Jim Davis

The Marine, the Muslims and the school: a tale of spinning news

The Marine, the Muslims and the school: a tale of spinning news

Some news stories are like Rorschach inkblot tests, with various people seeing them through different lenses. Unfortunately, some of those people are editors and reporters -- especially on hot-button issues like Islam, education and patriotism.

A major example this week is a row in La Plata, Md., where Marine veteran Kevin Wood angry over a history lesson about Islam. Wood asked for an alternative assignment for his daughter; the school said no, they argued, he got insulting, then he was banned from the campus.

This all got tangled, of course, in other issues: academic freedom, separation of church (or mosque) and state, equal treatment for all religions, etc. The right-tilt might have been predictably filled by Fox News. But in fact, the network didn't hyperventilate:

Kevin Wood told MyFoxDC.com that he went to La Plata High School in La Plata, a town about 30 miles southeast of Washington, and challenged a history assignment requiring students to list the benefits of Islam. He said the meeting with the vice principal got heated; the school said he made a threat and banned the Iraq veteran from school property.
"[Wood] was threatening to cause a disruption or possible disruption at the school," a district spokesperson said.
Wood did not deny getting worked up over the issue, but said he was standing up for the Constitution and is against any religion being taught at the public school.

One Fox coup: citing a copy of the homework assignment asking, "How did Muslim conquerors treat those they conquered?" The "correct" answer, the station says, is, "With tolerance, kindness and respect." You can see how a Marine who'd fought in Iraq would get upset over that.

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Posterized Bible covers: Enterprising newsfeature in Nashville Tennessean

Posterized Bible covers: Enterprising newsfeature in Nashville Tennessean

You hear so much about the "Word of God," it's easy to forget the need for it to look attractive as well. So the Nashville Tennessean showed some alert reporting in its newsfeature on a venerable poster company being tasked with a contemporary Bible translation.

Reporter Heidi Hall took an otherwise mundane announcement and made it into a solid, hybrid business-religion story:

The Common English Bible's Nashville-based distributor contracted Hatch to create new paperback covers showcasing three Scriptures — a fresh look for this Christmas giving season. The 2011 translation replaces anachronistic phrases with the language of today.
Its distributor's instruction to Hatch was frighteningly broad: Basically, just do that wonderful thing you do. But artist Amber Richards said she stuck with her employer's archive of text and picture blocks and asked question after question until her design emerged.

Hall, the reporter, spins the story several ways. She cites Hatch manager Celene Aubry noting that both the printer and the publisher, Abingdon, are venerable firms. "When the 225-year-old company wanted a fresh look, they came to the 135-year-old company," Aubry says.

Hall also stirs in a dash of history, noting that Hatch's first project was a flier in 1879 announcing a speech by the famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, a Congregationalist minister. So, she says, the Bible project is a homecoming of sorts for Hatch.

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Los Angeles Times covers grieving students, but where are their voices?

Los Angeles Times covers grieving students, but where are their voices?

"How do you feel?" It's such a callous news cliché, especially shouted while sticking a mike in someone's face. But let's face it: When people are shot down senselessly -- as five high schoolers were at Marysville-Pilchuck High School near Seattle -- we want to know how their friends are taking it.

Unfortunately, we don’t find out in the Los Angeles Times'  coverage of the church vigil that followed the shooting.

The article sets an appropriate mood at the local Grove Church, crowded with students grieving for their fallen classmates. The Times even notes that students from a rival school were there -- and that the other school canceled and forfeited a planned football game.

The story adds movingly what the shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, really did to the kids:

Each bullet that Fryberg fired tore apart the region's safety and calm. As dusk fell and rain threatened, hundreds of students and parents, teachers and neighbors gathered together in search of solace. There were hymns, prayers and a moment of silence punctuated by tears.
There was Scripture: "Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest."  There was horror. And there was hope.
"I hate this tragedy as much as any of you," Pastor Nik Baumgart told the mourners who filled the church auditorium and its lobby and flowed out into the parking lot. "I hate what's going on. I hate what we've had to see.
"And I remember all kinds of times when I've had the same thoughts that you've had about that city, about that situation, about those schools," he continued. "Now that's us. Now that's my alma mater. Here's what we're here to do tonight. It's simple. It's honestly overly simple. Love one another. Weep together."

That's perceptive reporting. The minister doesn't rush to judge or say the dead girl was "in a better place." He just confesses human frailty, and asks everyone to love and weep.

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Attacking graveyards: Washington Post probes unusual form of oppression in Pakistan

Attacking graveyards: Washington Post probes unusual form of oppression in Pakistan

This is how bad persecution gets in Pakistan: You can't escape it even if you're dead.

Denying a final resting place to a despised group is the topic of an enterprising newsfeature by the Washington Post. For Christians and other minorities there, enduring contempt even in death is a way of life.

"Bleak" seems hardly adequate to describe the picture painted by the article. Here's a painfully eloquent passage:

Christians say they earn less than $2 a day working in the sugarcane fields. They must shop at the sparsely stocked Christian-run rice and vegetable store. They are not allowed to draw water from wells tapped for Muslim neighbors. Now, in what many consider to be a final indignity, they and other Pakistani Christians are struggling to bury their dead.
Pakistan, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, is nearly twice the size of California. But leaders of the tiny Christian minority say their burial sites are being illegally seized by developers at an alarming rate, while efforts to secure new land are rejected because of religious tenets barring Muslims from being buried near people of other faiths. Increasingly, the remaining Christian cemeteries are packed with bodies atop bodies.

The WaPo story is a textbook example of reporting both in breadth and depth. It reports from three towns, from a remote hamlet to Lahore, the nation's second-largest city. It quotes 12 sources, Muslim as well as Christian. And it armors itself against a possible complaint of pro-Christian myopia:

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Why can't the pope just change everything? CNN gives (mostly) good answers

Why can't the pope just change everything? CNN gives (mostly) good answers

The bishops "bickered" during the recent synod at the Vatican on families -- yes, the article by CNN said "bickered" -- and a lot of people wondered why Pope Francis doesn't just order changes, rather than call a two-week debatefest.

Good question, and CNN's Daniel Burke has a good answer. Actually, four good answers, highlighting the variety of sources and factions within the Roman Catholic Church. And he lays them out in mostly even-handed fashion. We'll look at the exceptions in a bit.

The Vatican synod, as you may know, was called to spot new ways of helping stressed-out families. The bishops also were charged with seeking out the possibility of providing Eucharist and other Church services to gay couples and to Catholics who had divorced and remarried.

Burke alertly reports Francis' silence throughout the quarrels, as a pope who wanted to encourage dialogue rather than hand down decrees. The reporter even quotes a Latin saying by a Vatican cardinal: Roma locuta, causa finita, or "Rome has spoken, the case is closed." Ergo, if Francis had volunteered opinions, the conferees would have fallen silent.

The bishops, as reports said, considered a passage on accepting gays as members, then watered it down and then erased it altogether. As Burke reports, Francis still tried to prod the meeting his way:

In a widely praised speech, he told them the church must find a middle path between showing mercy toward people on the margins and holding tight to church teachings.

What's more, he said, church leaders still have a year to find "concrete solutions" to the problems plaguing modern families -- from war and poverty to hostility toward nontraditional unions. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for next October in Rome.

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The truth is out there, but does Scientific American want to find it?

The truth is out there, but does Scientific American want to find it?

I recall Scientific American as a stodgy but respected journal. It bristled with challenging but intriguing titles like "The Large-Scale Streaming of Galaxies" and "Branching Phylogenies of the Paleozoic and the Fortunes of English Family Names."

But one of the newest titles -- "Did Jesus Save the Klingons?" -- just doesn't have the same ring. Nor, unfortunately, does the article: a Q&A of an astronomer pontificating on how religion -- meaning, of course, traditional Christianity -- would be undone by the discovery of life on other planets.

Says David Weintraub, author of the new book Religion and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?:

I think at bottom most people have this idea that we humans are pretty special creatures and that God is paying attention to us. If we find somebody else, then there are lots of somebodies, most likely. And if there are lots of somebodies, that somehow would seem to make us less important. I think that is, psychologically, what has happened a number of times in human history. When Copernicus first said the Earth goes around the sun, theologically that meant we’re not the center of the universe anymore. Later on when astronomers said the sun isn’t the center of the universe, it’s just a silly star out in the suburbs of the galaxy, that threatened our well-being again. Suddenly if there are other beings out there, I think it changes completely the way we think about our place in the universe. I think it would be truly profound to know that.

As you read this article, keep in mind that it has little to do with science. You'll find nothing of cause and effect or the scientific method or rules of proof. The article is simply a bit of triumphalistic rhetoric, thinly papered over with an appeal to the authority of science. You could hear opinions at least as urbane over beers at a college rathskeller.

One guess on which religions Weintraub says will have the most trouble adjusting to the news of E.T.s:

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'Bucket list baby' inspired prayers, compassion and sensitive coverage

'Bucket list baby' inspired prayers, compassion and sensitive coverage

Shane Francis Haley's life lasted less than four hours, cut short by a birth defect. Yet he and his parents reached hundreds of thousands of people through social media -- people who were first touched by the "bucket list" of experiences they gave their son before he was ever born.

That's one marvel of the drama that played out in Media, Pa., as Jenna and Don Haley updated their 700,000 Facebook friends over the prenatal months. Another marvel: the simple news narratives -- including Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor -- that told the story without adding some religio-socio-politico-economic payload.

With a story about a doomed infant, it's almost too tempting to resist the urge to add tear-jerking prose. Remarkably, the writers of these stories do resist. In the best tradition of journalism, they let the details carry the emotional weight. Closest to any gimmicky writing is the headline on the Monitor article: " 'Bucket list baby' inspires thousands. Here’s what his parents did."

When the Haleys heard the diagnosis of anencephaly -- in which the baby lacks part of its brain and skull -- they knew it was a death sentence for Shane. Yet instead of planning an abortion, or sinking into grief or rage at God, the parents went through a "nine-month bucket list," as the Monitor dubs it: giving their son the time of his life before he was even born.

From the Monitor's account:

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Flaws in new LATimes abortion piece revealed -- by old LATimes study

Flaws in new LATimes abortion piece revealed -- by old LATimes study

Whoaaa. This article in the Los Angeles Times on the "abortion wars." So much bias and tagging and cherry-picking.

If only there were some guide to help us spot the various ploys. Oh, wait, there is one -- from the L.A. Times itself.

It's a four-part study of media bias and abortion written by the late David Shaw of the Times, back in 1990. His 18-month study marked several ways that media push the abortion cause rather than just report. (Thanks to tmatt for finding this study.)

But first to the new Times story, which ran on Sunday. It's mainly on the resurgent pro-life movement, which has scored several legal victories in several states. Among the new laws are a requirement for abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and making abortion clinics conform to the same "stringent" requirements as hospitals. Some states also require pre-abortion ultrasounds or ban abortion clauses for government insurance.

From there, the story centers on Texas and especially Louisiana. The basic enemy, unsurprisingly, is that evil axis -- religion and conservatism:

A conservative juggernaut has sprung to life here along the Gulf of Mexico, where Bayou State politics work hand-in-hand with Christian churches, where some conservative pastors condemn abortion as a sin and tell parishioners that voting for a Democrat is too.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been so consistent in his opposition to abortion that the state is celebrated as the most "pro-life" in the country by Americans United for Life. The antiabortion lobby's annual scorecards are closely watched by legislators here.
"Abortion until recently was not a front-burner issue in Louisiana," said JP Morrell, a Democratic state senator. "Religious groups have made it a front-burner issue. The grass-roots movement here is as organized and effective as anything you've ever seen."

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'Mass mobs': NYT and NPR report new trend with a bit of flash

'Mass mobs': NYT and NPR report new trend with a bit of flash

Churches are getting hit by "mobs" in several states -- and that's good, as NPR and the New York Times report. So-called Mass mobs -- takeoffs on flash mobs and cash mobs -- are being organized to flood old, historic churches with worshipers and rekindle interest in Catholic heritage.

The Times and NPR work in rich color and emotion, with an eye toward both emotion and architectural beauty. Here's a sample from the NPR piece on a Mass mob at St. Florian Church in Hamtramck, Mich.:

Kinney says there's something special about coming to Mass with so many other people. "To be in attendance when it's full, as opposed to just the sparse. There's an electricity that's amazing," he says.
People trickle in, looking for seats, and then the traditional Roman Catholic Mass begins. There are Polish hymns. The priest, the Rev. Mirek Frankowski — who also doubles as music director — says the crowd nearly brought him to tears.
"Because, I mean, such a big crowd, it's impossible to see these days in any of the churches. But thanks to the mob Mass we have this feeling of what it was so many years ago, when the churches were filled with people," he says.

The Times story goes east, so to speak -- centering on Holy Ghost Church, a Byzantine Catholic church in Cleveland that survives only as a cultural center. The article sets an evocative scene on preserving the sacred in the face of the secular. It even offers a bit of the colors and textures of Eastern liturgy:

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