Social Issues

NPR editor gets candid: 'Babies are not babies until they are born'

NPR editor gets candid: 'Babies are not babies until they are born'

Last week, NPR released a memo on coverage of abortion and abortion opponents that sounds like something out of a Planned Parenthood propaganda manual. But this was a style guide to shape news coverage on America’s most influential radio network.

It was journalism policy in reaction to recent events involving a “fetal heartbeat” law in Georgia and an abortion ban in Alabama.

Question: What sane editor would unveil such insider advice that’s going to enrage people? I know NPR isn’t known as friendly to traditional forms of religion, but this was asking for war.

Language in the abortion debate is huge right now, according to this New York Times piece that ran Wednesday. If you don’t think any of this has to do with religion, read the comments attached to said piece.

A quick side trip into the Times piece reveals that:

The new laws that prohibit abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy have been called “heartbeat” legislation by supporters, a reference to the flickering pulse that can be seen on ultrasound images of a developing embryo.

But when the American Civil Liberties Union announced a legal challenge last week to one such law in Ohio, there was no mention of the word “heartbeat” in the news release, which referred to the law instead as “a ban on almost all abortions.” In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost the governor’s race last year, called the measure in her state a “forced pregnancy bill.” A sign at a protest against the law in Atlanta this week turned the idea into a slogan: “NO FORCED BIRTHS.”

The battle over abortion has long been shaped by language. After abortion opponents coined the “pro-life” phrase in the 1960s to emphasize what they saw as the humanity of the fetus, supporters of abortion cast themselves as “pro-choice” to stress a woman’s right to make decisions about her body. In the mid-1990s, the term “partial-birth abortion,” originated by the anti-abortion group National Right to Life, helped rally public opinion against a late-term abortion procedure. Abortion rights activists countered with “Trust Women.”

I remember when newspapers began changing the nomenclature of the movement back in the 1990s when some really unfair usage crept in. Those opposed were called “anti-abortion,” those for were called “pro choice.” One side got stuck with the issues label; the other got an ideological label. Guess which was more appealing to the reader?

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Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

This is really a great time — in terms of mainstream media coverage — to be a liberal or “progressive” evangelical.

If you needed proof of this thesis — other than the contents of op-ed pages and wire features — then look no further than the latest political/media comeback by former President Jimmy Carter.

I have followed Carter for decades (I was a Carter volunteer at Baylor University in 1975-76), which is understandable since it’s impossible to report on the role of “born again” Christians in American political life without paying close attention to what Carter believes and when he believed it. He inspired many, many “moderate” Baptists and other evangelicals to take politics seriously.

Here’s a question I have asked for several decades now: Name another American politician — Republican or Democrat — who was willing to cost himself support within his own party by taking a critical stance, of any kind, on abortion. To this day, Carter’s language on abortion makes his party’s leadership nervous (see his remarks last year at Liberty University).

But the former president has certainly evolved on other crucial doctrinal issues. What role has this played in his current popularity with Democrats and, thus, with the press?

Consider this recent feature from the Associated Press: “Jimmy Carter finds a renaissance in 2020 Democratic scramble.” Here is the totally political overture:

ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter carved an unlikely path to the White House in 1976 and endured humbling defeat after one term. Now, six administrations later, the longest-living chief executive in American history is re-emerging from political obscurity at age 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.

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If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

How often have we been informed that the religious left is about to revive with new power, or that the Religious Right will fade?

That sort of political punditry occurs alongside periodic warnings — or hopes, among politicos and many journalists — that America’s sprawling network of evangelical Protestant congregations and agencies is destined for big decline.

If this is true, journalists should spring into action immediately.

Evangelicalism was often the most dynamic force in U.S. religion over recent decades, with impact worldwide, and generally managed to resist the serious slide that afflicted the evangelicals’ more liberal “Mainline” Protestant rivals beginning in the mid-1960s. (This article will bypass changes among Roman Catholicism, historically black Protestant denominations, and other religious sectors.)

A notable example of negativism was “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” posted a decade ago by the late Michael Spencer, a popular blogger and self-described “post-evangelical Christian.” He predicted “a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years, which means just about now, that would “fundamentally alter” the culture of the West.

Further, Spencer prophesied that within two generations this Bible-based empire would shrink to half its present scope, with scads of dropouts, sagging budgets, shuttered doors, and ruined careers, and “nothing” would restore former glory. Etc. Read it all for yourself

Some of this has in fact occurred, though not (yet) so dramatically, as reporters easily see in statistics of the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Evangelicalism’s health is relatively stable despite cultural pressures. This brings to mind Mark Twain’s jest that “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

But then last week — media pay close attention — pessimism was suddenly proclaimed by one of the most important voices in the evangelical establishment, Mark Galli, editor in chief ofChristianity Today magazine.

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Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Howard Stern gave a remarkable two-part interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. In terms of cultural encounters, that’s interesting in and of itself.

A good many social conservatives — OK, I’ll own this — have usually found it easier to think of Stern as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. If he was not one of the four horsemen, he was the nearly naked drunken guy dancing with abandon somewhere in the end times parade, much to the delight of those citizens who think of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street as the cultural high point of the year.

Writing in “Prophet of All Media” for Tablet, Liel Leibovitz makes an argument that, like Stern, is provocative. Leibovitz repeatedly compares Stern to Judaism’s prophets, and he begins with an earthy tale straight out of the Talmud about a prostitute who breaks wind and delivers a related prophetic word to her client, a rabbi.

“And it’s just the sort of story that makes the seminal text of Jewish life — often introduced to young yeshiva students as an account of God’s own mind — so transcendent,” he writes. “To imbue humans with wisdom, the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud realized, you need more than just a commandment; if you want humans to listen and learn, you have to embrace all the appetites and the oddities that make them human. Try to talk to us about the labors of redemption, and we might scoff at such haughty moralizing or slink away from the effort it demands. Deliver it in a good yarn about a farting prostitute, and we’re bound to laugh, think, and empathize.”

Much of Leibovitz’s argument continues in this vein, leaving the impression that apart from the occasionally unkind or crude remark, Stern surely joins the farting prostitute in having a heart of gold.

In time, however, Leibovitz reaches the mother lode of his case, with a comparison for all Americans who have set NPR as the first station on the audio devices built into their automobile dashboards. Leibovitz goes so far as to compare Stern to Terry Gross — not by mentioning their most recent interview, but by comparing the cultural effects of their respective style of interviews.

This is very long, but essential. Media professionals, let us attend:

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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

It’s time to venture into my “guilt file” — where I stash news stories that I know deserve attention, but breaking news keeps getting in the way.

Several weeks ago — Easter season, basically — the Washington Post ran an important story about the rise of Pete Buttigieg as a real contender among the 100 or so people currently seeking (a) the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination or (b) the VP slot with Joe Biden (the second after Barack Obama winks and hints at an endorsement).

In this case, the religion angle was right there in the headline: “Questions on race, faith and tradition confront Buttigieg in South Carolina.”

In other words, Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt to see if his mainstream Episcopal Church vibe — brainy white married gay male — will fly in a region in which black Christians are a political force. This is a culturally conservative corner of the Democratic Party tent that tends to get little or no attention from journalists in deep-blue zip codes (that Acela-zone thing). So let’s pull this story out of my “guilt file.”

The headline is solid, pointing to questions about “race, faith and tradition.” Want to guess what part of that equation gets the short end of the stick, in terms of serious content?

This is an important story, in terms of cultural diversity among Democrats. At some point, candidates will need to talk about religious liberty, third-trimester abortion, gender-neutral locker rooms and a host of other powerful cultural issues linked to religion.

The bottom line: Mayor Pete wants to be pro-faith, while attacking conservative Protestants whose views of the Bible are radically different than his own. How will that strategy play in the Bible Belt? Can he appeal to Democrats other those in what the Post calls a “liberal, wealthy and white” niche?

Here is what we are looking for in this story: Will anyone address religious questions to African-American Democrats from Pentecostal, conservative Baptist or Catholic pews? Or will the story only feature the voices of experts talking about these strange people? Here’s the overture:

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This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

THE QUESTION:

In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.

New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.

The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.”

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CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

There he goes again. “He” in this case is Brian Stelter at “Reliable Sources,'“ the CNN show that covers a wide range of news about mass media, including mainstream journalism.

In the past few months — while discussing press struggles with normal America — Stelter has asked some interesting questions about the fact that many journalists in elite zip codes struggle to, well, get religion. He hasn’t said “GetReligion” yet, but he has mentioned that there are websites that keep track of this problem. Maybe I can picket his office next time I’m camped out in New York City?

This came up recently when I wrote an “On Religion” column about the new “Alienated America” book by Timothy P. Carney, who leads the commentary section at The Washington Examiner (click here for the column and here for the GetReligion podcast that discussed this). That column included material from a Carney appearance on “Reliable Sources” that included comments about You Know What.

The context — #DUH — is a discussion of why so many journalists missed the rise of Donald Trump in flyover country. A key point: Core Trump voters talked about religion, while those whose daily lives revealed deep religious convictions tended to oppose Trump in the primaries. Here’s a chunk of that column:

Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America — in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere — clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared. …

Stelter said the problem is that religion is "like climate change." This topic affects life nationwide, but it's hard for journalists to see since "there's not a bill being introduced in Congress or there's not a press conference happening in New York."

This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well – especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West coasts.

"Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America," he said. "It's not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It's that they don't understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories."

In other words, way too many journalists notice religion — when it shows up in New York City and Beltway events that they believe are connected to their The One True Faith, which is politics.

The other day, Stelter returned to this subject while discussing the evolution of American values and public life with a very controversial author — Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro.

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'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

As a part-time New York City resident — lower Manhattan, to be precise — I am learning how to read between the lines when people talk about their adventures trying to find affordable places to live.

Basically, if your family and/or set of roomies can live with one bedroom, you’re in business. If you need two bedrooms, things get tougher but you are still in the game. Listening to New Yorkers talk about apartments is kind of like hearing an urban version of Lord of the Rings or some other epic Hero’s Journey narrative.

Marriage doesn’t really affect this tale — but children do. Again, it’s all about needing that second bedroom. A third bedroom? Fuhgeddaboudit. Then it’s time to start studying commuter trains.

This is another way of saying that — in the New York City context — the decision to have more than 2.100 children has massive implications that involve real estate, but other big issues as well. If being a New Yorker is a kind of cultural religion, having two children raises eyebrows. But having more than 2.100 children is a heresy (for folks with normal incomes). At the very least, it’s countercultural.

This leads me to a remarkably faith-free New York Times story that ran the other day with this epic double-decker headline:

New York’s New Strollervilles

In search of affordable housing, young families are putting down roots in places like Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Morris Park in the Bronx.

What a great word — Strollerville. It’s kind of cute and trendy, but with just a pinch of judgment. The key is that all one needs to get into Strollerville status is, obviously, one stroller. The opening scene:

A few years ago, the gateways to the courtyard of Peter Bracichowicz’s co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, were empty. Now, there are wall-to-wall baby strollers.

“I actually counted them: 10 on one side, eight on the other,” said Mr. Bracichowicz, a Corcoran agent who used to live in the complex. “And that’s just in the entrance.”

Oh the humanity.

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