When journalism professors discuss about the traditional American Model of the press, with its emphasis on accuracy, balance and a lack of editorializing, we often talk about how this model is demonstrated in the work of wire services.
In fact, in recent decades advocates of edgier, trendier news styles have often gone out of their way to contrast their "new journalism" philosophies with "mere" wire-service writing. You know, that old-school journalism with its emphasis on inverted-pyramid hard-news stories and a neutral, balanced approach to reporting that is supposed to serve the needs of readers in news sources across America and around the world?
But clearly, someone has been putting something in the water some folks are drinking in AP land, especially when it comes to coverage of religious and moral issues.
Consider this recent AP feature on the rise of female monastics or "bhikkhunis" in modern Buddhism. On the surface, the key journalistic issue here is whether AP editors will allow any voices in traditional Buddhism to speak in defense of their beliefs. Surprise! The answer is no. Only the advocates of women being allowed to serve as monks are interviewed.
Then there is something else interesting going on in this story. Read carefully:
NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand (AP) -- On a rural road just after daybreak, villagers young and old kneel reverently before a single file of ochre-robed women, filling their bowls with rice, curries, fruits and sweets. In this country, it's a rare sight.
Thailand's top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks. They can only become white-cloaked nuns, who are routinely treated as domestic servants. Many here believe women are inferior beings who had better perform plenty of good deeds to ensure they will be reborn as men in their future lives.
Yet with the religion beset by lurid scandals, female monastics or "bhikkhunis" are emerging as a force for reform, not unlike activists in the Christian world seeking gender equality including ordination of women as priests in the Catholic Church. They are growing in numbers and appear to be making headway.
Ah, we have the usual editorial use of the word "reform," which of course means that the other side is guilty of sins or crimes that need to be reformed. In this case, this equation means that the males-only doctrines in Buddhism are to blame for human corruption on a host of other issues.
But we also have an interesting link to what may or may not be a parallel conflict, which is the ordination of women in ancient forms of Christianity.
But wait, if the tradition of male orders equals corruption on other issues is true in Buddhism, then it must also be true in that other case. Right?
The male-dominated religion has been blighted in recent years by crimes and gross violations of vows, just as widespread sex abuse and Vatican financial scandals have damaged the Roman Catholic Church.
Monks in Thailand have been convicted of everything from murder to wildlife trafficking. Sexual depravity is frequently reported. One former abbot, fugitive Wirapol Sukphol, faces charges of drug use, money laundering, fathering a child by an underage woman and illegally amassing millions of dollars. A photograph shows him seated in a private jet wearing aviator sunglasses.
Here is the question again: Who in this story, in either Buddhism or Catholicism (if issues in that faith must be raised in this story), is allowed to actually defend their traditions linked to ordination or monasticism? This is especially crucial, since the story all but states as dogma that being in favor of the ancient traditions in these faiths is the same thing as being weak on issues of financial corruption, sexual crimes, drug abuse and who knows what all.
Now, as you would expect, this story offers some very interesting information about these women and their cause. For example:
Thailand has some 100 bhikkhunis who were ordained in Sri Lanka, where women are allowed to become monks. They and their monasteries are not legally recognized in Thailand, and don't enjoy state funding and other support the country's 200,000 male monks are granted.
Living spartan lives, the women are governed by 311 precepts from celibacy and poverty to archaic ones like having to confess after eating garlic. Their ranks and those of hundreds of aspirants - there are five stages before ordination -- include a former Google executive, a Harvard graduate, journalists and doctors, as well as village noodle vendors.
"It is our right, our heritage, to lead a fully monastic life. We are on the right side of history," says Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, an author, former university professor and the first bhikkhuni in Thailand from the Theravada branch of Buddhism, which is dominant in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. Using her religious name of Venerable Dhammananda, she contends that the Buddha 2,500 years ago built the religion as a four-legged stool -- monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen -- but "we are now sitting on just three legs."
Very interesting. This sounds like a movement that would cause some interesting debates. In fact, the story openly states:
The role of women in Buddhism has also aroused national-level debate.
OK, so there is a debate going on that is addressed in this news report? Really? Did I miss something?
Let me stress that I am not stating that one side or the other of this important debate is right or wrong. I am asking: Where is the other side of this debate? Where are the other voices?