Ethics

New York Times unveils the lies and scams of fortunetelling -- or does it?

New York Times unveils the lies and scams of fortunetelling -- or does it?

It's nice when a newspaper answers its own questions so fast, even leading with a quote it repeats right away. Like when the New York Times ran a gleeful expose' on psychics, fortunetellers and others around the city. But the Times leaves other big questions unanswered.

The article is meant to show that the diviners are increasingly giving up and fessing up that it's all a scam. But the article doesn't prove the point -- either that it's all "baloney" or that growing numbers of psychics are coming clean.

Here is how the 1,100 words start:

Is it real? Or a bunch of baloney? It’s a question New Yorkers and visitors to the city may ask themselves when they pass any of the seemingly countless storefront fortunetellers.
Celia Mitchell, 38, was pointedly asked that exact question last year: “What is the psychic business? Is it real, or a bunch of baloney?”
She answered, “It’s a scam, sir.”
“The whole thing is a scam?”
“Yes.”

Mitchell thereby "joined a very specific group: convicted psychics who, seeking an early release from prison, sit for interviews before the parole board," the Times says. Specific and limited, although the newspaper says "that number may soon grow."

In the article, Mitchell is one of four psychics who admit fakery to parole boards. She took $159,205 to banish a "dark spirit." Another psychic admitted telling customers what they wanted to hear.  A third got people to pay her to buy "charms and rituals," according to a previous Times story. Still another is charged with promising to reunite two lovers, even though the woman was dead.

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Pope Francis and the trendy new world of 'omniscient anonymous' journalism

Pope Francis and the trendy new world of 'omniscient anonymous' journalism

It may be time to introduce a new term into the world of writing, and alleged hard-news journalism in particular.

First, a few notes about news craft. Normally, hard-news journalism is written in third-person voice in past tense, with a heavy emphasis on the use of clear attributions for quoted materials, so that readers know who is speaking. That crucial "comma, space, said, space, name, period" formula is at the heart of traditional, American Model of the Press journalism.

The bottom line: It's a key element in retaining the trust of readers. Traditional journalists are, as a rule, going to tell the reader the sources for the information they are reading. If something comes from the Family Research Council, say so. If something comes from Planned Parenthood or a company linked to Planned Parenthood, say so.

This is less crucial in opinion-based writing, since writers -- usually in first-person voice -- are sharing their own biases, beliefs, etc. The world of journalism needs both, in my opinion, but it is impossible to have good, healthy public discourse without lots and lots of basic, accurate, fair-minded, balanced hard-news journalism with clear, concise attributions.

In fiction, people can be very creative in terms of the point of view used in telling a story. In journalism? Basically, it's clear third-person or first person.

This brings me to what I see as a disturbing trend in journalism -- the creation of a point of view that could be called "omniscient anonymous" voice. Here is a sample from a new story in The Washington Post. I ask readers to look for the source of these stated facts about, yes, Pope Francis and his upcoming visit to the United States:

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Concerning Donald Trump, Billy Graham, Joe Biden and the political ties that bind

Concerning Donald Trump, Billy Graham, Joe Biden and the political ties that bind

It's a comment that I have heard several times from historians who specialize in the history of American religion, especially Protestantism in the 20th Century.

The Rev. Billy Graham has not had a spotless career, and he would be the first to note that. In particular, there were the revelations in the Richard Nixon tapes about some of the evangelist's private opinions, which led to a season of public repentance. When you look at Graham's work, it's clear that the Nixon-era train wreck led him to focus more on Christianity at the global level and less on America, America, America.

However, stop and think about this question: Can you name an American in his era who had a higher-profile public career than Graham, becoming -- literally -- one of the most famous people in the world, yet who was involved in fewer scandals linked to morality, money or ethics? Turning that around, as one historian did, and ask yourself this question: If I had been in Graham's shoes, would I have done as well?

This brings us to Donald Trump. 

To be specific, if brings us to the new Crossroads podcast, in which host Todd Wilken and I -- spinning off my Universal column this past week -- dug into mainstream press claims that the F5 category Trump (talking media storms) has become the GOP candidate with the most appeal to "evangelical" voters.

Why bring up Graham in that context? View the start of the video at the top of this post. That was where I started in my column:

When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.
"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

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Does 'death with dignity' actually involve indignities for doctors and patients?

Does 'death with dignity' actually involve indignities for doctors and patients?

This notable and quotable line from William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” is a good slogan for religion newswriting: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The U.S. Supreme Court supposedly settled the abortion issue in 1973, but -- to the astonishment of many including the Religion Guy -- in 2015  it remains unsettled, all entangled with the presidential campaign, the U.S. Congress and several state legislatures. Will the court’s similar legalization of same-sex marriage be settled, or still unsettled, 42 years from now?

Another issue that’s stirring renewed media interest is physician-assisted suicide, a.k.a. “death with dignity.” Reasons for wariness about this growing practice are raised in two important recent articles that journalists interested in this topic should know about.

New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv offered “The Death Treatment: When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?” Her even-handed 8,700-worder in the June 22 issue largely treated the experience in Belgium. Stateside, an August 18 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by William L. Toffler, professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, had  this strong headline: “A Doctor-Assisted Disaster for Medicine.”

Anticipate more of this. In the wake of the planned suicide in Oregon last Nov. 1 of young brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard, featured in People magazine and other media, legislators in 23 states have introduced new bills to let doctors help patients kill themselves.

Thus far, U.S. doctors have gained that power by legislation only in Oregon (in 1997), Washington state (2009), and Vermont (2013), while a 2009 court edict shields Montana physicians from prosecution.

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Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Let's face it. The religion-news beat is amazing. I have never understood how many journalists consider this a fringe topic that doesn't deserve mainstream coverage.

Decades ago, I interviewed scores of newspaper editors for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and you want to know the two most common reasons they gave for avoiding religion? Religion was (a) boring and (b) too controversial. That's the problem, you see, the world is just full of boring, controversial religion stories.

I think any professional who works on this beat for multiple decades -- which describes all the current GetReligionistas -- lives in a state of amazement at how complex new stories, and new angles on old stories, just keep showing up.

That's how I felt reading a very interesting New York Times feature about the struggle to promote hospice in African-American churches. Once again, it is amazing what the Times can do when a religion topic doesn't touch on the Sexual Revolution and, thus, clash with the core doctrines of Kellerism. Here is the key summary material near the top of this fine story, which opens with tragic events in the lives of the Rev. Vernal Harris and his wife Narseary, who have lost two sons to sickle cell anemia:

Hospice use has been growing fast in the United States as more people choose to avoid futile, often painful medical treatments in favor of palliative care and dying at home surrounded by loved ones. But the Harrises, who are African-American, belong to a demographic group that has long resisted the concept and whose suspicions remain deep-seated.
It is an attitude borne out by recent federal statistics showing that nearly half of white Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in hospice before death, compared with only a third of black patients. The racial divide is even more pronounced when it comes to advance care directives -- legal documents meant to help families make life-or-death decisions that reflect a patient’s choices. Some 40 percent of whites aged 70 and over have such plans, compared with only 16 percent of blacks.

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Reuters reports Ashley Madison hack, but shrugs off moral and biblical issues

Reuters reports Ashley Madison hack, but shrugs off moral and biblical issues

With its story on the hack attack on adultery website Ashley Madison, Reuters stumbles a couple of times onto biblical references. But no worries -- it jumps up, brushes itself off and hurries on.

Ashley Madison, as you may know by now, is for "discreet" hookups for married people -- i.e., Web-assisted affairs. On Tuesday, a shadowy group calling itself the Impact Team cracked the site and stole the info of perhaps 37 million customers -- "nude photos, sexual fantasies, real names and credit card information," Reuters says. Then it uploaded the data on the Internet.

The potential is explosive, if you consider the 37 million relationships that could be disrupted. It's even worse when you read that thousands of e-mail addresses belonged to "U.S. government officials, UK civil servants and high-level executives," plus academics at the likes of Yale and Harvard. The sheer bulk of the 43 million-plus news, blog and opinion pieces also testifies to the size of this religio-moral matter.

Unless you're Reuters, that is. The 900-word story quotes a paltry four sources, one of them unnamed, and none of them a minister, social ethicist or moral theologian. Instead, we get a divorce lawyer, two government folks and two therapists. I guess the latter are supposed to be the stand-ins for clergy.

Here's the first near-Bible experience in the Reuters article:

Prominent divorce lawyer Raoul Felder said the release is the best thing to happen to his profession since the seventh Commandment forbade adultery in the Bible.
"I've never had anything like this before," he said.

Even that bare mention was born as a gaffe. One of GR's readers told us the article originally said "Seventh Amendment," not "Seventh Commandment," then was corrected. Not the best evidence for the scriptural savvy of one of the world's largest news agencies.

Reuters misses another biblical reference in quoting a psychologist:

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Post offers faith-free report on alleged rape at famous pre-Ivy boarding school

Post offers faith-free report on alleged rape at famous pre-Ivy boarding school

Obviously, pre-Ivy League prep schools such as St. Paul's in Concord, N.H., have their share of traditions. One of the buzz-worthy and truly distressing Washington Post stories of the week so far focused on the tradition of the "senior salute" at this elite campus, in which senior men compete to see who can sleep with as many younger girls as possible.

How elite? The Post report notes that a year on the 2,000-acre campus costs $55,000-plus and other media outlets put the figure at more than $60,000. Alumni include legions of executives, Pulitzer winners, three major candidates for the presidency, ambassadors, various members of Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry and legions of clergy, including a former Episcopal Church presiding bishop. Oh, and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau.

The chapel is really beautiful, too, which is fitting for a school with a strong religious history. Hold that thought. 

So what happened when senior Owen Laurie met with that 15-year-old girl in an attempt to add her name to his online "score" spreadsheet? Laurie insists that he did not sleep with her. Drawing on information from The Concord Monitor, the Associated Press, The Boston Globe and other sources, the Post noted:

According to the affidavit obtained by the Monitor, Labrie sent the freshman girl a “senior salute” e-mail asking her to “hook up” with him four days before graduation. She initially declined, but then agreed on the understanding that “hook up” referred to kissing. Two days later, on May 30, 2014, Labrie allegedly took the girl to the top of the school’s math and science building.
They kissed, then Labrie allegedly began to pull off her underwear. She resisted several times and twice told him “no,” according to the affidavit.

Laurie denies having sex, but the sexual-assault nurse at the local hospital claims otherwise. The media description of the critical encounter also includes a strange and fascinating statement:

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Time to tackle a question: Does BuzzFeed do basic, hard-news religion news or not?

Time to tackle a question: Does BuzzFeed do basic, hard-news religion news or not?

This past year, I had a student in Washington who was really into BuzzFeed, for many reasons, including lots of valid ones.

Like it or not, she said, the mainstream press was going to have to come to terms with key elements of the BuzzFeed business model, especially the idea of breaking stories down into humorous and entertaining listicles that force profitable mouse clicks. This concept, she added, could save the news industry by helping young readers develop habits of news consumption.

I asked: But what about basic news? How do these digital-era concepts apply to the coverage of daily hard news about topics that, like it or not, are essential to life and public discourse? Her reply was blunt: That doesn't matter since young readers won't read those kinds of news stories anyway.

I was also worried about continuing efforts to erase the line between news coverage and editorial writing, in the snarky new listicles, first-person features and in the waves of "reported blogging" pieces that are spreading through the websites of conventional newsrooms. Oh yes, and things like the Twitter blast at the top of this post.

Then there was that famous statement by BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith (see my post "From old Kellerism to new BuzzFeed") that bluntly stated:

“We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”

Smith later said, in a Hugh Hewitt interview (transcript here) explained his newsroom's open celebration of the 5-4 Obergefell decision:

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There's religion ghosts a'plenty in Sacramento Bee story on conjoined twins

There's religion ghosts a'plenty in Sacramento Bee story on conjoined twins

Every so often there comes a story that cries for a faith element; wherein you strongly suspect that there are lots of religion ghosts floating about, but which frustrates because the reporter simply didn’t go there. 

That's what happened, for me, when reading a lengthy story released by The Sacramento Bee on a Mexican-American family in which the mother becomes pregnant in her mid-40s with Siamese -- or conjoined -- twins. The story appeared on the one-year anniversary of the twins’ birth. As always, there are medical and ethical issues involved in this kind of pregnancy, as you can hear in the Bee video featured above.

The overture of the story:

ANTELOPE, Calif. -- Their mother calls it “the butterfly,” because its shape and symmetry remind her of a delicate winged insect.
The tiny foot -- a fusion of bone, muscle and skin with three toes on each side -- is attached to a third leg shared by Erika and Eva Sandoval, 11-month-old conjoined twins who also share a liver, some intestinal tract and much of their reproductive systems. Joined at the pelvis and sternum, they sit face-to-face at all times.
The sisters, born at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, in Palo Alto, Calif., last August, spent their first seven months in intensive care before coming home this spring, having trumped the slim survival odds for conjoined twins – a phenomenon that occurs about once in every 200,000 births.

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