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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Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

In recent days, I have had quite a few emails asking what the GetReligionistas think of the fall of Josh Duggar of the Family Research Council and then the whole "19 Kids and Counting" TLC reality-television empire.

As always, people seemed to be asking what we thought of the story itself, as opposed to our reactions to the mainstream news media coverage of the story. That's two different issues.

As always, most of the coverage has looked at the story through a political lens, asking how this scandal among hypocrites on the Religious Right would impact public debates about same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage and same-sex marriage.

That's an interesting angle, since I never got the impression -- as someone who has never seen a complete episode of the show -- that the Duggars were the kinds of folks who were very effective as apologists, when it came time to changing many minds on the cultural left. They seemed, to me, to be the ultimate preaching-to-the-choir niche media product. For those who are interested, here is the family's public statement on the controversy.

It's safe to assume that folks on the cultural left pretty much hated these folks, with good cause. The more subtle point is that the Duggars were also very controversial among evangelicals, including among folks who are often accurately described as very traditional, or even patriarchal, on family issues. This television empire made all kinds of folks nervous, with good cause.

Here is the key, if you want to dig into the serious coverage. How early does the name "Bill Gothard" appear and to what degree does the coverage make it sound like Gothard and his disciples represent mainstream evangelicalism or even orthodox (let alone Orthodox or Catholic) Christianity?

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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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Pod people: Talking scare quotes, red flags and other 'controversial' tools of religion journalism

Pod people: Talking scare quotes, red flags and other 'controversial' tools of religion journalism

Got style?

In a couple of recent posts, I've delved into the nitty-gritty of religion news writing.

In one post, I focused on the specific language used in a USA Today story on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

In another post, I tackled the subject of scare quotes — a term that is familiar to regular Get Religion readers.

On this week's episode of "Crossroads," the GetReligion podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss both those posts. Click here to tune in.

Besides addressing those posts, my interview with Wilken turns into a conversation about another recent post — this one on the use of the adjective "controversial" in journalism.

Trust me, it's fascinating stuff.

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New persecution in Sudan: Religion News Service report leads mainstream media

New persecution in Sudan: Religion News Service report leads mainstream media

"Courage is contagious," Billy Graham has said. "When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened."

Whether from courage or just old-school nose for news, the Religion News Service deserves thanks and applause for its Wednesday story on a new round of persecution in Sudan.

Remember Meriam Yayha Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was jailed and threatened with death last year? Well, something like that is happening again: The government there has jailed two pastors, charging them with spying and, according to RNS, with "assault on religious belief."

In a way, it's even worse this time around. Ibrahim was accused of "apostasy," deserting the Islamic faith. Her counter-argument was that her mother raised her as a Christian and she never converted to the faith of her father. She won her case and was released in a month, then emigrated to the United States.

In the current case, neither the Rev. Michael Yat nor the Rev. Peter Yein Reith is accused of leaving Islam. At bottom, their arrests stem from the creation of South Sudan in 2011 after a long, brutal civil war. Both ministers are members of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.

As RNS tells it:

Yat was arrested last year after visiting the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church’s Bahri congregation in Khartoum, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a charity that works on behalf of persecuted Christians.
The congregation had resisted the takeover of the church by a Muslim businessman, who had demolished part of the worship center.
In December, police beat and arrested 38 Christians for worshipping in the church.
With Yat’s arrest, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church sent Reith with a letter to the authorities to demand his release. He was arrested on Jan. 11.

RNS adds that since the creation of South Sudan, the northern nation "has forced out all foreign missionaries, raided churches and arrested and interrogated Christians on grounds that they belonged to South Sudan." So Yat's and Reith's case is an apparent blend of governmental paranoia and Sudan's militant form of Islam.

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Scandal! Sikh man removes his turban in order to follow teachings of his faith!

Scandal! Sikh man removes his turban in order to follow teachings of his faith!

As we all know, religious doctrines are bad. Thus, breaking them is good. That seems to be the implication of a bizarre AOL.com news item -- a piece of aggregation, actually -- sent to your GetReligionistas the other day.

The key, as in many mistakes involving aggregated news, is that the writer appears to have spent zero time or energy investigating the facts of the story. In fact, it appears that the AOL desk didn't even pay that much attention to the New Zealand Herald story it was slicing and dicing. The goal was a conflict-driven click-friendly headline: "Sikh man breaks religious rules, removes his turban to help an injured boy." As a reader noted:

The title and the bulk of the article attempt to create a conflict between the "rules" of religion and real compassion. On the plus side, the article does note that "the Sikh religion makes exceptions for taking off a turban in emergencies," yet it still plays up the phony conflict.

Let's look at two pieces of this short item:

A New Zealand Sikh put religion aside and took off his turban to help an injured child.
The New Zealand Herald reports 22-year-old Harman Singh saw a 5-year-old boy had been struck by a car outside of his home Friday. Despite religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban and show his hair in public, Singh didn't hesitate to take off his headdress and cushion the bleeding child's head.

You have to love the "put religion aside" reference and the reference to "religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban." The key word is "permitting."

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Media coverage on Boy Scouts ranges from excellent to inexcusably biased

Media coverage on Boy Scouts ranges from excellent to inexcusably biased

Thursday’s announcement by Robert Gates, president of Boy Scouts of America, that the group may need to change its policy on gay leaders drew a predictable avalanche of coverage, some of it very good and some of it a mess.

Some background: The Scouts have been fighting this battle for at least two decades. Some of you may remember the Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Boy Scouts of America vs. James Dale that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gay leaders. That was 15 years ago.

As for the latest news, we’ll start off with today's Los Angeles Times Page 1 story:

Robert M. Gates, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, urged the group on Thursday during its annual meeting in Atlanta to end its ban on gay leaders, saying the prohibition “cannot be sustained.”
“I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement,” said Gates, former CIA director and secretary of Defense.
He recommended that local Scouting groups be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow gay leaders.
Advocates of gays in Scouting cheered in celebration.
“He's made it clear that if the Boy Scouts don't make the change on their terms, the courts will change it on their terms,” said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and executive director of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality.
“Now we need to make sure not only does that ban come to an end, but that it's enforced across the country,” Wahls said, adding, “There needs to be full inclusion for gay adults.”
Others had a more mixed reaction.
“It's one of those things I was hoping I wouldn't have to think about for years to come,” said David Barton, an Orange County Cubmaster, assistant Scoutmaster, Eagle Scout and the father of two boys in Scouting.

The reporter did a very thorough job of calling around to every religious group possible: Southern Baptists, Mormons, a Texas-based values group, Catholics, as well as a gay Scoutmaster who was forced to leave his troop. It was a lengthy, comprehensive piece.

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Church planting in Boston: Brilliant Alternet satire or, well, something else?

Church planting in Boston: Brilliant Alternet satire or, well, something else?

When I was a lad back in the early 1960s, my father left his work as a Southern Baptist pastor in inner-city Dallas and took a position in North Texas, near the base of the Panhandle, that was often referred to as an "associational missionary." It helps to know that Southern Baptists have regional "associations," as opposed to conferences, presbyteries or dioceses.

One of the primary duties of this associational leader, in addition to serving as a pastor or consultant to the region's pastors, was to direct efforts in what has long been called "church planting." The goal was to figure out logical places to "plant" effective new churches and then help people do precisely that. Click here for a rather mainstream take on this topic, from a middle-of-the-road Protestant flock up in Canada.

There was nothing sneaky or threatening about this work, at least not in Texas a half century ago.

It seems that times have changed, at least in some blue zip codes. Either that, or some journalists simply have zero familiarity with how church leaders think and talk? Yeah, that could be what we are dealing with here.

But maybe not! As several people have noted in emails to me -- including a former GetReligionista known as a wit -- the following Alternet piece may not, as it appears, be a stunningly tone-deaf look at a perfectly normal church topic.

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The Oregonian finally has a religion writer who's pursuing the beat

The Oregonian finally has a religion writer who's pursuing the beat

Seattle University is one of those institutions that conservative Catholics love to hate.

Not only does the Jesuit school host an annual Lavender Celebration that has honors such as the “Sylvia Rivera Award for Queer Activism,” but it includes faculty who write books such as “A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.” Alhough it's odd that a Muslim cleric might feel at home there,  what is interesting is that the story about this imam first ran in the Oregonian.

The premise of Abdullah Polovina's story sounds like the start of a bar joke:
A Muslim imam walks into a Catholic university...
Except it's true. Polovina, who leads a congregation of Bosnian Muslims in Portland, did walk into a Catholic university.
And in June, he'll walk out to "Pomp and Circumstance." The 41-year-old recently completed a master's degree at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry, where he was the first Muslim to ever enroll.
"I was looking for a place to be accepted as myself and to be the true face of Islam, though I am not the best follower," Polovina said.

I first spotted this story in a Washington state newspaper, which had picked it up because there’s a reporter at “the Big O” who has reinvigorated the religion beat. Or the “faith and values” beat, as they call it. Whatever.

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