RIP Nat Hentoff: How did press handle his crusade against illiberals, on left and right?

RIP Nat Hentoff: How did press handle his crusade against illiberals, on left and right?

As a self-proclaimed "Jewish, atheist, civil libertarian, left-wing pro-lifer,” journalist Nat Hentoff had -- as you would imagine -- an unusual set of friends and enemies.

In the end, it's pretty easy to describe the thread that united his admirers. They (I should say "we") saluted his fierce liberalism on First Amendment issues. I would stress that he strongly defended free speech, freedom of association and the free exercise of religious convictions, as well as freedom of the press.

The question today is how much of his unique intellectual equation made it into the elite newsroom articles about his death. Hold that thought.

You could say that the First Amendment was his only creed, but that would be wrong. As an atheist, he was a strict and doctrinaire materialist (especially when DNA was involved). Why would that be controversial? Well, let's let Hentoff explain that, in this famous passage from a 1992 piece -- "Pro-choice bigots: a view from the pro-life left" -- in the old-school New Republic:

Being without theology isn’t the slightest hindrance to being pro-life. As any obstetrics manual -- Williams Obstetrics, for example -- points out, there are two patients involved, and the one not yet born “should be given the same meticulous care by the physician that we long have given the pregnant woman.”

Nor, biologically, does it make any sense to draw life-or-death lines at viability. Once implantation takes place, this being has all the genetic information within that makes each human being unique. And he or she embodies continually developing human life from that point on. ... Whether the life is cut off in the fourth week or the fourteenth, the victim is one of our species, and has been from the start.

This brings us to the elite media obits.

In my opinion there are three pieces of Hentoff's life and work that must be mentioned in these pieces. First, of course, there is his status as a legendary writer about jazz, one of the great passions of his life. Second, you need to discuss why he was consistently pro-life. Note the "why" in that sentence. Third, you have to talk about his radical and consistent First Amendment views -- he defended voices on left and right -- and how those convictions eventually turned him into a heretic (symbolized by The Village Voice firing him) for post-liberal liberals who back campus speech codes, new limits on religious liberty, etc.

So what happened?

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Year-beginner for 2017: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and moi, see more battles over religious liberty

Year-beginner for 2017: Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and moi, see more battles over religious liberty

Ever since the 1980s, I have been telling editors and journalists that conflicts about religious liberty were going cause some of the biggest news stories on the American horizon.

Anyone who has been reading GetReligion since 2004 knows that I've been saying that, over and over. Amen If you listen to this week's "Crossroads" podcast, looking ahead into 2017, you're going to hear more about that. No apologies.

The roots of this concern run back to my graduate-school work in Baylor University's church-state studies program, where -- in 1977-78 -- we could hear the early rumblings of what would become Bob Jones University vs. United States case.

Why is that important? Do you remember this crucial moment in the U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell debates about same-sex marriage?

JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­ exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I, I don't think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue. I, I don't deny that. I don't deny that, Justice Alito. It is, it is going to be an issue.

That's why religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling, in his recent pair of memos looking ahead to 2017, stressed that religious-liberty cases -- linked to LGBTQ issues, again -- would remain on the front burner for major American newsrooms. Click here and then here for those two Ostling posts.

You can see the same themes again, over and over, in the recent "Acts of Faith" year-beginner piece at The Washington Post by religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey (yes, a former member of the GetReligion team). The headline: "Here’s what we think will be the major religion stories of 2017." Here is the overture:

The new year could be turbulent for religion in America.

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When is mortal sin not that big a deal? The National Post debates 'medically assisted death'

When is mortal sin not that big a deal? The National Post debates 'medically assisted death'

News stories about issues in medical ethics -- take physician-assisted suicide, for example -- tend to be rather complicated affairs.

Add in ultimate questions about Catholic theology and things get even more complicated. Changing the name of the procedure in question to "medically assisted death" doesn't erase the moral and doctrinal questions involved in all of this.

Thus, editors at The National Post had to know they were headed into tricky territory when working on a recent story that ran with this headline: "Catholics hoping for a funeral after assisted death face different answers from different churches." Read the following carefully -- Catholic readers, especially -- and see if you can spot any problems that start right at the top of this story.

VANCOUVER -- A proper funeral is far more than an end-of-life celebration for practising Catholics, who believe last rites cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven.
But for the faithful questioning whether those final sacraments are available to a loved one who has chosen a medically assisted death, the answer may depend on whom in the church they ask.

See the problem? Have the journalists who worked on this story confused Catholic teachings about funerals with teachings about what are commonly known as the "Last Rites," in which a priest -- whenever possible -- hears a dying person's final Confession and offers absolution? The crucial Catechism reference states:

In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum. Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of "passing over" to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection. ... The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father.

A funeral service may be "final" rites for the deceased, but they are not the Last Rites, in the traditional sense. So, does the funeral service itself "cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven"?

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New York Times offers update on criticisms of 'Hell's Angel' (as in Mother Teresa)

New York Times offers update on criticisms of 'Hell's Angel' (as in Mother Teresa)

Back in my Denver days, I covered a massive interfaith prayer event in which the featured speaker was Mother Teresa. I also had the chance to interview her, briefly, but that's a complicated story.

During her remarks, the tiny nun -- who was already being hailed as a living saint -- strongly defended Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life, from conception to the grave. This was not a surprise, but it was a key theme in what she said and, thus, I included it in my story for The Rocky Mountain News. I also called the local Planned Parenthood office seeking a response to Mother Teresa's words.

The spokeswoman was, truth be told, quite gracious and on point. She had praise for Mother Teresa's work, but also was very specific in her criticisms of the tiny nun's beliefs on abortion, artificial contraception, etc. I quoted her at length and, days later, she called to thank me for quoting her positive words as well as her negative comments. After all, she said, no one wants to be seen as someone who "beats up on Mother Teresa."

Unless, of course, you were atheist Christopher Hitchens or, apparently, Dr. Aroup Chatterjee of India.

In preparation for the Vatican rites in which Mother Teresa will officially become St. Teresa of Calcutta, The New York Times has run a perfectly valid story focusing on the views of one of her strongest critics (and there are plenty of them). However, note the headline on this story:

A Critic’s Lonely Quest: Revealing the Whole Truth About Mother Teresa

Apparently, the "whole truth" about Mother Teresa is a rather simplistic, one-sided story.

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Dear Washington Post editors: Ask some orthodox Catholics why THEY oppose Trump

Dear Washington Post editors: Ask some orthodox Catholics why THEY oppose Trump

You knew this story was coming sooner or later, in The Washington Post as well as in every other mainstream news outlet. The understated Post headline: "Donald Trump has a massive Catholic problem."

Of course he does. I mean, let's think it through.

Raise your hand if you are surprised that the majority of Catholics and ex-Catholics who oppose their church's defense of ancient Christian doctrines on sex, marriage, the defense of life from conception to grave and related issues are going to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Raise your hand if you are surprised that Catholics who say they support those teachings, but have not defended these doctrines in public life or even a voting booth since, oh, 1973, are going to vote for Clinton.

Raise your hand if you are surprised that millions of Latino Catholics are going to vote against Donald Trump.

So far, it's easy to do the math. So what is the interesting question in this piece of news? Hint. You will not find the answer in the Post piece that is currently getting lots of promotion. First, here are some key facts right up top:

Yes, the man who once feuded with the pope (how soon we forget that actually happened) is cratering among Catholics.

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Yo, Washington Post editors (again): Some conservatives don't really care about the GOP

Yo, Washington Post editors (again): Some conservatives don't really care about the GOP

Challenge No. 1: Write a history of conservative political life in the post-Roe v. Wade era -- focusing on the Republican Party in particular -- without mentioning the role of cultural and religious conservatives.

Do you think historians could pull that off?

Challenge No. 2: Write a news feature about the GOP race for the White House in 2016 without mentioning the role of religious conservatives -- white evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics, in particular -- in the primary battles between Citizen Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, etc. Do you think journalists could write such a story without including strong references to the prominent role of evangelical leaders in the #NeverTrump camp, as well as old-guard Religious Right folks in team Trump?

Actually, we sort of know that political-desk journalists at the Washington Post can meet that challenge, or one very similar to it. You see, they have already done that. See this earlier post: "Hey Washington Post czars: Evangelicals and Catholics are irrelevant in #NeverTrump camp?"

Now, here is Challenge No. 3: Go to Denver and cover the RedState Gathering for conservative leaders -- note that Trump was not invited -- and produce a report that includes zero information about the views of #NeverTrump religious and cultural conservatives.

Yes! The Washington Post political-desk pros are up to that challenge as well! See the recent feature that ran with this headline: "Once in control of their party, conservatives agonize over the election and beyond."

What does the word "conservative" mean in that equation? Honestly, after reading the story several times, I have no idea. Here is the overture:

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A suicide party? Moral and religious questions? Associated Press draws a blank

A suicide party? Moral and religious questions? Associated Press draws a blank

Ever hear of a suicide party?

There was such an event in San Diego in July and the Associated Press was there to tell us the details. The piece came with photos of a party with a 41-year-old woman who was sometimes sitting up, other times lying down. However, she could not stand or walk nor move her arms and her speech was so slurred, most had problems understanding her.

Still, what would you do if you were invited to such an event? Would you raise any questions of a moral or religious nature? We will come back to that.

SAN DIEGO -- In early July, Betsy Davis emailed her closest friends and relatives to invite them to a two-day party, telling them: “These circumstances are unlike any party you have attended before, requiring emotional stamina, centeredness and openness.”
And just one rule: No crying in front of her.
The 41-year-old artist with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, held the gathering to say goodbye before becoming one of the first Californians to take a lethal dose of drugs under the state's new doctor-assisted suicide law for the terminally ill.
“For me and everyone who was invited, it was very challenging to consider, but there was no question that we would be there for her,” said Niels Alpert, a cinematographer from New York City. “The idea to go and spend a beautiful weekend that culminates in their suicide — that is not a normal thing, not a normal, everyday occurrence. In the background of the lovely fun, smiles and laughter that we had that weekend was the knowledge of what was coming.”
Davis worked out a detailed schedule for the gathering on the weekend of July 23-24, including the precise hour she planned to slip into a coma. ...

The article described the party, and then its end:

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Polexit? Looking for news about tensions between EU and Poland's Catholic culture

Polexit? Looking for news about tensions between EU and Poland's Catholic culture

There is a circle of GetReligion readers who have, from time to time, been known to lose it at the sight of a URL pointing toward material from, an advocacy journalism site that focuses, as the name implies, on issues linked to abortion, euthanasia, etc.

As I just stated, is an advocacy site that, basically, covers one side of hot-button stories on these topics. If you are looking for fair coverage of liberal views on this topic, this is not the site for you.

However, if you are looking for clues and information about stories that are not receiving coverage in the mainstream press, this is a place to find tips about documents, events and sources that could lead to balanced mainstream coverage. In other words, has the same approach to journalism as, let's say, Rolling Stone or, on moral and religious issues, the Kellerism-era New York Times. You go there to read about one side of an argument.

Some culturally liberal readers believe, in a strange echo of conservatives who write off the Times, that this means that all events or information reported at should be ignored. I don't believe that about the Times and I don't believe that about the much smaller and less important I take what I see in advocacy publications with a grain of salt and look for links to valid information about views on the right and left.

That brings me, in this post-Brexit world, to this new report, which ran with the headline, "Poland Defends Its Pro-Life Laws, Blasts EU Leaders Telling It to Legalize Abortion."

(CFAM) -- The Polish government snapped back at European bureaucrats in a scathing response to a report published last week by the Council of Europe that criticized Poland’s restrictive abortion law and its treatment of women.

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Washington Post offers one-sided (positive) look at conservatives who oppose death penalty

Washington Post offers one-sided (positive) look at conservatives who oppose death penalty

As a life-long opponent of the death penalty, I have attended my share of prayer gatherings and rallies on this issue and other issues linked to it. That final clause -- "and other issues linked to it" -- is crucial.

What I have learned is that, in contemporary American life, there are basically two groups of people who are opposed to the death penalty.

The first group is made up of political progressives who oppose the death penalty and that's that. The second group (which would include me) consists of pro-life religious believers -- left and right -- who oppose the death penalty as well as legalized abortion, euthanasia and other life issues. The goal in this camp is to consistently apply a standard that all life is sacred, from conception to natural death.

In my experience, it's relatively rare to see mainstream press coverage of this second group, especially coverage that discusses the role that faith and doctrine plays in this stance. So I did a double-take the other day when I saw that Washington Post headline that proclaimed, "Meet the red-state conservatives fighting to abolish the death penalty."

Yes, this piece by New York magazine writer Marin Cogan is labeled "opinion." However, it's about as newsy as 80 percent of what runs as hard news in major newspapers today.

Let me confess that this is, in effect, a "Kellerism" piece that just happens to support a cause that floats my own boat. If you are looking for fair, accurate arguments in favor of the death penalty then this is not the piece for you. However, I wanted GetReligion readers to know about it because it does a pretty good job of handling faith-based material, while dealing with a group of believers that rarely gets much news coverage. So why an "opinion" piece?

Here is the overture:

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