Jim Davis

Welcome back, Qatar: Al Jazeera sets standard for reporting Mennonite gay issues

Welcome back, Qatar: Al Jazeera sets standard for reporting Mennonite gay issues

Here's a modern paradox: One of the best examples of the American Model of the press, as tmatt calls it, is the Arab news service Al Jazeera. A good example is its indepth on the struggle of Mennonites with gay issues.

"As I've come to expect as standard for Al-Jazeera, they dig deep and quote lots of different viewpoints on this issue, and look at a particular group that is not high in the public conversation," says a Faithful Reader who tipped us off to this story.

The reader is right. Al Jazeera, based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar but boasting a dozen U.S. bureaus, writes sensitively about all sides in the debate. The 1,800-word story starts with a man who feels torn between his attraction for other men and his love for the church.

Then it neatly summarizes a paradox:

The Mennonite church – often vocal on peace and social justice issues – won’t perform his vows and views his sexuality with a wary eye. Though often viewed as a church of old-fashioned, plain-dressed pacifists who live agrarian lives much like the Amish, the reality is that "Plain" and horse-and-buggy Mennonites comprise only about one percent of the church. 
The rest of the church, a Protestant Anabaptist sect founded during the Reformation in the 1500s, uses varying degrees of modern technology. And most adherents wear modern clothing. What unites all factions of the church is a commitment to pacifism and social justice. And it’s those very traits that are also threatening its unraveling, as the church – and the rest of America – comes to terms with recent progress in the fight for LGBT civil rights.

The article gives us a peek at the recent annual conference in Kansas City of the Mennonite Church U.S.A., which failed to yield an agreement on the LGBT community. The delegates simply admitted there was no consensus, then tabled discussion for another four years. In protest, some members -- in a group called "Pink Menno" -- stood with duct tape over their mouths, the story says.

Another good explainer:

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Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Mustachioed villain attacks brave theologian -- at least in St. Louis Dispatch story

Remember the classic old-timey movie villain, twirling his mustache while laughing "Nyah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa"? Did you know he's Lutheran?

Well, no, he's not, as far as I know. That's just kinda the way Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, comes off in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Right in the first two paragraphs, we get this:

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod recently carried out what various members consider the equivalent of a modern-day heresy trial.
The Kirkwood-based church has 2.3 million members. The case pits two-term synod President Matthew Harrison — who is known for his bushy mustache and conservative views — against Matthew Becker, an outspoken pastor.

Hmmm. Maybe a little Grand Inquisitor there, too, judging by the "heresy trial" phrase.

Becker is a theology professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, a Lutheran school that isn't affiliated with LCMS. He has criticized the synod's teachings about creationism and women's ordination. In the latter, he even compared male-only ordination to slavery and racism, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Harrison also scolded Becker for his part in an interfaith vigil after the student shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a violation of the LCMS constitution, the newspaper adds.

But there's more. In a Facebook post -- which is linked in the newspaper story -- Harrison also accuses Becker of advocating homosexuality, the errancy of the Bible and communion with members of other faiths. Several panels investigated, then cleared Becker, the article says.

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Quran manuscripts found! Divine message thrills mainstream media!

Quran manuscripts found! Divine message thrills mainstream media!

If you ever needed a reminder to use more than one news source, this week's announcement about two old pages of the Quran furnish ample reason. The news reports vary widely in scope and caution -- or lack of it.

The basics: The University of Birmingham in England announced that two pages from the Muslim scripture have been dated by radiocarbon to somewhere 568 and 645 A.D. Since the Prophet Muhammad -- who said he got the text as message from Allah -- is generally thought to have lived between 570 and 632 A.D., the parchment pages date back to the earliest years of Islam, the university says.

The release adds that the pages, from surahs (chapters) 18-20, read much like modern editions of the Quran. If so, it supports Muslims who insist the version they have is pretty much the one their forebears recited.

Pretty startling claims, and they deserve a good, hard look. But unless we get follow-up reports, we may not get a lot of that. Most mainstream media thus far are simply echoing what the university and its supporters said. No, worse than that. More like cheerleading.

They freely cite the release, including quotes by David Thomas, Susan Worrall and Alba Fedeli of the university -- plus an approving remark from a Persian scholar at the British Library. CNN even uses footage released by the university, including views of the quranic pages.

The reports also repeat and amplify the university's hype. BBC gives free rein to gushing reactions by Muslim scholars. It's "news to rejoice Muslim hearts," one says. "When I saw these pages I was very moved," says another. "There were tears of joy and emotion in my eyes."

And BBC isn't alone.

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AP poll: Downtick on support for same-sex marriage. Mainstream media: (shrug)

AP poll: Downtick on support for same-sex marriage. Mainstream media: (shrug)

To the surprise of few, the American public hasn't flocked to the gay marriage side just because the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. It may surprise some that public approval of same-sex marriage has actually retreated a bit, according to a new Associated Press poll.

A bigger surprise to me: Mainstream media show little curiosity about it.

Sure, they're reposting and reprinting the report, in varying lengths. But are they localizing reactions? Seeking explanations? Not as of this writing.

The poll results are attention-getting enough:

The Supreme Court’s ruling last month legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide has left Americans sharply divided, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that suggests support for gay unions may be down slightly from earlier this year.
The poll also found a near-even split over whether local officials with religious objections should be required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, with 47 percent saying that should be the case and 49 percent say they should be exempt.
Overall, if there’s a conflict, a majority of those questioned think religious liberties should win out over gay rights, according to the poll. While 39 percent said it’s more important for the government to protect gay rights, 56 percent said protection of religious liberties should take precedence.

We'll note in passing the "frame game" phrasing, as tmatt calls it: religious "liberties" versus gay "rights." It's an unfortunately common pair of terms in mainstream media, although religious rights are spelled out in the U.S. Constitution and gay rights are not.

But in this story, the numbers are more interesting:

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Back to Katy Perry and the nuns: Media may be getting actually factual

Back to Katy Perry and the nuns: Media may be getting actually factual

The tug-o-war continues between the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and five religious sisters. Now, however, it looks like mainstream media snickering over "Katy Perry versus the nuns" is finally giving way to interest in the facts.

For Those Who Came In Late: The often-ribald pop star has had her eye for some time on the eight-acre hilltop convent belonging to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which has dwindled to five elderly sisters. Perry struck a deal with the archdiocese, then found the sisters had already sold the place to a restaurateur. The archdiocese filed a lawsuit, saying the Vatican gave it control over the estate. The nuns countersued, saying the archdiocese had no right to sell their land to Perry or anyone else.

To be sure, a few outlets are still draining the last drops of "tee-hee." Take Perez Hilton (please!), with its headline "Holy Cow! This Katy Perry Convent Drama Is Heating Up! The Nuns Filed Papers To Fight For Ownership!"

"We always thought nuns were peaceful, but these ladies are prepared to fight!" Perez exclaims. "It'll be inneresting (sic) to see who comes out victorious is (sic) this buyer battle!"

At least the gossip blog got it right, that it was nuns against the archdiocese. Stories last month chortled over the (inaccurate) image of black-clad biddies fighting a flamboyant pop diva.

Better is the Los Angeles Times, whose columnist Steve Lopez  broke the story in late June. In contrast to the forced humor of that story, though, the new article sticks to facts. Note how it interweaves news and background:

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Shooting back: Christian militia in Iraq gets mainstream media attention

Shooting back: Christian militia in Iraq gets mainstream media attention

Maybe the terrorists of ISIS forgot, but their victims can get guns, too. One such militia, the Babylonian Brigades, is made of Christians who have joined Muslim defenders in Iraq. And as NBC News reports, "they're out for revenge."

Sounds like NBC's crew has zeroed in on a hot story that could well get hotter:

The 1,000-strong Babylonian Brigades is the only Christian militia under the Shiite-dominated umbrella group of volunteer fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Forces — and they're out for revenge.
ISIS "displaced us from our houses, they took our money, killed our young men and women and they took our properties," the group's commander, Rayan Al-Kildani, told NBC News. "Therefore, Christians decided to fight the terrorists of ISIS."
"By the will of God we will avenge what happened to our community," he added.

Many news organizations last year woke up to persecution of Christians;  "Iraq's Other Horror Story," Chris Matthews of MSNBC called it. But NBC News not only jumped on the counterattack, but talked to the fighters.

NBC reports that the Babylonian Brigades formed in June 2014 after the fall of Mosul, a city that once had 30,000 Christian residents.  The militiamen tell the reporter of thefts, rapes, enslavement and summary executions of their loved ones.

It cites the CIA World Factbook that only about 260,000 are left in Iraq as of 2010, although it doesn't say how many once lived there. Some sources count as many as 800,000 to a million before the U.S.' two military actions against the government of Saddam Hussein, starting in 1991.

ISIS' persecution of religious minorities -- Yazidis and Sufi and Shiite Muslims as well as Christians -- has gotten a rising tide of coverage, in mainstream media as well as the religious press. But most of the stories take one of two themes: suffering masses fleeing violence, only to face sickness and hunger; or thousands falling victim to shootings, burnings or beheadings by ISIS.

There's also an occasional subplot of mainstream media: friends of various religions banding together against a common foe. Newsweek did it in March with its feature on the Christian flight from Maaloula, Syria. " In this town, we are not defined by religion," a Sunni man told the newsmagazine. "We all know each other. Everyone is a Christian, and everyone is Muslim."

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Retired Playboy editor gets airbrushed treatment in newspaper profile

Retired Playboy editor gets airbrushed treatment in newspaper profile

Ever wonder about the morality or spirituality of a Playboy editor? Well, when you read a newspaper profile on one of them, you'll still be left wondering.

The Sunday feature, in the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune, drops a hint or two in telling of Gretchen Edgren, who worked as an editor for 25 years in the Playboy empire. She's a "churchgoing mother of two." Now living in retirement in Holmes Beach, she was "brought up in a religious but open-minded household" in Oregon. But aside from those glancing blows, the article pretty much rambles for 800+ words.

The hook is apparently that this calm, silver-haired lady once edited a magazine and several books for Hugh Hefner's libertine realm. As a further paradox, although she's on nickname terms with "Hef," she never even visited his Playboy Mansion.

The Herald-Tribune takes pains to say that Edgren was a "serious journalist" whose first gig was at the The Oregonian before becoming an assistant editor for VIP, the magazine for Playboy Club members. She then edited annual collections of Playmates and a 40-year retrospect of the flagship magazine.

How did she regard the focus of her trade -- which one of her annual projects celebrated as The Year in Sex? No problem, says the Herald-Tribune, but it doesn't really say why:

“I considered myself a feminist, but the whole feminist thing about 'Playboy' exploiting women wasn't right,” says Edgren, whose first job was as a reporter for The Oregonian. “Women were not being rounded up and forced to pose. They were lining up at the door, and for a lot of reasons.”

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Big setup, big letdown: New York Times on Luis Palau event

Big setup, big letdown: New York Times on Luis Palau event

The New York Times did a promising advance for Luis Palau's CityFest, then let the follow-up slide. The newspaper used the occasion for an indepth on the growth of evangelical Christianity in New York, highlighting the role of immigrants. But the event coverage was pedestrian, paint-by-the-numbers, almost as if the Times had lost interest by then.

The 1,500-word advance has some strong virtues. It tells of the patient but exuberant preparations for the July 10 event. It provides a peek into the festive, exuberant Sunday worship of some of the churches. It tells how they serve immigrants on several levels: spiritual, social and cultural. And it quotes a variety of evangelicals: Haitian, Ecuadoran, Salvadoran, Trinidadian.

"The size of the festival belies the city’s secular reputation and speaks to the vibrant evangelical movement in New York," the Times says. At times it sounds almost affectionate for the main speaker, without injecting stereotypes about the religious right:


Nearly 900 of the 1,700 churches participating in the festival are Hispanic, organizers said. Latino leaders were the ones two years ago to invite Mr. Palau, an endearing, white-haired bilingual immigrant from Argentina who has built a reputation as the Hispanic Billy Graham, but African-American and Korean-American church leaders quickly got involved in the planning.
The six-hour event is expected to highlight the multidenominational and multiethnic flavor of evangelical Christianity in New York and its suburbs, drawing hundreds of churches whose members also hail from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.
"What the Palau Festival has been able to do is catalyze a growing movement of Christian voices present in the city," said Gabriel Salguero, a pastor of a multiethnic church in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. It represents, he added, a "coming-of-age of immigrant evangelicals" in New York.

While numbers aren't easy to come by, the newspaper does a decent job. It also gives some "whys" for the rise of evangelicalism:

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Funny Muslims: New York Times runs a humorless advance on a comedy festival

Funny Muslims: New York Times runs a humorless advance on a comedy festival

One funny thing about the planned Muslim Funny Fest is that such things are still considered news. The New York Times introduces the idea as if it doesn't go back more than a decade.

Another funny thing is that the story has so few funny things.

"We should be able to tell our own story, and our story is that Muslims are hilarious," Negin Farsad, one of the organizers, says in the story. Unfortunately, they don’t get to show much of it here.

The article also strains at the seams trying to advance the comedy festival and tell of efforts to publicize it in bus and train stations. One topic is funny; one is not.

A quarter of its 17 paragraphs is on the tussle with the city over ads that Farsad and co-organizer Dean Obeidallah want to post on its bus and train stations. Only in the fourth paragraph, in fact, does the Times get to the news of the three-day Funny Fest festival, set to start July 21.

Then it segues into Obeidallah's background and how he met Zayid. They founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival back in 2003, focused more on ethnicity but still related to Muslim Americans. They produced a semi-serious documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, back in 2013.  It was to advertise that film that they wanted to advertise on buses. Also to counter what they considered anti-Muslim ads by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the group that sponsored the Draw Mohammed contest in Texas.

This section has what humor the story offers. The Times quotes one of the posters the comedians wanted on the buses -- "The ugly truth about Muslims: Muslims have great frittata recipes." They also say they won't censor any Funny Fest comedians who want to "talk about the fact that you love bacon sandwiches." That's pretty much all the laughs here.

Now, it's true that the organizers use humor for serious reasons:

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