Failing to cover the Christ Our Savior video riot

As you would imagine, I have received a few notes seeking my take, as a journalist and as an Orthodox Christian, on the events involving that crudely named feminist band in Russia. You know, the one that drew this headline the other day in The New York Times: "Anti-Putin Stunt Earns Punk Band Two Years in Jail."

What? The band's actual name didn't rate large type?

Before I address the journalism issues related to this, I would like to note that, from my point of view, this matter has at least three layers and it has been easy for folks to go rather bonkers (Hello, Madonna, and you too, Sir Paul) without really separating out the layers. So, before people get confused about where my loyalties are in all of this, let's walk through a few specifics.

So, raise your hand if:

* You think Vladimir V. Putin is a corrupt political thug who continues to feed on Russian nationalism.

Mine is up.

* You think that, in the complex post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church, there exists troubling corruption, mixed with flashes of courage and truly radical faith. In other words, this is a complex matter (please click here for a flashback).

Mine is up.

* You support the free speech rights of the members of P***y Riot and think that, while what these protesters said and did was foul, they had every right to demonstrate in public places in Russia.

Mine is up.

* You think that the government overreacted and, while crimes were in this case committed under Russian law (ironically, laws hailed by some on the left because of their intent to prevent offenses against Islam, Judaism, etc., as well as to majority Orthodoxy), the sentence was too harsh. The Orthodox hierarchy seems to feel the same way.

Mine is up.

* You think that crimes of some kind were committed in this case and that they should be enforced if and when when vandals invade and threaten religious sanctuaries, such as, just thinking out loud:

-- Aryan Nations thugs invading Holocaust-era synagogues in Germany.

-- Anti-Muslim extremists of left or right attacking mosques (say the Dome of the Rock) in order to shout profanities against the faith and the Prophet Mohammad.

-- Conservative Anglicans (I am making this one up) losing their minds and attacking the altar of the liberal Cathedral of St. John the Divine during a pantheistic Gaia Mass.

Mine is up.

* You think it was bad, unbalanced and inaccurate journalism for the mainstream American press, in story after story, to essentially ignore the details of what the protesters said and did and where they did it. Thus, these stories were painfully flawed and millions of readers have no idea what actually happened.

Yes, mine is way up.

Folks, we are living in a sad age in which it is, at times, easier to find out what actually happened in major news events by watching YouTube than it is by reading the world's major newspapers. What was this event all about for the Times team? It was politics, pure and simple -- with only one layer that deserved informed coverage. The source of the strong global reaction, saith the Times:

This was partly because of the sympathetic appearance of the defendants -- two are mothers of young children -- and partly because their group uses music to carry its message. But it also set them in a David-and-Goliath struggle against a formidable power structure: the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Trust me that I know that elements of the Church are close to Putin and the state, while others, frankly, are not. The Orthodox Church has -- think invasion of Georgia -- stood up to the state in public, and in other cases, behind the scene. But to say that Putin and the Orthodox hierarchy represent -- on all issues -- a singular, united "power structure" is radically simplistic. At the very least this is a statement that should have been reported and debated, not simply stated as secular gospel.

So what actually happened here? It is a long way into the story before readers are given any details:

... The Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement that referred to Nazi aggression and the militant atheism of the Soviet era, and said, “What happened is blasphemy and sacrilege, the conscious and deliberate insult to the sanctuary and a manifestation of hostility to millions of people.”

The case began in February when the women infiltrated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior wearing colorful balaclavas, and pranced around in front of the golden Holy Doors leading to the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin.

Security guards quickly stripped them of their guitars, but the video was completed with splices of footage from another church.

I have yet to see a mainstream story (please inform me if I am wrong) that offers more details about what the women did and said. Did anyone actually go inside the icon screen? It is clear that the "dancing" itself took place inside the rail of the altar area and, thus, in an area reserved for clergy and those who serve the church. It's crucial, in terms of accusations that these performance desecrated the cathedral, to know what they actually did. Once again, these are details that journalists should report in any similar case involving a synagogue, mosque, cathedral, etc. God is literally in the details.

We also live in an age in which some governments have passed laws (which I have consistently opposed, as a First Amendment absolutist) to crack down on all acts that can be seen as attacks on major faiths. These laws are, for example, often promoted as a way to prevent acts of Islamophobia.

How is this reflected in the story?

... Judge Syrova, delivering her decision, said that the political comments were spliced into the video later, and that the action in the church was therefore motivated by religious hatred. ... In Washington, where Obama administration officials followed the trial closely, seeing it as a measure of Mr. Putin’s new presidency and its own troubled relations with Russia, the White House and the State Department each criticized the verdict. The State Department all but called on Russia’s higher courts to overturn the conviction and “ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld.”

It appears that, for the judge, this case was about the anti-religious content of this act and, literally, its sacred location -- not simply a matter of freedom of expression. It appears that this judge thought that a Moscow cathedral should be protected in some way, rather like the laws that police enforce to protect American shopping malls. (Let me stress once again that I think the sentence here was way too high, yet it is clear that the judge was enforcing laws that were, in fact, violated.)

How would American police respond to the anti-Muslim equivalent of the following being screamed in, oh, a mosque on Manhattan?

... Holy sh*t, sh*t, Lord's sh*t! Holy sh*t, sh*t, Lord's sh*t!

St. Maria, Virgin, become a feminist Become a feminist, Become a feminist ...

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin Bitch, you better believe in God Belt of the Virgin is no substitute for mass-meetings In protest of our Ever-Virgin Mary!

St. Maria, Virgin, Drive away Putin Drive away! Drive away Putin!

Other major newspapers took an almost identical approach on this story. The Washington Post, however, did include this reference:

The judge’s recitation Friday dwelled on what sounded like an offense to the church rather than the state. She quoted at length witnesses who said they were believers deeply offended by the one-minute performance.

One witness said that the young women violated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior dress code with their short dresses and that women were expected to behave modestly in church. Another said public prayers were not permitted in the cathedral without the presence of a priest. If that wasn’t bad enough, one witness said, the performance occurred just before Lent.

OK, that's simply a joke, a form of journalistic mockery. I have not doubt that some worshipers said that. However, anyone who has seen the video knows that the concerns mentioned by the Post were very minor, in contrast to what the protesters actually said and did. Did the judge list serious offenses? Did her remarks include actual details of what happened inside the altar area? How would we know?

The Los Angeles Times report was even worse. It seems that no one involved in the story was the least bit interested in the religion element of this story. What we have here is politics and more politics. Nothing more.

A Moscow court convicted three young punk rockers, members of the provocatively named group Pussy Riot, of "premeditated hooliganism" and sentenced them to two years in prison. The crime: a February "punk prayer" at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in which the balaclava-clad, mini-skirted rockers appealed for the downfall of President Vladimir Putin. ...

Friday's verdict followed a brief trial last week in which the rockers were accused of sacrilege and insulting the mores of Russian Orthodox believers.

Can readers read this and then understand the reactions of the judge and many, certainly not all, Russians? Can readers understand without knowing what was said and where it was done? Would it also help to know a bit about the history of this cathedral, which was imploded by the Communists and then rebuilt after the fall of the Soviets?

For those who want to comment, please focus, focus, focus on the content of the journalism stories themselves -- or the lack of content. Links to additional info about the crimes that were committed would be appreciated. Again, do not bug me with the politics of this story. I trust that it is possible to oppose the desecration of sacred places without automatically being a supporter of Putin or an opponent of basic human rights. Right? Carefully read the top third of this post, again.

Stick to journalism, folks. Did the mainstream coverage include the crucial information readers needed to know?

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