Godbeat

Monday Mix: Jonestown significance, blue Orange County, Pittsburgh's New Light, Jews for Jesus

Monday Mix: Jonestown significance, blue Orange County, Pittsburgh's New Light, Jews for Jesus

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. “You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre. Yes, this massacre — a mass ‘revolutionary suicide’ of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.”

The connection?

By all means, check out Terry Mattingly’s fascinating weekend post on this subject.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press notes that “ceremonies at a California cemetery marked the mass murders and suicides 40 years ago of 900 Americans orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones at a jungle settlement in Guyana, South America.”

2. “They were Christians whose social circles often revolved around church. And they wanted none of the cultural and racial foment that was developing in Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

But the script has flipped in California’s once reliably Republican Orange County, as the Los Angeles Times reports.

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A journalist's newsletter offers a glimpse into how Muslim Millennials think

A journalist's newsletter offers a glimpse into how Muslim Millennials think

One interesting note that came out of a recent Religion News Association meeting two months ago was a prayer meeting of Muslim journos who belong to the group. There was also a group of Jewish reporters who met for a Shabbat dinner.

Signs of a big change? As a veteran of probably two dozen such conferences, I remember the days when folks took care not to mention their religious preferences at all, even in the company of like-minded reporters. Some thought it was a journalistic sin to do so.

You never knew if that information could be held against you plus there were some newsrooms that –- if they suspected you were partial to a certain religious group –- would pull you off any stories about said group. Such rules were never applied to reporters from black, Hispanic, gay, Native American or other subsets, but I learned early on the less said about my personal faith background, the better.

So it was with great interest that I read Boston freelancer Aysha Khan’s entry on her “Creeping Sharia” newsletter.

Salaam! Last weekend I was in Columbus, Ohio, where I joined religion reporters around the country for the annual Religion News Association conference. There, I got to meet fellow Muslim journalists Aymann Ismail (Slate), Hannah Allam (BuzzFeed News), Amber Khan (Interfaith Voices), Jaweed Kaleem (L.A. Times), Dalia Hatuqa (freelance) and Dilshad Ali (AltMuslim). Seriously, how exciting is this photo?

These folks are pictured in the photo atop this blog that I got from Khan’s site. I assume Khan herself is on the far right.

When I went to RNA in D.C. for the first time two years ago, Dilshad, Dina Zingaro (60 Minutes), Ruth Nasrullah (freelance) and I were probably the only Muslim journos there. Last year, in Nashville, I think there were even fewer of us. But this year we were actually able to pray Jummah together in the hotel. Just surreal.

All of this got me to reading Khan’s new twice-monthly newsletter.

I’m guessing “creeping Sharia” is a tongue-in-cheek rebuke to those who see the specter of sharia law in America’s near future. Here’s a curated list of articles about Islam you might not see anywhere else.

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Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it? 

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became.

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How do conservatives respond to archaeologists’ skepticism about Bible history?

How do conservatives respond to archaeologists’ skepticism about Bible history?

THE QUESTION:

Many archaeologists have raised skeptical questions about the Bible’s historical accounts, especially in the Old Testament. How do conservatives respond?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A September headline in London’s tabloid Daily Express proclaimed a “Bible Bombshell,” with “stunning new evidence that could prove” Joshua’s invasion of the Holy Land following the Exodus from Egypt. However, in the article the archaeologists involved, David Ben-Shlomo of Israel’s Ariel University and Ralph Hawkins of Averett University in Virginia, gave only carefully framed suggestions.

Their site has a stone enclosure for herded animals, and pottery indicating people lived outside the stone compound, presumably nomads living in long-vanished tents. The settlement dates from the early Iron Age, but testing of electrons in soil samples is needed to pinpoint whether it fits the Exodus chronology. And that wouldn’t prove these nomads were Israelites. (See below on Jericho.)

People thrill when a discovery is proclaimed as proof of the Bible, but it takes years if not decades to establish such claims. There can also be sensationalism when skeptics known as “minimalists,” Israelis among them, announce findings said to undermine the Bible. As a journalist, The Guy recommends caution toward assertions from all sides.

The pertinent archaeological maxim is “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That is, a biblical event is not contradicted if archaeologists have not (or not yet) found corroboration from physical remains, non-biblical manuscripts, or inscriptions. There’s vast unexplored terrain in Israel, where only 50 of an estimated 6,000 sites have undergone thorough examination, with limited work at another 300. Surviving evidence from ancient times is necessarily spotty and interpretations can be subjective. Scholars usually end up with circumstantial plausibility, not absolute proof or disproof.

Conservatives energetically answer the minimalists. Their magnum opus is “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” (Eerdmans) by Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen of the University of Liverpool. William Hallo of Yale University said that “after decades of ‘minimalism,’ it is refreshing to have this first systematic refutation” from “a leading authority” on the relevant history.

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Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Jordan Peterson is a very hard man for journalists to quote.

Some journalists have learned, the hard way, that he is also a very easy man to misquote.

Readers and “Crossroads” listeners (click here to hear this week’s podcast): Perhaps you are among the millions of YouTube consumers who witnessed his famous “Gotcha” moment on Channel 4, during a somewhat tense interview by British journalist Cathy Newman.

This was the viral clip that launched the University of Toronto psychologist even higher into the cyberspace elites. Read the following, from the Washington Times, but know that this is news media territory — on the issue of pro-trans speech codes. This was not an example of what this man is saying in the online lectures that have created a massive digital community:

“Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?” the reporter asked at the 22-minute mark of a 30-minute interview.

“Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now,” the psychologist answered. … “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable. … You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me, and that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.”

Ms. Newman paused, sighed and struggled to find a response until her guest interjected, “Ha. Gotcha.”

“You have got me. You have got me. I’m trying to work that through my head. It took awhile. It took awhile. It took awhile,” she said with a repetitive concession.

I will admit that there is a guilty-pleasure factor, when watching reporters try to grill this man.

However, that’s not the point of this week’s podcast or my two recent “On Religion” columns on this topic for the Universal syndicate — “Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates.” Click here to read Part II.

It’s obvious why Peterson gets so much analog news ink — his digital ink numbers are simply astonishing.

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Friday Five: Paradise lost, Pittsburgh rabbi, Vatican shock, Jim Acosta, porn and politics

Friday Five: Paradise lost, Pittsburgh rabbi, Vatican shock, Jim Acosta, porn and politics

“We knew where we were all the time,” quipped Joe Glenn, a preacher who ended up on the missing persons list after a wildfire wiped out the California town of Paradise.

Glenn and his wife, Pat, escaped the blaze “with the clothes on our back,” he told me in an interview for The Christian Chronicle.

After learning they were “missing,” the couple alerted authorities to their whereabouts — a Motel 6 about 65 miles southwest of their charred home.

“It is good to have a sense of humor ... when your world has literally burned up around you!" the minister told friends on Facebook.

Amen!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Often, this space reflects the week’s biggest or most important religion news. This week, I want to highlight an excellent piece of Godbeat journalism that you probably missed.

Specifically, check out Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Peter Smith’s in-depth profile on “Jeffrey Myers: A face of tragedy, a voice for peace.”

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Relentless 'hollowing out' of newsrooms shapes all beats, and our democracy

Relentless 'hollowing out' of newsrooms shapes all beats, and our democracy

In a break from usual practice, this Religion Guy Memo examines the over-all situation of the American news media.

When times are tough, specialty beats — like religion — become especially vulnerable.

The news biz is transfixed by the mutual rancor between the incumbent American president and the political press corps, which reached another nadir last week. The performance -- on both sides -- hasn’t been this nasty since 1800, when hyper-partisan newspapers manhandled the feuding Adams, Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson. Here’s hoping for a letup 221 or 225 years later when the Donald Trump administration ends.

Meanwhile, media toilers and consumers should be alert to the ongoing broad, bad context within which journalism functions, summarized in this headline: “The Hollowing Out of Newsrooms.” That’s how “Trust,” the Pew Charitable Trusts magazine, upsums data compiled by the Pew Research Center for its latest “State of the News Media” report as of 2017.

One major caveat: As Pew acknowledges, 2017 is a somewhat misleading year for assessing audiences because we’d expect a decline from 2016 with its intense interest in the election. However, Trumpish fascination continued through 2017 and Pew says post-election falloffs usually hit cable news but have little impact on newspapers, network TV or radio. The next report, for 2018, will be significant given fascination with the campaign just past. (Note: These surveys exclude magazine journalism. Non-fiction books are a whole other story.)

Pew’s first such report back in 2004 warned that “most sectors of the news media are losing audience,” therefore “putting pressures on revenues and profits.” According to the latest report, total newsroom employees, whether reporters, editors, copyreaders, photographers or videographers, declined by nearly a fourth between 2008 and 2017, from 114,000 to 88,000

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Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

It seems like an easy question: What are the sex scandals in the Catholic church all about?

If you look at the coverage, week after week, it’s clear that many journalists covering the latest wave of news about the scandals are still wrestling with this issue.

Obviously, the scandals center on acts of sexual abuse and harassment by Catholic clergy. The question, apparently, is this: Who are the victims? Reporters have to answer that question in order to get to the next big question: What sacred and secular laws are being broken?

After decades of following this story, and talking to activists on the Catholic left and right, the basic facts are pretty clear.

The vast majority of the victims are young males between the ages of 11 and 18. Then there are significant numbers of prepubescent victims, male and female, being abused by criminals who can accurately be called “pedophiles.” Also, there are many adult men (many are seminarians) and women involved in sexual relationships with priests and bishops, some consenting and some not. The size of this last group is assumed to be large, but there are few facts available.

With this in mind, pay close attention to the lede of the latest New York Times update on the Vatican’s shocking move to stop U.S. Catholic bishops from taking actions to discipline bishops accused of various sins and crimes.

BALTIMORE — Facing a reignited crisis of credibility over child sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States came to a meeting in Baltimore on Monday prepared to show that they could hold themselves accountable.

But in a last-minute surprise, the Vatican instructed the bishops to delay voting on a package of corrective measures until next year, when Pope Francis plans to hold a summit in Rome on the sexual abuse crisis for bishops from around the world.

Many of the more than 350 American bishops gathered in Baltimore appeared stunned when they learned of the change of plans in the first few minutes of the meeting. They had come to Baltimore wanting to prove that they had heard their parishioners’ cries of despair and calls for change. Suddenly, the Vatican appeared to be standing in the way, dealing the bishops another public relations nightmare.

What is the crisis all about? The answer, throughout this article, is “child abuse,” and that’s that.

It’s interesting to note that the article does not include references to two crucial words in this latest wave of scandal ink — “McCarrick,” as in ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — and “seminaries” or “seminarians.”

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Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

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