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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.

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