Not to encourage the mistreatment of any animal, but from time to time the phrase, "It's like shooting fish in a barrel" pops up when the GetReligion team discusses (via email) a given story.
The news this week about an apparently very misguided individual vandalizing a statue of the Buddha that was placed in a Los Angeles traffic median is, I believe, very much one of those kinds of stories. Spotting the key journalistic issue here is just like taking aim at the proverbial barrel-dwelling fish.
Some background first, however. There is a little piece of pavement (some call it a traffic "island," others call it a "median") in the Palms neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles, not far from where your correspondent spent seven very happy years living in Marina del Rey. (I miss that neighborhood, and the adjacent Venice Beach, greatly.)
The traffic island triangle became a dumping ground for sofas and other debris until -- as both the Los Angeles Times and the local CBS Los Angeles TV affiliate report (video above) -- someone placed a concrete statue of the Buddha there. Take it away, LA Times:
The stone statue, raised on a large planter, prevented people from dumping bulky items at the traffic island. It’s unknown whether that was the intent, but neighbors embraced the Buddha, dropping off roses, daisies and other types of flowers.
“It really rallied the community, and people started taking care of the Buddha,” [Motor Ave. Improvement Association director Lee] Wallach said.
The neighborhood Nirvana didn't last long, however:
All was peaceful in the Los Angeles neighborhood until one evening last month, when a man in a white sedan pulled over, got out and used a sledgehammer to decapitate the statue. Wallach said two people witnessed the incident but were unable to write down a license plate number.
“He was heard yelling about Al Qaeda and Muslim extremism and things of that nature,” he said. “I think this gentleman is a little confused and obviously a little violent. It's important we find him, educate him and help him.”
The crime left residents stunned.
“We're a very multi-cultural and eclectic community. There’s a big population of Muslims, Christians, Catholics, Jews. … So people were just taken aback,” Wallach said.
Residents responded by leaving more flowers at the statue. At least one person left a large laminated card with a Buddha quote and urged readers to “please be kind to the Buddha.”
The CBS Los Angeles news report goes on in a similar vein and also shows Wallach speaking about the vandalism. And, yes, the attack on the statue is deplorable and apparently misguided.
That said, it's GetReligion quiz time! What's MISSING from these reports? Who is NOT represented here?
Yes, I see that hand back there! And, yes, you're right! The missing element in the reporting at both the Los Angeles Times and CBS Los Angeles is ... ANY mention of an actual Buddhist's views at all! (There's more, but this is the most glaring omission, in my opinion.)
I have absolutely no idea whether the use of a Buddha statue in this context is acceptable to devout practitioners and clergy in Buddhism. It might well be -- one sees Buddhas in many contexts outside of worship sites -- but there's not even an attempt on the part of either news organization to find out whether such a usage is permissible, or whether it might potentially offend Buddhists.
There is not a SINGLE Buddhist voice in either story. And this in a part of the world -- Southern California -- where there are plenty of Buddhist voices available, and even a Buddhist-affiliated tertiary institution, Soka University of America. (Although Soka advertises itself as non-sectarian, its links to the Soka Gakkai movement have drawn allegations of proselytism on campus, as the OC Weekly reported a few years ago.)
Yet neither the Los Angeles Times nor CBS Los Angeles could find an actual Buddhist to speak about all this? Did they throw up their hands after leaving a message with Richard Gere's publicist without a callback? (Yes, that's snark.)
Think about it this way: If someone had erected a crucifix, a representation of the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant, or a replica of the holy Kaaba, Islam's most sacred spot, on that same median, what might have happened? Would the neighborhood have been as accepting? Would Catholic, Jewish or Islamic clergy been silent if such a representation were vandalized?
I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing someone from one of these faith communities would have an opinion. Perhaps the lawsuit-happy Freedom from Religion Foundation would attack, given that the median is public property, even if the icon was placed privately. Surely the ACLU would jump in.
But none of this is discussed by the two news organizations. Indeed, the Buddha is treated as much as an innocuous decoration as an object of veneration. Both reports note that people are leaving "offerings" at the Buddha and folks are quoted on the benefits its placement brought to the area. Can you say "cultural appropriation"?
I doubt you'd have the same glowing report if a Bob's Big Boy statue -- a different kind of Southern California icon -- had been placed there instead. But I digress.
Facts are sometimes difficult things, I know, but for a major national newspaper and a major-market television station both to completely ignore the faith represented by the Buddha statue and the impact, if any, of the vandalism on adherents, stretches credulity to its limits.
I, too, hope the alleged vandal is found -- and convicted of a crime along with being "educated" -- but I also hope news organizations don't skimp on providing context for people to understand an icon's significance to believers.