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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.

Interview: Issues, Etc., August 14, 2012 August 15, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Interviews/Citations, Issues Etc, Religion Reporting.
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Here is a link to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on Aug 14, 2012.

3. Media Coverage of Missouri’s Prayer Amendment, Belgian Serial Killer Paroled to a Convent, & Inclusive Catholics Commune a Dog – George Conger, 8/14/12

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Interview: Issues, Etc., June 29, 2012 August 15, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of Denmark, Issues Etc, Religion Reporting.
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Here is a link to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc program of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on June 29, 2012.

3. Media Coverage of Gay Marriage in Danish Churches – George Conger, 6/29/12

Category: Podcast

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French Evangelicals through an American lens: Get Religion, July 17, 2012 July 18, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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A mixed review is the best I can give to an article in the Christian Science Monitor on the rise of Evangelical Christianity in France. The 1400-word article entitled “In a France suspiciousof religion, evangelicalism’s message strikes a chord” tells a fascinating story about the changing religious landscape in France, but for every two steps forward it makes in its narrative, it takes a step back with its assumptions. It’s a “yes, but …” article. A stronger editorial pencil would have made it great.

Let’s walk through this piece and I will show you what I mean.

The author structures the story by opening with an illustration of the phenomena he is describing — a French mega-church.

In a large former factory warehouse outside Paris on a Friday night, some 4,000 people assemble in prayer and praise to a God who loves all equally, they are told. It’s mostly a minority crowd: young, African, from mixed heritage, and white. Hands are raised; a choir moves from jazzy to solemn gospel tones. Faces mark a wide range of emotions at week’s end.

“His love goes past all borders, forgives everything, has no limits,” the pastor cries out to a great many “amens.”

This working-class area is one of France’s official “urban sensitive zones.” The Charisma Church, as it is called, abuts the back of a trucking center. But the mood is welcoming. People actually smile. Many worshipers travel an hour or more to get here, and press into dozens of church buses that ramble between local tram and train stations. It is a “megachurch” in a country where faith is officially relegated to the private sphere and unofficially frowned upon.

But the church is growing. Sunday services top 6,000 attendees on a regular basis. In fact, French scholars say, evangelicalism is likely the fastest-growing religion in France – defying all stereotypes about Europe’s most secular nation.

This opening sets the scene rather well and is an effective way of using imagery to make the point that the Charisma Church is not stereotypically “French”. Yet, I am also uneasy about the sentence structure and the tone. There is an undercurrent of anthropology here — we are watching strange (maybe better to say ‘different’) people performing rituals akin to practices found in a substratum of another culture. What is the purpose of the “But” in “But the mood is welcoming”? While popular culture may tell Americans the French are an unfriendly crowd, that is not what is being said here. The “But” signals that because the church is in a poor part of town and abuts a “trucking center” the worshipers should not be happy. The joy the author found comes as a surprise. Poor people being happy?

And, as an aside, France is not the most secular nation in Europe. That honor belongs to the Czech Republic followed by Germany.

The article then offers reasons for the growth of Evangelical Christianity in France.

The reasons are manifold: growing minority populations in France from Africa and Asia are less strictly secular and more religious. Evangelicals offer a “friendlier” and less hierarchical model of worship, with more community warmth and room for emotive expression. Leaders say they “speak to the heart” in a Europe preoccupied with wealth and worldliness, and provide a haven in times of harsh economic setbacks.

“France itself is changing, and this is a reflection of this transition,” says Sebastian Fath, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and an expert on evangelicalism.

Again, this strikes me as being more of a scientist peering through the branches sort of response to the growth rather than an explanation of religious conversion or the awakening of faith. We have speculation on how, but little on why. Perhaps French evangelicals with whom the Christian Science Monitor spoke were shy about giving a faith testimony, mentioning Jesus, sin, redemption and so forth — but their absence from this story about the growth of Evangelical Christianity I find odd.

The story continues with a statistical section followed by comments from some members of these churches. I was struck by the use of first names only in this section — as if these were members of an underground church — but that may be more a matter of taste on my part. Comments about the friendly form worship takes in these churches follows and the story then moves to a facile comparison to American Evangelicalism.

Nor are French evangelicals as politically conservative as their American kin. The French perception of American evangelicals as super-patriots of the political right is a cross French evangelicals have to bear.

“We don’t want the American style, we are French,” says an Assembly of God pastor, Thomas Okampo, whose church is just off a side street in the 15th district of Paris. Mr. Okampo was born in Kinshasa but studied religion in Brussels.

It may well be true that French evangelicals are not as politically conservative as their American brethren, but the quote offered to support this assertion does not say this. Is it the author’s opinion that American evangelicals are “super-patriots of the political right” and a “cross French evangelicals have to bear”, or is it the view of those interviewed for this story? And, given the recent French presidential campaign and the stories about the strong link between religious attendance and voting patterns, what data is there to support the contention made by the author? And, is it possible to compare French politics and voting patterns to American patterns? Is the author expressing his opinions and assumptions here?

There have been a number of French newspaper articles covering the immigrant and conversion fueled growth of Evangelical Christianity in France. This story has legs and I expect to see it again and again in the years to come. The bottom line with this article, however, is that it gives a nice narrative but appears not to comprehend what it is reporting. There is no there there.

First printed in GetReligion.

An Observer Exclusive (How not to report on Rowan Williams): Get Religion, June 26, 2012 June 26, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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An exclusive is a wonderful thing. Being first out of the block with an exciting and timely news story is a professional triumph for a reporter — and it also makes you feel great! I imaging that is how the two reporters at the Observer — the Sunday edition of the Guardian— felt on Saturday night as they saw their story on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest attacks on the government of Prime Minister David Cameron make it to page 1 — and above the fold too!

There is just one little problem about the story. It is not an exclusive nor is it new news. Now the story is not false — merely old. Thinking it had an exclusive on a new book, the Observer’s reporters wrote as if what they had was breaking news. Unfortunately the new book is a compilation of old speeches.

How could a reputable newspaper have made such a mistake? Let me show you how, but suspend your judgment for a moment and adopt a Rowan Williams-free mind — I know it is difficult but you must try.

The article begins:

The archbishop of Canterbury has denounced David Cameron’s “big society”, saying that it comes across as aspirational waffle that was “designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”.

The outspoken attack on the prime minister’s flagship policy by Rowan Williams – his strongest to date – is contained in a new book, Faith in the Public Square, that is being prepared for publication ahead of his retirement.

Passages from the book, obtained by the Observer, reflect the archbishop’s deep frustration not just with the policies of Cameron’s government and those of its Labour predecessors, but also with what he sees as the west’s rampant materialism and unquestioning pursuit of economic growth. Williams also laments spiralling military expenditure, writing that “the adventure in Iraq and its cost in any number of ways seems to beggar the imagination”.

Now this is a powerful lede. The Observer tells us it has seen an advanced copy of the archbishop’s latest book and it contains an attack upon a host of government policies. In the back of my mind I seem to remember hearing “the adventure in Iraq” phrase — but let’s put that to one side for now.  The next paragraph ratchets up the intensity.

But it is his suggestion that the big society – Cameron’s personal vision of a more active civic society – is seen by people as a deliberate cover for plans to shrink the state that will be most controversial.

Strong stuff. The Observer has a great exclusive and can report that in his new book Dr. Williams is taking a hammer to the prime minister’s “Big Society” programme for the social regeneration of Britain.

The article then quotes from the book:

Commenting on the “big society”, Williams, who steps down in December after 10 years in his post, writes: “Introduced in the runup to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, [it] has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which such ideals can be realised. Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many therefore as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.”

The Observer then tells us how important this exclusive will be.

But his valedictory work, to be released three months before he leaves office, is more strident in its criticism than anything that has come before. It is certain to cause fury in the government, which is being criticised, including from some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, for lacking a compelling message other than the necessity of public spending cuts and austerity.

It is a funny thing, but after having read all of Dr. Williams’ speeches and articles since he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, his pronouncements all seem to sound alike. Perhaps it is deja vu? Maybe my close study of the archbishop’s style, reading the tealeaves in the bottom of his cup these many years has left me psychic and I know in advance what Dr. Williams will say.

Or perhaps … God forbid! Dr. Williams is repeating himself! And with the magic of Google, we can find out. A quick check through the archbishop’s speeches locates the phrase “the adventure in Iraq and its cost in any number of ways seems to beggar the imagination” in a 2009 lecture in Cardiff entitled “Ethics, Economics and Global Justice.” The passage attacking the “Big Society” programme can be found in the archbishops 11 March 2011 Commemoration Oration at King’s College London entitled “Big Society – Small World”.

Monday morning, when the archbishop’s press office opened for business, it released a statement announcing the new book.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will release “Faith in the Public Square” in September. The book, published by Continuum, is a compilation of several of Archbishop Rowan’s interventions into the public discourse – often at key points in wider debate — during the ten years of his ministry as Primate.

The key word here is “compilation”. The archbishop’s political speeches are being reprinted in one volume — that information appears not to have been shared with the Observer’s reporters who appear to have come to Dr. Williams’ writings unencumbered with any knowledge of what he has said. What was that about a valedictory work?

I need not belabor the point — but this is sloppy reporting.

First printed 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.

Double effect and the birth control debate: Get Religion, March 15, 2012 March 15, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Health/HIV-AIDS, Politics, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental … . Thomas Aquinas, (Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 64)

The best way to start the day is with a little Aquinas! The misty realms of memory and a youth misspent in theological education brought this jingle to mind when I read an article in the Huffington Post that took a swipe at one of my colleagues at GetReligion. The article by Reuters correspondent Nicole Neuroulias entitled “I was a Virgin on Birth Control” (catchy, no?) asserts that Mollie Ziegler Hemingway’s (MZH) report entitled “No such thing as free contraception” fails the test of good journalism.

Is this a fair summary of the issues or a fair comment? Not really. Ms. Neroulias bases her argument on a faulty premise, while the story as a whole has not been thought through. Yet, the HuffPo story raises a valid point that the press has not done justice to the ethical as well as scientific issues at play in the controversy surrounding the government’s bid to require all employers and institutions to provide contraceptive coverage in their health insurance packages. Ms. Neroulias writes that:

as a religion reporter weary of oversimplified culture wars, and personally, as someone who took birth control pills long before becoming sexually active, I feel disappointed by most of the reporting so far.

She recounts the furore surrounding the debate — Rush Limbaugh, Sandra Fluke, congressional hearings, Catholic bishops — and then presents her thesis. Ms. Neroulias writes:

Yet, as [Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke]tried to explain in her opening statement, both frames miss the big picture: Women take the pill to address myriad health issues, from ovarian cancer, menstrual problems, hormone imbalances and fertility treatments to cystic acne, et al.

This is the angle I’ve been waiting in vain for religious and mainstream journalists to acknowledge and investigate. As a teenager, I had debilitating menstrual cycles, but the perceived stigma of going on the pill deterred me from getting the help I needed. I finally started taking it in college, as a virgin with no foreseeable pregnancy panic, buoyed by all other the young women around me who were taking it for a variety of reasons. …

Since then, my mother and sister have also taken the pill on medical grounds, as have dozens of our relatives and friends. …

So how about some coverage of where these outraged clergy and institutions stand on using contraception in all these medical cases? And even if they technically allow it, does that translate to allowing their health insurance policies to include it? Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a conservative commentator who has slammed media “misrepresentation” of the HHS mandate at GetReligion, shrugged me off with “presumably” when I brought up this angle. Needless to say, “presumably” isn’t good enough in journalism, especially when the story concerns fundamental questions about freedom and morality.

And logically, even when clergy approve of contraceptives for unrelated medical reasons, how would they have their institutions apply these directives? Should women who work at Catholic hospitals and schools get a doctor’s note for their bosses before requesting insurance reimbursement for the birth control pill? Would ovarian cysts and infertility make the cut, but acne and bad cramps be more along the lines of God’s will? And what if religious authorities and their hospitals disagree on these theories in practice, as they have in cases of abortion to save a woman’s life?

These questions are founded upon a flawed assumption and propose a straw man argument — an Aunt Sally — based upon the premise that taking a birth control pill for medical reasons other than contraception is immoral in the eyes of “outraged clergy.”

The 1968 encyclical Humanea Vitae which governs Catholic teaching on birth control contains a chapter which discusses this point. Paragraph 15, entitled “Lawful Therapeutic Means” states:

On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.

The encyclical cites two speeches by Pius XII for its authority on this point. It puts into words the long standing moral teaching expressed by Thomas Aquinas, among others, as the principle of double effect.

This moral teaching can be seen in the case of a woman who has a hysterectomy due to cancer. The principle intent is to excise the cancer. The secondary end, infertility, does not forbid the surgery as the intent is the cure of disease not birth control. A second example would be surgery to remove a fallopian tube because of an ectopic pregnancy. While an abortion is a medical procedure whose primary end is a dead child – and is thus considered illicit — the death of the pre-natal child in a surgery to correct an ectopic pregnancy is an unavoidable side effect. The surgery is licit even though one of its ends is death.

Closer to home, and working in a Sandra Fluke angle, you can see the practical effect at work in the Georgetown University Student Handbook. The student health department is allowed to dispense the pill for non contraceptive medical ends.

Q. Are pre-existing conditions covered?

A. Pre-existing conditions are covered if the condition or treatment is not specifically excluded or limited per the Exclusions and Limitations in Description of Benefits Booklet.

(Note: Although birth control is not covered, medications used for birth control that are required to treat other medical conditions are covered. Your provider may submit requests for such coverage in the form of a “Prescription Override” by faxing the details of the diagnosis and treatment to …)

Ms. Neroulias is quite right in saying the press has let down its readers by not developing this angle — focusing the debate on those who shout the loudest, not upon the critical issues. This is a big country, and I am sure one can find “outraged clergy” somewhere who would make the argument that the use of birth control pills for acne treatment is a sin — or we should let women die of ovarian cancer because a total hysterectomy causes a women to become infertile and is thus EVIL. Such people doubtless exist, but their voices do not represent the mainstream.

A little research by reporters would reveal that this issue was recently addressed in the press coverage of a Lancet article that urged nuns to take birth control pills as a prophylactic against the medical effects of nulliparity. In December I posted a story to GetReligion noting how ABC had addressed these issues, killing the canard that nuns were forbidden to take birth control pills for non-contraceptive medical reasons.

Did MZH (the reporter not the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture & Food) make a journalistic error in not engaging with Ms. Neroulias questions? Not to my mind. GetReligion reports on the reporting — not on the topics being reported. If I were in MZH’s position I would not have engaged either for the aforesaid reason and because the assumptions being put forward about the ethics were wrongheaded and had no bearing on the arguments at play.

Am I too quick to defend, too quick to judge? Does the press understand the nuances of Catholic moral teachings or the Theology of the Body? What say you GetReligion readers?

First published at GetReligion.

Do morals matter? DSK affair and France: Get Religion, March 3, 2012 March 4, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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The French don’t do sex well. Political sex scandals that is.

But a sea change does appear in the offing for French journalism that may change all that. The widely known, but only lately reported, personal misconduct of Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) appears to have provoked a fit of conscience.

This has not always been so. When the President of the International Monetary Fund was arrested in New York last May, the French philosophes went bananas.

Writing in Le Monde, Pascal Bruckner said:

America obviously has a problem with sex that stems from its protestant heritage. … It’s not enough though to describe the country as puritanical because what governs here is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry. What we have here is lubricious Puritanism.

Libération sounded the same theme, though in a muted key. It complained the DSK affair had produced France’s

first “Anglo-Saxon” sex scandal and brutally forced France to enter a zone of public debate which, until now, because of cultural exception, “Latin” identity or democratic weakness, was hitherto confined to rumors and gossip amongst a select circle of insiders.”

Times have changed. Disdain for Anglo-Saxon ethical standards has moved on to an examination of French media morals. But the question of what will inform these morals does not appear to have been asked.

“Transparency, how far?” (La transparence, jusqu’où?) is the headline on the front page of the 28 February 2012 issue of Libération. An editorial and a report on the publication of the book Sexe, Mensonges et Médias (Sex, Lies and Media) by Jean Quatremer, the newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, follow on pages 2 and 3.

The article “Sexe et politique: la presse sur le divan” (Sex and politics: the press on the couch) recounts the press’s failure to investigate the private lives of the powerful — from François Mitterrand’s prostate cancer and second family to the antics of DSK.

Libération reports that its reporter

had been one of the few who dared to say publicly that DSK had a problem with women. His appointment to the closed world of Washington had been a high risk and had been a perfect illustration of the press’s bad habits. “The lies, the refusal to investigate … the taste for colluding with the powerful.”

Following DSK’s appointment to the IMF in 2007 the article stated that Quatremer wrote:

the only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship to women. Too pressing, he often comes close to harassment. This is known throughout the media, but nobody talks about (we are in France). But the IMF is an international institution where morals are Anglo-Saxon. An inappropriate gesture, an allusion too specific and the press will have a field day.

These words went unnoticed until the front-runner for the French Socialist Party’s candidacy for the 2012 presidential election was arrested in New York and charged with attempted rape.

Nicolas Demorand, the editor of Libération wrote that in the wake of the DSK affair a journalist must examine his conscience and ask

if he has done his job properly or, for reasons good or ill, totally missed a “subject” who obviously deserved scrutiny? Who has not thought about the uncertain border between privacy … and a potential political problem, about whether he must inform his readers?

The French press is entering a post-DSK era, Demorand said,

Our media’s all too timid modus operandi can now be seen with a new eye. It is true that journalists are friends with politicians. ‘Stay away from power!’ is the primary principal, an American journalist used to say. In France, we have dinner together, we go on holidays together, we have love affairs, we are graduates of the same schools, and so on. There is no tradition of investigation into the private world of politics. .. The public consequences of the president’s private life have remained in the shadows. This is because of a preference for commentary over cold facts. And also because of the lack of independence of public television stations. Let us point out that the President of the Republic appoints the station’s heads and chooses with his royal hand the journalists who will be allowed the privilege of interviewing the monarch.

France must find new ways of reporting on the powerful, the editorial concluded.

Not by moralizing or by voyeurism, but simply informing its readers when it is appropriate to do so. Investigate each story case by case and bear the burden of publishing. In short: become a working journalist.

All in all this is great stuff. Libération — a center left newspaper founded in 1972 under the aegis of Jean Paul Sartre — is seeking a revolution in the standards of French journalism. I hope it succeeds.

But in reading these reports, I was struck by a ghost, obliquely identified by Libération as an American ethic where “morals are Anglo-Saxon.” The tone of these stories is that virtue, at least as it is understood in the Anglosphere, is too religious too foreign for France. The French press’s failure to challenge the powerful was a failure of utility, not of virtue.

The religious, or moral element, is not completely absent. The French Catholic daily La Croix has argued the DSK affair “poses the question of the quest for coherence between public and private life,” and “virtue, a word that has gone out of fashion, could become the new prerequisite” for political life. Yet few other newspapers have pressed the issue.

La Croix has called for the return of morality to civil life — a virtue formed by a Catholic sensibilities of goodness and truth. This call should also be sounded to the press in France.

But I would hope that morals as understood in the Anglo-sphere, not the dreaded “moralizing” condemned by Libération, be brought to the table as well, for they inform our (English language) understanding of the truths of journalism.

In a 1943 study of the English novelist, E.M. Forester, Lionel Trilling coined the phrase “moral realism.” Trilling sought to overcome the Marxist binary view of the world in literary criticism, to overcome the “old intellectual game of antagonistic principles.”

Moral Realism [was] not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life. .. [not simply the knowledge of] “good and evil but the knowledge of good-and-evil.

This ethic applies to reporting as well. The absence of reporting on the sin and human failings of political leaders should not be replaced with a 24/7 inspection of their private lives. Rather a sensibility that paradox, complexity and ambiguity are part of the human condition.

Is this too much to expect? Is it possible to use nuance in an age whose critical faculties have been dulled by reality TV and people who are famous for being famous? Where should the line between public and private be drawn?

First printed in GetReligion.

See no evil, report no evil: Get Religion, February 2, 2012 February 2, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an Muslim radical makes death threats against a university audience in London, and the BBC does not report it, did it really happen?

There is a sense of unreality about the reporting of militant Islam in the U.K. The BBC is regularly chastised for its biases and omissions in reporting on Islamic militancy — while some tabloids are taken to task for whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. However, one can usually count on the corporation making mention of an incident.

Maybe not.

While I was researching background materials for an article, I happened to page through the website of the National Secular Society (NSS) — a humanist group in the U.K. I came across a 17 January 2012 press release entitled “Islamist stops university debate with threats of violence.” I had not heard about this incident, and when I googled the name of the lead actor in this drama I imagine you did not hear about this either as the Independent was the sole broadsheet to cover the story — and they buried the article in the crime section.

According to the NSS press release:

A talk on sharia and human rights by NSS Council Member Anne Marie Waters’ at Queen Mary University of London was cancelled at the last moment because of an Islamist who made serious threats against everyone there.

Ms Waters was due to give a talk on behalf of the One Law for All campaign on 16 January but before it started, a man entered the lecture theatre, stood at the front with a camera and filmed the audience. He then said that he knew who everyone was, where they lived and if he heard anything negative about the Prophet, he would track them down.

The man also filmed students in the foyer and threatened to murder them and their families. On leaving the building, he joined a large group of men, apparently there to support him. Students were told by security to stay in the lecture theatre for their own safety.

The Independent reported the same set of facts and interviewed a number of witnesses and Ms. Waters. The headline fairy seems to have been at work that evening at the Independent as the title of the story was sanitized. “Man threatens students at debate” is not likely to pull many readers interested to learn more.

The police are investigating the incident we learn, and the university is appalled by the incidence. Ms. Waters is made of sterner stuff, telling the Independent:

“This is the first time this has happened, it’s really very frightening and you don’t know what else it’s going to turn into,” she said. “I’m not worried about repercussions, but I’m worried about it happening again.”

While the head of the British Humanist Association stated:

“Free expression, the free exchange of ideas and free debate are hallmarks of an open society; violence and the threat of violence should never be allowed to compromise that, especially in our universities.”

No comments from Islamist groups, or from experts on censorship was appropriate, or an exploration of why someone would commit a criminal act in the name of Islam. Yet, I am not that worried about the brevity of the Independent story and am pleased that something made it into print that reported on this assault on free speech and civil liberties.

Let’s look at this another way — imagine if a professed Christian activist entered the Queen Mary University lecture hall and threatened death to those attending a lecture disparaging the Christian faith.  Do you think that this would not be spread across the British press? How many column inches would Polly Toynbee or Richard Dawkins take to denounce the incident and the belief system behind it?

But this is Islam — so we have silence.

In Peter Godwin’s wonderful memoir of life in Zimbabwe, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, he cites a phrase of Winston Churchill’s that speaks to this moral cowardice:

… appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last.

Perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps it was a cringing, craven self-censorship, perhaps the A-team of reporters was not back from the Christmas holidays. Whatever it may be, I can see no reason to spike this story.

Crocodile photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First published in GetReligion.

Have a merry pagan Christmas: Get Religion, December 19, 2011 December 19, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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The Daily Mail loves its crazy American stories — articles that show the quirky (I’m being polite) or bizarre (a little more true to life) aspects of American culture — or the lack there of.  Today’s installment is entitled: “Families shockedto find ‘hate mail’ claiming their Christmas lights honour ‘Pagan Sun-God.”

Yes, the guy who delights in shouting “you kids get off my lawn” has been stuffing mailboxes in Hudsonville, Mich. with flyers denouncing those who have decorated their homes with Christmas lights.

A group homeowners on one street with Christmas decorations have received an anonymous note saying the lights honour the ‘Pagan Sun-God.’

The residents in Hudsonville, Michigan, were baffled by the notes which were attached to their mailboxes on Wednesday night.

The note said the lights have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, according to ABC News affiliate WZZM.

The letters begin on a warm note by saying ‘Hi neighbour, you have a nice display of lights.’

But it swiftly become serious by talking of how the ‘pagan tradition’ of putting up lights began.

The article quotes an offended homeowner, who found the note ridiculous. (Question. Would the Scrooge of Hudsonville have written Hi neighbour? Adding in the “u”. Just asking.) The Daily Mail’s stage American displays outrage, independence, Christian piety — and a hint of ignorance.

Miss Hoekman added: ‘It’s a sin to judge other people and to tell people that if they have Christmas lights they are Pagans.

‘We’re not Pagans, we go to church regularly, my kids go to the Christian school.

A “Miss” whose kids go to the Christian school? That would be news. It is a silly story of course. But it does reflect a meme often found in Christmas related stories that December 25 is a Christianized pagan holiday.

Here’s how a Dec 15 piece in the Huffington Post puts it:

Because early Christians didn’t have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar — the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well.

The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. … Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.

This bit of conventional wisdom does not stand up to scrutiny. It will disappoint the crank of Hudsonville no doubt, but he (and the Huffington Post) have it backwards. As Prof. William Tighe wrote in Touchstone magazine a few years ago:

… the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date [Dec 25] in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.

In other words, it was the pagan Emporer Aurelian who sought to paganize the Dec 25 holiday of the Christians, not the Christians who sought to Christianize the Roman pagan holiday. For those who are interested in this topic I urge you to read Prof. Tighe’s popular treatment of the subject — or the scholarly study The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas Talley.

I do not doubt that some will dispute Prof. Tighe’s conclusions on this point and reject his scholarship. However, from the perspective of journalism an unthinking acceptance of the conventional wisdom — and not checking sources — is a mistake.

Photos: the holiday home is courtesy of Shutterstock and the disc of Sol Invictus is from the British Museum courtesy of Wikipedia.

First printed in GetReligion.

Allegations fly in e-mail row: CEN 5.27.09 May 29, 2009

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Free Speech, Religion Reporting, The Episcopal Church.
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A “dirty tricks” campaign has blown up in the faces of liberal activists in the Episcopal Church, as the publication of purloined e-mails has led to allegations of “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy” being lodged against the leader of the gay-pressure group Integrity and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council.

Bishops associated with the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI) have asked the bishops of Los Angeles and Delaware to look in to the conduct of the Rev Susan Russell and the Rev Canon Mark Harris for having surreptitiously obtained and then posting on their blogs the text of private correspondence exchanged among the ACI and its attorney.

A request has also been made to Bishop John Chane of Washington to review the actions of one of his staffers in the anti-ACI campaign. The dispute centres around e-mails published by Canon Harris and Ms Russell though written and exchanged by the ACI leadership on the crafting of a position paper entitled the “Bishops’ Statement on the Polity of the Episcopal Church”, released last month by the ACI and subsequently endorsed by 14 bishops.

Priests “publishing the private e-mails of bishops is a matter of grave pastoral disorder,” ACI member the Very Rev Philip Turner, former Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School, at Yale charged. However, writing on the Integrity blog website, Ms Russell applauded the “outing” of the ACI, saying the Bishops’ Statement was an “unprecedented power grab by anti-gay bishops” that should be made known to the wider church.

The ACI case will likely test the free speech limits of clergy blogs and amateur church news gathering. The explosive growth of the internet, which has seen many clergy turn to blogging in recent years, has not been matched with a code of conduct that draws the line between libel, copyright theft, defamation and aggressive reporting with a priest’s obligation to engage in moral and civil conduct.

Read it all in The Church of England Newspaper.

Allegations fly in e-mail row

3 Bishops, ACI Call for Email Investigation: TLC 5.27.09 May 28, 2009

Posted by geoconger in Free Speech, Living Church, Religion Reporting, The Episcopal Church.
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First published in The Living Church.

Allegations of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy will be lodged by three bishops against a member of the national Executive Council and the president of Integrity in response to the misappropriation and publication of private correspondence.

Bishops John Howe of Central Florida, Mark Lawrence of South Carolina, and D. Bruce MacPherson of Western Louisiana, along with other leaders of the Anglican Communion Institute (ACI), are concerned about a possible “dirty tricks” campaign waged against the ACI by the Rev. Canon Mark Harris, the Rev. Susan Russell, and an unidentified member on the staff at the Diocese of Washington.

Priests “publishing the private emails of bishops is a matter of grave pastoral disorder,” said the Very Rev. Philip Turner, former dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and a member of the ACI. The publication of the correspondence also may violate laws concerning attorney-client privilege, Bishop MacPherson said.

The dispute involves the misappropriation of emails and a draft of an ACI paper titled “Bishops’ Statement on the Polity of The Episcopal Church.” Most of the private correspondence contained a standard legal disclaimer noting that the information was privileged and intended solely for those to whom it was addressed.

On April 21 Canon Harris published snippets from the bishops’ statement and 13 email messages exchanged among the ACI leaders and their lawyer. The following day, Ms. Russell published the bishops’ statement along with extracts from the emails and the Washington Blade, a secular gay-interest newspaper, published an expurgated version of the email exchange.

“Since when do we have priests publishing the private correspondence of bishops to each other?” Bishop Howe asked.

Writing on an internet blog maintained by Integrity Ms. Russell applauded the “outing” of the ACI because she said it was advocating an “unprecedented power grab by anti-gay bishops.”

A spokesman for the ACI said the organization did not contemplate pursuing civil or criminal remedies for the misappropriation of the private documents. One of the bishops said that formal ecclesiastical charges have not been preferred against either Ms. Russell or Canon Harris, but the matter has been brought to the attention of Bishop J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, which is where Ms. Russell is canonically resident, and the Bishop of Delaware Wayne Wright, where Canon Harris resides.

Bishop MacPherson said it was a sad commentary of the current state of the church that such correspondence would be published, but he was more distressed by the damage the leaked information had done to the point the 14 bishops who signed the statement were trying to make.

“My prayer is that we will be able to find our way back as a church to following the constitution and canons that have been handed down to us,” he said. “The current leadership is moving away in another direction.”

Mixed response as ABC cancels religious broadcast: CEN 10.18.08 October 18, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Australia, Church of England Newspaper, Religion Reporting.
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The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) decision to cancel its weekly Religion Report has drawn mixed reactions from that country’s Anglican leaders.

The Primate of the Anglican Church of Australian, Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of Brisbane said he was disappointed the national broadcaster had cancelled the flagship Wednesday morning programme, however Sydney diocesan spokesman Bishop Robert Forsyth said he was encouraged Radio National was taking religion reporting out of a specialty ghetto and moving it into the “mainstream” of its news reporting.

Read it all in The Church of England Newspaper.