Journalism

Christ and Russia: Newsweek offers only a partial picture of a religious trend

Christ and Russia: Newsweek offers only a partial picture of a religious trend

"Russian Communists are turning to Christ," Newsweek trumpets, as if the magazine has discovered the wheel. It's almost old enough to deserve one of our "Got News?" logos.

Almost. The article does have a few things going for it -- starting with the first three strong paragraphs:

What do Vladimir Lenin, founder of the officially atheist Soviet Union, and Jesus Christ have in common? Not much, one would think. Yet according to Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran leader of Russia's modern-day Communist Party, both men sought to "save humanity" with a message of "love, friendship, and brotherhood".
Speaking in Moscow in front of a crowd of red-flag-waving supporters on the 145th anniversary of Lenin's birth late last month, Zyuganov also declared that the Soviet Union was an attempt to establish "God's Kingdom on Earth".
Had he heard that speech, Lenin would likely have turned over in the Red Square mausoleum, where his embalmed corpse has been on public display for the past 91 years. After all, some 200,000 members of the clergy were murdered during the first two decades of the Soviet era, according to a 1995 Kremlin committee report, while millions of other Christians were persecuted for their faith.

The story then traces reactions to Zyuganov's recent speech in Red Square. Some critics "pointed out the apparent contradictions inherent in his mingling of communist and Christian beliefs." Other critics regard Zyuganov's  talk a "cynical ploy" to gain support from party members and Eastern Orthodox Christians alike. And Newsweek itself says he is a "former Soviet 'agitation and propaganda' official."

Newsweek then reports some intriguing cross-fertilization between church and state. It says Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to portray himself as a defender of "Orthodox Christian values." It notes that a priest singing a "popular Soviet-era song" went viral. And it says church motifs have often served the state, such as religious icons of Josef Stalin -- and the decision to embalm Lenin's body for a mausoleum in Red Square.

Adds the article:

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Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

For weeks, I have been hearing from readers asking me when GetReligion was going to address the Catholic News Agency report about the $120,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, which owns Religion News Service.

In one article, CNA noted that the grant listing said that its purpose was to "recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches." When announcing the grant, Arcus officials said this grant would help foster a "culture of LGBT understanding through the media” by funding news reports and blogging posts “about religion and LGBT peoples of color.”

RNS Editor Kevin Eckstrom defended his wire service's editorial independence, stressing that this public relations represented "Arcus’ description of their funding, not ours.” It is also crucial to note that the funding connections between RNS and the Religion Newswriters Foundation are complex, to the degree that CNA needed to correct some fine details. Please read that whole report carefully.

In that story, Eckstrom also noted that GetReligion frequently criticizes RNS because its work does not meet our blog's "standard of theological orthodoxy.”

I did not respond, although there is much to be said on these matters. First of all, please note that GetReligion frequently praises the work of RNS and we certainly recognize its crucial role as the only mainstream news operation dedicated to covering the religion beat. Second, let me acknowledge that -- over the past decade -- RNS frequently took interns from the Washington Journalism Center (which is now being rebooted in New York City). Eckstrom and his team, frankly, did a fantastic and gracious job working with my program's students and I will always be grateful for that.

So what can I say about the "theological" issues involved in this discussion? Let's start with some background on journalism "theology."

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Three keys to quality journalism on the Godbeat, and one All-Star who's mastered all three (updated)

Three keys to quality journalism on the Godbeat, and one All-Star who's mastered all three (updated)

A GetReligion reader sent us a link to a story on Christians who are gay and celibate.

The reader said:

Been reading for some months now and learning much about assessing news story content. The above got picked up by my local paper, the Augusta Chronicle, today. I was pleased to note the quote distribution and the sympathetic ear given Mr. Hill, whose work I've often read. Your thoughts?

After clicking the link, I immediately recognized the byline.

Peter Smith is the award-winning Godbeat pro for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Based on past posts, you might say we're fans here at GetReligion.

What makes Smith's story on Christians who are gay and celibate a journalistic success?

Two of the same factors cited by the discerning reader who emailed us stood out to me — although I'll characterize those factors slightly differently. Plus, a third factor deserves mention.

 

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Regarding that maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions: What Poynter said

Regarding that maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions: What Poynter said

Nine out of 10 Americans turn to GetReligion for clear, compelling analysis of religion news coverage. 

Trust me on that: I've done a survey.

"Wait a minute," somebody in Cyberland protests. "Can I please see details on the polling process and the specific questions asked?"

What, you don't believe me!? Would it help if I produced an official-looking news release? 

I am joking, of course.

But my point is serious, given recent headlines concerning a maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions that drew a ton of media coverage.

The news sparked a front-page story in Tuesday's New York Times.

The Times reported:

He was a graduate student who seemingly had it all: drive, a big idea and the financial backing to pay for a sprawling study to test it.
In 2012, as same-sex marriage advocates were working to build support in California, Michael LaCour, a political science researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked a critical question: Can canvassers with a personal stake in an issue — in this case, gay men and women — actually sway voters’ opinions in a lasting way?
He would need an influential partner to help frame, interpret and place into context his findings — to produce an authoritative scientific answer. And he went to one of the giants in the field, Donald P. Green, a Columbia University professor and co-author of a widely used text on field experiments.
Last week, their finding that gay canvassers were in fact powerfully persuasive with people who had voted against same-sex marriage — published in December in Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals — collapsed amid accusations that Mr. LaCour had misrepresented his study methods and lacked the evidence to back up his findings.

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Orlando Sentinel on lesbian couple: Fair reporting, but is it fair enough?

Orlando Sentinel on lesbian couple: Fair reporting, but is it fair enough?

We at GetReligion talk a lot about fairness and balance, for reporting the pros and cons in a controversy. Yes, that's vital; but as in a story on a lesbian couple in Orlando, you need equivalent pros and cons. You also need to furnish background where needed.

And with the Orlando Sentinel's story on Jaclyn Pfeiffer and Kelly Bardier versus Aloma United Methodist Church, it was needed.

Basically, they were forced out from the church's daycare center. The couple said they were fired because they're gay. The church said they left voluntarily, and that they broke its rule for employees to be celibate outside marriage.

Bishop Ken Carter of the UMC Florida Conference sided with the couple, agreeing to pay $28,476 to them and their attorneys. Carter scolded the church and said he would remind the state's other Methodist pastors "reminding them of the church policy against violating a person's civil rights based on sexual orientation," the Sentinel says.

Some of the story is a "they said - they said" matter, and the Sentinel scrupulously logs the argument without trying to settle it:

Govatos also said the issue was not whether they were gay, but whether they were sexually intimate while unmarried — a violation of church employment policy that applied to straight as well as gay individuals.
"The [day-care] director asked them if they were involved in a sexual relationship. Each one on their own admitted that they were," Govatos said.
Meeks said they were never asked about whether they were sexually intimate — only whether they were in a relationship.
"My clients were never asked and never discussed that they were in a sexual relationship. They were never asked that question," Meeks said.

The newpsper quotes Pastor Jim Govatos of Aloma, as well as the couples' attorney. It also quotes a letter from the conference superintendent, the Rev. Annette Stiles Pendergrass. But I would have preferred a direct quote from Stiles or the bishop.

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Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.

You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.

This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.

This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously it's strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs. 

By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.

Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.

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A killer and a theologian: Touching CNN story gets jailhouse religion — and journalism

A killer and a theologian: Touching CNN story gets jailhouse religion — and journalism

Last month, we critiqued a New York Post story on Jeffrey Dahmer's killer that totally failed to get religion.

Basically, the piece was journalistic trash.

Now, for something totally different: a touching CNN story that absolutely gets jailhouse religion — and journalism.

Really, this is an amazing, extremely well-told story.

The compelling lede:

Atlanta (CNN) A few months ago, Kelly Gissendaner wrote a letter to a pen pal across the Atlantic. She told him the state of Georgia was about to fix a date for her execution. One evening soon, she would be strapped to a gurney, needles would be inserted into her arm, and poison would course through her veins until she was dead.
The letter arrived a few days later at the home of an 88-year-old man in Tubingen, Germany. After reading it, he took one of his white handkerchiefs, folded it neatly and placed it in an envelope to mail to Georgia's death row.
"When the tears are coming," he wrote, "take my handkerchief."
The man in Germany was Jurgen Moltmann, an eminent theologian and author who met Gissendaner in prison in 2011. The two have kept in touch through letters ever since.
The circumstances of their lives are vastly different. And yet, they found commonality.

Keep reading, and the story delves into the faith journeys of both Moltmann, who at age 18 was recruited into Adolf Hitler's army, and Gissendaner, who was sentenced to die for recruiting her boyfriend to kill her husband.

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Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

It's a problem that your GetReligionistas face all the time: Many readers do not understand that columnists and opinion writers play by different rules than journalists who write hard news for traditional news organizations.

Yes, it doesn't help -- see this file on what we call "Kellerism" -- that many important mainstream journalists who should know better are blurring the lines between what many textbooks would call the "American model" of the press and the older "European model" which embraces advocacy journalism. This happens a lot when journalists cover debates about doctrine, sex and law.

As a rule, GetReligion focuses on mainstream, hard-news coverage of religion. However, from time to time we pass along "think pieces" that focus on subjects directly linked to religion-news coverage or topics that we think would interest our readers. Several readers sent us a link to a recent First Things piece that takes a critical look at a recent Huffington Post piece -- about same-sex marriage, of course -- that, according to a man interviewed for the HP piece, veered into creative fiction.

This raises a crucial question: What is the HP these days? It often contains serious news reported using a straight forward , hard-news approach, but it is also packed with opinion essays and advocacy pieces that reflect its liberal editorial point of view. So, can you criticize a liberal columnist for writing a liberal column? In this case, the First Things writer is alleging far more than mere bias.

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The Powers of negative thinking about the rise of America's 'illiberal left'

The Powers of negative thinking about the rise of America's 'illiberal left'

It’s important to know right from the start that Kirsten Powers is a cradle liberal who has never once voted for a Republican.

She was a Clinton-Gore operative in 1992, a Clinton administration appointee, press secretary for Andrew Cuomo’s first New York governor race and held other partisan posts. She then shifted into opinion journalism, currently as a USA Today columnist and token liberal commentator on Fox News.

Powers’s credentials as a card-carrying political liberal have helped create buzz about her iconoclastic new “The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech” (Regnery). It’s proclaimed “an important book” by no less than Ron Fournier, National Journal’s editorial director and former Washington bureau chief of The AP. More predictable praise comes from conservatives like Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Krauthammer and George Will, her fellow Fox pundits.

What possessed Powers to issue a broadside against what she calls “the illiberal left”?  Mainly two things.

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