It may seem strange to blog the "competition" on the God-beat beat, but so be it. Jeff Sharlet over at New York University and TheRevealer has spotted a major ghost in the mainstream press coverage of the death of Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Everyone is talking about the fall of the "spiritual leader" of Hamas and the militant Palestinians, yet no one seems to be putting any content behind that loaded word "spiritual."
In other words, what did this man believe, what did he teach and what did all of that have to do with his actions? In a post full of interesting links and commentary, Sharlet asks:
... (Why) has our press ignored the "spiritual" dimensions of this "spiritual leader"? Two possibilities. One is that the journalists assigned to cover the Middle East are political reporters. They approach religion as simply a veneer for political motives, and rarely bother to learn its intricacies.
The other, deeper problem, is with the narratives available for religion stories even when a reporter tries to pay attention. Most religion writing is divided between innocuous spirituality and dangerous fanaticism, with subcategories for "corruption," "traditionalism," and wacky.
Here is another spin on that. Year after year, the Associated Press lists the top 10 news stories in the world and, year after year, many of them center on religious trends and conflicts. Yet, like the Yassin story, these stories are served up with little or no content that focuses on the religious facts involved. In other words, these religion stories are treated as stories that are too important to be religion stories. They are major news stories and, thus, must be covered by the major reporters from the major news beats -- like politics and foreign affairs. Oh yeah, it also helps if the editors have given you a travel budget, too.
The end result in this case, states Sharlet, is that:
A major enemy of peace in the Middle East has just been killed, and yet we learn almost nothing about what made him fight or why he is mourned. Opponents and supporters of the Palestinians remain in the dark, uninformed by a press incapable of breaking the narrative to investigate -- and perhaps help eradicate -- the roots of terrorism. It's easier to stick to the "he-said/she-said"-with-guns version of events that reduces it all to retaliation, to hopeless spirals of violence and ancient ethnic hatreds, to enmity without reason.
P.S. And this just in from the czar of www.TheRevealer.org
The Revealer and Get Religion aren't competitors, we're comrades-in-arms, fighting the good fight (we hope) against bad religion writing. You put it precisely when you write about "religion stories are treated as stories that are too important to be religion stories." Not only do editors and reporters neglect the religious context of such "important" stories; they must shunt it aside or dismiss it as "veneer" if they are to justify its importance.
Posted by: Jeff Sharlet | March 24, 2004 07:55 AM