Pop Culture

Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

I have a question for GetReligion readers, especially those who have experience in journalism or online publishing.

Here it is: Are readers “trolls” if they constantly write comments (and sends emails) that have little or nothing to do the journalism issues covered in our posts, but also provide — on a semi-regular basis — totally valid URLs for stories that deserve the attention of your GetReligionistas?

One of our readers, for example, is offended by references to “elite” newsrooms or “elite” U.S. zip codes, especially those along the East and West coasts. All of those studies showing that places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley have more clout than cities and towns in flyover country? Who has more power to shape the news, editors at The New York Times or The Oklahoman?

This brings me to a fascinating Axios piece that ran the other day with this headline: “The age of winner-take-all cities.” You have to see the simple, blunt, graphic that Axios editors used to illustrate data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (there’s a screenshot at the top of this post).

Now, what does this story have to say about religion news and trends?

Absolutely nothing, in terms of specific information or explicit references.

However, if you read this piece carefully and think like a reporter who covers issues linked to religion, morality and culture (and, yes, politics) it’s easy to see a burning fuse in this piece that is attached to many explosive stories in the news today. Here is the overture:

For all the talk of American cities undergoing a renaissance, economic success has been concentrated in a few standout metropolises while the rest either struggle to keep up or fall further behind.

Why it matters: This winner-take-all dynamic has led to stark inequalities and rising tensions — both inside and outside city limits — that are helping to drive our politics off the rails.

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Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

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Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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#HoneymoonHell @NYTimes: Might there be a religion ghost somewhere in this story?

#HoneymoonHell @NYTimes: Might there be a religion ghost somewhere in this story?

The New York Times ran a stunning feature the other day about how our digital age has turned honeymoons into a depressing exercise in using social media to impress friends, family, colleagues and, if possible, the entire world.

People are not taking ordinary honeymoons anymore, if would seem. They are engaging in online competitions to prove that their honeymoon travel was way more awesome than that of other folks. Here is the double-decker headline atop this piece:

Honeymoon Hashtag Hell

Social media pressure to take perfectly posed photographs may lead to the first argument as a married couple. Is it worth a fabulous Instagram shot if you are just having a horrible time?

As you would expect, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West make an appearance in this story.

Ignore them, if at all possible. That isn’t what this post is about. The question, here, is whether — in the eyes of Times journalists and, thus, elite America — honeymoons remain linked, in any way, with the subject of marriage, a topic that once had deep religious significance. Marriage and sex was once part of the discussion. You know, that whole “moral theology” thing.

So let’s ask: Is there a “religion ghost” in this post? That’s the term that your GetReligionistas have always defined as an important religious subject hiding inside a news story.

Here is the overture to “Honeymoon Hashtag Hell,” just to introduce the key players and their dilemma.

If you ask JP Smith what he remembers most about his 2014 honeymoon in Aruba, he’ll say the sunsets, but not because of their beauty.

“It was like a photo shoot for some magazine that would never exist,” said Mr. Smith, 38, a real estate agent in New York, and he didn’t mean that in a good way. He described the weeklong vacation with his new wife, Natasha Huang Smith, as a “sunset nightmare,” “stressful,” “cumbersome” and “torturous.”

Ms. Huang Smith, 34, who works in digital marketing, was attempting to showcase their honeymoon on Instagram.

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This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

Back in my Denver dedace, I turned into a solid Denver Broncos fan.

That’s normal, of course, in Colorado. Following the Broncos was like, well, a RELIGION or something.

That’s precisely what I argued in a memo to the editor in 1988, when I argued that I should be part of the Rocky Mountain News team that was sent to cover the Broncos at the Super Bowl. I made a kind of sociological argument that, if Bronco fans were not practicing a religion of some kind, then the Denver area didn’t have a religion.

I didn’t win that argument. Then, during the media-fest preceding the game, this happened (as covered by the New York Times):

Most of the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins will join Saturday in a prayer meeting that is believed to be the first to bring together National Football League players from opposing teams on the eve of any game - much less a Super Bowl.

The meeting has created a sensitive situation. Front-office executives of both clubs are reportedly against the joint meeting, which they feel could diminish the competitive fervor the teams should take into such an important game.

John Beake, the Broncos' normally expansive general manager, was abrupt when asked about it this morning. 'Can't Say Anything'

''I can't say anything about it,'' he said, and told the caller to speak to the club's news media relations director, Jim Saccomano.

Yes, the editor asked me (still back in Denver) to dive in an help with coverage of this controversy.

In a way, this subject — broadly defined — is what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week’s Crossroads podcast. (Click here to tune that in.) What is a “religion”? Who gets to decide what is a ”real” religion and what is a “fake” religion?

The news hook for this discussion was Gannett Tennessee Network coverage of a new state law that would ban wedding ceremonies being conducted by people who have been ordained through online sites that hand out ordination certificates after a few clicks of a mouse. Here’s the GetReligion post on that.

Needless to say, the lawyers linked to the Universal Life Church Monastery website are not to crazy about that and they are saying that this law violates their First Amendment-protected freedom to practice their religious convictions.

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The Los Angeles Times' piece on Instagram-loving witches lacks any critical edge

The Los Angeles Times' piece on Instagram-loving witches lacks any critical edge

Ever since the Los Angeles Times re-started its Column One feature in January, there’s been some really innovative journalism there, even though the material featured there always seems pretty one-sided.

So I was intrigued to see a recent piece on the “working witches of Los Angeles.” Kind of brings back memories of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, right?

How much would religion, I wondered, be part of this story?

Not so much.

Oh, there was a ton of content on New Age practices and shamanistic spirituality but it’s tough to categorize these folks. Are they Wiccans? Pagans? Goddess worshippers? Just because the reporter left no hints about their leanings doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The Oracle of Los Angeles was feeling frazzled.

It was already 2 p.m. and she hadn’t had time to prepare lunch, much less wipe the ash from her altar. A tarot card client had just left her yellow Craftsman house in West Adams, evidenced by the smell of incense still lingering in the air. Within an hour, she was scheduled to meet with another client who was struggling to complete a PhD thesis.

In the meantime, she still had to prepare for her weekly podcast, create a purifying ceremony for a new business--and get her nails done for a reality TV appearance. Any downtime would be consumed with writing. The second draft of her memoir was due to her publisher in a week.

The Oracle, who also goes by Amanda Yates Garcia, is a former arts educator with a master of fine arts in writing, film and critical theory from California Institute of the Arts. For the past eight years she has made her living as a professional witch, performing “energetic healings,” “intuitive empowerment sessions” and the occasional exorcism, while also teaching workshops on the art of magic online and at her home, independent stores, and sites like the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Sadly, the story never unpacks what “the occasional exorcism” entails, as this witch doesn’t believe in either God or Satan.

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Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Hey GetReligion readers: Do we have any shock rock music fans out there?

When it comes to music, I am really a fanatic about a wide range of artists — pretty much everything except highly commercialized country, dance music (various kinds with one chord over and over) and most opera. However, I never really got into the whole glam-shock rock genre.

But it’s hard not to know the name Alice Cooper. What a long, strange road that guy has walked.

So what does this have to do with religion-news coverage? If you have read anything about Cooper in the past quarter century of so, you know that — strange as if may sound — he is a born-again evangelical Christian and very vocal about it. He’s an avid golfer, too. Those two facts may not be connected.

Anyway, a GetReligion reader recently spotted this dramatic headline at USA Today: “Alice Cooper clarifies story about 'death pact' with wife Sheryl Goddard: 'We have a LIFE pact'.

So what is this all about? Here’s the top of this short entertainment-beat story:

Alice Cooper would like to clear things up: He and wife Sheryl Goddard don't actually have a death pact.

"We have a LIFE pact. We love life so much," the 71-year-old rocker told USA TODAY in a statement.

Cooper made many a headline over the weekend following an article in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror that quotes him as saying he and his wife plan "to go together" when one of them dies, because there's "no way of surviving without each other."

"What I was meaning was that because we're almost always together, at home and on the road, that if something did happen to either of us, we'd most likely be together at the time," Cooper added to USA TODAY. "But neither of us has a suicide pact. We have a life pact."

OK, we will come back to that Daily Mirror story.

However, something important seems to be missing here, even in the short USA Today report.

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'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

 'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person-voice (“ … as I drove down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that …”) visits with celebrities.

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

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The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

Long, long ago, there was a time when few newspaper editors in Texan could resist an opportunity to put the words “Baylor” and “Playboy” in the same headline. Yes, we are talking ages ago — back in the 1970s and ‘80s when Hugh Hefner was still considered a player.

Baylor, of course, was the state’s most prominent Baptist institution. Playboy was Playboy. Clickbait didn’t exist, but everyone knew that combining “nude” and “Baptist” would draw cheers in secular newsrooms.

Why bring that up? It appears that the Donald Trump-era version of that editorial state of mind is a story that puts “Falwell” and “pool boy” in the same headline. Oh, and don’t forget the hyper-clickable words “nude pictures.” And prison-resident “Michael Cohen.” And alleged comedian “Tom Arnold.”

With those lowbrow ingredients, some New York Times professional showed remarkable self-control when writing this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.”

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — I told host Todd Wilken that you can sense that this headline was supposed to be “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen, oh my!” You know there had to be some Times voices arguing in favor of including “Falwell” and “nude pictures.”

Days later, it’s remarkable how little traction this story has gained. So far, even The Drudge Report has resisted adding a racy headline about it. While liberal Twitter has gone loco (see some of the attached tweets), there hasn’t been a mainstream firestorm — which is what usually happens when a neo-tabloid tale of this kind is baptized into mainstream journalism by the holy New York Times. What’s going on here, in terms of journalism? Here at GetReligion I noted:

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. …

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

In social media, lots of folks have simply led their imaginations run wild.

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