Terry Mattingly

Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Here is the religion news question that haunted me over the long Thanksgiving weekend: Why is the unfolding story of threats to Asia Bibi of Pakistan a major story in England and Europe, but not here in the United States? (Click here for recent podcast linked to this topic.)

Let me be more blunt: Are journalists on this side of the Atlantic waiting for you know who — Donald Trump — to address this tense, deadly situation in a tweet?

OK, I will be more blunt: At what point will leaders of the pro-Trump evangelical niche show up at the White House and demand that this Christian woman — cleared of blasphemy charges, but now in hiding, trapped in house arrest — be granted asylum? What if the president sent his own private plane to Pakistan to retrieve her? Maybe this would be awkward with the violent drama on the US-Mexico border?

One more blunt thought: Is part of the problem that Bibi is Catholic, not evangelical? I keep watching the headlines for evidence that Pope Francis might intervene. Right now, the main news on that front consists of fake photos circulating online claiming to show a Bibi meeting with the pope. Let me stress: The reports are fake.

For those seeking an update, here is the top of a recent Daily Mail report. Do I need to note that this outlet is considered “conservative” news?

Asia Bibi may have escaped the hangman, but her freedom comes with a heavy price. Today, when she should be reunited with her five children, she is being hunted across Pakistan, forced to scuttle under cover of darkness from one safe house to another in fear of her life.

It is a desperate situation — and one not helped by Britain which refuses to offer the mother-of-five sanctuary.

Last month the Supreme Court in Pakistan decided that Asia, 52, who spent eight years on death row, had been falsely accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. While most of the country erupted in fury at her release, nowhere did the anger burn more fiercely than in her home village of Ittan Wali, 40 miles south-east of Lahore, where her extraordinary ordeal began. Following news of her reprieve, women took to the streets to protest, a bus was torched and children ran riot.

Until now, beyond a few sketchy details, little about Asia’s persecution has been forthcoming.

The Mail team sent reporters to Bibi’s home village and came back with plenty of harrowing details about her history and the current crisis.

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Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said.

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Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

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?

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Mirror-image news again: Mother Emanuel hosts historic racial-reconciliation service

Mirror-image news again: Mother Emanuel hosts historic racial-reconciliation service

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to give thanks for a recent event linked to racial reconciliation in the deep South, a worship service held in a highly symbolic sanctuary.

I will get to that in a moment.

But first, let’s engage in another “mirror image” experiment. This is a common GetReligion device in which we create a news story — an upside-down or inside-out version of a real story — and then ask what kind of mainstream news coverage it would have received.

So, let’s imagine that the leader of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, had traveled south to preach at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Readers may recall that Curry delivered a long and spectacular sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It was quite a scene.

Readers will, of course, remember that Mother Emanuel was the site of the massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who gunned down eight worshippers during an evening Bible study.

So let’s say that Curry comes to this holy ground to preach on racial reconciliation. The church is packed and another 400 people watch the service on closed-circuit video in another sanctuary nearby.

My question: Would this event have received significant coverage in local, regional and even national media?

I am guessing that the answer is “yes.”

Now, the mirror-image question: Was it news when Southern Baptists — led by South Carolina Baptist Convention President Marshall Blalock — filled Mother Emanuel for a “Building Bridges” worship service, praying for racial reconciliation in their state and in America as a whole? Yes, 400 more watched a closed-circuit feed at Citadel Square Baptist Church.

Was it news? As best I can tell, with online searches, the answer is “no.” This surprises me, since Southern Baptists statements on race have made news in recent years. Maybe that’s an old story now?

Anyway, here is some key material from Baptist Press:

"I don't know if we've ever been in a more sacred place," Blalock told messengers and guests. "As we gather in Mother Emanuel Church, the place itself speaks to us of the power of faith in Christ Jesus. We're in a place of safety because, while it's where hearts were broken, it's also the place where the life-saving power of God's grace is."

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Missing in (news) action? Seeking coverage of missing underground bishop in China

Missing in (news) action? Seeking coverage of missing underground bishop in China

The end of 2018 is getting closer, and you know what that means. Here come the end-of-the-year features listing the Top 10 stories on a wide variety of topics — including religion.

I expect that one of the most important stories on the global scene will be the Vatican’s decision to accept, just a few weeks ago, a provisional deal with the Chinese government on a process to select bishops.

This was the Communist government’s first indication that it would accept papal authority in the Catholic Church in China. At the same time, Pope Francis agreed to recognize the legitimacy of seven bishops — previously excommunicated — raised up by the Chinese government, alone.

Several inches down into the New York Times report on this topic, there was this important note:

China’s Catholics are divided among those who attend government-approved churches and underground churches that are loyal only to the Vatican.

For decades, many Chinese Catholics have risked arrest and persecution by worshiping in the underground churches led by bishops appointed secretly by popes. China’s Communist government has erected a parallel structure: a state-approved, state-controlled Catholic church. For years, dating back three papacies, the Vatican has sought to unify the two communities.

Later, there was this sobering information:

The Vatican took a step in January in its efforts to unify the two Catholic communities in China, asking two underground bishops to step aside in favor of government-appointed bishops. One of the two preferred by the government was a member of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.

The state-sanctioned bishops who took the places of the two underground bishops were among the seven the Vatican formally accepted on Saturday. It was not clear what would become of more than 30 underground bishops working in China who were chosen by the pope but not recognized by the Chinese government.

With that in mind, consider this headline from the conservative Catholic News Agency: “Underground bishop in China reported missing.”

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Another big story from alternative Catholic press: Cupich and Wuerl teamed up on what?

Another big story from alternative Catholic press: Cupich and Wuerl teamed up on what?

When I was breaking into the mainstream religion-news biz — soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust — the words “church press” basically meant one thing.

It meant working for the news office in a denomination’s headquarters or, perhaps, in the outreach office of a religious non-profit. In other words, it was one step from the world of public relations.

As the old saying goes: It’s hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck.

However, the Internet has — year after year — been blurring many of these lines. The denominational press is still out there, but so are lots of non-profit publications that offer an often dizzying mix of commentary and factual news.

This is especially true for reporters covering Catholic news. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted the other day, referring to developments on scandals surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick:

The growth of conservative Catholic outlets, for example, and their ability to break stories against “Uncle Ted” has coincided with the internal struggle contrasting what traditionalists see as inadequate news coverage from the mainstream media regarding Pope Francis’ leadership. Filling that void are conservative journalists and bloggers on a mission to expose what they see as the Vatican’s progressive hierarchy.

In 2002, an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by clergy never before reported to civil authorities (click here for links). These days, accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church are being exposed by smaller news organizations. No longer are mainstream outlets setting the pace here.

Yes, he stressed developments on the pro-Catechism side of Catholic life. Why? Well, there has always been a lively market for Catholic news and commentary coming from the doctrinal, cultural and, yes, political left. The assumption was that official Catholic news offices would be defending the doctrinal fort.

This is no longer a safe assumption. Take a look, for example, at that “trusted” list of Catholic news outlets (at the top of this post), produced the other day by Father Thomas Rosica, head of the Salt & Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada. Notice any patterns in this list? Any obvious holes?

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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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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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Washington Post offers nice, but totally faith-free, look at Dan Crenshaw's redemptive SNL visit

Washington Post offers nice, but totally faith-free, look at Dan Crenshaw's redemptive SNL visit

Apparently, there is more to Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw than an eyepatch, his history as a Navy Seal, a Harvard graduate degree, his Spanish-language skills and the ability to land a few humorous punches on Saturday Night Live.

The newly elected representative from Texas district 2, in the greater Houston area, is riding his victory in a purple district and his Ivy League level wits to leverage his moment in the YouTube spotlight. What happens next? That’s a good question.

However, this is GetReligion. So I would like to pause and note that it is hard to run for office as a Republican in Texas (or even as a Democrat in large parts of Texas) without people asking you about your religious beliefs and your convictions on religious, moral and cultural issues. This is especially true when your life includes a very, very close encounter with death.

So let’s start here: If you were writing about Crenshaw and what makes him tick, would it help to know what he said, early in his campaign, during a church testimony that can be viewed on Facebook? The title is rather blunt: “How faith in God helped me never quit.”

I am going to answer, “Yes,” especially with people using words like “redemption,” “grace,” “forgiveness” and “repentance” to describe what happened during his encounter with funny-man Pete Davidson on SNL.

I’m also going to say, “Yes,” because we’re talking about politics in Texas. Also, the language in that church testimony are rather strong. It sounds like faith is part of his story — period.

But let’s start with something good, in terms of the content of the lengthy Washington Post profile of Crenshaw that ran in the wake of his election and, well, that television thing. Here is the overture, which is long (but I don’t know what part to cut):

HOUSTON — Dan Crenshaw’s good eye is good enough, but it’s not great. The iris is broken. The retina is scarred. He needs a special oversized contact lens, and bifocals sometimes, to correct his vision. Six years after getting blown up, he can still see a bit of debris floating in his cornea. His bad eye? Well, his bad eye is gone. Under his eye patch is a false eye that is deep blue. At the center of it, where a pupil should be, is the gold trident symbol of the Navy SEALs. It makes Dan Crenshaw look like a Guardian of the Galaxy.

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