Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Sharing a few big ideas in a long goodbye

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Sharing a few big ideas in a long goodbye

How do you telescope nearly 20 years of a show about religion into an hour or two?

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the PBS news magazine that made television religion-coverage history, announced late last year that it was ending its long run in mid-February of this year. It used its last two episodes to sum up the changes and trends the show has covered since its debut in September 1997.

Meanwhile, erstwhile funder, the Lilly Endowment, is sinking its money into another venture involving religion and ethics. More on that in a moment.

R&EN took awhile to wrap up what’s been an impressive haul of stories. Here’s a show that sent correspondents to cover the faith community’s help in cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina; the work of Catholic Relief Services after the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of southeast Asia and the deaths and elections of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis.

Their Rome coverage alone was amazing considering they had not nearly the budget nor personnel as did the larger TV networks.

This month, the show’s correspondents each focused on a different aspect of the show’s coverage as well as which of the many things they covered still stands out. Judy Valente chose programs on America’s poor

JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: In my years reporting for Religion & Ethics, I interviewed many people who not only had compelling stories to tell, but ended up deeply touching my own life. One of those unforgettable people lived in tiny Pine Apple, Alabama, a place so poor many residents still get their water from outdoor spigots. Dr. Roseanne Cook cared for the poorest of Pine Apple’s poor. Not known to most of her patients, she also happens to be a Sister of St. Joseph, a Catholic nun. She told one story I will never forget, about being robbed on a secluded road.

Kim Lawton focused on the show’s interfaith coverage and the growth of the “nones.”

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Thinking about two newsy people: Atlantic listens to Tucker Carlson and also David Gelernter

Thinking about two newsy people: Atlantic listens to Tucker Carlson and also David Gelernter

It isn't hard news, but sometimes the best thing journalists can do with really interesting people who is sit down and talk to them -- with a recorder turned on.

The Atlantic has two interesting Q&A features up right now offering chats with men representing two very different brands, or styles of conservatism.

The first interview is a familiar byline for those who follow Beltway journalism -- Tucker Carlson of The Daily Caller (where I knew him as an editor who welcomed news-writing interns from the Washington Journalism Center program that I led for a decade). Of course, now he is best known as the guy lighting up the Fox News ratings in the prime evening talk-show slot formerly occupied by Megyn Kelly.

The second interview is with the noted Internet-era theorist David Gelernter, a Yale University computer science professor who is also known for his writings (often in The Weekly Standard) on art, history, politics, culture, education, journalism, Judaism and lots of other things. Many readers will recall that he survived an attack by the Unabomber. I would think that, for GetReligion readers, his book "Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber" would be of special interest, because of its blend of commentary on journalism, faith and public life.

Why point GetReligion readers to these two think pieces? The Carlson piece is interesting because of what is NOT in it. The Gelernter interview (and an amazing 20-point attached memo written by Gelernter) is must reading because of what IS in it.

Here is the passage in the Carlson piece -- focusing on his personal worldview and its roots -- that is creating some buzz:

To the extent that Carlson’s on-air commentary these days is guided by any kind of animating idea, it is perhaps best summarized as a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe. The country has reached a point, he tells me, where the elite consensus on any given issue should be “reflexively distrusted.”
“Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”

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Regarding Trump, Ike, Billy and that handy journalistic planning device called the 'tickler'

Regarding Trump, Ike, Billy and that handy journalistic planning device called the 'tickler'

From the invaluable Merriam-Webster dictionary:  

Tickler  noun

1: a person or device that tickles. 

2: a device for jogging the memory; specifically: a file that serves as a reminder and is arranged to bring matters to timely attention.

Most scribes employ No. 2 to some extent, whether with old-style manila folders or in electronic form. Attention to the calendar paid off with a Feb. 19 feature by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s well-respected Peter Smith on the 50th anniversary of the local “Duquesne Weekend,” which inaugurated the Catholic Charismatic movement.

Further examples: 

Political reporters’ datebooks will mark the 100th day of President Donald Trump’s presidency, or perhaps the July 20 half-year point, as useful points to assess the new administration. Another peg comes June 14 when history’s oldest president turns 71 (while refusing to provide full medical data, as with his tax returns).

Religion beat specialists could use those same calendar pegs to examine  pro and con reactions to how the new president is handling questions of keen religious interest, overtures to this or that religious faction, or whether he ever attends church services, if so where, and if not why. Or this: Is the liberal Christian Century correct that Trump has obliterated the “civil religion” preached by prior presidents?

Speaking of presidents, ticklers will list the National Prayer Breakfast the first Thursday of each February. The 2017 version roused great expectations after a religiously and morally bizarre campaign, and President Trump’s first outing did not disappoint. He recalled childhood “in a churched home,” suggested prayer might help Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve his own “tremendous success” on TV, and remarked “the hell with it” during a fond mention of the Senate chaplain.  

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Are Trump advisor Gorka's views on Islam too extreme? Some media want to know

Are Trump advisor Gorka's views on Islam too extreme? Some media want to know

More than a decade ago, a new editor came to work alongside me on the Washington Times’ national desk. His Catholic roots were in Croatia and it wasn’t long before I learned a lot about the ills that Catholic Croats had suffered under various overlords, the latest being the Communists. The Croats were also under four centuries of the Ottoman (and Muslim) Empire; a situation that my friend never forgot.

Having one’s homeland occupied is something most Americans cannot imagine, much less having to endure it for centuries. My friend was passionate about the politics in his ancestral country to a degree that I rarely saw among other friends who had immigrated to the U.S.  

The person in this Washington Post profile is similar to my friend at work: a son of Hungarian Catholics who had suffered for their faith and whose view of the world was shaped by how southern Europe was conquered first by Muslims and then by Communists. These days he's taken on another cause: That of explaining to the world that religious ideology is at the center of the jihadist threat.

To those of us who write about religion, this sounds pretty obvious. I mean: What else motivates the radical Islamist other than . . . Islam? But this view is not universally accepted in our government. Read on: 

On the night of President Trump’s inauguration, Sebastian Gorka attended the celebratory balls in a high-necked, black Hungarian jacket. Pinned on his chest was a Hungarian coat of arms, a tribute to his father who had been tortured by the communists, and a civilian commendation from the U.S. military.
For years, Gorka had labored on the fringes of Washington and the far edge of acceptable debate as defined by the city’s Republican and Democratic foreign policy elite. Today, the former national security editor for the conservative Breitbart News outlet occupies a senior job in the White House and his controversial ideas — especially about Islam — drive Trump’s populist approach to counterterrorism and national security.

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Wall Street Journal resists news media entropy, finds faith in the 'Sooner State'

Wall Street Journal resists news media entropy, finds faith in the 'Sooner State'

Almost three years have passed since I took pen to paper in aid of the work of The Media Project and GetReligion. I welcome the opportunity to return to the team of writers led by tmatt who cover the coverage of religion reporting in the secular press. 

Much has changed in my life these past few years. I have left the Church of England Newspaper after 18 years and have been engaged in the parish ministry in rural Florida as rector of Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church in Lecanto. I’ve gone up a notch in the church world and now can claim the right to wear purple buttons on my cassock following my election as dean of Northwest Central Florida. I remain active with two online media ventures, Anglican.Ink and Anglican Unscripted. 

The media world has not stood still either. The decline in professional standards -- clarity of language, honesty in reporting, balance and integrity in sourcing -- continues. From my perspective, it would appear that we in the media are all doomed.
Rudolf Clausius’ 1865 maxim: "The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum" -- from which he formulated the second law of thermodynamics-- is true for journalism as well as physics. In terms of journalism basics, a race to the bottom is underway.  

We are now at a point where The Sun, a British redtop or tabloid, is a better source for religion reporting than The Independent (one of Britain’s national papers). Compare these reports on a Catholic abuse scandal in Italy published earlier this month.

The Sun’s story is entitled: “ROMPING IN THE PEWS: Randy Italian priest ‘with 30 lovers’ faces the sack for ‘organising wild S&M orgies on church property’.” The Independent’s piece has the less colorful headline: “Italian priest faces defrocking for ‘organising orgies on church property’.”

Naughty vicar stories are a staple of the British press.

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Clickbait sins and social media: So who was that Nazarene pastor calling 'demonic'?

Clickbait sins and social media: So who was that Nazarene pastor calling 'demonic'?

Please allow me to put on my journalism-professor hat for a moment as we take a second look at the media coverage of that Florida pastor's viral Facebook post about the recent rally for President Donald Trump in Melbourne, Fla.

When recording this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken asked me a question that focused on the journalism nuts-and-bolts of this mini-mediastorm. That question: How did a single social-media post -- with no follow-up interviews or research -- end up becoming a news report that ran in mainstream media around the world?

Good question. But before we get to that, please pay close attention to the very first few seconds of this CNN interview in which the Rev. Joel Tooley, senior pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Melbourne, was asked about his Facebook post and the events that inspired it.

The CNN pro begins by noting that this Florida pastor walked out of "President Trump's weekend rally, calling it 'demonic.' He says that his 11-year-old daughter was traumatized and in tears. ..."

Tooley immediately responds: "Well, first of all, to clarify, I didn't describe the event as 'demonic.' There was some ..."

The CNN host interrupts to say: "A headline described it as that. ..."

It's safe to assume she was referring to the headline on the Washington Post "Acts of Faith" news feature that read: " ‘Demonic activity was palpable’ at Trump’s rally, pastor says." That led to my post on the topic this week.

As the interview began, a CNN graphic made sure that viewers got that point.

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When a 4-year-old biological male prays to be a girl, a few questions for journalists to consider

When a 4-year-old biological male prays to be a girl, a few questions for journalists to consider

The Houston Chronicle tugs at heartstrings — or at least makes a valiant attempt — with a story today focusing on a kindergartner who wants to use the girls' restroom at school.

No, the timing of the cover story in the major Texas newspaper's City and State section is not coincidental: It's related to the Trump administration's decision this week on transgender students using public school restrooms and locker rooms. In case you missed it Thursday, we highlighted three key questions to consider on that issue.

Today's Chronicle headline and subhead play the issue down the middle:

Transgender policy change shows split
Reactions vary among Texas school districts

But the actual story leans heavily in favor of one side. Guess which? It's the side upset with the decision to overturn an Obama-era directive. By my count, four transgender rights advocates are quoted vs. one source on the other side — a school superintendent whose past quotes are recycled.

While the piece ostensibly is an overview of area school district policies, the story begins and ends with the kindergartner mentioned above. And yes, there's a religious angle — not to mention a ghost or two.

Hang with me for a moment, and we'll get to my journalism-related questions.

But first, let's start with the lede:

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Why local media coverage of West Virginia's Bible bill is far from being 'almost heaven'

Why local media coverage of West Virginia's Bible bill is far from being 'almost heaven'

There's faith-related news, apparently, in West Virginia, but the local media there are not paying too much attention.

On Monday, Feb. 20 (don't ask me why the state legislature was meeting on Presidents' Day, but apparently they did), State Delegate Ken Hicks (D-Wayne) introduced a measure to amend the state code with a single sentence: "The Holy Bible is hereby designated as the official state book of West Virginia."

That's, um, news, rather interesting church-state news. Right?

Well, Hicks's measure did grab the attention of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, so that's a start:

"I think a lot of the biblical principles are the same principles that the state was founded on," Hicks said. "The Bible is a book that's been around for thousands of years. A lot of principles from the Bible are what modern-day and contemporary law is based on."
There currently is no official state book for West Virginia.
Hicks said he thought the state could have multiple official books, not limiting it to just the Bible. When asked about concerns as to whether the proposal would indicate an official endorsement of one religion over others by the state, Hicks said he hoped that people who were concerned would contact their legislators to let their feelings be known.

The Herald-Dispatch account -- noting the lawmaker says he is "a practicing Christian" -- quotes Hicks as saying the bill isn't designed to compel Bible reading. Yes, a bit more specificity would have been nice when dealing with his church tradition.

The measure is co-sponsored by seven other delegates, two Democrats and five Republicans. None of the other sponsors are quoted nor are their religious affiliations, if any, disclosed. Talking to the Democrats would have been a nice touch.

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Facts, framing and fairness: Three questions to consider on Trump transgender bathroom decision

Facts, framing and fairness: Three questions to consider on Trump transgender bathroom decision

One of the big news stories of the past 24 hours — in fact, the lead story in today's Washington Post and New York Times — involves the Trump administration's decision on transgender students using public school restrooms and locker rooms.

Interestingly, the story did not make the front page of USA Today or the Wall Street Journal.

I quickly read the coverage from those four national newspapers, along with reports from The Associated Press, CNN and Reuters.

In case you missed the headlines, the lede from AP:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Transgender students on Wednesday lost federal protections that allowed them to use school bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identities, as the Trump administration stepped into a long-simmering national debate.
The administration came down on the side of states' rights, lifting Obama-era federal guidelines that had been characterized by Republicans as an example of overreach.
Without the Obama directive, it will be up to states and school districts to interpret federal anti-discrimination law and determine whether students should have access to restrooms in accordance with their expressed gender identity and not just their biological sex.
"This is an issue best solved at the state and local level," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said. "Schools, communities and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students.

In my rapid-fire assessment of the stories, I'm interested in three key questions:

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