Academia

Coming soon to the pews near you: Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities

Coming soon to the pews near you: Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities

On the sexuality beat, much news involves the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 gay marriage mandate. In particular, should government should protect, or penalize, artists and merchants who want to avoid cooperating with same-sex wedding rites due to religious conscience?

Journalists need to understand that this is a mere skirmish compared with far more potent church-state fights that inevitably lie ahead.

Meanwhile, transgender conflicts are fast gaining media momentum. At issue: Should public lavatories and shower rooms be open to transgender individuals whose “gender identity” is the opposite of their birth genetics and anatomy? In other words, biological men using women’s rooms and vice versa. 

The national headlines cover federal and state actions, but the same problem will soon be coming to a public school near you -- if it hasn’t already.

What does this have to do with religion-news work? Well, religious groups and individuals are usually at the forefront of those favoring traditional toilet and shower access.

Frank Bruni, whose New York Times columns neatly define the Left’s cultural expectations, sees the wedding merchant and lavatory debates as one and the same. In both cases, he asserts, a ”divisive, “cynical” and “opportunistic” “freakout” by conservatives has “egregiously” violated LGBT equality. Thus the “T” for transgender and “B” for bisexual are fully fused with the victorious lesbian and gay causes.

Christian organizations judged to be “anti-LGBT” are on the list of “hate groups” from liberals’ influential Southern Poverty Law Center.

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USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

If you didn't see this big-time sports story coming then you haven't been paying attention.

During a radio talk show a few months ago, I speculated that if Baylor (one of my two alma maters) had qualified for the final four in football, it was highly likely that gay-rights groups would petition the NCAA powers that be to have the Bears (and other private schools with doctrinally based lifestyle covenants) kicked out of the association.

Not yet. But the arguments are beginning, as evidenced in the new USA Today feature that ran under the headline, "When religion and the LGBT collegiate athlete collide."

Now, if you believe in old-school journalism ethics -- think "American Model" of the press -- then the goal of this story is to accurately represent the beliefs of representatives on both sides of this debate. Want to guess how that turns out?

Meanwhile, it's crucial to remember that the NCAA is not a government agency and, as a private body, is not limited by the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause. To further complicate matters, the NCAA includes both private and state schools. Thus, while there may be legal issues involved (television and conference contracts, for example) in this NCAA debate, this really shouldn't be called a religious-liberty debate. The NCAA rules.

This feature starts, of course, with a gay athlete -- swimmer Conner Griffin -- who attends Fordham University, a Catholic school that is clearly enlightened since it has chosen the spirit of the age over attempts to live out (some would say "enforce") Catholic doctrines on marriage and sex.

So right up top there is this exchange:

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Mirror-image news: SMU activists suffer attack which draws zero news coverage

Mirror-image news: SMU activists suffer attack which draws zero news coverage

Let's play the mirror-image news game again, shall we? Click here for previous examples.

As always, the goal is to look at a story that received next to zero attention, or perhaps received waves of attention, and then try to imagine what would have happened if a few details were switched and journalists were dealing with a different issue on the opposite side of America's so-called culture wars.

This time around, let's say that the AIDS memorial quilt was displayed in Dallas in a high-profile location that would be sure to generate lots of attention -- like the center of campus at Southern Methodist University. Then, during the middle of the night, a pack of counter-protesters descended on this display and attacked it, doing major damage.

Would this story have received major coverage in local media, such as The Dallas Morning News? We will take into account the fact that displays of the AIDS quilt have been going on for decades and, thus, the event itself may not have been a major news story. But would an attack on the quilt be news?

It's safe to say that this attack would have drawn coverage. Correct?

Now, let's flip the news mirror around and consider these details from a story published by the alternative -- yes, conservative -- LifeNews.com website. The headline: "Pro-Abortion Students at SMU Vandalize Display of 3,000 Crosses to Remember Aborted Babies."

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Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Let's get one thing clear right up front about this post. I have no intention of comparing Adolph Hitler with Pope Francis. Got that?

However, long ago -- while at graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I did a readings course about post-Holocaust trends in world Judaism. You can't read about that horror without reading about Hitler.

I wish I could remember who said this, because I would like to give full credit, but one of the authors I read said that, most of the time, commentaries about Hitler almost always tell you more about the writers than about Hitler. I know I ran into this concept again years later when I interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil."

What does this have to do with Francis?

Journalists on the religion beat, news-consumers at large, please ask yourself this question: When you stop and think about the public impact of Pope Francis, how much are you reacting to the pope's own words, as opposed to news-media (and church media) commentaries about his words? When you read elite media coverage of a new statement by the pope, are you confident that you know what the pope said as a whole, as opposed to one or two sentences that have been used to create a headline?

With these questions in mind, please consider this new think piece from The National Catholic Register by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, which ran under the headline, "5 Ways to Avoid Unhelpful Pope Francis “Mind Reading." Here is her overture:

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Let punny headlines reign: Thumbs up as Dawn Eden completes doctorate in theology

Let punny headlines reign: Thumbs up as Dawn Eden completes doctorate in theology

Over the years, this here weblog has seen one or two skilled journalists hit the exit door in order to go to law school. Now, former GetReligionista Dawn Eden taken this whole post-journalism academic thing to a new level by completing a doctorate in theology.

Yes, what a long, strange trip it's been.

That popular music reference is intentional, since Dawn started out in journalism as a rock-music beat reporter before evolving into an award-winning creator of punchy headlines, at The New York Post and then the Daily News. You may want to surf this file of commentary about the writing of her famous "The Lady is a Trump" headline about one of the weddings of a certain public figure who is still in the news. Dawn offered her own very modest take on that episode in her GetReligion intro piece, called "The inky-fingered Dawn."

Now, Dawn has evolved once again, from her life as a popular Catholic apologist into an academic who has just complete a truly historic degree in theology. Here is a key chunk of a post up at The Dawn Patrol, her personal website.

The Doctoral Board ... gave me an A on both my dissertation and my presentation. Now I am set to graduate with my sacred-theology doctorate from the University of St. Mary of the Lake (Mundelein Seminary) on May 7, magna cum laude. It will be the first time in the university's history that a canonical (i.e. pontifically licensed) doctorate will be awarded to a woman.

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Washington Post raises another one of 'those' Jerry Falwell, Jr., gun questions

Washington Post raises another one of 'those' Jerry Falwell, Jr., gun questions

As best I can tell, there are plenty of important subjects in public life on which Jerry Falwell, Jr., and I would sharply disagree.

For starters, there is the whole Donald Trump thing. Also, it certainly appears that we disagree on some basic gun-control issues, since I lean toward stricter controls.

However, I have always thought that the most important skill in Journalism 101 is the ability to accurately quote someone with whom one disagrees. With that in mind, let's return to a recent controversy involving Falwell and editors at The Washington Post.

Do you remember the mini-media storm in which the Post noted that Falwell had urged Liberty University students to purchase handguns and learn how to use them should they ever be attacked by heavily armed terrorists? What? That isn't the story that you remember?

This issue was clarified in a latter headline and updated text, but now it's back.

So let's start at the beginning -- again.

Watch the CNN clip at the top of this post and then reading the following. Here is the quote as published in the Post:

“It just blows my mind that the president of the United States [says] that the answer to circumstances like that is more gun control,” he said to applause. “If some of those people in that community center had what I have in my back pocket right now …,” he said while being interrupted by louder cheers and clapping. “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know,” he said, chuckling.
“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.”

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About Time's infamous 'Is God Dead?' cover -- a paradigmatic 50th anniversary

About Time's infamous 'Is God Dead?' cover -- a paradigmatic 50th anniversary

In olden times the major U.S. news magazines often ran major religion takeouts at Easter time. Fifty years ago Time greeted the holy weekend with the stark “Is God Dead?” cover story (hit the pay wall here), rousing its top newsstand sales since World War Two and a record pile of letters to the editor.

The lede:  “Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.” The article pursued that duality, not only doubt but problematic aspects of fashionable skepticism.

Author John T. Elson (1931-2009) was no faith-basher but an intellectually inquisitive Catholic who worshiped regularly at Manhattan’s St. Ignatius Church. This uber-talented religion writer was largely unheralded in that era when Time barred bylines. Later, he was a senior editor or A.M.E. who often supervised the Guy during 19 years as the news magazine’s religion writer.

The God article raised a classic journalistic issue as  pertinent as the latest Trump outburst: Does media sensationalism distort reality and harm the culture? After all, only a handful of “mainline” Protestant theologians were the “Christian atheists” of 1966. But Elson captured a cultural moment other media were pondering. Weeks beforehand, John Lennon had remarked that “Christianity will go” and “we’re more popular than Jesus now.” Another Elson cover story later that year profiled the Episcopal Church’s doubt-drenched Bishop James Pike.  

God didn’t die.

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The Atlantic on Texas cheerleaders: In this case, old-time religion comes across as reasonable

The Atlantic on Texas cheerleaders: In this case, old-time religion comes across as reasonable

Four years after a group of East Texas cheerleaders took on their school district to fight for the right to have religious-themed banners at their school football games, Atlantic Monthly takes a trip into flyover country to talk to the girls.

Some of these young women have already graduated from high school and have been able to get a wider perspective on their battle. I thought the magazine’s take on it all had very little snark and some actual respect for these teenagers. Kountze, by the way, is just north of Houston.

So here's how this lengthy piece started:

The cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, have been painting Bible verses on the banners they hold up at football games for nearly four years. Players line up on Friday nights behind a big stretch of unrolled butcher paper, busting through it as they run onto the field. Instead of a negative slogan, along the lines of “Kill the Tatum Eagles,” the girls wanted to write messages that were more positive, ones “that were really encouraging and honorable to God,” as one of them put it. They proposed this at their cheer camp in the summer of 2012. After the moms who sponsored the club got sign off from the school principal, the girls made their first signs, sporting messages like “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” from Philippians, or “A lion, which is strongest among beasts and turns not away from any,” a Proverbs verse. (Kountze High is home to the Lions.)
Ever since, they have been embroiled in the high-profile legal battle those banners sparked. Early in the 2012 season, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the Kountze Independent School District’s superintendent alleging that the district was violating the Constitution by allowing a student group to hold up religious messages at a school-sponsored event. After consulting counsel, the superintendent told the town’s high-school principal to shut down the Bible-verse banners. Some of the girls and their parents decided to sue the district and won a temporary injunction. Since then, the case has been bouncing around the Texas state-court system, mostly on a series of procedural claims. The Texas Supreme Court heard the case and sent it back to the Court of Appeals in January; that court is set to consider the case again any day now.

What’s different about this piece is that the cheerleaders and their more activist parents are portrayed as unlikely newsmakers who stumbled into this national drama and are doing their best to stand up for student self-expression.

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Time sounds alarm on young men and porn, while leaving religion out of the picture

Time sounds alarm on young men and porn, while leaving religion out of the picture

Long, long ago, I had a conversation with some religion-beat professionals about media bias, which is a tricky subject, to say the least.

The world is, alas, full of religious conservatives who automatically want to assume that all journalists basically hate believers in all traditional forms of religion. That's way too simplistic, of course, as I have tried to explain for decades when speaking in a wide range of settings -- including religious colleges, think tanks and gatherings of mainstream journalists. This piece from The Quill -- "Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage?" -- covers the basics.

However, this circle of Godbeat pros was talking about the worst cases that we were seeing of slanted journalism. We are talking about cases in which it was clear that editors had crossed the line between advocacy journalism and old-school reporting that stressed accuracy, balance and respect for the beliefs of people on both sides of hot-button subjects.

Was there a kind of journalistic Grand Unified Theory of Everything, when it came to explaining these really ugly cases? What was the thread that ran through them? A colleague from the West Coast eventually ended the silence with this blunt statement: "The Religious Right must lose."

Let me stress that we were talking about the very small number of media-bias cases in which it appeared that outright prejudice was at work. On the religion beat, in recent decades, these almost always have something to do with clashes between the Sexual Revolution and traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Believe it or not, this brings me -- taking a rather roundabout route -- to that recent Time magazine cover story on pornography (which is locked behind a paywall). Now, one would think think that a newsweekly taking the destructive powers of porn seriously would be a victory for groups preaching a conservative view of sex (and, of course, for consistent feminists who take a similar stance for different reasons).

The team at Time deals with that angle, in one sentence.

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