Jim Davis

Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Last week I criticized the Associated Press for writing about Syrian Christian refugees without talking to any Christians. (Thinking back, I don’t think they talked to Syrians either.) Well, AP finally got around to asking not only Christians but those of a range of faiths. And they did a beautiful job. Especially compared to some stories I could mention.

The background, of course, is the public anxiety over President Barack Obama's plans to bring in 10,000 or more refugees from the Syrian civil war over the next year. In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, and reports that cells of terrorists are dotted all over Europe, many Americans worry that some of the killers may enter the country posing as refugees.

This is a story on which religious groups have clear viewpoints, and Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll of AP rounds up those perspectives. She samples views of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even an American Muslim group. Her thorough report shows a remarkable consensus among them.

The top of the story could hardly be better:

In rare agreement across faith and ideological lines, leaders of major American religious groups have condemned proposed bans on Syrian refugees, contending a legitimate debate over security has been overtaken by irrational fear and prejudice.
Top organizations representing evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews and liberal Protestants say close vetting of asylum seekers is a critical part of forming policy on refugees. But these religious leaders say such concerns, heightened after the Paris attacks a week ago, do not warrant blocking those fleeing violence in the Middle East.

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America's bishops take on the porn industry; mainstream media don’t care

America's bishops take on the porn industry; mainstream media don’t care

Pornography reaps $97 billion a year worldwide -- $10-$12 billion just in America -- and the nation's Catholics number more than 66 million. So when the nation's bishops issue a massive new paper on pornography, wouldn't you think news media would listen hard?

But no, most mainstream media's answer seems to be "Yawn." Except for the Catholic press, few outlets showed any interest.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at their second semiannual meeting this year, certainly spared no alarms at the explosion of "hypersexualized" content -- not only videos but movies, music, novels, videogames, "sexting" phone messages, even drugstores, hotel chains, and cable companies.

"In the confessional and in our daily ministry, we have seen the corrosive damage caused by pornography: children whose innocence is stolen; men and women who feel great guilt and shame for viewing pornography occasionally or habitually; spouses who feel betrayed and traumatized; and men, women and children exploited by the pornography industry," says the 32-page paper (.pdf here).

Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, chairman of the committee that did the paper, adds his own ringing quote. As reported by Catholic News Service, Malone calls porn a "particularly sinister instance of consumption" whereby men, women and children "are consumed for the pleasure of others." Adds the 1,200-word CNS story:

"Producing or using pornography is gravely wrong. It is a mortal sin if it is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Unintentional ignorance and factors that compromise the voluntary and free character of the act can diminish a person's moral culpability," says the approved version of "Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography."

The use of religious terms like "gravely wrong" and "mortal sin" are especially noteworthy. The bishops are stating their belief that porn not only degrades personal dignity but imperils souls. CNS was alert also in spotting the mitigating factors in the study.

And I don’t see that high standard matched in secular media.  As a faithful reader told us, it may fall into our "Got News?" category.

"They certainly noticed the statements on nukes, the economy and gays," Faithful Reader says. "So when the bishops take on a $97 billion global industry, that's not worth looking at?"

But even the few secular reporters who showed up in Baltimore, where the bishops met, gave it only passing mention. The Baltimore Sun did an omnibus advance story, saying the bishops were planning to deal with abortion, marriage, immigration and religious liberty. And the follow-up wasn't much better: two of the 13 paragraphs.

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On Syrian refugees, AP finds it easier to talk about Christians than to them

On Syrian refugees, AP finds it easier to talk about Christians than to them

Ever hear people talk about you while you're standing right there? It comes close to that in an Associated Press story on whether to accept Syrian refugees into the United States.

"Should the U.S. admit Syrians only if they are Christian?" the headline says in Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. AP talks to politicians. They quote government officials all the way up to President Obama. And they major, of course, on presidential candidates who brought up the issue in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.

Who don’t they ask? That's right. Christians. For AP, the religious angle is just a front for politics:

The debate, which cuts straight to the American identity as a refuge, on Monday ranged from whether to only admit Syrians who are Christian to whether to close some mosques. But across the political landscape, caution intensified about vetting Syrian refugees and whether to allow them into the country at all.
GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump suggested in a MSNBC interview that he would “strongly consider” closing some mosques if elected. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the United States should focus on admitting Christians. And GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio for the first time said the United States should no longer accept Syrian refugees because it’s impossible to know whether they have links to Islamic militants — an apparent shift from earlier statements in which he left open the prospects of migrants being admitted with proper vetting.

Oh yeah, something else must annoy you as much as me: when the gossip is vague and inaccurate. What does closing mosques have to do with Christian refugees? Does it sharpen focus to talk about turning away all refugees, Christian or not? And does Bush really want to admit only Syrians who are Christians?

Because that ain't what Bush said, according to AP -- even though the story has Obama saying he did:

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Pope, Paris and ISIS: mainstream media coverage broad but shallow

Pope, Paris and ISIS: mainstream media coverage broad but shallow

Pope Francis didn’t just criticize the ISIS attacks in Paris. He pretty much damned them. His weekend reactions used both religious and humanitarian terms -- "blasphemy," "not human," "homicidal hatred." It was some of Francis' strongest language yet.

But not everyone in mainstream media looked much below the surface -- either at his comments or those of ISIS.

Catholic News Service, of course, spotted the religious content quickly:

The attacks, Pope Francis said, were an "unspeakable affront to the dignity of the human person."
"The path of violence and hatred cannot resolve the problems of humanity, and using the name of God to justify this path is blasphemy," he said.
Pope Francis asked the thousands of people who gathered at St. Peter's for the Sunday midday prayer to observe a moment of silence and to join him in reciting a Hail Mary.
"May the Virgin Mary, mother of mercy, give rise in the hearts of everyone thoughts of wisdom and proposals for peace," he said. "We ask her to protect and watch over the dear French nation, the first daughter of the church, over Europe and the whole world."
"Let us entrust to the mercy of God the innocent victims of this tragedy," the pope said.

And other reports? Well, some simply patched together other reports. One of those was HuffPost, which linked to seven other stories in less than 230 words (although three were other HuffPo stories).  The article also cites Francis saying the attacks are part of a "piecemeal Third World War," drawn from an interview with TV2000, the network of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

It's a phrase he has often used. The Washington Times points out that he said much the same at an Italian World War I cemetery in 2014. But don’t give the Times too much credit for enterprise reporting: It linked to BBC's coverage of the pope's visit there.

Even the combined forces of CBS News and the Associated Press yielded a pitiful 280 words or so on Sunday. And it's nearly all soundbites: "blasphemy," "barbarity," "third world war," "no justification for these things." The main addition was his condolence to French President Francois Hollande, who vowed "merciless" war on ISIS.

One might excuse AP/CBS for haste because the report ran on Sunday morning, but no. Not when Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe, ran a more thorough report the day before -- a report that showed a Sunday update:

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MMA fighter's profile shows fancy footwork, but doesn't score a knockout

MMA fighter's profile shows fancy footwork, but doesn't score a knockout

Holly Holm is a formidable mixed martial arts fighter, skilled with accurate kicks and punches. But the Albuquerque Journal's profile on her lands only glancing blows on her spirituality.

The undefeated 9-0 MMA fighter goes up against champion Ronda Rousey Saturday night for the bantamweight title, and the Journal took the occasion to write a profile on Holm. And it found a good hook: her blend of ferocity and gentleness.

Here's the opening:

Two sides of Holly Holm’s nature were on display in a Houston cage on July 19, 2013.
First, the Albuquerque MMA fighter felled Allanna Jones with a vicious kick to the head. Holm dropped to finish her opponent on the ground, but it wasn’t necessary; Jones was out cold.
Then, instead of celebrating the spectacular victory, a somber Holm knelt on the canvas – waiting for a sign that Jones was going to be OK. Only after Jones stirred did "The Preacher’s Daughter" get to her feet and acknowledge the crowd.

What a great start, hinting at a link between religion and compassion. I wish the story had spelled out that link.

Much of the piece turns on the relationship of father and daughter. A former farm boy and high school football player, John Holm "exudes a certain toughness," the Journal says. Like Holly, his two sons are physically active: wrestling, football, bronco riding.

But he also set a nurturing example, the article says:

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Asatru: Is that true? Were terrorist wannabes pagans? Do news media care?

Asatru: Is that true? Were terrorist wannabes pagans? Do news media care?

FBI agents crack a plot to kill blacks and Jews, allegedly planned by members of a little-known religion. How do you cover the story?

If you're like many mainstream media, you ignore or downplay the religion.

The guys in question are Virginians who allegedly wanted to buy guns and bombs, then attack synagogues and black churches. Unfortunately for them, their contacts were undercover FBI agents, who then arrested them.

Oh yeah, FBI also said they were Norse neo-pagans.

How did the media handle all this? We'll start our survey with the typically spare hard-news story from the Associated Press:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Two men described by authorities as white supremacists have been charged in Virginia with trying to illegally buy weapons and explosives to use in attacks on synagogues and black churches.
Robert C. Doyle and Ronald Beasley Chaney III tried to buy an automatic weapon, explosives and a pistol with a silencer from three undercover agents posing as illegal firearms dealers, FBI agent James R. Rudisill wrote in an affidavit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Richmond.

If the FBI is right, they're clearly racist anti-Semites. What about their spiritual leanings? AP doesn't tell us until more than halfway down, and then only a little more:

According to Rudisill's affidavit, Doyle and the younger Chaney "ascribe to a white supremacy extremist version of the Asatru faith," a pagan sect that emphasizes Norse gods and traditions. The affidavit says the FBI learned that Doyle planned to host a meeting at his home in late September to discuss "shooting or bombing the occupants of black churches and Jewish synagogues, conducting acts of violence against persons of Jewish faith, and doing harm to a gun store owner in the state of Oklahoma."

The AP report was based partly on one by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That story says pretty much the same phrases about Asatru and bombing black and Jewish congregations. "Asatru is a pagan religion," it unhelpfully adds.

CNN heavy hitters Wolf Blitzer and Pamela Brown mention only the men's membership in a "white supremacist group." They reference the case of Dylann Roof, the church bomber in Charleston, S.C., but only because he and the new defendants both talked about starting a race war.

Even this morning, a local CBS affiliate, which boasted of having broken the story, merely adds that police and FBI agents raided two other homes, including that of Chaney's father.

Ah, but the Washington Post was on the job. They'd help us understand, right? Well, kinda:

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Red Cup Diaries: Mainstream media cover Starbucks' Christmas brew-haha

Red Cup Diaries: Mainstream media cover Starbucks' Christmas brew-haha

So this Christian guy online aims a camera at his face and says that coffee cups show Starbucks "hates Jesus."

Can you say click-bait? There go those religious crazies again. Just the kind of story that mainstream media like to pounce on, eh?

Except, to my surprise, most didn’t this time. Instead, they just covered it, pro and con, and looked for facts.

Our story starts with Joshua Feuerstein, a former evangelical pastor based in Arizona. Feuerstein saw Starbucks' new cups for the Christmas season -- plain red with the company's green mermaid trademark -- and freaked.

"Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand-new cups?" the fast-talking minister says in a video.  He boasted that he entered one of their coffee shops and told a barista his name was "Merry Christmas," forcing the worker to write the phrase on his cup.

He chortles:

So guess, what, Starbucks? I tricked you into putting "Merry Christmas" on your cup. And I'm challenging all great Americans and Christians around this great nation: Go into Starbucks and take your own coffee selfie. And then I challenge you to not only share this video so that the word gets out, but let's start start a movement, and let's call it, I dunno, "#MerryChristmasStarbucks," and I know that by sharing this video, and getting other Christians to do it, well …

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The silent spots speak loudest in NYTimes story on Houston battle

The silent spots speak loudest in NYTimes story on Houston battle

Conservatives used fear-mongering tactics to turn back an equal-rights ordinance in Houston.

What tactics did their liberal opponents use? Oh, who cares?

The New York Times doesn't totally ignore supporters in writing up the referendum to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). But the story does pretty much fixate on who the opponents were, what they did and what the consequences might be. And what the newspaper chose not to say spoke volumes.

A bit o' background from the Times:

The measure banned discrimination in housing, private employment, city contracting and businesses such as restaurants, bars and hotels for 15 protected classes. These included minorities, women, gays and transgender individuals.
Restrooms are not specifically mentioned in the measure, which is why conservatives were accused of fearmongering. Still, it was the ordinance’s supporters, not its opponents, who appeared to first raise the issue of bathrooms last year. A draft of the bill included a section, later removed, that would have let transgender people use the bathroom that best reflected their gender identity. Opponents seized on the issue and never let go.

The article goes way back in sketching out the battle. More than a year ago, Mayor Annise D. Parker and her supporters first proposed the ordinance. Since Parker was the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, they expected smooth sailing.

Meanwhile, the opposition Campaign for Houston was polling various emphases and decided on bathrooms:

This reframing cast the issue as a matter of public safety, with claims that the measure would allow men who were dressed as women or who identified as women to enter women’s bathrooms and attack or threaten girls and women inside. The measure’s critics called it the Bathroom Ordinance and simplified their message to five words: “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms.”

How ironic to see the Times talk about reframing, then saying that opponents "seized" on the issue. The newspaper also frames the story with standard labeling. Various forms of "conservative" were used seven times; "liberal," zero.

Besides "conservatives" and "pastors" -- and in one place, "religious conservatives" -- the Times says the ordinance foes include Ed Young, a Houston pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. It also names Tony Perkins of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. How about the faith of the supporters? Were they all atheists or those multiplying "Nones"? Did any of the four reporters on this story ask?

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Washington Post examines the 'Liberty Way,' and produces a well-done article

Washington Post examines the 'Liberty Way,' and produces a well-done article

When I was told to look at a Washington Post story on changing rules at Liberty University, I readied my scalpels for some dissecting. What good could come from a Beltway view of a southern fundamentalist school?

Then I read the story and put away the blades. The piece is restrained but perceptive, respectful and balanced. Writer Alexandra Markovich does basic reporting: reading documents, digging into newsclip's and interviewing campus sources -- students and outside critics as well as administrators. And she gets through all 1,400 words without using the "F" word -- "Fundamentalist."

In her freelanced article, the 19-year-old Princeton student looks at change from more than one angle. She notes a slight loosening of dress and conduct codes, toward guidelines more than tight rules. And she holds up a strong sign of toleration: Bernie Sanders, who addressed a university convocation in September -- a nod to diversity that isn’t matched on some liberal campuses.

At first, the article looks like a typical "tee-hee" at blue-nosed southerners:

Change is in the air at Liberty University: couples can now do more than hold hands in public without fear of fine, men can wear ponytails, and students can watch R-rated movies(with “caution”). Liberty, the largest Christian university in the world, has relaxed its rules this semester to give its students more freedom.
The university has simplified the Liberty Way, its code of conduct, dropping outdated rules. Witchcraft, for instance, “or other satanic or demonic activity,” no longer risks a $500 fine and possible administrative withdrawal, a change from the 2014 edition of the Liberty Way.
The university has also cut a full page from the document’s dress code description, essentially leaving the students to decide what they mean by “Hairstyles and fashion should avoid extremes.” However, shorts are still not permitted in class and women’s’ skirts may not be shorter than two inches above the knee.

Then Markovich tells us that Liberty University has hosted talks by avowed socialist Sanders as well as the more conservative Ted Cruz. She says the changes in the Liberty Way are "merely an update to match what things already looked like in practice."

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