy phoning in fat jokes. …  To get the jokes, you had to know what they were about – which spurred me to look at what was going on in the news.

Just as Geraghty had to prepare to understand Dennis Miller or Jay Leno to “get the joke”, more should be expected of a reader to “get the news”. This is not to excuse poor quality, biased or unintelligent writing — but to say that the reader must bring something to the text in order to make it work as a news article.

In his 1961 book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis applies this argument to literature, arguing there are no bad books, only bad readers. He writes that rather than judging a book, and then defining bad taste as a liking for a bad book:

Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.

Tell me, GetReligion readers, should this standard Lewis brought to literature be brought to your newspaper? For Lewis reading is an important aspect of our humanity.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and I am never more myself than when I do.

Is it too much to expect that the best journalism act upon the soul in the same way as “great literature”? If so, does that not impose upon us, the reader, the same obligation?  What say you?

First printed at GetReligion.

The New York Times’ Conservative love affair: Get Religion, February 4, 2013 February 5, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The New York Times may not love American conservatives, but they are certainly enamored with a British one, David Cameron. His push to introduce gay marriage in England, over the objections of the rank and file members of his party, has the paper swooning.

There does not seem to be a way to keep gay issues or advocacy out of the New York Times. The Gray Lady finds this angle in just about any story. Today’s example comes in an article that combines the news of the confirmation of election of the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby with the first vote in Parliament on the government’s gay marriage bill.

Unfortunately the article tries a little too hard to link these stories. Combining the two events may have seemed a good idea to an editor not familiar with the issues, but it does not work as a single piece. “New Archbishop of Canterbury Takes Office” has some factual errors, faulty assumptions, insufficient context and a lack of balance.

The article begins:

On the eve of a divisive vote in Parliament on the legalization of same-sex marriage, Justin Welby, the former bishop of Durham, on Monday took over formally as the 105th archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, saying he shares the Church of England’s opposition to marriage among people of the same gender.

The lede is fairly straight forward, but I wondered why the author tortured the opening with such strained language — “marriage of people of the same gender”. Have I missed a new style directive to mimic “people of color” when describing gay issues?

And, how many Anglicans are there? The New York Times says 77 million. In the interview cited later in the story, the archbishop says 80 million — which includes 20 odd million Englishmen and women (when only a tenth of that number attend services). What is the source for this number? But I digress.

The article notes the new archbishop took office today replacing Dr. Rowan Williams, and then moves to a post-ceremony interview.

In an interview broadcast on the BBC after his inauguration, the new archbishop said he was not on a “collision course” with the government. But he endorsed the traditional view that while the church has no objection to civil partnerships between people of the same gender, it is, as a recent church statement put it, “committed to the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman.”

This paragraph also struck me as odd. Not for what it reports about the new archbishop’s sentiments, but in its report of who reported what. The BBC story did not have the “collision course” phrase. That appears in an ITV story. The story broadcast by the BBC I saw cut the “collision course” phrase, while ITV ran the segment uncut. Perhaps there was a second BBC story that used the quote? I do not know. The Religion News Service printed at the Huffington Post account of the ceremony made this mistake as well, but it embedded both videos — BBC and ITV — with their story.

The article then moves to commentary.

His stance did not come as a surprise since he had made it clear at the time of his appointment in November, but the timing of his remarks was certain play into both the political and the ecclesiastical debate about the issue. The church has long been locked in debate over gender issues, including the consecration of female and gay bishops and same-sex marriage.

Now I understand the language of the lede — gender is the plat du jour for the Times allowing it to link the women bishops vote to the same-sex marriage vote in Parliament. (Wait, it is now same-sex marriage by paragraph six.) The article notes:

In December, the church voted narrowly to reject the notion of female bishops, despite support from senior clerics including Archbishop Welby. In January, the church followed up with a ruling admitting openly gay priests in civil partnerships to its ranks, provided that, unlike heterosexual bishops, they remained celibate.

Some more mistakes here. The women bishop’s vote took place in November, not December 2012. Clergy were permitted to register gay civil partnerships in 2005 not in January 2013. A condition of their being allowed to register these domestic partnerships was that they be celibate. Clergy may be “openly gay”, whatever that means, but may not engage in sexual relations outside of marriage (marriage being defined as being between a man and a woman). The question of how rigorously this is enforced is a separate matter.

In December 2012 the House of Bishops ended a ban imposed in 2011 that forbade clergy who had entered into a civil partnership from becoming a bishop. Heterosexuals may not contract civil partnerships in Britain, so the analogy offered by the Times is inexact. However all bishops — heterosexual and homosexual — who are unmarried must be celibate also. There have been homosexual bishops for quite some time — by homosexual I mean men whose dominant sexual attractions are to other men. However, these bishops do hold to the church’s teaching that to act upon these inclinations would be sinful, and are celibate.

Using the pivot of homosexuality, the article then moves to the House of Commons.

Parliament is set to vote on Tuesday on a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage that has been championed by Prime Minster David Cameron. The issue, however, has inspired one of the most toxic and potentially embarrassing rebellions among Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party colleagues since he took office as the head of a coalition government in 2010.

British news reports have suggested that as many as 180 of the 303 Conservative Party members of Parliament might oppose Mr. Cameron or abstain from voting.

Here we have a “yes, but” situation. Yes, the Second Reading of the government’s bill that would legalize same-sex marriage and allow those in civil partnerships to convert them to marriages is set for tomorrow. However, the issue will not be decided tomorrow. Here is a link to Parliament’s web page describing what happens at a Second Reading. MPs will be given a chance to discuss the bill and vote on whether it should be sent to a committee or be kept before the House of Commons as a whole.

The leaders of the three main parties — Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour — support the bill. A vote to send it to committee where they appoint the members is a way to prevent the issue from being debated before Parliament as a whole. Voting to keep it before the House allows greater involvement from backbench MPs. There is an element of political gamesmanship here. While Labour is in favor of the bill, they are also in favor of allowing the Tories to do as much damage to themselves as possible. Keeping the bill before the whole House allows the Conservative rebels to give full voice to their displeasure with their party leader, weakening the prime minister.

The Times however quotes the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, but displays an acute lack of awareness of what really is going on.

Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Monday that he would be “voting for equal marriage in the House of Commons, and I’ll be doing so proudly.” He also said he would urge his 255 legislators in the 649-member body to vote with him. “I’ll be voting for equal marriage for a very simple reason: I don’t think that the person you love should determine the rights you have,” Mr. Miliband said.

The Times neglects to mention the political calculus involved in the passage of the bill, which when it goes to committee is then subject to amendment before it goes to the House of Lords. If the Times wanted to tie the Church of England into this story more tightly it could have mentioned that all of the bishops who sit in the House of Lords will vote “no” and may offer wrecking amendments. And, Miliband’s urging his party’s MPs to vote for the bill is a recent change — Labour was going to make this a party line vote, requiring all its MPs to vote the same way, but senior leaders of that party refused to go along — changing Miliband’s song from must vote to should vote for gay marriage.

The article then closes out with two quotes from a government spokesman who dismisses the church’s objections to the bill — but offers no rejoinder from the Church of England, the Catholic Church (which by the way is also strongly opposed) or MPs who are opposed to the legislation.

So what do we have in this story. Minor points such as the BBC v. ITN. Larger mistakes such as dates of actions and the misstatement of actions. Omission of context and explanation — as written a casual reader would assume that gay marriage was about to be passed, when it has only just started its legislative journey. And a lack of balance coupled with the framing of the story in such a way as to make clear the Times‘ support for gay marriage.

Should we expect better of the Times? Is this story an example of carelessness or bias? What say you Get Religion readers?

First printed at GetReligion.

New York Times solves the problem of Sharia: Get Religion, February 1, 2013 February 2, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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This report on Thursday’s Cairo conference from the New York Times breaks the streak of great stories it has filed from Egypt over the past few months. Long on speculation and short on facts, “Rivals Across Egypt’s Political Spectrum Hold Rare Meeting, Urging Dialogue” on page A10 of the 1 Feb 2013 issue rambles on about what the Times thinks might happen rather than report what has happened. And, (I know you  will be surprised to hear this) the article omits the role religion and religious groups play in the news.

The background to this story is the clash between the Muslim Brotherhood aligned government of President Mohamed Mursi with moderate Muslims and secularist parties to the left, a split with salafist (even more hardline Islamist) parties to the right, coupled with the persecution of religious minorities — primarily Christians, but also Baha’is, Shia, and Ahmadiya Muslims.

The Times has done a great job in reporting on the unraveling of Egypt, but this article does not live up to the standard the Gray Lady has set in its reporting so far.

The article opens with:

With Egypt’s political elites warring and street violence taking on a life of its own, young revolutionaries on Thursday tried to step into the country’s leadership vacuum, organizing a rare meeting of political forces that, in Egypt’s polarized state, was a victory in itself.  The meeting, which included representatives of secular leftist and liberal groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to resolve some of the most divisive issues facing the country, including whether Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, would agree to form a national unity government or amend the country’s newly approved constitution, as some opposition leaders have demanded.

The lede is framed in terms of a heroic attempt by “young revolutionaries” to bring the “warring” factions to the conference table, that must (alas) be deemed a noble failure as it did not achieve the immediate aims of “some opposition leaders” in forcing the president to change his government or revoke the new constitution. This political failure is coupled with a likely short term failure in halting the escalating violence in the streets.

Nor was there any assurance that the meeting’s principal call — to end the violence that has led to more than 50 deaths over the last week — would be heeded on the streets. Clashes during protests have become the latest polarizing issue in Egypt’s turbulent transition, with Mr. Morsi and members of his Muslim Brotherhood movement largely blaming shadowy instigators for the violence. Others, though, have faulted the country’s poorly trained security forces for a persistently heavy-handed response to protests.

The article then identifies the “organizers” of the meeting as:

a leader of the April 6th youth movement, three Brotherhood defectors and Wael Ghonim, a former Google executive who played a prominent role in the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak. Group members said they met several days ago, “to look into ways of leading Egypt out of the crisis and to warn against the threats of being dragged into a cycle of violence.”

And it notes that leaders of the secularist National Salvation Front were present at the meeting along with senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders. A comment is offered by the leader of the National Salvation Front, Mohamed ElBaradei expressing boilerplate optimism, before the story moves back into a discussion of the parlous political state of the country.

At this point we get some hint that something else may be going on:

In another display of high-level concern, the talks on Thursday were held under the chairmanship of the country’s leading Muslim scholar, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb of Al Azhar mosque and university.  After the meeting, he said that a national dialogue, “in which all the components of the Egyptian society participate without any exclusion” was “the only means to resolve any problems or disagreements.” He urged the participants to “commit to a peaceful competition for power” and to prohibit “all types of violence and coercion to achieve goals, demands and policies.”

And the story closes out with comments from a professor from Georgetown University who warns the situation is spiraling out of control. The problem with this story is that it downplays the role of Al-Azhar at the expense of the “young revolutionaries”, neglects to give details of the 10 point communique endorsed by the government and opposition, and omits the place of religious leaders in the negotiations.

A Reuters dispatch frames this same story in a very different way:

A leading Egyptian Islamic scholar brought together rival politicians on Thursday in a bid to ease a crisis that has triggered street violence, killing more than 50 people, saying dialogue was the only way to resolve differences. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the head of al-Azhar mosque and university, brought together members of the Muslim Brotherhood – the Islamist group that propelled President Mohamed Morsi to power – with the president’s most vocal opponents, including liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei.

The emphasis in this story is the unprecedented intervention by the religious establishment into the political arena — bringing the parties to the negotiating table. The document signed by the participants was prepared by the “young revolutionaries” but it was the al-Azhar that provided the political clout to get everyone round the same table.

Egypt’s State Information Service opened its report in this way:

Political, partisan, and religious powers Thursday 31/01/2013 agreed on an al-Azhar document rejecting violence and encouraging dialogue. The document was proposed by revolution youths and drafted by al-Azhar in cooperation with all political powers that also agreed on forming a panel to draw up foundations and topics of the dialogue to restore security and stability to Egypt.

Note the reference here to “religious powers”. This can be seen again at the close of the government press bulletin which states:

Speaking at a press conference following the meeting, Baradei stressed the need to renounce violence and achieve consensus among all political groups, with the involvement of Al-Azhar and the Church, to resolve disputes peacefully.

Reading these reports with a careful eye you can see the religious angle grow from being a venue for the New York Times to the convener of the meeting for Reuters and the Egyptian SIS, with the added mention of “Church”. And if you delve even further into this story in the Arabic press you will learn the Nour Party — Salafists to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood — have also called for a national unity government.

And you can read the ten point communique that renounces violence “in all its forms and manifestations” and respects the dignity of all Egyptians irrespective of religion or political views. The document calls upon the state to protect the lives of its all citizens, respect the human and legal rights of all Egyptians, and observe the distinction between legitimate political protest and treason. All parties agreed to refrain from and denounce the destruction of public and private property, honor the rights of all Egyptians for free and unfettered speech, worship and belief and engage in a national dialogue to resolve the political disputes dividing the country.

The problem then with the Times report is that it leaves out news that this meeting was not just a bilateral pow-wow between Mursi and his opponents on the left, but a meeting that brought to the table salafists, secularists, moderate Muslims, Nassirites, non-believers, and Christians. The meeting also sought to address the problem of Egypt’s growing religious intolerance — the persecution of Christians, minority religious groups and non-believers.

I must admit to having inside knowledge — the Anglican Bishop of Egypt was a participant in the talks (he is the fellow in the purple cassock in the foreground of the photo of the meeting posted above). Yet the role religion played in this meeting was not conveyed to me via the secret decoder ring supplied to the fraternity of right thinking Anglicans across the globe (we’re like Freemasons but dress better) — this angle was prominent in the domestic coverage, but failed to make its way across the Atlantic to the New York Times.

Why? Could the reporters or editors be cutting down the story for space? Could they be removing the bits that would not be of interest to the Times’ readers, or do not conform to the world view of the Times‘ editorial board? Whatever the cause this story is defective — and I’m sorry to say that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian State Information Service, even with its problematic English syntax, did a better job with this story than the Gray Lady.

This article also neglects to ask the question why? Why is Egypt on the brink of anarchy? Many factors are at work — a collapsing economy, over population, food shortages, unrealized expectations in the wake of the fall of Mubarak. But the catalyst for the on-going political disputes is the imposition of a Sharia-law based constitution, with all that entails for moderate Muslims and non-Muslims. The Times appears shy of addressing this point, of confronting the issue of Sharia law.

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, how does the Times solve a problem like Sharia? They ignore it.

First printed in Get Religion.

Is Christian Zionism off the radar for the NY Times?: Get Religion, January 24, 2013 January 25, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Israel, Judaism.
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Comments given to an American church audience in 2011 by an Israeli rabbi, who stood for election this week to the Knesset on the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) ticket were a one-day wonder over the weekend in the Israeli press. Atlanta-native Jeremy Gimpel was lambasted by the liberal press in Israel for allegedly calling for the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim mosque built atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to be destroyed and replaced with a new Temple.

The controversy was also an example of the importance of fleshing out religious ghosts in a story. The American and Israeli press that picked up this issue focused on the political angle. If they had developed the religious elements of the story they would have turned a campaign “gotcha” story about one politician into a better story about the links between Christian Zionists in the U.S. and conservative religious political parties in Israel. Looking into the faith element would have made this a better political story.

Let’s run through the coverage first then ask the faith questions that were left unasked.

On Saturday Ha’aretz’s English language website ran a profile of Gimpel following a broadcast the previous day on Channel 2 of comments made by the rabbi in 2011 to a church in Florida.

The Times of Israel summarized the controversy this way:

Fending off a frenzy of political criticism over a 2011 speech in which he appeared to speak with relish of the theoretical prospect of the Dome of Rock being “blown up” and a new Jewish Temple being built in its stead, prospective MK Jeremy Gimpel claimed in a TV interview on Sunday that he had actually been telling a joke meant to “parody” the extremists who want to destroy the 1,300-year-old Muslim shrine.

Statements Gimpel has made in the past, examined by The Times of Israel, indeed show no record of him explicitly calling for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock. They do indicate that he considers the golden dome atop the Temple Mount an alien element which he wishes would be replaced by the third Jewish temple.

A candidate for the Orthodox, right-wing Jewish Home party, Gimpel also sports a long history of hard-line statements that would raise eyebrows in many circles in Israel and large parts of the Jewish world, including calling the Jewish outlook of non-Orthodox Jewish movements “nonsense” and questioning whether Israel is truly a democracy because it forbids freedom of Jewish worship on the Temple Mount.

The Israeli political left jumped on Gimpel, with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s  liberal Hatnua party calling for his disqualification from the election for allegedly having uttered hate speech. The Anti-Defamation League’s Israel office weighed in also, saying they were appalled a rabbi would condone terrorism, Forward reported.

The New York Times‘ Israel correspondent picked up the story and it appeared in Monday’s edition on page A9 under the headline: “Rightist Israeli Candidate’s Remarks Cause Stir”. I imagine the American angle — Gimpel is a dual Israeli-American citizen and the Florida setting of the speech — prompted the editors to give the story space. The Times‘ article repeated the basic facts of the story of the speech and fleshed out the Israeli political context. It also carried the incendiary quotes that raised the ire of the left.

During a November 2011 lecture about biblical prophecies at the Fellowship Church in Winter Springs, Fla., Jeremy Gimpel, who is now a Jewish Home candidate, told the audience: “Imagine today if the dome, the Golden Dome — I’m being recorded so I can’t say blown up — but let’s say the dome was blown up, right, and we laid the cornerstone of the temple in Jerusalem. Can you imagine? I mean, none of you would be here, you’d all be like, I’m going to Israel, right? No one would be here. It would be incredible!”

After this mention of religion, the Times moves back into politics. This was unfortunate for if they had done some simple internet searching they would have learned some interesting things about the Florida church that calls into question Gimpel’s explanation.

A look through the website of the Fellowship Church in Winter Springs shows it to be a non-denominational Protestant Church that identifies itself as being part of the Christian Zionist movement. Among its outreach projects are the Temple Mount Faithful, whose mission according to its website is:

The goal of the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement is the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in our lifetime in accordance with the Word of G-d and all the Hebrew prophets and the liberation of the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation so that it may be consecrated to the Name of G-d.

How credible is Gimpel’s explanation that he was making a joke that satirizes the views of those who want to destroy the Dome of the Rock and replace it with the Third Temple?

There are also questions that were left unasked as to what Gimpel meant when he told the Christian audience that if the Third Temple were rebuilt they would all “going to Israel.”

The question “why” a group of Central Florida Christians would go to Israel is not examined. Perhaps this statement from the Temple Mount Faithful website provides context for Gimpel’s words.

It is the view of the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful that the redemption will proceed in an orderly fashion according to G-d’s plan.

  • First is the foundation of the modern state of Israel and the miraculous victories that G-d gave the people of Israel in the wars against 22 Arab enemy states.
  • Second is the regathering of the people of Israel from all over the world to the Promised Land.
  • Third is the liberation and consecration of the Temple Mount and fourth is the building of the Third Temple.
  • The final step is the coming of the King of Israel, Messiah Ben David.

The existence of the state of Israel and the return of the people of G-d to the Promised Land is the biggest G-dly event and miracle in the history of mankind – ever. This was predicted by the prophets of Israel. We are calling all the nations to link arms in support of this people and the State of Israel to help her complete this process of redemption. We are not allowed to forget that the redemption of the people of Israel is a condition for the redemption of the earth. Also, we remember what G-d said over 4,000 years ago to Abraham, the father of the Israelites: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you”.

The articles note that Gimpel states he was conducting a Bible study on prophecy — but again does not ask what prophecies and why they would be of interest to a non-Jewish audience? By not exploring the religious angle the Times is missing the story. Politicians say dumb things all the time. Leaving the story on that plane makes it old news the moment the it is printed. Exploring the faith angle opens up far more interesting and important questions.

Did the Times simply play follow my lead and not bother with the religion angle? Did they choose not to follow it, or just did not see it? And does the reason for the omission matter? Did ignoring the faith element in this political story leave this incomplete? What say you GetReligion readers?

First printed in GetReligion.

Sydney Morning Herald has a problem with religious freedom: Get Religion, January 17, 2013 January 17, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism.
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It is only two weeks into the new year, but I believe we may have a winner in the worst newspaper article of 2013 contest. A Sydney Morning Herald story entitled “Anti-gay rights to stay” is so awful, I am just about at a loss for words. Were I to say this story was anti-Christian, boorish, ignorant, and aggressively offensive I would only be scratching the surface. It takes a non-story — Prime Minister Julia Gillard will maintain religious freedoms in the new bill of rights under construction — and turns it into a gay bashing extravaganza.

It begins:

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has assured religious groups they will have the ”freedom” under a new rights bill to discriminate against homosexuals and others they deem sinners, according to the head of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Under current law, faith-based organisations, including schools and hospitals, can refuse to hire those they view as sinners if they consider it ”is necessary to avoid injury to the religious sensitivities of adherents of that religion”.

Notice the quotation marks around the word “freedom”? What is that telling us? Read further into the story and you will find that there is nothing here other than the reporter’s indignation. There is no story. The prime minister has assured the leader of a lobbying group that the current rules governing the “freedom of religion” will not be changed. The SMH finds this deeply offensive, writing:

Discrimination by religious organisations affects thousands of Australians. The faiths are big employers, and the Catholic Church in particular is one of Australia’s largest private employers. They rely on government funding but because of their religious status are allowed to vet the sexual practices of potential employees in ways that would be illegal for non-religious organisations.

The story flow resumes with assurances given by two government ministers that there will be no change in religious freedom laws, followed by comments from church groups. (As an aside, I find the comments somewhat suspect. Knowing some of those who have been quoted, I believe their words have been misconstrued such that the issue of providing services has been conflated with hiring decisions. E.g., they do not discriminate in the provision of services but do reserve the right to employ like minded people.)

The article then brings forward a voice to support its editorial slant, and closes with a quote from the Attorney General that is crafted so as to make her look the fool. She is quoted as being in favor of expanding gay rights at the very end of the story after she states at the top of the piece she supports religious freedom expemptions– or in the SMH’s worldview — condoning anti-gay practices. This is a journalist’s way of calling someone a hypocrite without having to use the word.

Where do I begin? This article is so bad, so puerile, it could appear in The Onion or other comic websites as a farce — a caricature of biased hack journalism. Let’s take the word “sinner”. An emotional word not used by the prime minister or the Australian Christian Lobby spokesman but one inserted by the SMH into the narrative. It may give the story a crackle, but it also reveals the ignorance of the author of the words he is using.

Need I explain that religious organizations hire sinners every day? Yes, the SMH may have meant to say that religious groups do not want to hire particular types of sinner, but having decided to be clever, the SMH must take responsibility for its failure to intelligently use words.  Any editor who has half a brain should have known better than to allow such junk to go out under the newspaper’s name.

On a deeper level, however, the stridency of this article — its eagerness to defame and demean religious groups — suggests the decision to push a non story was deliberate, or the newspaper has been captured by a gaggle of gormless hacks unable to grasp the distinctions between unlawful discrimination and making hiring decisions based upon criteria shaped by church doctrine and discipline.

The sad thing about this SMH story is that it is not an outlier. A well written article entitled “The future of the press” by Keith Windschuttle in this month’s issue of The New Criterion looks at the reasons for the decline of the major newspapers in the English speaking world. Drawing upon William McGowan’s 2010 book Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America, Windschuttle reports the collapse of the newspaper has been economic, political and existential.

McGowan makes it clear that the Times’ shift to the left was actually led by its publisher since 1991, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who enshrined within his organization the ideology of the 1960s generation which he shared: radical advocacy, identity politics, and New Age management theory.

Windschuttle explains the decline as the result of “staff capture”.

But even on newspapers without a countercultural proprietor, there is an underlying problem. The bureaucracies needed to run daily newspapers are susceptible to staff capture. In the last thirty years, on those newspaper companies not controlled by traditional owners but run by boards composed mainly of the biggest stockholders, the autonomy that is essential for journalists and editors to do their job has been exploited by the Left. Once they reached a critical mass in an organization, leftists recruited others sharing their political and cultural beliefs. They proceeded to impose the cultural values of the Left onto the entire editorial output. This did not prove to be a successful business model because it estranged at least half their potential readership—the conservative half—guaranteeing their circulations would continue to fall.

What has been true for the Times has also been true of Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald. He writes:

One of its former journalists, Miranda Devine, who is from a well-known newspaper family and who was employed on The Sydney Morning Herald for ten years until 2011, has described her experience: “When I arrived at the Herald it was controlled by a handful of hard-left enforcers who dictated how stories were covered, and undermined management at every turn.” A former executive of Fairfax said the worldview of the collective was “inarguably Left-leaning, and anti-business. It was also anti-religion—especially anti-Christian—and hostile to bourgeois family values. The tragedy was that [Fairfax’s] core audience was a conservative audience. You’ve never seen a paper more disengaged from its core audience, particularly the [Melbourne] Age.”

Windschuttle’s article is behind The New Criterion’s pay wall, but I do encourage you to find a way to read it — even [heaven forfend] buy the magazine!

Sadly, the article “Anti-gay rights to stay” is an example of the decline and fall of a once great newspaper.

First published in GetReligion.

Don’t mention the war! : Get Religion, December 20, 2012 December 21, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion.
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“Don’t mention the war!” is the catch phrase from “The Germans” episode of the British television series Fawlty Towers. I thought of this episode and John Cleese when I prepared a story for GetReligion on the New York Times‘ and Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the Bundestag’s vote to protect the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims by forbidding courts to ban the circumcision of infant boys.

The two Times were unable to get past the war in their reporting on this story, and ultimately missed the real story picked up by NBC, which was that German objections to circumcision were not crypto-Nazi prejudices but a consequence of the secularization of German society.

In “The Germans” episode, John Cleese, playing a concussed and bandaged Basil Fawlty, insults a party of German tourists dining at his hotel. Even though he warns his assistant Polly, “don’t mention the War”, he proceeds to do so with each line taking on a sharper tone. The comedy reaches its zenith when Basil gives an impression of Adolf Hitler and goose-steps round the hotel.

The humor in this episode comes from the interplay between the slightly mad Basil Fawlty’s attempts at maintaining  bourgeois respectability and his German jokes. The audience also comes to this episode with a common cultural understanding that the Second World War was the fault of the Germans. However, being British, it is impolite to mention it.

This tone of anti-German animus was the topic of this week’s Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken, along with a quick discussion of British reporting on the appointment of Tim Scott as South Carolina’s first African-American senator — but the meat of our conversation was on the dastardly Hun.

Germans, like Catholics, remain one of the few “safe” topics of Anglo-American humor, and I find national stereotyping amusing. But when ethnic and national stereotypes blind reporters to the true issues at play, it is a problem for journalism.

My argument in this week’s Issues, Etc., show was that mentioning the war, e.g., alluding the Nazi past when referring to a court ban on circumcision, clouded the issues. As NBC News’ story pointed out, the objections to circumcision arose from the de-Christianized culture of Germany that ascribed no religious significance to the practice, and as such, viewed circumcision as a barbaric cultural practice that should not be permitted in an enlightened European state.

Ignorance of faith, not anti-Semitism, lay behind the circumcision ban. Well, that is what I hoped to have said. Listen — and let me know what you think.

If I blow this gig, could I try my hand at radio?

First printed at GetReligion.

Interview: Issues, Etc., December 19, 2012 December 21, 2012

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Here is a link to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 19 Dec 2012.

3. Media Coverage of Circumcision Laws in Germany – George Conger, 12/19/12

Scratch a German, find a Nazi, the New York Times reports: Get Religion, December 13, 2012 December 13, 2012

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The end of term is just round the corner with Christmas less than two weeks away. But before the semester ends we have to sit our exams. You have 45 minutes to compare and contrast these stories from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and NBC on Wednesday’s vote in the German Bundestag on circumcision. Which story “gets religion”?

Each outfit ran original stories on this topic and all touched upon religious element in the stories — but I will give you a hint as to the answer I am seeking and say NBC. The New York Times‘ suggestion that Germans are crypto-Nazis will not receive full marks.

The basic political facts are aptly summarized by the New York Times in its article “German Lawmakers Vote to Protect Right to Circumcision”.

BERLIN — German lawmakers on Wednesday passed legislation ensuring parents the right to have their boys circumcised, bringing a close to months of legal uncertainty set off by a regional court’s ruling that equated the practice with bodily harm.

The measure passed by a vote of 434 to 100, with 46 abstentions, in Germany’s lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag. The vote followed months of emotional debate, and angered and alienated many German Jews and Muslims, for whom circumcision is a religious rite, integral to their beliefs.

But opponents of the bill, including 66 lawmakers who had proposed a version of the legislation that would have banned the procedure for boys younger than 14, insisted that removing a healthy body part from a child too young to have a say in the matter violates basic human rights.

The Los Angeles Times story entitled “Germany votes to keep circumcision legal” pointed out the issue of religious freedom.

The new legislation accommodates Jews who insist that the ritual must be carried out by a specially designated person known as a mohel. The Central Council of Jews in Germany said it would start a training program to ensure that mohels receive proper medical training.

The legality of circumcision in Germany was thrown into question in May after a district court in the western German city of Cologne ruled that the circumcision of a young Muslim boy amounted to bodily harm and was illegal. Jews and Muslims, for whom the practice is a key element of the faith, erupted in protest, and the central government quickly vowed to pass legislation to guarantee its legality nationwide. The months of debate that ensued centered on balancing medical concerns with religious freedom.

And the New York Times drove this point home with some strong quotes.

“There is no country in the world where the circumcision of boys for religious reasons is considered a criminal act,” Ms. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said. “With this legislation, the German government makes clear that Jewish and Muslim life is clearly welcome in Germany.”

The NY Times also provided context for the American reader.

Unlike common practice in the United States, infant boys in Germany and most other European countries are not routinely circumcised for health reasons. Consequently, the practice is unfamiliar to the general public, even to most lawmakers voting on Wednesday, as [Social Democrat Bundestag member of Turkish descent] Aydan Ozoguz pointed out.

The Gray Lady’s sympathies were clearly with the supporters of circumcision. The lower court ruling that banned circumcision as being a form of child abuse:

proved an embarrassment to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, painfully aware that postwar Germany can ill afford to be seen as supporting such a dangerous message of intolerance.

This paragraph is problematic on many levels. It is an editorial assertion. The verb “proved” should be proved by reference to claims of embarrassment, whilst the claim that the Germans would best not appear to be anti-Semitic in light of the Nazi era should spring from the mouths of someone other than the reporter. Without a fuller exposition this paragraph leaves the reader thinking, “What really is behind German opposition to circumcision?

Turn to the NBC story written by Donald Snyder you can see the difference between adequate and great reporting. The article entitled “Circumcision to remain legal in Germany” provided the same political background and offering quotes from a number of MPs. It also addressed the religious freedom question from the perspective of Judaism and Islam. But in the same space as the New York Times it did a better job in conveying why this issue was important to supporters and opponents of circumcision.

While the Times noted the infrequency of circumcision in Germany, NBC took this angle further.

German society is highly secular. Religion is generally viewed as a relic from the past. This is especially true in what was formerly Communist East Germany, where atheism was the official doctrine for 44 years.

“The basic sentiment here is anti-religious,” said Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, a foreign policy journal published by the German Council of Foreign Affairs. “And Germans throw overboard anything that has to do with tradition.”

According to Tempel, the Cologne ruling was not a deliberate attack on Islam or Judaism but showed a total misunderstanding of how important circumcision is to both religions. TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found in a July 2012 survey that 56 percent of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.

Deirdre Berger, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, a Jewish advocacy organization, said that the Cologne ruling can be traced to a body of law and medical literature that has been accumulating over the past decade. This school of thought, based on little scientific evidence, holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma, a view held by the German Association of Pediatricians, which has called for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions. By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.

These closing paragraphs from NBC provided context missing in the two Times pieces — making it far and away the best story of the three, I would argue. Now for the extra credit question.

Why do we go on so much about “religion ghosts” in the media, highlighting the absence of the faith angle in news reporting here at GetReligion? Yes, reporting on the reporting is what we do — but are we merely a bunch of cranks who have found a niche from where we can fling out sarcasm and snark at the passing parade of news reporting? Laying aside the issue of personal failings and character flaws — a topic that keeps our analysts gainfully employed — what drives the work of GetReligion is the quest for quality.

My approach to the stories I write for GetReligion is founded upon the belief that the journalist is an artist who is guided by moral precepts. The journalist has an obligation as a literary artist to chronicle, to create, to order, and thereby serve not merely personal and superficial truths but universal ones. This obligation to the truth is the goal of classical journalism. A journalist need not be conscious of the philosophical theories behind his profession any more than a driver need understand the laws of physics that propel his automobile — yet the obligation remains to speak the truth.

Many European newspapers do not see their task in this  light. Advocacy newspapers are guided by the truths of their ideologies and consciously and publicly present stories in the light of these principles. My criticisms of American newspapers have been that they are unaware of their biases. Whilst claiming to print all the news that’s fit to print, as often as not, the definition of “fit” is constricted by intellectual and ideological blinkers. And at other times, they just make a hash of it.

The two Times pieces mention the religious obligations of circumcision for Jews and Muslims, but it was NBC who fleshed the story out by placing circumcision within the religious/medical/philosophical context of German society.

Without this crucial bit of news from NBC, the reader is unlikely to get past the New York Times implicit assertion that German objections to circumcision had some sort of latent Nazi overtone to them. There may be something in this, but that is not the whole story.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. First printed in Get Religion.

Self censorship and the New York Times: Get Religion, December 5, 2012 December 5, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Al Qaeda, Free Speech, Get Religion, Islam, Persecution.
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An International Herald Tribune report about Pakistan seems a bit confused as to what constitutes sectarian violence. Written under the title “Christian Aid Worker Is Shot in Pakistan” the article from the New York Times’ international edition ties together three different stories in one article. But it does not want to say why.

This story with a dateline of Hong Kong is a compilation of Pakistani press reports and wire service bulletins. As per its ethical reporting standards, the Times‘ man acknowledges his debt to these sources, though he did make a few phone calls to provide some original material to the stories. As this is a first report on the incidents I am not that concerned with how complete it is or if all the facts are properly nailed down. My interest in in how the reporter laid out his story given what he had in hand.

And it is the construction of the article and the unwillingness to state the obvious that leads me to say the Times has lost the plot.

The shooting of Swedish missionary, an attack on a Ahmadiya graveyard, and the kidnapping of a Jewish-American aid worker all have something in common (it is called militant Islam) but the Times’ reporter appears at a loss as to how to put the pieces together. Last month the New York Times brought on board as its CEO Mark Thompson, the former Director General of the BBC. It also appears to have taken on board Thompson’s policy of treating Islam with kid gloves.

Here is the lede:

HONG KONG — A Swedish woman doing charity work through her evangelical church was shot outside her home in Lahore on Monday, according to news reports from Pakistan. A gunman riding a motorcycle fired at the 72-year-old woman as she got out of her car in the upscale Model Town neighborhood.

It was not immediately clear whether the attack was sectarian in nature or was perhaps linked to another event Monday in Model Town in which masked gunmen vandalized a cemetery.

The article then goes into the details as they were known of the attack and then links to the second subject with this transitional sentence:

But early Monday morning in Model Town, gunmen tied up the caretakers of an Ahmadi cemetery and desecrated more than a hundred grave markers, the Express Tribune newspaper reported.

The Times gives details of the attack on the graveyard, notes that Ahmadiya Muslims are “considered heretical by mainstream Muslims”, and recounts past terror attacks and government fostered discrimination against the Ahmadiyas.

The story closes with the tale of a kidnapped American aid worker Warren Weinstein seized by al Qaeda last year. Details of Mr. Weinstein’s plight are offered and a quote from an earlier Times story is offered.

Mr. Weinstein, now 71, also appeared in a video in September, embedded below, in which he appeals for U.S. acceptance of the Qaeda demands. At one point he addresses Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, saying:

Therefore, as a Jew, I’m appealing to you, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the head of the Jewish state of Israel, one Jew to another, to please intervene on my behalf. To work with the mujahideen and to accept their demands so that I can be released and returned to my family.

These three stories share the common theme of extremist Muslim violence against religious minorities in Lahore: Christians, Ahmadiyas and Jews. What then is the problem I have with this article, you might ask?

Look at the second sentence of the story.

It was not immediately clear whether the attack was sectarian in nature or was perhaps linked to another event Monday in Model Town in which masked gunmen vandalized a cemetery.

The choices the Times is offering the reader are: a) the shooting of the Christian missionary was a sectarian act; or b) it was not a sectarian act but somehow linked to the attack by Salafist Muslims against an Ahmadiya graveyard. Perhaps I am thick but I do not see the distinction between a and b. Are they not both sectarian attacks?

And by adding in Mr. Weinstein’s case, which also took place in Lahore and also has a religious element — an American Jew being held captive by Muslim extremists who is forced to make a plea to the Israeli prime minister for his life — the militant Islam links are all there. But the Times does not want to connect the dots.

Why? Maybe the author was in a rush to get something into print quickly and mangled his syntax. Or is this an example of the Times‘ stifling political correctness? Is the Times heading the way of the BBC and self-censoring its stories?

In March 2012 the Daily Telegraph carried a short item reporting on Mark Thompson’s decision not to broadcast a show that might be offensive to Muslims.

Although the BBC was willing to disregard protests from Christians who considered its decision to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera as an affront, Mark Thompson, its outgoing director-general, is more wary of giving airtime to Can We Talk About This?, the National Theatre’s examination of how Islam is curtailing freedom of speech.

Lloyd Newson, the director of the DV8 physical theatre company which staged the new work, challenged Thompson to screen his production during a platform discussion at the theatre.

He pointed out that Jerry Springer: The Opera was a lot more controversial because it was a “satire”, whereas his work, consisting of a series of comments and factual statements set to dance, is “a factual piece”.

Thompson’s spokesman tells me: “We are currently working with the National on various ideas. There are currently no plans to broadcast Can We Talk About This?, but this is not due to the play’s content or themes.”

In the past, Thompson has conceded that there is “a growing nervousness about discussion about Islam”. He claimed that because Muslims were a religious minority in Britain, and also often from ethnic minorities, their faith should be given different coverage to that of more established groups.

Has more than Mark Thompson crossed the Atlantic from London? While the Times has long been a bastion of PC reporting, its aping of the BBC’s supine stance on Islam is disappointing. The hiring of Mark Thompson did not cause the New York Times to engage in self-censorship on Islam — but I suspect courage will not be one of the strengths he will bring to his new post.

First posted in GetReligion.

Manhattan media melancholia: Get Religion, December 1, 2012 December 1, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The New York Times‘ provincialism was the principal object of my harrumphing in last week’s Issues Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio.  Host Todd Wilkin and I discussed three of my recent GetReligion posts concerning Media Coverage of Adultery, Gays in Pakistan, and same-sex marriage in Spain.

I was not aware that Lutherans had such a keen interest in sex — my stories about Bulgarian bishops behaving badly do not generate the same degree of excitement it seems.

Todd opened the show by teeing one up for me, asking why I described a recent item from the Gray Lady as being a “mid week sermon” rather than a news story. This provided an opportunity for me to be self-righteous, puff out my cheeks and tell “you kids” to “get off my lawn.” I also decried the Times‘ failure of imagination.

The gist of my criticism of the adultery story and Times‘ article detailing the gay sub-culture of Pakistan was that the conceptual universe presented in these stories is circumscribed. A news article on adultery laws is written from the perspective of an anthropologist peeping through the bushes at an exotic tribe. How quaint and colorful these primitive people are.

The same attitude is displayed in the story about Pakistan’s gay subculture. There is only one way to be gay and that is the New York Times‘ way, we learn. Men and women with same-sex orientations or relationships are not gay until they conform to Western standards (or stereotypes).

And, the Times appeared to have forgotten the role religion plays in shaping Pakistani culture. I argued this was a failure of imagination and reporting — a failure of reporting in that no mention of the role of militant Islam in governing sexual mores was mentioned, nor of the changing nature of Islam in Pakistan. The Sufi-dominated past has been replaced by a Saudi-dominated Wahabbist present — Sharia law and all that.

While were going on about sex, Todd rounded out the show with an article I wrote on the coverage of the gay marriage decision handed down by Spain’s constitutional court as reported in Madrid’s El Pais. However, the conversation took a different direction as the host asked me why I was tolerant of El Pais‘ bias in reporting on gay marriage, but cut the Times less slack for the same sins.

My response was that El Pais made no secret of its biases — it is an advocacy newspaper. Its news reports are filtered through its editorial voice. The facts are there (hopefully all of them), but the interpretation or framework upon which these facts are laid is that of the Manhattan booboisie. The Times does not acknowledge its biases and believes it engages in classical American journalism.

Many Times stories do meet this criteria and full, fair, thoughtful stories can be found every day in its pages. But over the past generation the European style of advocacy reporting has crept in — and in issues touching upon the “culture wars”, Times stories more often than not are advocacy, not news stories.The result is a suffocating style of reporting that is unable to move beyond prejudices and conventional pieties.

Why does any of this matter? Am I huffing and puffing about the Times’ new journalism because it is not to my ideological tastes? There may be some truth in this rejoinder — and if the substance of my critique remained at this level then I would concede my criticisms are as shallow as the reporting I scorn.

What I hope to convey in my pieces published at GetReligion is my belief that the journalist as an author has an obligation as a literary artist to chronicle, to create, to order, and thereby serve not merely personal and superficial truths but universal ones. This obligation to the truth is the goal of classical journalism, and its renunciation by the Times in pursuit of advocacy and expediency is what I find to be so very disheartening.

Well, that is what I hoped I said.  Tune in and see.

First printed in GetReligion.

Interview: Issues, Etc., November 19, 2012 November 22, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Interviews/Citations, Issues Etc, Press criticism.
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Here is a link to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 19 Nov 2012.

2. Media Coverage of Adultery, Gays in Pakistan, and same-sex marriage in Spain – George Conger, 11/19/12

“Was that wrong?” – The NY Times and adultery: GetReligion, November 16, 2012 November 17, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The New Criterion is my favorite journal. I discovered the magazine when I was in college and have been a fan of the monthly ever since, reading the magazine cover to cover when it hits my doorstep. And ArmaVirumque, the New Criterion’s blog, is a site I visit frequently.

I mention my views on this point, as the New Criterion‘s media critic, James Bowman, has published a post entitled “Medieval Barbarism — It Wasn’t All Bad” that captured much of what I wanted to say about a recent story in the New York Times on the topic of adultery.

The Times article of 15 Nov 2012 entitled “Adultery, an Ancient Crime That Remains on Many Books”  jumped out at me as a strong story for GetReligion. I was mulling over the approach I would take, trying to find the right literary or pop culture angle to open my critique, when I read James Bowman’s piece. And, my work was done, for I doubt anyone could have done a better job that Bowman on this story. I will add in my own GR hook further down in this story (to justify my post to GR’s editor), but lets start with the Times piece in question and Bowman’s response.

The New York Times story is a European-style advocacy piece. Though it appears on page A12 in the news section, it rightly belongs on the opinion pages as it is more of a lecture than reporting. I know what the Times‘ thinks about adultery after reading this article, but I did not learn much about adultery. (Perhaps I should take the Post or Daily News instead.)

It opens with:

When David H. Petraeus resigned as director of the C.I.A.because of adultery he was widely understood to be acknowledging a misdeed, not a crime. Yet in his state of residence, Virginia, as in 22 others, adultery remains a criminal act, a vestige of the way American law has anchored legitimate sexual activity within marriage.

In most of those states, including New York, adultery is a misdemeanor. But in others — Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin — it is a felony, though rarely prosecuted. In the armed forces, it can be punished severely although usually in combination with a greater wrongdoing.

This is yet another example of American exceptionalism: in nearly the entire rest of the industrialized world, adultery is not covered by the criminal code.

Like other state laws related to sex — sodomy, fornication, rape — adultery laws extend back to the Old Testament, onetime capital offenses stemming at least partly from a concern about male property. Peter Nicolas of the University of Washington Law School says the term stemmed from the notion of “adulterating” or polluting the bloodline of a family when a married woman had sex with someone other than her husband and ran the risk of having another man’s child.

The article continues in this vein with four more law school professorial voices advancing the same line, speaking in censorious tones of the past and the enlightened future we face once the shackles of our repressed sexuality and repressive society are loosed. And then I read Bowman’s response. After he read this piece he:

immediately thought of the great “Seinfeld” episode of 1991 in which George Costanza is caught engaging in sexual relations with the cleaning woman on his desk. Called on the carpet for it, he says to his boss: “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I’ll tell you, I’ve got to plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon — because I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.” Jason Alexander, who played George, is supposed to have said that this is his favorite moment from the series and the defining one for his character. Twenty-one years later it’s still funny, too, …

In today’s Times, for example, the editors seemed to think in all seriousness that, in the wake of the Petraeus scandal, their readers are in need of an exploration of what people used to think was wrong with adultery in order to explain why, as “a vestige of the way American law has anchored legitimate sexual activity within marriage,” it is still illegal in 23 states. Basically, we find, this is because the stigma on adultery is a primitive relic of patriarchal societies having to do with the prevention of pollution (i.e. “adulteration”) of male blood lines. Melissa Murray, a professor of law at Berkeley, reports the Times, “said her research had led her to conclude that laws regulating sex emanated from a notion that sex should occur only within marriage.” Well I never. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

Criminal law, she said, was there to reinforce marriage as the legal locus for sex. So any other circumstance — sex in public or with a member of the same sex, or adultery — was a violation of marriage. “Now we live in an age when sex is not limited to marriage and laws are slowly responding to that,” she said. “But we still love marriage. Nobody is going to say adultery is O.K.”

Bowman has it in one. (Do look into the New Criterion if you have not already done so — it is worth your time.)

This article is not a news article. It is the Times midweek sermon — an episode of moral enrichment that will make us (the reader) better people for having read these sonorous solipsisms on sex. The Times writes as its only its own voice and the voices of its acolytes are the only voice that speaks on this issue. Other voices, other minds, other worlds, do not exist.

Let me step back a bit and ask where were the contrary voices? The way the article was framed it appeared neigh but impossible for any argument to exist other than that espoused by the author. Yet, there are quite a few moral philosophers, law school professors, even (heaven forefend) clergy, who would offer a contrary view about marriage, adultery and the law.

As journalism this article falls short. It is preachy, one-sided and self-righteous. It really isn’t journalism as it is understood in the classical liberal sense. It is an advocacy piece.

As I have said before in the pages of GetReligion there is nothing wrong with advocacy journalism — when a newspaper is honest about what it is doing. The Times, however, believes it is writing balanced, fair and full news stories. This article does not do that.

First printed in GetReligion.

New York Times on gay Pakistan: Get Religion, November 14, 2012 November 15, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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World Ends Tomorrow: Women and Minorities Hit Hardest!

Mort Sahl is usually credited with coining this “fake but accurateNew York Times headline. Though offered as sarcasm, Sahl’s joke has survived for 25 years because it encapsulates the world view many critics see in the Gray Lady’s reporting. The Time‘s intellectual outlook, its weltanschauung, is of an insular urban American establishment. Though this viewpoint is often expressed in the espousal of liberal politics — that is but a surface manifestation of the problem of Times reporting. The deeper issue is of a lack of awareness of issues and beliefs outside the ken of its reporters/readers — an incurious provincialism.

Last week’s 1400-word story on gays in Pakistan is an example of this problem. The article entitled “Gay Pakistanis, Still in Shadows, Seek Acceptance” looks at efforts of the gay subculture of Pakistan to achieve acceptance. There is a great deal to recommend in this story in terms of its local color, characters, and quotes. The “on the spot” work is well done.

Here is the lede:

LAHORE, Pakistan — The group meets irregularly in a simple building among a row of shops here that close in the evening. Drapes cover the windows. Sometimes members watch movies or read poetry. Occasionally, they give a party, dance and drink and let off steam.

A street in bustling Lahore. Displays of affection between men in public, like hugging and holding hands, are a common sight.

The group is invitation only, by word of mouth. Members communicate through an e-mail list and are careful not to jeopardize the location of their meetings. One room is reserved for “crisis situations,” when someone may need a place to hide, most often from her own family. This is their safe space — a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pakistanis.

“The gay scene here is very hush-hush,” said Ali, a member who did not want his full name used. “I wish it was a bit more open, but you make do with what you have.”

That is slowly changing as a relative handful of younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West, seek to foster more acceptance of their sexuality and to carve out an identity, even in a climate of religious conservatism.

Homosexual acts remain illegal in Pakistan, based on laws constructed by the British during colonial rule. No civil rights legislation exists to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

But the reality is far more complex, more akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell” than a state-sponsored witch hunt. For a long time, the state’s willful blindness has provided space enough for gays and lesbians. They socialize, organize, date and even live together as couples, though discreetly.

This is well written in the sense of nicely constructed story line, vivid language, and detail. The author’s sympathies are clearly with its subjects — which is not surprising given the Times‘ outlook.

But there is so much that is unasked or unexplored in this story. And coupled with its dubious philosophical underpinnings it means the story just does not hang together. Let’s deal with the low hanging fruit among my criticisms first. The news that there is a gay subculture in Pakistan is hardly new. Western media outlets have written about this for years. The Times article is a nice color piece on the current state of affairs, but is not groundbreaking. Not all stories can be original or fresh, but this one, unlike NPR‘s 2004 story, has missed the role of religion — Islam — in the debate.

It is true to say that Pakistan’s sodomy law was crafted by the British in 1860. Section 377 states:

whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than two years nor more than ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section.crimes against nature.

Yes I too wonder about the Victorians at times. The penal codes of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Jamaica contain the same language in their sodomy laws as Pakistan and are even labeled Section 377, while the laws of almost all of the Commonwealth nations had or have sodomy laws based upon this language. What is missing in this throw away line about the British being responsible for Section 377 is the introduction of Sharia law in Pakistan.

There are two legal codes at work in Pakistan — the secular British based Section 377 which is hardly ever used — and the modern Sharia law code which is.

The 2010 edition of the Spartacus International Gay Guide, a guidebook for male homosexual travelers, states with regard to the legal framework pertaining to homosexual activity and the situation of LGBT persons in Pakistan:

Homosexual activity is illegal, punishable according to Islamic Laws which were re-introduced in 1990 and according to paragraph 377 with life in prison, corporal punishment of 100 lashes or even death by stoning. Despite the strict laws of Islam regarding moral standards, gay men, transvestites and transsexuals live relatively undisturbed from the police. On the other hand they cannot expect much protection from the authorities. (p. 98)

At the tail end of the story, the Times reports on the U.S. State Department’s foray into the sexual politics of Pakistan.

That clash of ideologies was evident last year on June 26, when the American Embassy in Islamabad held its first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride celebration. The display of support for gay rights prompted a backlash, setting off demonstrations in Karachi and Lahore, and protesters clashing with the police outside the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad. This year, the embassy said, it held a similar event but did not issue a news release about it.

What the Times omitted to say was who was protesting and why. Getting an anti-American crowd going in Islamabad is not that difficult, but the Associated Press story about the incident stated it was religious leaders who were leading the the “Death to the Great Satan” crowds this time round. The AP wrote:

The group, which included the head of Pakistan’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, claimed the meeting — the first of its kind held by the embassy — was the second most dangerous attack by the U.S. against Pakistan, following missiles fired from unmanned drones. … “Such people are the curse of society and social garbage,” said the statement issued by the Islamic officials on Sunday. “They don’t deserve to be Muslim or Pakistani, and the support and protection announced by the U.S. administration for them is the worst social and cultural terrorism against Pakistan.”

By omitting to discuss Islam and homosexuality, and by not presenting the opposing view (disagreeable as it may be for the author) the Times has failed to report accurately. It also missed the opportunity of addressing the question “how came there to be a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in Pakistan given the Islamic culture of the country?”

The answer is … Islam in Pakistan has changed over the past generation. The tolerant Sufi-dominated Islam of the past has given way to a Saudi Wahhabist Islam. In sum, not only does the Times fail to address the role religion plays in current attitudes towards gays and lesbians in Pakistan, it also fails to address how and why the current attitudes arose.

There is also a missed opportunity to explore what is hinted at by the discussion of the gay and lesbian identity. The Times notes that the “younger gays and lesbians, many educated in the West” differ from the older generation — but also differ from the rural and less affluent or educated persons with the same sexual orientation or nature.

What we have here is the Times defining sexuality such that true gayness is found only in its Western version. Older, rural, less sophisticated persons with same-sex attractions need to evolve — to come up to the Times standards of conduct and thinking. At heart, this article fails because of its blinkered vision of human autonomy.

As journalism the story is weak — no contrary views, no context, no religion — as a moral/intellectual enterprise it is blue-stockinged, blinkered and bourgeois.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Bishops are Republicans, Nuns are Catholic: Get Religion, September 1, 2012 September 2, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics.
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Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been invited to give the closing prayer at this week’s Democratic Convention in Charlotte. The New York Times reports the New York cardinal will be one of matched pair of high profile Catholics to appear on the podium before the Democratic faithful, with Sister Simone Campbellof “Nuns on the Bus” fame completing the set.

Religion reporter Laurie Goodstein’s story “At Democratic Convention, a Cardinal and an Outspoken Nun” sets the scene and offers a bit of the “why” — but I’ve seen little so far on the “how” — and outside of the religious press, not much on whether this is a good idea at all.

The Times reports the news the:

Democrats are giving a convention speaking slot to Sister Simone Campbell, an outspoken advocate for the poor and elderly, according to an aide with President Obama’s campaign who would speak only on background.

In doing so, the Democratic Party has balanced its own Catholic ticket by showcasing both Sister Campbell, who pushed for the passage of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is suing the White House over a provision in the health care overhaul that requires employers to cover birth control in their employee insurance plans.

The article is framed in good cop/bad cop terms, but seeks to balance the piece by positing a degree of moral equivalence between the Dolan and Campbell’s political activities.

Cardinal Dolan, who says he is a personal friend of Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate. has been perceived by many Catholic commentators as being too cozy with Republicans, while Sister Campbell has been seen as being too supportive of Democratic causes. In June, she led the “Nuns on the Bus” tour to call attention to cuts affecting the poor and elderly in the budget proposed by Mr. Ryan.

The two will have different roles at the convention:

Cardinal Dolan will give the closing prayer at the convention, and Sister Campbell will speak but not offer a prayer.

And the story then r0unds off with a few paragraphs about Sister Campbell. All in all a solid story with an editorial voice that favors the nun over the cardinal. The theme of the article is that the liberal Campbell is balanced by the conservative Dolan.

What would have made the story stronger would have been a development of the why and how themes. We have surface story of the Democrats playing “me too”, inviting Dolan because the Republicans did. The import being the Democrats are seeking to curry favor with Catholic voters in the same way the Republicans have. But Campbell?

The Times article notes her support for the President’s healthcare initiative and suggests she is an alternative Catholic voice. Yet is there more? In an Aug 24 story in the New Yorker — before the invitation from the Democrats was given to Dolan, Hendrick Hertzberg wrote:

Dolan, as you may also have heard, heads up the male hierarchy’s drive to portray Obamacare as an attack on freedom of religion and is a leading enforcer in the Vatican-ordered crackdown on women religious who regard ministering to the poor and the sick as more urgent and more admirable than railing against contraception and homosexuality.

He then cites with approval the Aug 24 edition of the Carville – Greenberg Memorandum, where James Carville argues the Democrats should invite Campbell to spite Dolan and exploit the social justice agenda of the church for their political advantage.

And now, a week later, we have Campbell speaking and Dolan praying in Charlotte.  How did we get to this point? Do Dolan and and Campbell represent different wings of the same church, different views of what it means to live a Catholic life? Is it wise for the Catholic Church to allow individuals to become symbols of the conflicting views of its teachings?

Should the Catholic Church allow itself to be used by the national political parties in this way? I am not speaking of separation of church/state issues, but whether the integrity of the church, any church, is damaged when it comes in contact with secular politics. The assumption here is that it is social good for religious organizations — as opposed to religious individuals — to take a stand in the public square. Is that a valid assumption?

And should these issues be raised in the reporting on these questions? Not every story need be an essay on the merits of the marriage of politics and church leaders — but should there not be a voice offered from time to time that sees the arrangement differently? What say you GetReligion readers? Have I strayed into editorializing here by suggesting that clergy might be seen, but not heard at political conventions? Am I pushing my interpretation ahead of the simple facts of who is doing what in Charlotte — or is there a deeper truth that has yet to be revealed in the reporting of these issues?

And the title to this post? It comes from the Carville video –his mangling (deliberate?) of the old saw, “Bishops are Republicans, Nuns are Democrats.”

First printed in GetReligion.

Where have all the foreign correspondents gone?: Get Religion August 22, 2012 August 22, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Myanmar, Free Speech, Get Religion, Politics.
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“Truth is true only within a certain period of time,” observed a spokesman for the Burma’s military junta in the aftermath of that country’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, reported Emma Larkin in her 2004 political travelogue-cum-biography “Finding George Orwell in Burma”. “What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.”

My mind turned to Burma and these musings on the nature of truth after reading Thomas Fuller’s solid story in the New York Times on the end of press censorship in Burma. Reading this piece also brought home the importance of having a correspondent in place that knows the territory, the players, the culture – a reporter who not only is in place, but who “gets it”. Compare the coverage in the New York Times with its story datelined Bangkok with that of the Los Angeles Times article written from California and you can see what I mean.

The LA Times opened its article with:

Journalists in Myanmar will no longer have to send their articles to state censors before publication, a landmark step announced Monday toward lifting restrictions on the press.

But reporters in the changing country still fear being punished for what they write. Free speech activists say other rules that clamp down on government criticism or touchy topics are still in place, inhibiting journalists from writing freely.

It followed with analysis, drawing quotes from scholars and Burmese activists outside of the country. On its face a nice, but thin story.

Compare it to the New York Times piece which opened with:

BANGKOK — The government of Myanmar said on Monday that it would no longer censor private publications, a move that journalists described as a major step toward media freedom in a country where military governments have tried for decades to control the flow of information.

The announcement was made to editors on Monday and posted on a government Web site. “All publications in Myanmar are exempt from the scrutiny of Press Scrutiny and Registration Department,” the government said in a terse statement.

It then moves to an analysis of the event, quoting Burmese journalists in Burma before moving to the close with context and further detail.

Like the democratization process itself in Myanmar, the government has scaled back censorship gradually. In June 2011, articles dealing with entertainment, health, children and sports were taken off the list of subjects requiring prior censorship. In December, economics, crime and legal affairs were removed. Education topics were taken off the list in March. The only two topics remaining on the list — religion and politics — were freed from censorship on Monday.

Like the New York Times, the Telegraph’s South Asia editor took an upbeat tone, but what the Times put in its last sentence the Telegraph put in its first:

Until yesterday all political and religious news had to be submitted to the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department for prior approval, but the requirement was dropped in what was hailed as another significant step in Burma’s fast-moving democratic reform process.

In the past twelve months, since democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi met former military leader President Thein Sein, the government has relaxed censorship and controls on trade unions, freed hundreds of political prisoners, and held a series of by-elections which were almost all won by the Nobel Laureate’s National League for Democracy and hailed as ‘free and fair.

Given that there has been a gradual relaxation of press restrictions over the past year, it makes sense that politics would be one of the last taboos. But why would religion reporting be banned?

The LA Times article does not mention the topic of religion at all, while the New York Times does not explain why religion reporting and not economics, for example, was banned. Why would a report on Burma’s parlous economic state be less of a threat to the regime than a report on a religious topic?

My assumption is that as Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of the pro-Democracy movement news about religion would be controlled by the state – but I have no knowledge on this point, and none of the articles address this. Nor is this likely to be something that falls within the catch-all of conventional wisdom about Burma – for until recently foreign reporters were banned from the country and its citizens were threatened with jail if they spoke with foreign reporters.

Why was religion so dangerous to the military junta? I can guess, but after reading these articles I do not know.

The New York Times however did a good job in capturing the excitement resident Burmese journalists felt. A joke current in Myanmar during the year Emma Larkin researched her book about George Orwell, who served as a colonial policeman in Burma during the 1920’s, was that “Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of ‘Burmese Days,’ ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.”

Larkin saw some truth in this joke noting that Orwell’s 1934 novel “Burmese Days” savaged British colonial rule; “Animal Farm” (1946) prophesied Burma’s “miserable experiment with socialism,” which transformed the country from one of the richest in Asia at the time of the left-wing military coup in 1962 to the one of the poorest today; while “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) foresaw the transformation of the country into a society dominated by informers, doublespeak, political repression, torture and censorship.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the protagonist Winston Smith works as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, redacting history to conform to the party line of the present. Just as Winston Smith would “vaporize” dissidents from memory, until last year it was a crime in Burma to write the name of someone held to be an unperson, like pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The tone of the New York Times piece better states, to my mind, the freedom felt by the Burmese, as does the Telegraph story. While skill in the craft of journalism plays its part, I also credit the high quality of these stories to the presence of Western reporters in the region.

This is now to often the exception rather than the rule. In an article entitled “How to Read Today’s Unbelievably Bad News” published by the Gatestone Institute, the Istanbul-based American journalist Claire Berlinski argues:

In-depth international news coverage in most of America’s mainstream news organs has nearly vanished. What is published is not nearly sufficient to permit the reader to grasp what is really happening overseas or to form a wise opinion about it. The phenomenon is non-partisan; it is as true for Fox News as it is for CNN.

Do look at this great piece by Ms. Berlinski — whose work I long have admired. It speaks to the reasons and consequences of the collapse of overseas reporting. Focusing on overseas religion reporting for GetReligion, I feel at times that I am working under a double disadvantage. The quantity and quality of international news coverage in U.S. and British newspapers has declined — and on top of that the few remaining foreign correspondents sometimes do not “get religion”.

First published in GetReligion.

Interview: Issues, Etc. March 29, 2012 May 12, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Interviews/Citations, Issues Etc, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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Here is a link to a radio interview I gave to Lutheran Public Radio‘s Issues, Etc. program first broadcast on March 29, 2012.

The topics was the New York Times coverage of religion news.

The case of the wandering watch: Get Religion, April 10, 2012 April 10, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Religion Reporting, Russian Orthodox.
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As I write, the hammer is falling on a hapless editor in the offices of the Moscow Patriarchate for airbrushing a watch off of the wrist of Patriarch Cyril. The doctored photo of Cyril and the disappearing watch has been a gift to the Moscow press corps, prompting a flurry of arch and knowing stories written at the expense of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The coverage reveals as much about the mindset of some reporters as it does about Muscovite media morals. The article from the New York Times is a classic of its kind, a macedoine of self-righteousness, ignorance and cant served up in a context-free bowl. It is an op-ed piece masquerading as news.

If you examine the photos taken from the Patriarchate’s website, you can see a watch on Cyril’s wrist. This photo was doctored to remove the watch, but the editor omitted to remove the watch’s reflection. Eagle-eyed bloggers spotted the reflection and called out the church’s press office. They have since removed the watch free photo from the website replacing it with the original.

Photo-doctoring has a long history in Russia and has been driven by politics (removing non-persons from history) and embarrassment. David King’s 1999 book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, is the best treatment I have seen of this topic.

“So much falsification took place during the Stalin years that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs,” King wrote. The cover of the book shows a photograph of Stalin with three revolutionary leaders. Over time the photograph is airbrushed, cropped and clipped until Stalin alone is left, conveying the message that it was Stalin who owned the heritage of the revolution.

Other falsifications were less sinister. One of my favorites is a photo of Nikita Khrushchev arriving at Idlewild. The original photo shows the Russian premier hat-less. Sovfoto improved the picture by placing a hat on his head — but neglected to airbrush out from the photo the hat Khrushchev was holding in his hand. Nikkie Two-Hats.

One of the iconic photos from the Second World War was manipulated to prevent embarrassment. The photo of the Russian soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was edited by photographer Yevgeny Khaldei before publication. To counter charges the Russian army had looted its way to Berlin, Khaldei removed the multiple wrist watches appearing on both arms of the officer standing below the flag.

Sixty-seven years later Moscow photo editors are still removing wristwatches.

Let’s see what the New York Times did with this story. The article entitled “$30,000 Watch Vanishes Up Church Leader’s Sleeve” begins:

Facing a scandal over photographs of its leader wearing an enormously expensive watch, the Russian Orthodox Church worked a little miracle: It made the offending timepiece disappear.

Editors doctored a photograph on the church’s Web site of the leader, Patriarch Kirill I, extending a black sleeve where there once appeared to be a Breguet timepiece worth at least $30,000. The church might have gotten away with the ruse if it had not failed to also erase the watch’s reflection, which appeared in the photo on the highly glossed table where the patriarch was seated.

The church apologized for the deception on Thursday and restored the original photo to the site, but not before Patriarch Kirill weighed in, insisting in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn the watch, and that any photos showing him wearing it must have been doctored to put the watch on his wrist.

Why is this story shoddy journalism? Let me count the ways — but before I do remember the purpose of this blog is to discuss reporting on religion. It is not to discuss the issues in the underlying story.

Let’s begin with the lede. The author frames the story from the start as a scandal about the church hiding Cyril’s $30,000 Breguet watch through the magic of photo editing software. The news of the alteration of the photo is presented, followed by the assertion from Cyril that he was not wearing the Breguet watch; and if there is a photo of him wearing the watch Cyril claims the photo was doctored. The construction of this lede is to impeach Cyril by words out of his own mouth showing him to be a liar.

But was Cyril wearing the Breguet watch? Notice the Times says it appears he was, but there is no evidence or comment from a horologist to say the watch in the photo is the Breguet watch. Later in the story we hear Cyril say that he was wearing an inexpensive Russian watch when the photo was taken, and that he received the Breguet watch as a gift. If he was not wearing the Breguet, why remove the watch from the photo? I don’t know, and the Times does not try to find out.  The inferences and half truths offered at the start of the story have framed the narrative such that the reader will conclude Cyril is a hypocrite.

Having set the frame, the Times editorializes in earnest.

The controversy, which erupted Wednesday when attentive Russian bloggers discovered the airbrushing, further stoked anger over the church’s often lavish displays of wealth and power. It also struck yet another blow to the moral authority of Russian officialdom, which has been dwindling rapidly in light of recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.

A series of opinions mixed with general observations is then produced in support of the crooked cleric theme.

… Over the past decade, the church has grown immensely powerful, becoming so close to the Kremlin that it often seems like a branch of government. It has extended its influence into a broad range of public life, including schools, courts and politics. Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Vladimir V. Putin in last month’s presidential election.

… Then there is the question of the church’s wealth. Russian bloggers have published rumors that the patriarch has a large country house, a private yacht and a penchant for ski vacations in Switzerland, though none of this has been proved.

The watch, on the other hand, has been an object of fascination for years, and there is little question of its existence. It was first sighted on the patriarch’s wrist in 2009 during a visit to Ukraine, where he gave a televised interview on the importance of asceticism.

A Breguet watch “is virtually a sine qua non of any depiction of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie or, quite simply, a life of luxury and elegance,” the company says, noting that its products have been worn by Marie Antoinette and Czar Aleksandr I and cited in works by Dumas and Hugo.

… But the patriarch has presented himself as the country’s ethical compass, and has recently embarked on a vocal campaign of public morality, advocating Christian education in public schools and opposing abortion and equal rights for gay people. He called the girl punk band protest at the cathedral “sacrilege.”

Without offering any supporting evidence, the Times asserts the Russian Orthodox Church is in bed with the Putin regime. The church possesses vast wealth and Cyril jets around to Switzerland for the skiing, tools around in his yacht and weekends in the country. And, by the way, he wears a watch worn by the same firm that supplied Marie Antoinette. This is really crude. Cyril is a villain in Times-land. He supports school prayer, is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-women. All that is missing from the Times’ roster of pet pieties is a comment about his views on minorities.

The articles tries to tie the vanishing watch into a commentary about Russia’s moral decline, linking the Russian Orthodox Church to public concerns about “recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.” How do we know that Russian public opinion believes there is a link between the church and the scandals? There may be individuals who say this, but does Russia say this? No evidence is offered to substantiate this opinion.

The Times offers four voices against the church, and one in favor to flesh out the controversy, beginning with:

Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption crusader, called the episode “shameful,” and bloggers gleefully ridiculed the church as hypocritical.

The choice of Aleksei Navalny is as interesting for the omission the Times makes about Navalny as is Navalny’s opinion.

In January Navalny was the victim of a doctored photo scam in the press concocted by Putin supporters. A photo of Navalny with Russian oligarch  Mikhail Prokhorov (the photo on the left) was altered to that of Navalny and another oligarch (the photo on the right), Boris Berezovsky — a fugitive from corruption charges who lives in London. In an attempt to smear Navalny with charges of guilt by association with one of the Russian media’s chief villains, the caption to the doctored photo stated:  “Alexei Navalny has never hidden that Boris Berezovsky gives him money for the struggle with Putin.”

Adding this information about Navalny’s experience of being a victim of press photo doctoring would have given context to the story — as would mention of the Russian penchant for fixing photos to create the preferred reality. There is no context to this story, no sense of history, no balance, no understanding of Russia, its people, culture or politics.

Let me say that I am not defending the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church’s press office in making the questionable watch vanish. What I am concerned with is the integrity of the reporting about that incident — and the preference for slotting in facts to support a story’s theme as against allowing the facts to tell the story.

An anecdote about the French novelist Balzac bears on this point. Balzac was talking to a visitor about the heroes of his novels. The subject changed to political and other events of the day. After a pause Balzac suddenly said: “Let’s return to reality,” and started talking about his characters again.

It may well be that Cyril is a crook and the Russian Orthodox Church is a tool of the Putin-regime. The Times may think so and has written an article assuming that this is so, but has not provided any evidence in support of its contentions. All of the materials — the facts, the history, the setting, the new post-Soviet Russia of Vladimir Putin — are there for a great article. That story has yet to be written.

First printed in GetReligion.

The little dogs at the New York Times: Get Religion, March 30, 2012 March 30, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Interviews/Citations, Press criticism, Religion Reporting, Roman Catholic Church, Russian Orthodox.
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Exaggeration of every kind is as essential to journalism as it is to the dramatic art; for the object of journalism is to make events go as far as possible. Thus it is that all journalists are, in the very nature of their calling, alarmists; and this is their way of giving interest to what they write. Herein they are like little dogs; if anything stirs, they immediately set up a shrill bark.

Arthur Schopenhauer, On Some Forms of Literature (1851)

A long time ago (for me) and in a far away place (actually Harare) I had my first experience of the foreign correspondent’s life. Amongst the many lessons I learned on that trip, the most important — aside from learning how to ingratiate oneself with a policemen armed with a machine pistol — was the central place of the “mahogany ridge” in reporting.

While events played themselves out in different parts of the city, the real action, the real news in Zimbabwe was to be found at the bar of Meikles Hotel for many of the reporters present. These memories of that exotic species — the Fleet Street hack — came to the surface for me in recent weeks as I read a number of stories in the New York Times about events in Holland and Moscow.

I took the Times to task for its reporting of the alleged castration by the Dutch Catholic Church of young men (how that one got by the editors I do not know) and on Pussy Riot and Russian Orthodox Church. I argued these stories did not live up to the standards of good journalism and asserted they displayed a lack of balance, context, sensibility and history.

I was rather hard on the Times. Did these stories rise to the level of journalism decried by Arthur Schopenhauer? Is their flavor akin to Evelyn Waugh’s anecdote about the fictitious American reporter Wenlock Jakes in the novel Scoop?

Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to an hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know.

On this week’s Issues, Ect. host Todd Wilken and I talked about the Times‘ coverage of these two stories — and demonstrated my lack of polish as a radio commentator. This is my first foray into internet radio podcasting for GetReligion. We’ll see if they ask me back.

First printed at GetReligion.

From Russia with love: GetReligion March 24, 2012 March 25, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Free Speech, Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism, Religion Reporting, Russian Orthodox.
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An article from the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times has left me perplexed. On one level the story entitled “Punk riffs take on God and Putin” is a silly piece of journalism. What do I mean by silly? I’m not quite sure myself. The tone of the story is half post-modernist supercilious sneer half celebrity profile for Peoplemagazine. Now these are subjective assessments of mine and I find the style in which this article was written not to my taste. But taste is neither here nor there.

It is the journalism on display that has me perplexed. There is no balance, no sense of history to this story as well as an excess of adjectives. The heroes and villains are one dimensional characters. And at bottom, the story displays a worldview that affirms the Pussy Riot’s intellectual condescension towards the aspirations of the respectable — Russia’s church and her people.

Stylistically, this story is silly — journalistically, this story falls short — morally, this story is a wreck. Follow me through and see if you see what I see.

MOSCOW — In the month since it performed an unsanctioned “punk prayer service” at Christ the Savior Cathedral, entreating the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir V. Putin, the feminist punk band Pussy Riot has stirred up a storm about the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.

The group has been accused of blasphemy; three of the women are in pre-trial detention and could face up to seven years in prison.

Video of their performance, which went viral on YouTube, shows five Pussy Riot members in trademark masks dancing, arms flailing, in front of the altar of the cathedral, a vast structure rebuilt in the 1990s on the site of a cathedral that was blown up on Stalin’s orders in 1931.

The cathedral, where Patriarch Kirill I celebrates Christmas and Easter services attended by Mr. Putin and Dmitri A. Medvedev, the departing president, has become a symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.

The story then moves to a recitation of local reactions, noting that “top officials in the Russian Orthodox Church have called for the band’s members to be strictly punished — at times tempering this demand by saying that they do not insist on a long jail sentence.” Soft and hard statements are offered with “Russian Orthodox nationalists” calling for the group to be “flogged” while “other Orthodox activists have condemned such calls as shameful.” However, no names or examples are offered. The first voice to appear is that of:

The Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, a senior Orthodox cleric known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics, reiterated on Monday that there were no grounds for leniency and “that this text and this video are extremist materials, and their dissemination constitutes an extremist activity.”

The members of Pussy Riot “have declared war on Orthodox people, and there will be a war,” he told the Interfax news agency. “If the blasphemers are not punished, God will punish them in eternity and here through people.”

The group’s attorneys follow with their contention the charges have not been proved, and at that point the article notes that the:

scandal has had the interesting side effect of breaking a taboo around the word Pussy (Poosi in the Russian transliteration), as the band is usually referred to in short. It has been mouthed without embarrassment by commentators, officials and Russian Orthodox priests. Pravmir, an Orthodox news Web site, has translated the meaning of Pussy Riot as “uprising of the uterus.”

The story then offers details of the incident that led to the girls’ arrest noting the performance included the refrain about Orthodox bishops:

“The K.G.B. chief is their chief saint, he leads protesters to prison under convoy,” reads one verse in a version published on several Web sites. “In order to not offend His Holiness, women must give birth and love.” The chorus is in the form of an appeal to the Virgin Mary. “O Birthgiver of God,” sings the band, using Russian Orthodox liturgical language for addressing the Virgin Mary — “get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin, get rid of Putin.”

One of the groups members, the Times notes has been:

criticized especially harshly for participating in a 2008 orgy at a biology museum, in which she is shown having sex with her husband just days before giving birth. She has been condemned as desecrating motherhood and harming her child — now an adorable braided blonde who made a taped appeal for her mother’s release.

The article then closes with a comment from a feminist writer who states the performance has nothing to do with feminism. In defense of the way this story was framed, the International Herald Tribune printed this as part of a series on women after it first appeared in the Times. So perhaps the audience of this story were readers of People, who would respond appropriately to the bit about the “adorable braided blonde” who pleads for the release of her mother, and the lede sentence that promises a discussion on “the role of the church, art and women in Russian society.”

But this discussion never happens. Perhaps the closing comment that this is not feminism supplied the discussion, but it is otherwise absent from the story. Another omission is the nature of the crime. One need look outside the Times to find the women are being charged with “hooliganism“, not blasphemy. Their past public performances have led to their being charged with disorderly conduct and being let off with a fine, but the Cathedral incident on Shrove Tuesday has prompted public prosecutors to up the ante from a misdemeanor to a felony.

And what does the Times mean when it says the newly constructed cathedral, built on the spot where the old cathedral had stood until it was dynamited in 1931 by Lazar Kaganovich on the orders of Stalin, is a “symbol of the ties between church and state in the post-Soviet era.” Does this imply the church is a tool of President Putin? There is no explanation of this comment, nor voices speaking to this contention. Christ Our Savior Cathedral, Moscow

In the introduction to Fr. Chaplin, what does the Times mean by saying he is “known for his own outrageous statements on a range of topics”? These “outrageous” statements are not cited nor has the dialogue between the church and Pussy Riot taking place through Twitter and the media been explored.

The article also implies that Fr. Chaplin wants to see the girls imprisoned. However, he has stated that he wants them to be punished, but not jailed.

As an aside, I met Fr. Chaplin at the World Council of Churches meeting in 2005 in Porto Allegre, Brazil. And yes, he is a character. I sat with him while an official from a liberal American denomination was giving a speech and Fr. Chaplain played the cantankerous Russian — muttering under his breath, “heretic”, “schismatic”, “infidel”, “Bolshevik” every so often.

While the article does mention that senior Orthodox clergy were disturbed by the incidence due to memories of the Soviet past, it does not explain why such memories would provoke such a sharp reaction. Nor does the charge made by Pussy Riot against against the Orthodox bishops of being stooges of the KGB get a hearing.

The Russian Orthodox Church was nearly wiped out in the Stalinist era. The state sponsored persecution of the Orthodox Church began with the sort of spectacle undertaken by Pussy Riot in Moscow’s principle cathedral in the 1920′s eventually led to the arrest of 168,300 priests, monks and nuns in the purges of 1937-1938 (of these over 100,000 were shot). Some of those who survived, did so through collaboration with the regime. The extent of this collaboration was such that the 2008 the Keston Institute report that outed Patriarch Alexy II as a KGB agent was not that much of a surprise.

Stylistically I did not care for the story. As journalism, I believe it failed to live up to its lede. It did not offer a discussion of the “role of the church, art and women in Russian society;” or a balanced or thorough account of the issues. But the cheer-leading for Pussy Riot displayed a failing of sensibility.

Russian society is going through the painful process of rebuilding itself in the wake of the Soviet era. But this process is not fast enough for Pussy Riot, and the New York Times, which believes that by insulting the church — a symbol of Putin’s state in the Times‘ and Pussy Riot’s view — a short cut to social change will be found. They seek “perfection as the crow flies” in Michael Oakeshott’s phrase.

By pleading for tolerance for the actions of Pussy Riot, the Times seeks to elevate certain liberal ideas and constituencies above public criticism rather than trusting that they will eventually emerge victorious on their merits in open public debate. Framing the story as it does, the Times endorses the irrationalism of Pussy Riot against a villainous Russian government and a stodgy Orthodox Church. I’m not quite settled in my thoughts, however.

Am I taking a shovel to a souffle, beating with a cudgel this story from Moscow? Is too much being read into this article, or is there too little to read? Should the Times step back a bit, or can we trust it to pick the winners and losers in stories from far away about which we know very little? What say you GetReligion readers?

First published in GetReligion.

‘Hare, hunter, field’ — Castration for deviancy: Get Religion, March 21, 2012 March 21, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The New York Post usually wins the award for best worst headline amongst the New York metropolitan papers. “Headless body in topless bar” remains my favorite.

The New York Times however is giving the Post a run for their money. In the 21 March 2012 issue on page A4 we have “Dutch Church is accused of castrating young men“.

This is not a story for the faint of heart. And, if you were looking for a fair, informed treatment of the story, look elsewhere.

Here is the lede.

A young man in the care of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands was surgically castrated decades ago after complaining about sexual abuse, according to new evidence that only adds to the scandal engulfing the church there.

The case, which dates from the 1950s, has increased pressure for a government-led inquiry into sexual abuse in the Dutch church, amid suspicions that as many as 10 young men may have suffered the same fate.

“This case is especially painful because it concerns a victim who was victimized for a second time,” said Peter Nissen, a professor of the history of religion at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “He had the courage to go to the police and was castrated.”

It is unclear, however, whether the reported castration was performed as a punishment for whistle-blowing or what was seen as a treatment for homosexuality.

The article recounts the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Netherlands in 2010. It also reports that this claim of castration as retribution for reporting abuse had been investigated by a commission of inquiry led by a former government minister. A friend reported the incident to the abuse commission — the victim died in motor accident in 1958, two years after the surgery. The commission said it

…was unable to reach any conclusions on the case from the evidence at its disposal.

According to the Times

The victim, Henk Heithuis, lived in Catholic institutions from infancy after being taken into care. When he complained about sexual abuse to the police, Mr. Heithuis, 20 at the time, was transferred to a Catholic psychiatric hospital before being admitted to the St. Joseph Hospital in Veghel, where he was castrated.

After the commission released its findings, the friend went to a reporter who broke the story in the Dutch press last week.

Mr. Dohmen, the investigative journalist who broke the news in the daily NRC Handelsblad, said that correspondence from the 1950s and Mr. Heithuis’s testimony to [the friend] suggested that there could have been an additional nine cases. Mr. Dohmen said he uncovered another case. A gay man, who had not been abused, was also castrated, he said. That man has asked that his identity not be made public.

Mr. Dohmen said he did not know whether Mr. Heithuis was castrated as a punishment for whistle-blowing and could not provide further evidence of the other possible victims.

In an e-mailed comment, Mr. Rogge said he believed that the castration was a punishment.

This is a disturbing story. But is it fair or thorough reporting? No.

The lede states there is “new evidence that only adds to the scandal engulfing the church there.” The body of the story reports that there was no new evidence to be found.

What is also missing from this article is a comment or statement from the church, the hospital, the state — anyone representing the authorities that had this poor man castrated or the commission that reviewed this case. The voices we hear are of a professor of religious history — who offers an opinion that this was a bad thing, but has no knowledge of the particular case; and of a reporter interviewing another reporter about his story.

Does this failure to offer a second side to the story necessarily render it suspect? I can see an argument being made that there is no need to hear a justification of castration. But as the New York Times ran with a headline that accuses the Dutch Catholic Church of castrating young men, I would hope there was an attempt to elicit an explanation.

Another piece that is missing from this story is context. How many people were castrated in the Netherlands during this period? The Dutch reporter cited by the Times believes there were 10 cases. A quick search through the academic literature reports that there were around 400 cases.

An article entitled “Eugenic and sexual folklores and the castration of sex offenders in the Netherlands (1938–1968)” published in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 2, June 2008 by Theo van der Meer states that castration of sexual offenders was part of the Dutch state’s eugenics program. Pedophiles were castrated to prevent them from re-offending as were those adjudged to be mentally deficient.

The abstract to the article reads in part:

From 1938 to 1968 in the Netherlands, after a decade of debates, 400 sex offenders who had been committed to asylums for the criminally insane were ‘voluntarily’ and ‘therapeutically’ castrated. For political reasons debates on castration, meant to create consensus, eliminated any reference to or connotation with eugenics, yet these policies were unthinkable without them.

Read through the journal article and you will find all the details you will ever want to read about a dark chapter of Western medicine which saw castration as a tool in a public health program to improve the human race through eugenics and to combat what that age saw as criminal sexual deviancy.

The Times story fails the test of good journalism on several levels. It begins with an over the top headline and lede that implies the existence of Catholic cabal worthy of Dan Brown that preyed on young men — abusing them and castrating them.

It offers uncorroborated anecdotal evidence from a man dead 54 years to insinuate the Church was complicit in a gruesome crime — yet we don’t know if it was a crime. The history offered is full of gaps and makes assumptions — was the victim in the care of a Catholic institution when he reported the abuse? Was he passed from Catholic institutional custodial care to a Catholic-affiliated psychiatric hospital to a Catholic-affiliated surgery center for sterilization? Under what circumstances was the claim of abuse made? The journal article reports that castration was ordered by the state for those found to be mentally deficient or who were incorrigible sexual offenders. Who was the victim? Could the Catholic Church order the castration of a young man? How was that possible?

Professionally this is sloppy work. It is also offensive. The Catholic pedophile scandal in Holland is a horrific case of abuse, betrayal and evil. Tossing the incendiary charge of castration into this cesspit of moral corruption cheapens the suffering of those who were abused. It tells the true victims of abuse, “well it could have been worse, you could have been castrated.”

There is a story in this mess that a good journalist could bring out — a story of state sanctioned abuse of those whom science adjudged to be defective — of a church that relaxed its standards in the face of government and public opinion. We do not get that here. (One of the lacunae in the journal article is the objection by Catholic theologians in the 1930s to state castration programs on moral grounds and its disquiet over the whole field eugenics.)

What say you GetReligion readers? Is this a case of shoddy journalism, or courageous reporting of unpalatable truths?

First printed in GetReligion.

So what sort of Anglican are you?: Get Religion, February 18, 2012 February 18, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of North America, Get Religion, Press criticism, The Episcopal Church.
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I think it is safe to say that until about 30 – 40 years ago very few people would know what an Anglican was.

Identifying yourself as an Episcopalian or a member of the Church of England in the mid-1970s would not generate the blank stare that a declaration of Anglican identity would elicit. There also was not the need to distinguish between the terms. Save for a few obscure groups here and there just about all Anglicans in the United States were members of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.

Likely the question would never arise, for if you were an Anglican (an Episcopalian) you would not be talking about this anyway as religion was one of the three cardinal no’s of polite society — along with sex and money.

I raise these memories of my untroubled youth by way of introducing the question of how reporters should identify those who calls themselves Anglican.

Via the magic of Facebook, commentator Daniel Stoddart directed my attention to a DC-area newspaper, the Vienna Connection, which has a nice story about a new church. The article entitled “Vienna Resident ‘Plants’ a Church” chronicles its story.

The Rev. Johnny Kurcina has formed a congregation that meets on Sunday mornings at the Louise Archer Elementary School cafeteria. Since its start in November, the church appears to be doing well and the write up presents an attractive picture of a young minister with a bright future ahead.

The word “Anglican” is found in the sub-title and the story contains this line. Christ Church is:

run by a Board of Directors, the “church council.” As Pastor of the church, Kurcina heads its future, guided by the deliberations of the church council. Kurcina would like to see more Anglican churches “planted” in the area.

What we are not told is what sort of Anglican Church this is, or if this church is an Anglican Church. And what exactly does it mean to be an Anglican church?

There are clues for the initiated. His church has a “church council” not a vestry. He is its “pastor,” not a rector or vicar. The photo accompanying the story shows Mr. Kurcina in an open necked shirt — no clerical collar. And, we learn that:

In 2005, Kurcina spoke with the senior minister, a friend, of The Falls Church in Falls Church, about the feasibility of opening a church in Vienna. “They have the human resources, the financial resources and a real interest seeing new churches started,” said Kurcina. He became actively involved with The Falls Church, whose history goes back to the early 18th century, intending to “plant” a new church in Vienna.

The Falls Church is/was one of the major Episcopal Churches in Northern Virginia. A majority of its congregation quit the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and left to join the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). GetReligion has covered the reporting on this split as well. The clues then would lead a knowledgeable reader to believe this church plant was part of the ACNA — but then again, it may not be as the article is silent on this point.

There is an on-going fight over the Anglican brand in the U.S. between the Episcopal Church and the ACNA. The Episcopal Church is the “official” Anglican franchise in the U.S., but the ACNA is recognized by a majority of the world’s Anglicans too as being a bona fide Anglican church.

The New York Times recently published a correction to one of its stories that addressed this point.

An article on Jan. 2 about the Roman Catholic church’s formation of a new diocese-like entity for breakaway Episcopal priests and congregations misstated the role of the Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church is the sole official branch of the Anglican Communion in the United States, not “the main American branch.”

This is true up .. up to a point. The Episcopal Church is the sole American member of the Anglican Consultative Council — a pan-Anglican coordinating group whose powers and authority are subject to some debate. But there is no official definition of who is an Anglican so that the claim to be the “sole official branch” is not entirely straightforward.

Compare the Times’ certainty to the uncertainty of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on this point. In a paper released on 20 January 2012 they noted that the:

the concept of membership of the Anglican Communion is not entirely straightforward. The Communion itself … has no legal personality. In addition (and unlike the Church of England) it does not have a set of canons which set out its core beliefs and regulate aspects of its internal governance.

In other words there is no hard and fast definition of who is an Anglican. The bottom line … the Vienna Connection should have identified what sort of Anglican church Christ Church Vienna was. But asking whether they are real or faux Anglicans is something that even the Archbishops of England have shied away from answering.

Should reporters define their terms? Does an individual’s self-identification take precedence over all? Should reporters question this self-identification? And if so, against what standard? How does the Anglican question compare to the issue of who is a Roman Catholic?

First published in GetReligion.

A New York Times puff piece on the Sudan: Get Religion, January 2, 2012 January 2, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Episcopal Church of the Sudan, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Archbishop Daniel Deng

I have mixed emotions about focusing the critical spotlight on this New York Times story about the plight of Christians in the Sudan. I am pleased that a story that speaks to the state sponsored persecution of Christians made it into the paper’s pages, yet I would have wished they had fact checked their story.

What we have in the 23 Dec 2011 article entitled “Fewer to Celebrate Christmas in Sudan After South’s Split” is an example of the good quotes/bad facts phenomena — where an article has great color quotes but the facts and context to support the quotes are either incorrect or missing.

Because this is the Sudan, the assertions made by the Times take on a deeper significance. Is theTimes guilty of sloppy reporting or are they acting as a shill (wittingly or unwittingly) for the National Islamic Front of President Omar al-Bashir? Let’s take a look.

The article begins with a snapshot of Khartoum’s Christian leaders on eve of Christmas. It begins with the camera focusing on a sparse living room, itemizing the objects to establish a Christian focus for the article.

Hanging from the wall of Bishop Ezekiel Kondo’s living room — a few blocks from a silver-coated dome marking the tomb of Sudan’s 19th-century Muslim leader, the Mahdi — are a cross, pictures of fellow clergy members and a photo of him with the former archbishop of Canterbury above a small plastic Christmas tree.

A nice word picture — but should not archbishop have been capitalized like the Mahdi in the previous line? The Archbishop of Canterbury not the archbishop of Canterbury. Is this a hint of things to come? The story continues.

Much has changed for Bishop Kondo, and for the nation, since the holidays last year. Though he presides over one of Sudan’s largest churches, he is more in the minority than ever. South Sudan, with its large Christian population, became an independent nation over the summer, making for a Christmas of mixed emotions.

“This Christmas, since Southern Sudanese have gone, we don’t know what the attendance will be, but I would say people will celebrate with mixed feeling of joy and fear,” said Bishop Kondo, who is the bishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and the former chairman of the Sudanese Council of Churches.

South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly in a referendum early this year to separate from Sudan, the culmination of a peace accord to end decades of war and hostilities with the largely Muslim north. But while South Sudanese Christians constituted the majority of what was the Sudanese Christian community, they are not all of them.

“There is an idea that Southern Sudanese have gone, therefore, the church has gone. That is not true,” Bishop Kondo said. “Sometimes, I am asked, ‘When will you go to South Sudan?’ ‘But I’m not from the south,’ I reply!” he said.

Bishop Kondo is from South Kordofan, a state dominated by ethnic Nuba, who are divided between Islam, Christianity and African traditional religions. Fighting erupted there last May between government forces and rebels allied with the party that now governs South Sudan. …

The scene is set these paragraphs. The predominantly Christian South has seceded from the predominantly Muslim North. Bishop Kondo leads a church in the North that in the wake of independence will now be smaller, but Christians remain in the North.

The article offers voices of other Christian leaders that speak to the difficulties they face, and then Bishop Kondo returns to center stage.

While concerns weigh heavily on the minds of many Sudanese Christian leaders, Bishop Kondo pointed out that Sudanese government officials had expressed a keenness to work with them.

“The Ministry of Religious Guidance and Endowments have approached us to know what the timetable of services and celebrations are this Christmas, to come and congratulate, but to also make sure people celebrate peacefully,” he said. “I think this is a good gesture.”

“Well and good”, you might say. A nice little story about the Christian minority in a Muslim country trying to make the best of a difficult situation. “What is the problem?”, you might ask. Why is this a dreadful article?

President Omar al-Bashir

For starters, Bishop Kondo is not the head of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. Bishop Kondo is Bishop of Khartoum, one of 31 dioceses of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. The head of the 4 to 5 million member church that spans North and South Sudan is Dr. Daniel Deng, Archbishop of Juba.

On one level this is not a fatal flaw. Adjusting Bishop Kondo’s title does not change the story arc of Khartoum’s vanishing Christians this Christmas. However, is something else going on?

The Khartoum government has sought to divide the Anglican Church in the past — and at one point appointed an Anglican bishop to be deputy minister of foreign affairs. The government then helped this bishop, Gabriel Ruric Jur, to form a rival Anglican church and seized Khartoum’s cathedral from Bishop Kondo to give to their bishop. Bishop Jur, in turn, endorsed the establishment of Sharia Law in Khartoum for all Sudanese citizens — Muslim and Christian.

The Episcopal Church of the Sudan has also refused to divide now that the country is divided, even though the Khartoum government has pushed for church split. Why I raise all of this intra-Anglican detail, is that a Sudanese Anglican reading this story would see in this mistake the spectre of government interference in the church once again. Is the New York Times backing Khartoum’s line, making Bishop Kondo head of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (North). Or, is it  simply ignorance on the part of the New York Times.

The story also fails is in not developing the issue of “Where did all the Christians go?” The article notes that “the larger group of worshipers, administrators and teachers” of one church have moved to South Sudan.  It also states the Sudanese government claims that only three percent of the population is Christian. Bishop Kondo disputes that figure, saying it is closer to 10 to 15 per cent. That should give you a clue that there is story beneath this story.

What is missing from this story is the crucial bit of information about the government of President Omar al-Bashir’s attitude towards Sudan’s Christians.

In a 12 Oct 2011 speech to university students in Khartoum, President al-Bashir stated: “Ninety-eight percent of the people are Muslims and the new constitution will reflect this. The official religion will be Islam and Islamic law the main source [of the constitution]. We call it a Muslim state.”

When I reported on this issue for the Church of England Newspaper, one South Sudan bishop told me that he believed this meant that it was President al-Bashir’s goal for Sudan to be only two percent Christian. Is that a fact? No, it is a view by an admitted partisan in the affair. However, as Reuters has pointed out, South Sudanese living in the North have been denied citizenship and must petition the government for citizenship or leave the country.

Bishop Ezekiel Kondo and Archbishop Rowan Williams in Jamaica

In Bishop Kondo’s home province, South Kordifan, now on the Khartoum government’s side of the border between North and South, the Islamist government of President al-Bashir has been denounced for engaging in ethnic cleansing, driving Christian Nuba across the border and burning the region’s principle town of Abyei.

The violence prompted a statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. “Numerous villages have been bombed. More than 53,000 people have been driven from their homes. The new Anglican cathedral in Kadugli has been burned down,” Dr. Williams reported, adding that the region had also been “overrun by the army, and heavy force is being used by government troops to subdue militias in the area, with dire results for local people. Many brutal killings are being reported.”

The archbishop’s complaints are not likely to deter President al-Bashir.  The International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009 issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2008 the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, accused Bashir of directing a campaign of mass murder that has left more than 300,000 civilians dead and driven more than 2.7 million from their homes in Darfur. President al-Bashir was the first sitting head of state to be charged by the Hague-based court with war crimes, and the first Arab leader to face the prospect of being tried for atrocities by an international tribunal.

All of this has been treated extensively by Catholic and Anglican news agencies but this background information is missing from this New York Times story. And its absence means the article fails the criteria of good journalism.

First published in GetReligion.

Acceptable lies and the New York Times: Get Religion, December 23, 2011 December 24, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Israel, Press criticism.
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The New York Times has an extraordinary article that extols the virtues of lying and doublespeak in a recent “Memo from Jerusalem.” Well, you might ask, what of it? How does a dodgy story on the Arab-Israeli conflict fall within the ambit of GetReligion? What is the religion/journalism hook you ask?

To which I respond: lying is a sin or bad manners or ethically challenged behavior from a Western perspective. Lying is not always a sin in Islam — that is to say lying to non-Muslims is not a sin, bad manners or ethically challenged behavior. The Times ties itself in knots trying to excuse lying by the Palestinians, even going so far as to raise instances of Israelis behaving badly. However, the moral equivalence argument expressed in the Times-patented insouciant world-weary tone, which holds that as both sides are dissemblers we should not cast aspersions, does not work here.

Ignorance of Islamic moral standards, or perhaps the reluctance to raise the precept of taqiyya has placed the Times in the position of endorsing cant.

Take a look at this 20 Dec 2011 article entitled “Finding Fault in the Palestinian Messages That Aren’t So Public.” The editorial voice of the story states that news agencies that translate into English the statements made in Arabic by Palestinian leaders are doing a disservice to the cause of peace.

The Times argues that statements in English that are tailored to a Western audience by Palestinian leaders that speak of peace and reconciliation should not be juxtaposed against by statements made in Arabic by the same Palestinian leaders to their constituencies that call for the destruction of Israel and death to Jews.

The article begins by observing that:

A new book by an Israeli watchdog group catalogs dozens of examples of messages broadcast by the Palestinian Authority for its domestic audience that would seem at odds with the pursuit of peace and a two-state solution.

This claim is “not new” the Times notes. As:

For years, many Israeli and Palestinian analysts have said that what Palestinian leaders tell their own people in their own language — as opposed to English-language statements tailored to opinion in the rest of the world — is the truest reflection of their actual beliefs. This has had the effect of further entrenching the sides to the conflict and undermining confidence that it can ever be resolved.

Let’s stop and think about what the Times has just said. It is true, the article concedes, that Palestinian political leaders are saying one thing to the West and another to their own people. The lede sentence in the story soft peddles the results of this lying: it “would seem at odds” with the peace process. However, the follow up sentence states this explicitly: it has had “the effect of further entrenching” Palestinian revanchist views.

The article quotes one of the lead authors of the study on Palestinian media doublespeak on why this is problematic, but the story then pivots with a sentence that sets the theme and context of the article.

Some Israelis struggle with the practice of monitoring the Palestinian news media, acknowledging the importance of knowing what is being said in Arabic, yet disturbed by how its dissemination is exploited by those not eager to see Israel make concessions.

The article offers examples of this doublespeak, but then introduces contrary Israeli and Palestinian voices that criticize the book. This criticism, however, is not that the results of the study are untrue, but that these truths are inconvenient to the political agenda of the Israeli left, which the Times also conflates as being co-equal to the cause of peace.

The Times then offers its critque.

Some of the examples publicized by the Israeli monitoring group are old ones that have been repeated over the years, and some of its interpretations are arguable.

A Palestinian critique is offered.

“This is not a serious attempt to solve the problem of incitement,” said Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. Mr. Khatib said that the authority had significantly reduced the level of incitement on the Palestinian side in recent years. “The question is,” he said, “are the Israelis improving or reversing in this regard?”

And the story concludes with voices from the Israeli left.

“There is peace making and there is peace building,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria and as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, explaining why the contentious messages in Arabic are so damaging. The lack of peace building, he said, is part of the failure of the Oslo peace process that began with accords signed in 1993 but has not yet produced a Palestinian state.

In one of the most egregious examples of Palestinian doublespeak, Yasir Arafat spoke in a mosque in South Africa in May 1994, only months after the signing of the Oslo accords, and called on the worshipers “to come and to fight and to start the jihad to liberate Jerusalem.”

As the ambassador to Washington at the time, Mr. Rabinovich said he found himself in the awkward position of having to explain to anyone who would listen that jihad, usually translated as holy war, could also mean a spiritual struggle, in order to justify continuing the peace process.

Still, he said, it is not by chance that those focusing on Palestinian incitement and publicizing it are “rightist groups who use it as ammunition.”

Where is the religion hook then? It comes in the form of a religion ghost — meaning that there is a religion element to this story that is omitted. And this omission is crucial, I believe, in understanding the story.

As it is written, the Times piece is a defense of sophistry and comes across as being morally dubious at best. By excusing the doublespeak the Times engages in the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — to quote a favorite of its editorial board, President George W. Bush. It belittles those who expose this duplicity by arguing that truth telling will block a two-state solution.

Are the Palestinians masters of moral duplicity then, as the Times would have us believe? Or are they acting according to the lights of their own moral and ethical system?

Writing in the Winter edition of the Middle East Quarterly, Raymond Ibrahim discusses the concept of dissimulation [taqiyya] in Shia and Sunni ethics.

While the Qur’an is against believers deceiving other believers—for “surely God guides not him who is prodigal and a liar”— deception directed at non-Muslims, generally known in Arabic as taqiyya, also has Qur’anic support and falls within the legal category of things that are permissible for Muslims.

Ibrahim explains that Shia communities living as minorities in Sunni areas were permitted to dissemble about their religion in order to avoid persecution. But among the Sunni community,

… far from suffering persecution have, whenever capability allowed, waged jihad against the realm of unbelief; and it is here that they have deployed taqiyya—not as dissimulation but as active deceit. In fact, deceit, which is doctrinally grounded in Islam, is often depicted as being equal—sometimes superior—to other universal military virtues, such as courage, fortitude, or self-sacrifice.

Palestinian leaders have used taqiyya in their war with Israel. In an incident dismissed in the Times article as being “old” news, Ibrahim reports on a speech by Yasser Arafat that offers an example of this strategy.

More recently, and of great significance for Western leaders advocating cooperation with Islamists, Yasser Arafat, soon after negotiating a peace treaty criticized as conceding too much to Israel, addressed an assembly of Muslims in a mosque in Johannesburg where he justified his actions: “I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca.”  In other words, like Muhammad, Arafat gave his word only to annul it once “something better” came along—that is, once the Palestinians became strong enough to renew the offensive and continue on the road to Jerusalem.

The implications of this way of thinking offend Western sensibilities, Ibrahim writes.

Yet most Westerners continue to think that Muslim mores, laws, and ethical constraints are near identical to those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Naively or arrogantly, today’s multiculturalist leaders project their own worldview onto Islamists, thinking a handshake and smiles across a cup of coffee, as well as numerous concessions, are enough to dismantle the power of God’s word and centuries of unchanging tradition. The fact remains: Right and wrong in Islam have little to do with universal standards but only with what Islam itself teaches—much of which is antithetical to Western norms.

What then are we to make of this story about Palestinian doublespeak? The Times concedes it exists, but down plays its importance and gives prominence of place in its article to those who see the exposure of lies as being harmful to the cause of peace.

Would ascribing all divergence between what the Palestinian leaders say to the West and what they tell their own people to taqiyya answer the questions raised in this story? Or does cant play a role in any of this? What say you GetReligion readers?

But where ever the line may be found between lying to advance the faith and cant, the omission of this religion element to the story by the Times does a disservice to its readers.

First printed in GetReligion.

A post-Schiavo world: Get Religion, December 7, 2011 December 7, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Product placement and packaging — these are the first tasks of a freelance author who has a story to write. Who will publish this article? What pitch will win over the editor? An experienced author knows the interests and quirks of the publications to whom he markets his work. In addition to the question of content — no poultry breeding articles for Car & Driver — an author must be conversant with the style sense and audience of an outlet. Do they like it hip or heavy? AP or Times of London style book? The definitive New Yorker treatment or a Peoplemagazine popular summary?

A recent article in the New York Times magazine entitled “A Drug that Wakes the Near Dead” speaks to the freelancer’s task — and its limitations. Jeneen Interlandi has done an extraordinary job. Her style is light but it conveys medical and scientific concepts clearly. The portraits she paints of the characters in her story are wonderfully done — real people, facing real problems — neither stick figures nor flat archetypes.

Yet her article on the struggles of families caring for those who have passed “beyond a vegetative state, to a hazy realm known as minimal consciousness” following traumatic brain injuries bears the heavy hand of a New York Times magazine story. While the material and emotional dimensions of her characters are portrayed in detail, the religion angle is entirely absent.

That’s not quite correct. In the 4500+ word article there is one line that touches upon the faith and moral issues at play. “It’s an instinct reinforced by religious edicts that forbid the withholding of basic sustenance but allow, for example, unplugging artificial respirators.”

That’s it. The editorial hand, I am making an assumption here, that guided this work appears not to be aware that we live in a post-Terry Schiavo world. I am not dismissing the story as bad. But it is incomplete — and given its excellence on one level, it is a disappointment to see it fall flat here.

The article recounts the experiences of Chris Cox, and his parents, Wayne and Judy. Chris suffered a near fatal drug overdose that left him in a persistent vegetative state that his doctors believed would quickly lead to his death. However, he survived and has progressed to a state of minimal consciousness. The story hook that moves this beyond the human interest level is the medical news that some patients with this condition have been brought out of the twilight.

This paragraph provides the pivot of the story.

Convinced that the son they know and love is still “in there,” Chris’s parents have spent the past three years searching for a way to bring him back out. So far, their best hope has come from an unlikely source: Ambien. A growing body of case reports suggests that the popular sleep aid can have a profound — and paradoxical — effect on patients like Chris. Rather than put them to sleep, both Ambien and its generic twin, zolpidem, appear to awaken at least some of them. The early reports were so pronounced that until recently, doctors had a hard time believing them. Only now, more than a decade after the initial discovery, are they taking a closer look.

The article recounts the partial medical breakthroughs taking place — it works for some, but not others — which neuroscientists are seeking to explain. The article then moves into the realm of medical ethics.

“Once a patient progresses to minimal consciousness, we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” says Dr. Joseph J. Fins, chief of medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of a coming book, “Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness.” Some patients have recovered full consciousness, but many more remain stuck in limbo. The only way to know the outcome is to give the patient time.

But offering time is a complex proposition. “Early on, when families have the option to pull the plug, it’s almost impossible to tell what the long-term prognosis will be,” says Dr. Soojin Park, a neurointensivist at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and an investigator on the zolpidem trial. “And then later, when we have the certainty — that this is as good as it’s going to get — that option is gone. Because by then, the patient is breathing on their own. There’s no more plug to pull.” At that point, families who want to end a loved one’s suffering must either have the feeding tube removed, or agree to let the next bacterial infection win out, unhindered by antibiotics. Many families find choosing these deaths much more difficult than turning off a ventilator. It’s an instinct reinforced by religious edicts that forbid the withholding of basic sustenance but allow, for example, unplugging artificial respirators.

And here that conversation stops and we return to the experiences and hopes of the Cox family — an editorial decision that diminishes the power of this story. In some ways this story serves as a bookend to a 2010 article my colleague Mollie Ziegler Hemingway discussed in GetReligion.

The Chicago Tribune story began:

If ever Carol Gaetjens becomes unconscious with no hope of awakening, even if she could live for years in that state, she says she wants her loved ones to discontinue all forms of artificial life support.

But now there’s a catch for this churchgoing Catholic woman. U.S. bishops have decided that it is not permissible to remove a feeding tube from someone who is unconscious but not dying, except in a few circumstances.

People in a persistent vegetative state, the bishops say, must be given food and water indefinitely by natural or artificial means as long as they are otherwise healthy. The new directive, which is more definitive than previous church teachings, also appears to apply broadly to any patient with a chronic illness who has lost the ability to eat or drink, including victims of strokes and people with advanced dementia. …

Gaetjens, 65, said she did not know of the bishops’ position until recently and finds it difficult to accept.

“It seems very authoritarian,” said the Evanston resident. “I believe people’s autonomy to make decisions about their own health care should be respected.”

Mollie wrote that the Tribune story went on to explain this directive from the bishops and how it would affect Catholic hospitals. But she noted there was “something rather significant that was missing from this story,” which was that “nowhere in the Tribune piece is the news from last week mentioned, much less any indication that people diagnosed as being in persistent vegetative states might be aware, intentional and desiring communication. That omission really hurts the article.”

I am not setting this up to say that while the Tribune story lacked science, the Times story lacked religion. The issue is one of balance. For an audience that believes there is nothing more to the human experience than the material, the Times story works. For those who believes that men and women are physical and spiritual beings, the Times story is incomplete.

A slew of religion questions were neither asked nor answered in this article. The problem of pain and suffering. The meaning of a life lived in a vegetative state. Defining human dignity … the questions that animated the Terry Schiavo debate in 2005. Even if a discussion of morality, which is derived from philosophical first principles, is off limits in a New York Times magazine story, there should have been a discussion of decency.

Decency is a matter of custom and general acceptance, and its standards change to meet the realities of the age in which we live. The advances in medical science of the past generation can keep alive in a twilight consciousness some who would have died from their conditions. This article asks what is happening to these people. But it does not ask whether it is moral or decent.

Illustrations courtesy of Shutterstock.

Marian Mission to Moscow and the New York Times: Get Religion, November 25, 2011 November 26, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Russian Orthodox.
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Who was the first journalist? Who was the first to adopt the intellectual and moral code that guides the craft of reporting? My vote would be for the Athenian historian, Thucydides, who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War in around 420 BC.

In his account of the war between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides became the first writer to set himself apart from his own political system to examine critically the past. He recounted equally the virtues of Athens and its vices and stepped outside his culture, abandoning the notion that the gods controlled the destiny of men. The study of history was no longer explained by reference to myth and legend, but by the pursuit of truth about the past.

A modern journalist employs Thucydides’ methodology and is expected to stand outside his own political system, culture and religion, to criticize his own society and to pursue the truth. Even Robert Fisk, the doyenne of ideological journalists will state that the reporter’s job is to tell it like it is: “My job is to report what I have seen.”

When a reporter allows ideology or cultural biases to color a story this ideal is not met. A recent New York Times report entitled “In Russian Chill, Waiting Hours for Touch of the Holy” printed on page A8 of the 24 Nov 2011 issue illustrates this point.

A religious relic — the belt of the Virgin Mary — has been brought from the Vatopedi Monastery on Mt Athos in Greece to Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral by the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation. In the week that it was on display over a half million Russians lined up to gaze upon and perhaps kiss the glass case that enclosed the camel-hair jewel-encrusted relic. At times the queue stretched almost three miles with tens of thousands waiting in sub-zero temperatures. The faithful believe the relic was given by Mary the Mother of God to St Thomas before her Assumption. It is reputed to have miraculous powers and has helped women to conceive. The Itar-Tass and Novosti wire services provide a quick summary of events.

The Telegraph and the Washington Post  focused on the phenomena of the size of the crowds and the public display of piety. The Telegraph called the spectacle an “extraordinary display of the strength of Orthodox Christianity in post-Soviet Russia,” and observed:

Russia’s Orthodox Church had an incredible surge of influence and power in recent years as millions of Russians began to practice religion in the 1990s after decades of state-dictated atheism in the Soviet Union.

We heard from members of the crowd.

“I am 74, and I have suffered a heart attack. I am handicapped in my arm and leg,” said another man, identifying himself as Vladimir, after exiting the imposing white cathedral and leaning on his wife’s supporting arm. “Maybe it will help?” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

The Post story ran with equally strong quotes that focused also on faith.

On the other side of the cathedral, Alexei Bogdanov, a 32-year-old truck-parts salesman, had seen the relic and was waiting for his wife. Tears came to his eyes when he touched the box, he said.“We lived in our country for almost 70 years without faith,” he said. “And now we have found it again.”

The New York Times took a different approach. It covered the crowd story, but also raised the political dimensions of the relic’s mission to Moscow. However, the flip and knowing way this was done, and its smirking condescension towards  the ignorant peasants as they stood in the cold, left me cold as well.

After it reported on the crowd, the New York Times raised the political angle.

As befits his status as the arbiter of most things Russian, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin was the first to greet the holy relic when it arrived … [The crowds] wait here, within view of the Kremlin, snaking past the hulking Ministry of Defense building and billboards in support of United Russia, the pro-Putin governing party.

The story offers a “why we’re here” quote from one member of the crowd and then resumes its arch tone.

Moscow’s city government closed streets around the cathedral — causing those Muscovites not so inclined to venerate relics to rant about the even-worse-than-usual traffic jams.

The article at this stage seemed ready to break away from its self-conscious cuteness and take a serious stab at explaining what is going on. The man responsible for the Moscow sojourn is named:  “Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian Railroads, who is close to Mr. Putin.”

Yakunin states:

“The belt of the Most Holy Virgin Mary possesses miraculous power,“ he said. “It helps women and helps in childbirth. In our demographic situation, this is in and of itself important.”

The story does not follow up on the political angle, however, and the sarcastic tone returns.

The blogs and Facebook pages of Russian Orthodox intellectuals have overflowed with debates about whether hysteria over the belt was a disturbing sign that many Russians’ faith is based on superstition. Many noted that Christ the Savior Cathedral and the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow, one of the most important monasteries in the Orthodox Church, have relics of the Virgin Mary that are just as precious.

At a bustling coffee shop near the cathedral that this week became an impromptu pit stop for the faithful, an excited young woman rushed in to tell waiting friends that she had venerated the Virgin Mary’s belt. Then she told them about her visit to a fortune teller.

Characterizing the response to the icon’s visit to Moscow by a half million Russian Orthodox Christians as hysteria, and the gratuitous fortune teller line is unfortunate. The attempt to bring politics into the story also fails because there is no context or explanation as to why this matters. What relationship does Vladimir Putin have to the icon’s visit? Who is Vladimir Yakunin and why is it important to know that he is a friend of Putin?

Yes, there is a political story here, but the New York Times misses it.  Yakunin is a close political ally of Putin and has brought the relic to Moscow in the run up to the national elections. Putin is running as Mr. Orthodox, wrapping himself in the mantle of Russian Orthodoxy and his critics have charged that the miracle of the Virgin’s Belt will be his re-election.

Reuters reports:

The [St. Andrew the First-Called] Foundation, chaired by the head of Russia’s state railways and long-time Putin associate Vladimir Yakunin, said the relic’s arrival shortly before the parliamentary election was coincidental.

“It is absolutely not related. We wanted it to come in the summer, but the entire process, the discussions, took a long time,” spokesman Alexander Gatilin said.

For a detailed look at the religious and political cross-currents surrounding this story, go to Batholomew’s Notes on Religion.

The Telegraph and Washington Post played this straight and focused on the religious angle, giving the pilgrims who braved the cold to stand in line to venerate the relic a sympathetic hearing. The New York Times took a different line offering faithful voices and fortune tellers and enclosing the whole in a box marked hysteria. It also sought the secular angle and gave us Vladimir Putin. But it neglected to explain why we needed to hear from Putin or of the political significance of the relic’s mission to Moscow.

But the bottom line for me was the snarky attitude. Instead of standing outside of its culture and attempting to report faithfully and fairly on what was going on in Moscow, it stood squarely within the jaded and hip mindset of Manhattan. What we got from the New York Times was a travelog with attitude.

First printed in GetReligion.

New barbarians at the New York Times: GetReligion Oct 1, 2011 October 1, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

First printed in GetRelgion

Claims of hostile coverage of the Catholic Church by the New York Times will come as no surprise to GetReligionreaders. Yet an unfavorable critique of the church is not always a sign of animus. When the press exposes cant, corruption and incompetence it is doing its job — no matter the field of inquiry. And then there is bad reporting.

A New York Times article entitled “Quiet for Years, Italian Church Blasts Behavior of the Nation’s Political Elite” falls under the later category. The article begins with an assertion, builds upon an assumption, and adopts a supercilious tone towards its subject. On a lesser level I find the syntax and sentence structure odd — as if it were written in Italian and then translated into English. There is nothing wrong with that in principle, but when the odd use of language distracts from the story this becomes a problem.

The subject of the piece was a speech by the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference that criticized corrupt politicians. Here is the opening:

Over the last several years, the Roman Catholic Church in Italy has largely looked the other way as reports emerged of sex and corruption scandals among the country’s political elite, many of them centered on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But a recent published account of a party at Mr. Berlusconi’s home, where one female guest was said to have performed a striptease dressed as a nun, might have been more than the church could stand.

Note how the verbs and adverbs are deployed to assert the Catholic Church has kept quiet in the face of government corruption, that it has “largely looked the other way.” This assertion is then linked to the assumption the church finally “might” have taken notice after a scabrous episode at the home of the prime minister.

A start like this spells trouble and portends an advocacy journalism piece. The reader knows someone or something is going to get the chop — Catholic Church cupidity, Berlusconi’s vulgarity, Italy’s opera buffa political culture — we don’t know who quite yet, but the mixing of assumptions and innuendo at the outset classifies what sort of story this will be.

The story continues:

This week the church lashed out, issuing its strongest reprimands yet of Italy’s ruling class, deploring “behavior that not only goes counter to public decorum but is intrinsically sad and hollow.” … Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, told his fellow bishops on Monday. On Tuesday, he called for an “upright lifestyle,” saying that the country needed a “correction of habits and lifestyles” to help it emerge from a “culture of nothingness.”

Though Cardinal Bagnasco did not single out Mr. Berlusconi … the cardinal spoke of “licentious conduct and improper relationships that damage society.” And he blasted a governing class preoccupied with itself while Italian citizens struggled to make ends meet.

Here we have the meat of the story: Italian bishop criticizes government officials. But is there anything offered to substantiate the Times’ argument that these criticisms came after a period of church silence, or were motivated by the nun act at the PM’s house? No.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco

A report on the same speech by the Corriere Della Sera contradicts the Times opening assertion, stating that in his speech, the cardinal refers to the bishops’ past criticisms of misconduct:

NOT THE FIRST TIME — Referring to the inaugural speeches in September 2009 and last January, Cardinal Bagnasco said “this is not the first time that we have had to point this out. Anyone who chooses political militancy should be aware of the temperance, sobriety, discipline and honour that it entails, as our constitution points out”. He noted that “in recent weeks, calls have come from various corners for us to make pronouncements” although in his view “in the past years the responsible voice of the Church’s magisterium has called for, and calls for, life horizons that are good, free of pansexualism and unencumbered by amoral relativism.”

Quotes from commentators are then offered (though no spokesman for the Italian Bishops’ Conference is heard) that flesh out the editorial voice taken in the opening paragraphs of church sloth and government corruption. The Times’ omnipotent voice appears once again, supported by quotes from commentators:

Italians are beginning to understand the fallout from the euro zone debt crisis, with the government having passed a series of austerity measures in the past two months that will trim public services and pensions, as well as result in higher taxes. However, additional pledges to cut government costs and reduce the number of elective positions in Parliament and elsewhere have yet to be enacted, further fueling public disaffection with the ruling class.

“Ruling class”? How’s that for a loaded term.

Yes, there’s more. Can’t have a Catholic story without the pedophiles — even when the article concedes this scandal has nothing to do with the issues under discussion. The story closes with:

The pedophile sex scandals that have so stained the church in recent years have been largely absent in Italy, and no one has accused the church of withholding criticism because of embarrassment over the behavior of its priests.

Critics like Mario Staderini, a member of the Radical Party who has been fighting to eliminate fiscal privileges for the church, say that the church has treaded lightly in past years to avoid alienating a center-right government that has continued to offer tax breaks for church-owned properties and commercial activities, while supporting Catholic schools and Vatican positions on questions like common-law marriage, living wills and some forms of assisted fertility. All of those practices are illegal in Italy.

But Father Sciortino of Famiglia Cristiana [a Catholic weekly] said that the church had become disenchanted with the government more recently over its inability to deliver on a number of promises to support programs that help families.

“These things haven’t happened,” he said, chiding Catholic politicians for allowing allegiance to political parties to take precedence over their religious beliefs. “They remained quiet, or worse, they justified the prime minister’s indefensible behavior,” he said.

I hope you got that one. Church in bed with corrupt government to protect its interests. But now things are so bad the church cannot stomach it any more.

As I have noted in past posts, a journalist formed in the American school seeks set to aside his own views and present a story on its own terms, to establish what the facts are and let the facts dictate the story. This story does the opposite and begins by positing an opinion, and then plumps down facts to substantiate its argument.

This is not a news story but an opinion piece or a work of analysis, at best. The assertions made at the top of the story are not substantiated, the principals are not asked to explain their viewpoint, and opinion is offered by commentators that serves to support the editorial line taken by the author. The overall effect of this mélange for me was to induce that sense of nausea that comes whenever a serious subject is treated with the utmost triviality. This piece is so extraordinary the Corriere Della Sera ran an item on its website noting the Times’ claims.

W. H. Auden, in The Age of Anxiety wrote:

But the new barbarian is no uncouth
Desert-dweller; he does not emerge
From fir forests; factories bred him;
Corporate companies, college towns
Mothered his mind, and many journals
Backed his beliefs.

Is the Times guilty of anti-Catholic animus, sloppy reporting, or is it doing its job? Is the Times speaking truth to the power and denouncing the malevolent forces of Church and State conspiring to control Italian life, or is this piece an example of the new barbarism that so disfigures or intellectual lives?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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