Politics

In the bloody Middle East, journalists must strive to use accurate labels

In the bloody Middle East, journalists must strive to use accurate labels

At first glance, there would seem to be little connection between the two items that I want to spotlight in this post. The connecting thread is that, every now and then, people in the public square (including journalists) need to be more careful when assigning labels to some of the key players.

So what happened in the Breitbart headline pictured above -- since taken down -- linked to the speech by Sen. Ted Cruz at the recent "In Defense of Christians" conference, an event focusing, in particular, on the brutally oppressed ancient churches of the Holy Land. Surf a few links in this online search to catch up on this media storm on the political and cultural right.

It's a complicated news story, one that hits home for me because of the years I spent in a majority-Arab Eastern Orthodox parish. Trust me when I say that I understand that some Arab Christians are anti-Israel and I have met some who sometimes veer all the way into anti-Semitism. I understand that some focus their anger on Israel, since it's hopeless to curse the radical forms of Islam that have, over decades and centuries, have inflicted so much pain on their families and communities. I understand that some of the Christians who heard Cruz praise Israel, in the bluntest possible terms, were offended. Read the details and make up your own mind.

Now look at that headline. 

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Taking gay-rights fight to Bible-Belt Mississippi? Round up the usual bad guys

Taking gay-rights fight to Bible-Belt Mississippi? Round up the usual bad guys

One of the most interesting parts of journalism, in my experience, is the never-ending search for new and unique voices to pull into familiar stories. It's like that famous scene in one of my all-time favorite movies: It's easy to run out and round up the usual suspects, but why should journalists settle for that?

So here is the story for today: Editors at The Washington Post national desk decided to do a profile of an emerging hero in the gay-rights fight in Mississippi, which is one of those states that, as the story stresses, "embodies the values of the Bible Belt."

The man in the spotlight is Rob Hill, who until recently was a secretly gay pastor serving at the altar of United Methodist congregation in a part of the country where most bishops defend the teachings of their global denomination. Now he has left the closet, left the ministry, rarely goes to church and is the face of the gay-rights movement in Mississippi, working as a representative of the Human Rights Campaign. This powerful network,  which is based in Washington, D.C., is pouring $9.5 million into a countercultural effort to promote gay rights in the Deep South. 

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Death of the Chick-fil-A patriarch: A classic religion-news story with two sides

Death of the Chick-fil-A patriarch: A classic religion-news story with two sides

It's safe to say that Chick-fil-A patriarch S. Truett Cathy was famous, or infamous, for two very different reasons with two radically different flocks of people. After his death, mainstream news organizations faced an obvious news question: What's the lede? What's the angle on this remarkable entrepreneur's life that deserved the spotlight at the top of the story?

You can see that struggle in the summary paragraphs near the top of The New York Times obituary:

Mr. Cathy, who died on Monday at 93, was by all appearances a humble Christian man from Georgia with little education who sold a simple sandwich: a breaded, boneless chicken breast on a soft, white, buttered bun with nothing more than a couple of pickles for garnish.
But as the founder of the Chick-fil-A fast-food empire, he was also a billionaire several times over and, as a conservative Christian who ran his business according to his religious principles, he was at once a hero and a symbol of intolerance. Many admired him for closing his outlets on Sundays and speaking out against same-sex marriage. Others vilified his the chain as a symbol of hate.

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We have a confirmed sighting of an old-school (think liberal) church-state coalition

We have a confirmed sighting of an old-school (think liberal) church-state coalition

The history of church-state relations in the United States is a very complicated subject, the kind of intellectual terrain that you could spend several semesters exploring in a graduate degree (as I once did, late in the Vietnam War era). 

In recent decades, roughly the era defined by the rise of the Religious Right, there have been several distinct stages in church-state affairs. At one point, it was rare for thinkers on the left and right to communicate with one another. Then came the Clinton White House years when -- I know this will be hard for some readers to believe -- there was serious progress and constructive dialogue, primarily because conservatives began to enthusiastically embrace the First Amendment. Yes, even though the politics of abortion loomed in the background.

As I wrote in a post early in the Barack Obama administration:

You see, once upon a time there was a wide coalition -- roughly from the ACLU to Pat Robertson -- that was focused on another issue altogether, which was free speech, freedom of association and trying to find ways (think "equal access" laws) that treated religious believers and nonbelievers the same when it came time for them to express their beliefs. ...
It was crucial, you see, for believers and nonbelievers to have the maximum amount of freedom without the government getting entangled (the key word) in determining which doctrines were acceptable and which were not. If the chess team got to use a room after school, then so did Campus Crusade for Christ (or the young atheists circle). 

Can you imagine that kind of truly liberal (in the old sense of that word) coalition existing today, in an era defined by bitter battles about gay marriage and, in a strange healthcare flashback, birth control? I know, it's hard to imagine.

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Pod people: Sports and religion, Tim Tebow and ESPN, Michael Sam and the locker room

Pod people: Sports and religion, Tim Tebow and ESPN, Michael Sam and the locker room

It was a quiet little National Football League story, tucked away in the back headlines of the sports pages. Former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk -- yes, the guy from Harvard -- had been named to one of the quietest, but most influential, slots in pro sports.

The short ESPN report was typical, including the following summary statements:

Matt Birk was named the NFL's director of football development, the league announced Thursday. ...
In his new role, Birk will assist in developing the game at all levels, from players to coaches to front-office personnel. He will guide the evolution of the NFL scouting combine and regional combines as well as the all-star games for prospects, such as the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game. Birk will also over see the career development symposium and the Bill Walsh minority coaching fellowship program. ...
Birk, 37, played his first 11 seasons in the league with the Minnesota Vikings before joining the Ravens for the final four seasons of his career. He retired after he won his first Super Bowl following the 2012 season. In 2011, he was the recipient of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for his excellence on and off the field.

Now, in light of the media tsunami surrounding gay defensive lineman Michael Sam, it showed remarkable restraint that ESPN leaders did not mention that this Matt Birk was also THAT OTHER Matt Birk, the husband of a crisis pregnancy center volunteer, the father of six children, the articulate Catholic whose beliefs on marriage had inspired so many headlines. 

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NYTimes tiptoes around religion angle in UK child sex-abuse story

NYTimes tiptoes around religion angle in UK child sex-abuse story

The front page of today's New York Times offers a sensitively written account of the ordeals suffered by child sex-abuse victims in Rotherham, England, where an investigation has revealed that, between 1997 and 2013, "at least 1,400 children, some as young as 11, were groomed for sexual exploitation while the authorities looked the other way."

Why did authorities ignore the abuse? The article takes its time arriving at the answer, and when it does, the answer it offers is incomplete.

We are first given an account from Lucy, a victim now 25, who tells of how she was targeted by a gang whose members raped her daily from when she was 12 until she was nearly 14:

At night, she would come home and hide her soiled clothes at the back of her closet. When she finally found the courage to tell her mother, just shy of her 14th birthday, two police officers came to collect the clothes as evidence, half a dozen bags of them.
But a few days later, they called to say the bags had been lost.
“All of them?” she remembers asking. A check was mailed, 140 pounds, or $232, for loss of property, and the family was discouraged from pressing charges. It was the girl’s word against that of the men. The case was closed.

The story then shifts to the recently released investigation of Rotherham child sex abuse, which revealed the extent to which local authorities failed to prosecute cases such as Lucy's:

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Paging Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The ghost that haunts many urban teens

Paging Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The ghost that haunts many urban teens

Two or three paragraphs into this riveting Wonkblog essay in The Washington Post I began having flashbacks, and not the good kind. 

The key thought: Where is the late, great Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan when we really need him?

The headline opens the door and it's a very important door, if you care about social justice and the urban poor: "What your 1st-grade life says about the rest of it." Here is the opening of the report, which has a Baltimore dateline for perfectly logical reasons:

BALTIMORE -- In the beginning, when they knew just where to find everyone, they pulled the children out of their classrooms.
They sat in any quiet corner of the schools they could claim: the sociologists from Johns Hopkins and, one at a time, the excitable first-graders. Monica Jaundoo, whose parents never made it past the eighth grade. Danté Washington, a boy with a temper and a dad who drank too much. Ed Klein, who came from a poor white part of town where his mother sold cocaine.

They talked with the sociologists about teachers and report cards, about growing up to become rock stars or police officers. ... Later, as the children grew and dispersed, some falling out of the school system and others leaving the city behind, the conversations took place in McDonald’s, in public libraries, in living rooms or lock-ups. The children -- 790 of them, representative of the Baltimore public school system’s first-grade class in 1982 -- grew harder to track as the patterns among them became clearer.

What shaped these young and, quickly, troubled lives?

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Intentional omission? The ghost in MSM coverage of reporters held by ISIS

Intentional omission? The ghost in MSM coverage of reporters held by ISIS

The New York Times reports that Shirley Sotloff, whose son Steven Joel Sotloff is a freelance journalist being held by ISIS, says in a video message to her son's captors: 

“As a mother, I ask your justice to be merciful and not punish my son for matters he has no control over,” Ms. Sotloff, a teacher from Miami, says in the video. She explains that she has been studying Islam since his capture, and then urges ISIS’ leader to follow the path of his religion’s founder: “I ask you to use your authority to spare his life and to follow the example set by the Prophet Muhammad, who protected People of the Book” — a reference to Christians and Jews.
She adds that in her study she has learned that Islam teaches that “no individual should be held responsible for the sins of others.”
“Steven has no control over the actions of the U.S. government,” she continues. “He is an innocent journalist.”

Note that the story does add that "People of the Book" is ”a reference to Christians and Jews." This is good. In some other media reports online, "Book" has a lower-case "b." What, precisely, is this "Book"?

However, look for mention of Steven Sotloff's specific religion in the Times article -- or in coverage of Shirley Sotloff's video in the Miami Herald, the UK Mirror and other mainstream news outlets -- and you won't find it.

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Altar-ed plans: Oklahoma City 'Black Mass' organizer to go on without consecrated Host

Altar-ed plans: Oklahoma City 'Black Mass' organizer to go on without consecrated Host

The recent news that the organizer of the Oklahoma City Black Mass gave up the consecrated Host that he intended to desecrate at the event appears to have caused confusion in some Catholic circles.

The Catholic Culture website interpreted the story as meaning that the Black Mass had been "thwarted," while the Catholic League rang out huzzahs that the event had been "nixed." However, the latest news, as well as Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley's plan to continue to counter the event, suggests that Satanists still intend to have their day, to one degree or another, at the Oklahoma City Civic Center.

For starters, the Black Mass is still listed on the Oklahoma City Civic Center website.

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