Terry Mattingly

Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

For weeks, I have been hearing from readers asking me when GetReligion was going to address the Catholic News Agency report about the $120,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, which owns Religion News Service.

In one article, CNA noted that the grant listing said that its purpose was to "recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches." When announcing the grant, Arcus officials said this grant would help foster a "culture of LGBT understanding through the media” by funding news reports and blogging posts “about religion and LGBT peoples of color.”

RNS Editor Kevin Eckstrom defended his wire service's editorial independence, stressing that this public relations represented "Arcus’ description of their funding, not ours.” It is also crucial to note that the funding connections between RNS and the Religion Newswriters Foundation are complex, to the degree that CNA needed to correct some fine details. Please read that whole report carefully.

In that story, Eckstrom also noted that GetReligion frequently criticizes RNS because its work does not meet our blog's "standard of theological orthodoxy.”

I did not respond, although there is much to be said on these matters. First of all, please note that GetReligion frequently praises the work of RNS and we certainly recognize its crucial role as the only mainstream news operation dedicated to covering the religion beat. Second, let me acknowledge that -- over the past decade -- RNS frequently took interns from the Washington Journalism Center (which is now being rebooted in New York City). Eckstrom and his team, frankly, did a fantastic and gracious job working with my program's students and I will always be grateful for that.

So what can I say about the "theological" issues involved in this discussion? Let's start with some background on journalism "theology."

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Happy couple has 100 grandkids: Can you (as opposed to AP) spot the religion ghost?

Happy couple has 100 grandkids: Can you (as opposed to AP) spot the religion ghost?

This has to be one of the #DUH items to ever grace the cyber pages here at GetReligion. Let's see if you can spot the religion ghost in this one.

So let's say that you are reading a story about a nice elderly couple in Illinois named Leo and Ruth Zanger. The story appeared in the Quincy Herald-Whig that was picked up by the Associated Press, which is why several people (Hello M.Z. Hemingway!) saw it and sent me stunned, even incredulous notes.

Now, the key to this story is that Leo and Ruth Zanger recently celebrated the birth of their 100th grandchild. Thus, here is the top of the story:

It's a big deal when Leo and Ruth Zanger's family gets together. Seriously, it's a really big deal -- with added emphasis on the "big" part.
The Zangers recently welcomed their 100th grandchild, which makes family functions more than a get-together.
"We rent out a church hall," said Austin Zanger, a grandson of Leo and Ruth.
When Austin's wife, Ashleigh, gave birth to their second child, Jaxton Leo, on April 8, it became a historic moment. Jaxton was grandchild No. 100 for Leo and Ruth. For the numerically inclined, Jaxton was also No. 46 among the great-grandchildren. The Zangers also have 53 grandkids and one great-great-grandchild for a nice round 100.
"The good Lord has just kept sending them," Leo Zanger said of the grandkids. "We could start our own town."

Ah, but what kind of church hall? Seriously, as you read the top of this story didn't the following thought drift through your mind: "The Zangers must be really serious Catholics."

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Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.

You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.

This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.

This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously it's strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs. 

By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.

Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.

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BBC pro visits 46 churches during Lent and shares what he saw, heard and felt

BBC pro visits 46 churches during Lent and shares what he saw, heard and felt

So here is a bonus think piece for this holiday, one of the most delicate and delightful pieces I have read in quite some time. Thank you to the folks (yes, hello GetReligion co-founder Douglas LeBlanc) who pointed it out.

The concept is rather simple and it's crucial to know that this was not an attempt to dig into religion NEWS, so much as religion CULTURE at the level of parishes and pews. So BBC broadcaster Adrian Chiles -- a convert to Catholicism -- decided to take on a unique Lenten discipline this spring, vowing to attend church for 46 days in a row.

The result: "What I learnt from 46 consecutive days in church." Let's let him pick up the narration near the top, as he explains the rules:

 I'm a Catholic, so it would be Mass every day for more than a month. It felt like it would be a real struggle -- a penance. It turned out to be anything but. It was a rich and enriching experience -- spiritually, obviously, but I was also enraptured by the churches themselves, the communities they serve, and the people with whom I shared all those Masses.
I made it extra hard for myself by undertaking to go to a different church every day, so by Easter Sunday I'd been before 46 different priests in 46 different churches in 46 days.

There is no way to summarize this piece, to be honest with you. His observations about art, people, preaching, etc., must be read in context.

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Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

It's a problem that your GetReligionistas face all the time: Many readers do not understand that columnists and opinion writers play by different rules than journalists who write hard news for traditional news organizations.

Yes, it doesn't help -- see this file on what we call "Kellerism" -- that many important mainstream journalists who should know better are blurring the lines between what many textbooks would call the "American model" of the press and the older "European model" which embraces advocacy journalism. This happens a lot when journalists cover debates about doctrine, sex and law.

As a rule, GetReligion focuses on mainstream, hard-news coverage of religion. However, from time to time we pass along "think pieces" that focus on subjects directly linked to religion-news coverage or topics that we think would interest our readers. Several readers sent us a link to a recent First Things piece that takes a critical look at a recent Huffington Post piece -- about same-sex marriage, of course -- that, according to a man interviewed for the HP piece, veered into creative fiction.

This raises a crucial question: What is the HP these days? It often contains serious news reported using a straight forward , hard-news approach, but it is also packed with opinion essays and advocacy pieces that reflect its liberal editorial point of view. So, can you criticize a liberal columnist for writing a liberal column? In this case, the First Things writer is alleging far more than mere bias.

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Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

In recent days, I have had quite a few emails asking what the GetReligionistas think of the fall of Josh Duggar of the Family Research Council and then the whole "19 Kids and Counting" TLC reality-television empire.

As always, people seemed to be asking what we thought of the story itself, as opposed to our reactions to the mainstream news media coverage of the story. That's two different issues.

As always, most of the coverage has looked at the story through a political lens, asking how this scandal among hypocrites on the Religious Right would impact public debates about same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage and same-sex marriage.

That's an interesting angle, since I never got the impression -- as someone who has never seen a complete episode of the show -- that the Duggars were the kinds of folks who were very effective as apologists, when it came time to changing many minds on the cultural left. They seemed, to me, to be the ultimate preaching-to-the-choir niche media product. For those who are interested, here is the family's public statement on the controversy.

It's safe to assume that folks on the cultural left pretty much hated these folks, with good cause. The more subtle point is that the Duggars were also very controversial among evangelicals, including among folks who are often accurately described as very traditional, or even patriarchal, on family issues. This television empire made all kinds of folks nervous, with good cause.

Here is the key, if you want to dig into the serious coverage. How early does the name "Bill Gothard" appear and to what degree does the coverage make it sound like Gothard and his disciples represent mainstream evangelicalism or even orthodox (let alone Orthodox or Catholic) Christianity?

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Scandal! Sikh man removes his turban in order to follow teachings of his faith!

Scandal! Sikh man removes his turban in order to follow teachings of his faith!

As we all know, religious doctrines are bad. Thus, breaking them is good. That seems to be the implication of a bizarre AOL.com news item -- a piece of aggregation, actually -- sent to your GetReligionistas the other day.

The key, as in many mistakes involving aggregated news, is that the writer appears to have spent zero time or energy investigating the facts of the story. In fact, it appears that the AOL desk didn't even pay that much attention to the New Zealand Herald story it was slicing and dicing. The goal was a conflict-driven click-friendly headline: "Sikh man breaks religious rules, removes his turban to help an injured boy." As a reader noted:

The title and the bulk of the article attempt to create a conflict between the "rules" of religion and real compassion. On the plus side, the article does note that "the Sikh religion makes exceptions for taking off a turban in emergencies," yet it still plays up the phony conflict.

Let's look at two pieces of this short item:

A New Zealand Sikh put religion aside and took off his turban to help an injured child.
The New Zealand Herald reports 22-year-old Harman Singh saw a 5-year-old boy had been struck by a car outside of his home Friday. Despite religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban and show his hair in public, Singh didn't hesitate to take off his headdress and cushion the bleeding child's head.

You have to love the "put religion aside" reference and the reference to "religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban." The key word is "permitting."

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Church planting in Boston: Brilliant Alternet satire or, well, something else?

Church planting in Boston: Brilliant Alternet satire or, well, something else?

When I was a lad back in the early 1960s, my father left his work as a Southern Baptist pastor in inner-city Dallas and took a position in North Texas, near the base of the Panhandle, that was often referred to as an "associational missionary." It helps to know that Southern Baptists have regional "associations," as opposed to conferences, presbyteries or dioceses.

One of the primary duties of this associational leader, in addition to serving as a pastor or consultant to the region's pastors, was to direct efforts in what has long been called "church planting." The goal was to figure out logical places to "plant" effective new churches and then help people do precisely that. Click here for a rather mainstream take on this topic, from a middle-of-the-road Protestant flock up in Canada.

There was nothing sneaky or threatening about this work, at least not in Texas a half century ago.

It seems that times have changed, at least in some blue zip codes. Either that, or some journalists simply have zero familiarity with how church leaders think and talk? Yeah, that could be what we are dealing with here.

But maybe not! As several people have noted in emails to me -- including a former GetReligionista known as a wit -- the following Alternet piece may not, as it appears, be a stunningly tone-deaf look at a perfectly normal church topic.

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Real estate vs. doctrine: Where are the people in story on sale of St. James Parish?

Real estate vs. doctrine: Where are the people in story on sale of St. James Parish?

Trust me, your GetReligionistas understand that the timeline of the Anglican vs. Episcopal doctrine wars gets very, very complicated. Add to that the fact that the conflicts are taking place at the local, diocesan, national and global levels and you have very complicated stories on your hands, especially if you are a general-assignment reporter and not a Godbeat pro.

However, a recent story in The Orange County Register raises a completely different issue. When one of these battles ends, is it primarily a story about real estate or people? I mean, the dollars and cents of the church-property sale are important, but shouldn't journalists acknowledge that there are people out there -- perhaps even Register readers -- who care about what happens with these sacred spaces? Here is the top of the story:

The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles is nearing the end of negotiations to sell St. James the Great Episcopal Church in Newport Beach to real estate developers.
Bishop J. Jon Bruno announced the sale to congregants Sunday, Diocese spokesman Robert Williams said. The sale of the church could bring in roughly $15 million -- twice the appraised value of the site, Williams said.

Services at the church will likely continue into the fall, Williams said. No information on where congregants will be moved or whether the congregation may reopen at a different site was available on Monday, he said.

So the current occupants of the church are Episcopalians. Got it. But here is one of those "people" questions. How many of these Episcopalians are there and, well, why are they leaving such a prime location? How do they feel about this deal?

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