Ave Maria and the MSM square off

 3How busy have things been around here lately? Earlier this week I was quoted in a mainstream newspaper about GetReligion's response to recent news coverage (as opposed to old coverage) of Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida. If you don't recall this blog's response to that, there's a good reason -- I haven't had the time to blog on that yet. I think the Oscars thing jumped in there. Several GetReligion readers emailed me to let me know they didn't think much of NBC's recent Today coverage of the alternative, highly traditionalist Roman Catholic campus being built near Naples, Fla., by the activist philanthropist Tom "Domino's Pizza" Monaghan. The college is controversial enough, but what really set off the fireworks this time was the growing awareness that the university would sit in the middle of a planned community called Ave Maria, Fla., and that Monoghan and other insiders were going to request that businesses setting up shop inside the city limits consider, well, not embracing pornography, birth control and abortion.

I didn't see the NBC report, but I did read the recent Newsweek/MSNBC story by Susannah Meadows, the one with that somewhat snarky headline "Halfway to Heaven -- A Catholic millionaire's dream town draws fire." Here is a pretty typical sample of the text:

For Tom Monaghan, the devout Catholic who founded Domino's Pizza and is now bankrolling most of the initial $400 million cost of the project, Ave Maria is the culmination of a lifetime devoted to spreading his own strict interpretation of Catholicism. Though he says nonbelievers are welcome, Monaghan clearly wants the community to embody his conservative values. He controls all the commercial real estate in town (along with his developing partner, Barron Collier Cos.) and is asking pharmacies not to carry contraceptives. If forced to choose between two otherwise comparable drugstores, Barron Collier would favor the one that honored that request, says its president and CEO, Paul Marinelli. Discussing his life as a millionaire Catholic who puts his money where his faith is, Monaghan says: "I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil. I don't want to be on the sidelines."

The ACLU of Florida is worried about how he's playing the game.

The key phrase in that, of course, is "his own strict interpretation of Catholicism." You see that kind of language all the time, which seems to underscore the fact that many journalists think the Roman Catholic Church is an evolving democracy in which liberal Catholics who oppose the teachings of the church have the same doctrinal status as, well, the pope. In this story, is the key the fact that Monoghan's beliefs are controversial or those of Pope Benedict XVI?

oldtimechurch inside2Clearly all kinds of legal hellfire will break out if Monoghan and others try to outlaw -- using government power -- certain sins in the community. The question here is whether they can use their economic clout to make it easier for some businesses and harder for others. It's one thing to control the moral climate of the campus. But will the town be the ultimate gated community?

That's a valid story (and a dang good story, too), but that does not mean journalists have to assume that Monoghan is the "pizza pope" who is trying to establish some kind of Roman cult within air-strike range of South Beach.

Sure enough, the powers that be at Ave Maria have tried to tone down their language a bit. The university also has set up a website with links to some of the recent coverage, both good and bad. It would be good if more religious institutions took a similar approach.

Meanwhile, reporter Joan D. LaGuardia of the News-Press in Fort Myers called me up and asked what GetReligion thought of all of this. I made it clear I hadn't seen the television coverage, but that some of our readers had. She wrote a short story on the mini-media storm that included the following:

Media critics said the three-day flurry of reporting was typical of the wider debate over Christian values in the nation.

Terry Mattingly, head of getreligion.org, a Washington D.C.-based Web site that dissects secular coverage of religion, said he got a few e-mails about Friday's coverage. One said Katie Couric of the "Today Show" "displayed incredible skepticism for anything that the people from Ave Maria said and no skepticism for anything anyone else said."

That's typical of major media reporting on religion, Mattingly said.

However, Aly Colon, who teaches journalism ethics and diversity at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, said Christian groups attempting to influence government and society put themselves in the limelight for tough reporting.

"There has been an increasingly assertive approach on the part of Christian organizations to bring their values into these secular environments," Colon said. "The more visible that becomes, the more attention it will draw."

In a way, that makes it sound like I disagree with Colon and I do not. Clearly, the Ave Maria folks deserve some tough questions. But the people who oppose them deserve a few raised eyebrows, too, Katie. That's what journalism is all about. Right?

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