Interviews

The crux of the religion-news business in the age of the World Wide Web

The crux of the religion-news business in the age of the World Wide Web

Four years ago, I traveled to Kiev to take part in a gathering of journalists from across Europe, especially Eastern Europe. The reason we made the trip (I went because of my role in The Media Project) to Ukraine was to talk about faith and journalism -- especially the lives of believers who work in mainstream media.

That really wasn't the topic that dominated conversations, both in the hallways and in our formal discussion groups.

Reporter after reporter, editor after editor, talked about the growing number of attempts in their nations to carry on with independent journalism despite the failure of digital advertising programs to deliver the financial goods. The readers were there. The ad-based business model was failing. Everyone was seeking some kind of compromise with the new digital realities.

What was the alternative? People were trying to find ways to hook journalists up to support from non-profit groups, even religious groups, to provide critical financial support for these online projects -- but with few, if any, editorial ties that would bind.

You can probably tell where I am going with this. Every year, I write a column in early April linked to some kind of religion-news centered event or topic. I do this as close as possible to the anniversary of the creation of my weekly "On Religion" syndicated column, which began 28 years ago, this week, with Scripps Howard and then switched to the Universal syndicate.

This year, I wrote about the symbolic and practical importance of the Crux project in online Catholic news, which began with The Boston Globe and just -- after the Globe cut the financial lifelines -- now continues in a partnership with the Knights of Columbus. This was also the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

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Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Unless you have been on another planet, you are aware that the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl L.

You also probably know that National Football League MVP Cam Newton was sacked six times, knocked down a dozen-plus times and ended the game in a state of frustration and even rage. This followed, of course, weeks of public discussion of whether many fans don't approve of his joyful, edgy, hip-hop approach to celebrating life, football, his team and his own talents.

This led to the press conference from hell, when Newton -- forced by the NFL to take questions in the same space, within earshot, of the Broncos' victory pressers -- had little to say, while his eyes said everything. A sample:

What's your message to Panthers fans?
"We'll be back."
Ron [Rivera] said Denver two years ago had a tough time and they bounced back. Do you take that to heart?
"No."
Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn't play the way it normally plays?
"Got outplayed."
Is there a reason why?
"Got outplayed, bro."

You get the idea. With that as a backdrop, let's move into GetReligion territory -- in the form of a long, long Vice Sports piece by Eric Nusbaum about the Newton family and, especially, a Sunday morning spent listening to the superstar's Pentecostal preacher dad, Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., of the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance. The headline: "The House that Built Cam."

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Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

Rolling Stone searches for theological cornerstone in X-Files and, alas, drops the ball

I was never addicted to the X-Files back in its classic era, but I was almost always aware of what was going on in the series because of updates from my Milligan College students -- especially in my "Exegete the Culture" senior seminar on faith and mass media.

Religious issues kept showing up in the show's believer-doubter format, with plots built on a never-ending search for the supernatural. One semester, a bright youth-ministry major wrote a brilliant paper -- the curricula for a weekend retreat for high-schoolers -- based on three X-Files episodes that focused on prayer, healing and life after death. The show was asking lots of interesting questions, which had to be coming from somewhere.

So I wasn't surprised that the recent Rolling Stone profile of X-Files creator Chris Carter (linked, of course, to the six-episode Fox reboot) explored some religious themes. I was also -- alas -- not surprised when a key religion fact got mangled. More on that in a minute.

But, for starters, wouldn't you like to know more about the roots of the Amazon project mentioned in this section of the story?

Though Carter doesn't admit this, his return to Hollywood (not counting a second X-Files film he wrote in 2007) must have been disappointing for the man who ruled the medium a decade earlier. A series about the Salem witch trials that he created for Showtime never made it to air. Same with an Area 51 drama he worked on for AMC. And ditto for a conspiracy thriller, Unique,which he developed at Fox.

But the toughest hit was his 2014 Amazon pilot, The After, a Sartre-meets-Dante serial drama set in the intersection of Los Angeles and Hades.

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Concerning Megyn Kelly in Vanity Fair: Raising 'spiritual' question about her Fox News work

Concerning Megyn Kelly in Vanity Fair: Raising 'spiritual' question about her Fox News work

GetReligion readers, I have a question for you. Which news network has consistently shown a greater commitment to original reporting on religion events and trends, Fox News or Al Jazeera?

When answering this question, it might help to visit the Al Jazeera landing page for "Religion, Spirituality & Ethics" and then do the same for the "religion" search category at Fox News. What you are looking for is actual hands-on reporting work done by the personnel in these newsrooms, as opposed to pieces built totally on wire-service reports.

I raise this question because, year after year, people ask me why Fox News -- in light of its massive audience share among culturally conservative news consumers -- doesn't do more reporting on religion topics (as opposed to the usual commentary pieces and talk-show work). This also comes up in my classroom work, as I have mentioned before:

One of the most interesting discussions that I have with journalism students every semester is the moment when I ask them to identify the specific cultural and political philosophy that drives the editorial policies of Fox News and other giants associated with the world of Rupert Murdoch.
They always say, "Conservative" or "right wing."
Then I ask them this question: "What kind of conservatism?"

The answer, of course, is a kind of secular Libertarian stance that isn't comfortable with a conservatism rooted in moral and cultural values.

This brings me to that new Vanity Fair piece on Fox superstar Megyn Kelly, which -- right at the very end -- contains a major, major fumble when it comes to digging into a crucial statement linked to religious faith and moral issues.

But first, who is Megyn Kelly?

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CBS News asks how American Muslims feel -- surprise, they're unhappy about public opinion

CBS News asks how American Muslims feel -- surprise, they're unhappy about public opinion

By now, you'd think pretty much everyone knew how Muslims feel about other Americans' attitudes toward them. But no, CBS News trudged that worn path yet again yesterday.

Ace anchor Scott Pelley interviewed five young Muslims all American born. He asks how they feel going to work and school after an attack like the recent massacre in San Bernardino, Calif. And he seldom goes off script.

A hijab-clad student talks about being tripped by a man who then starts screaming "Go back to where you came from." Another woman complains about the mother of her "absolute best childhood friend" putting a "super-hateful post" about Muslims on Facebook.

"When I saw it, I just broke down in tears," she says, choking up a bit. She says she wrote the woman a long letter saying, "We're the Muslim family you know, and you know we're not like that."

What did the Facebook post say? And did the mother reply? Pelley doesn't ask.

The young Muslim does volunteer that the family are "white Christians." Why does that make a difference? Why didn't Pelley ask?

He asks about a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, saying that 56 percent of Americans believe "The values of Islam are at odds with American values." The five interviewees naturally disagree. And interestingly, three of them deny that the faith is inherently violent or counsels killing the innocent -- interestingly, because Pelley's question didn’t bring that up.

He's clearly done some homework, but verses in the Quran and Hadith about violence didn't seem to be part of it (although the HuffPost wrote on it five years ago).  One of the young Muslims repeats a standard liberal line that you can use Bible verses to support violence, too.

Pelley does ask their reaction to the claims by ISIS that it's acting "in the name of all Muslims." Again, they unshockingly reject ISIS as Islamic at all. One says the word "Islam" means peace. (Actually, "Islam" means "submission"; the Arabic word for peace is salaam.) Another says that anti-Muslim voices, like that of Donald Trump, are "playing into the hands of ISIS."

Among the few surprises in the interview was from a young man: "I don’t like to identify myself as a Muslim-American. I'm an American who is Muslim." Other interesting comments come a uniformed Army lieutenant. He says that when he decided to join the Army, everyone -- Muslim and non-Muslim alike -- asked "Are you going to kill your own people?" This revelation of prejudice on the Muslim side doesn't draw any interest from Pelley.

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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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Father Charamsa is back: Washington Post covers (kind of) gay debates about his photo op

Father Charamsa is back: Washington Post covers (kind of) gay debates about his photo op

Anyone who has covered Catholic news for the past couple of decades knows that, when fights begin among Catholics about doctrines linked to homosexuality, there are three essential groups of LGBT Catholics involved that reporters need to quote.

(1) Gay Catholics who are openly calling for change in church teachings, saying (usually) that the Holy Spirit is now moving to correct 2,000 years of flawed Christian doctrines.

(2) Gay Catholics who -- often because they are in key academic or ecclesiastical posts -- are quietly working behind the scenes to change church doctrines slowly over time. It's kind of the "you do what you can do" approach. Critics would call it the "stay in your church closet" approach.

(3) Gay Catholics who support Catholic doctrines on marriage and sex, including teachings on same-sex acts, even though that is a painful reminder of the sinful, fallen nature of all of God's creation (or words to that effect). Many want the church to do a much better job of listening to the real, pastoral concerns of all kinds of Catholics who struggle with sexuality issues.

This brings us to the latest news, care of The Washington Post, about the life and times of the Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa -- otherwise known as the Polish priest (he has been ordered to cease acting as a priest, but not defrocked) with a boyfriend who came out in a photo op right before the 2015 Synod of Bishops on marriage and family issues. It added extra sizzle that he worked in the very powerful Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The headline on this new Post report promises a deep dive behind the scenes of the post-Charamsa dramas: "Not all gay Catholics are pleased about how Vatican priest came out of the closet." Did the Post deliver on that?

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The Guardian describes 'rice Christians' equation in North Korea, but only one side of it

The Guardian describes 'rice Christians' equation in North Korea, but only one side of it

Talk about a story that raises some prickly questions linked to faith, evangelism, oppression and religious freedom -- in North Korea, no less.

I am talking about a recent piece from The Guardian -- "Christianity was the only way out, says North Korea defector" -- about Joseph Kim and his journey out of one of the world's darkest dungeons and, rather reluctantly it appears, into Christianity.

I want to stress that this is certainly an interesting and important story. The issue, in this case, is whether The Guardian has only told half of it, leaving a Christian ministry accused of the old "Rice Christians" approach to evangelism, with no way to defend itself. Here is a dictionary definition of that term

rice Christian
* a convert to Christianity who accepts baptism not on the basis of personal conviction but out of a desire for food, medical services, or other benefits

Now, here is the top of The Guardian report:

The first time Joseph Kim heard the words “Christian” and “church”, he had no idea what they meant. He had never seen a church and Christianity was as unfamiliar to him in his famine-ravaged North Korea as Disneyland.
“Kwang Jin”, a friend said to him, using the Korean name by which Kim was then known, “if you ever go to China, the churches will give you money.”
To which Kim replied: “What’s a church? Why would they just give you money?”
“Because they’re Christians,” the friend said.
“What are Christians?” Kim asked.

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Trumped-up quarrel fuels mainstream media campaign coverage

Trumped-up quarrel fuels mainstream media campaign coverage

Donald Trump is brash and boorish, and he seldom takes back anything he's said. So he set himself up for the garish headlines.

Still, that doesn't mean mainstream media had to write them. But (sigh) they did.

* "Trump Goes After Carson," Ken Walsh's blog in U.S. News & World Report trumpeted.

* "Trump Questions Carson's Faith, Won't Apologize," says a Newsweek headline, with an equally gossipy lede: "As the third Republican presidential debate approaches and the field narrows, Donald Trump and Ben Carson continue to use religion as a cudgel for beating each other over the head."

* "Donald Trump Attacks Ben Carson, and Highlights His Religion," says the usually restrained New York Times.

What-all did Trump say to deserve this? Not a whole lot, according to CBS News: "I'm Presbyterian. Boy. That's down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventists, I don't know about, I just don't know about."

That's it. That's what Trump said in toto.

"What did you mean by that?" Jonathan Dickerson asked on CBS' Face the Nation.

Trump's reply: "I don't know about them. I don't know about what that is. I'm not that familiar with it. I've heard about it, but I'm not that familiar with it.  That wasn't meant to be an insult, obviously. It's just that I don't know about it."

Some media, including the Washington Post, tried to have it both ways: first, a j'accuse of a headline -- "Donald Trump: No apology for questioning Ben Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist faith" -- then a more sober recap of the facts:

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