iPad publication meets the Amish

The journalism world is abuzz over the launch of Rupert Murdoch's The Daily, the first publication "built from scratch" for the iPad. The Poynter Institute's Damon Kiesow suggests that it's "too early to pass any judgment on the content." Already, though, one story in particular has prompted a popular Big Apple website called The Awl to declare:

The Daily really is the New York Post goes to college

Conveniently enough for your GetReligionistas, the story at issue has a strong religion angle. Here's what The Awl (a site featured by The New York Times back in October) had to say today:

As you know if you have been near the Internet, everyone is discussing The Daily. ... The reviews are ... all over the place. There is love! There is hate! I have not yet truly indulged but I have been reading some of their web-published stories, such as this very unusual feature: "AMISH SMUGGLERS' SHADY MILK RUN"! It's very bizarre stylistically. It has the short paragraphs and quirks of the Post--it opens with an "intriguing" and cloudy scene: a mysterious man delivers "contraband" to Manhattan! Oh gosh! But "he wasn't selling them anything they planned to smoke, snort or inject." No it's just raw milk. Then come the government stats about this public health menace, and then a rather stilted scene back in Amish country with a "leading raw milk advocate."

And then, at the end, our intrepid correspondent says that he will try some of the raw milk, despite his "very serious reservations." And then he doesn't tell us how it was!

Very rude.

Now, before I give my own assessment of this piece, let me agree with one part of The Awl's analysis. I, too, was disappointed that the writer left that big question hanging: What did he think of the raw milk?

Seriously, though, I'm more concerned about the religion ghosts that haunt this 1,300-word report.

The tabloid approach aside, I found the subject matter fascinating. This was the first I had read about a dispute between the Amish and the federal government over raw milk, although a bit of Googling quickly revealed previous reports by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Daily News, just to name a few.

Early in The Daily story, we learn this about the man with a "black-brimmed country hat, suspenders and an Amish beard" featured in the lede:

Samuel is part of a shadowy community of outlaw Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers who risk fines, loss of equipment and product, and even imprisonment to transport raw milk across state lines and satisfy a burgeoning appetite for illegal raw milk in places like New York. In January, The Daily rode along on one of these smuggling runs.

Unpasteurized milk is increasingly popular among foodies and health nuts for both its taste and its supposed nutritional benefits. But government authorities take a hard line, warning that unpasteurized milk may contain salmonella, E. coli and bacteria that can lead to typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

"Raw milk is inherently dangerous and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose," says the Food and Drug Administration.

A shadowy community of outlaw Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers. Who wants to help me write the pilot for that sitcom? Just kidding ...

Before I focus on the religion angle, I can't resist questioning the general premise of the story: Where are the concrete numbers to back up claims of a burgeoning appetite for illegal raw milk -- or as it's described later -- the growing number of raw-milk fans? Where are the specific stats to confirm the unattributed claims of a small but growing number of devotees and the description of raw milk as increasingly popular among foodies and health nuts. This report provides none of those details.

From a religion perspective, the key question would seem to be this: How does Samuel -- and the other "smugglers" interviewed -- balance apparently deep religious beliefs with an obvious willingness to break federal law?

The Daily scratches at that issue, but not hard enough:

When he brings a shipment of illegal milk to New York, Samuel has more than 140 customers waiting for him, ready to pay $6 a gallon.

Samuel's smuggling run started in Pennsylvania's Amish country, where his family farm is located. As Amish doctrine prohibits him from operating an automobile, he paid a non-Amish person to drive.

The final destination was an unmarked converted factory on the eastern edge of Chelsea. Upstairs, the milk deals went down in an unadorned room teeming with a crowd similar to what one might find at a Michael Pollan book signing.

Samuel is well-aware that he's breaking the law.

OK ... he won't drive a car, but he'll break federal law? Why? How does smuggling raw milk fit with his personal values? The story doesn't say.

Isaac, another Amish farmer who agreed to be interviewed if the publication kept his identity confidential, offers this perspective:

For Isaac, the issues are cultural. When it comes to dairy farming, becoming a smuggler was the only way to maintain a pure, Amish way of life. "I want my family on the farm," he said. "I don't want them out in the world."

He wouldn't be able to make ends meet in his traditional dairy operation if he was operating above board, he said. "We have church restrictions, and our people are losing that because of the way modern dairy farming is being done."

He wondered aloud why the state won't let him pursue his preferred way of life.

But what does his religion say about breaking the law? Would God approve of what he's doing? The story fails to tackle such basic questions.

From a GetReligion standpoint, The Daily is off to a shaky start: too much milk and too little meat.

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