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That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

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BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

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CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

There he goes again. “He” in this case is Brian Stelter at “Reliable Sources,'“ the CNN show that covers a wide range of news about mass media, including mainstream journalism.

In the past few months — while discussing press struggles with normal America — Stelter has asked some interesting questions about the fact that many journalists in elite zip codes struggle to, well, get religion. He hasn’t said “GetReligion” yet, but he has mentioned that there are websites that keep track of this problem. Maybe I can picket his office next time I’m camped out in New York City?

This came up recently when I wrote an “On Religion” column about the new “Alienated America” book by Timothy P. Carney, who leads the commentary section at The Washington Examiner (click here for the column and here for the GetReligion podcast that discussed this). That column included material from a Carney appearance on “Reliable Sources” that included comments about You Know What.

The context — #DUH — is a discussion of why so many journalists missed the rise of Donald Trump in flyover country. A key point: Core Trump voters talked about religion, while those whose daily lives revealed deep religious convictions tended to oppose Trump in the primaries. Here’s a chunk of that column:

Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America — in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere — clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared. …

Stelter said the problem is that religion is "like climate change." This topic affects life nationwide, but it's hard for journalists to see since "there's not a bill being introduced in Congress or there's not a press conference happening in New York."

This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well – especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West coasts.

"Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America," he said. "It's not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It's that they don't understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories."

In other words, way too many journalists notice religion — when it shows up in New York City and Beltway events that they believe are connected to their The One True Faith, which is politics.

The other day, Stelter returned to this subject while discussing the evolution of American values and public life with a very controversial author — Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro.

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Think piece from guilt files: The ethics of ambushing Robert Mueller after Easter worship rites

Think piece from guilt files: The ethics of ambushing Robert Mueller after Easter worship rites

It’s one of those surreal scenes that’s hard to imagine ever happened — but it did. More than once.

The setting is a Roman Catholic church in England and the late, great Sir Alec Guinness has just knelt to receive Holy Communion and is quietly returning to his pew. Then someone would do the unthinkable.

To be blunt: Is this the time and place to talk to Guinness about “Star Wars”? The answer is: “No.” As Joseph Pearce, author of "Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief,” once told me:

"All that we really know about Sir Alec Guinness — right down the line — is that he did not consider his life to be public property. ... He was particularly irritated when people would, literally, come up to him after Mass and try to talk to him about his movies."

Ah, but what if it is Easter and all of America is talking about the release of the most important government document in the history of the Republic? What if the person coming out of church is the Special Counsel who millions (OK, it seems that way) of Beltway Talking Heads had designated as the hero who would slay (it’s a metaphor) the evil Donald Trump and allow Blue Zip Code Americans to return to living happy, fulfilled lives free of Twitter insults, other than their own?

This brings us to this weekend’s think piece, which I feel very guilty about because I should have used this earlier. But better late than never. This ran as an “ethics” commentary by Al Tompkins at Poynter.org, with this headline: “Offensive or appropriate? We talked to the reporter who questioned Mueller on Easter.” Here’s the overture:

MSNBC freelance reporter Mike Viqueira was trying to land the interview that nobody else has in close to two years. That’s why he confronted Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he and his wife left a Washington, D.C., church service on Easter Sunday. Viqueira is taking heat on social media for confronting Mueller after church, but some journalists say Mueller is such a high-profile public figure that he is fair game.

There’s a word for this: optics.

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Given the byline on this profile of radio personality Delilah, it's no surprise that it gets religion

Given the byline on this profile of radio personality Delilah, it's no surprise that it gets religion

Radio personality Delilah Rene is the queen of sappy love songs and dedications.

When my kids were younger and still rode in the same vehicle as me, we’d always listen to the “Delilah” show. Alternately, we’d be touched by her heartwarming stories and chuckle at her willingness to dole out relationship advice after multiple failed marriages.

Last year, I pitched the idea of an interview about her faith — something that was evident on the show but about which I’d never heard much — to a national editor I know. But I got no bite.

So I was pleased this week to see an in-depth profile of Rene in the Seattle Times — and one that delves nicely into the radio host’s faith.

Grab a tissue before diving in:

IT HAS BEEN more than a year since he left her: the carefree 18-year-old son with the tousled hair and crooked grin.

Zachariah Miguel Rene-Ortega’s ashes are buried under an apple tree in a planting bed shaped like a tear. “Zack’s Grove” also includes Greensleeves dogwoods, two fig trees and a wooden bus shelter with a sign stenciled in white: “Every hour I need Thee.” Scattered about the grove are little talismans left by his friends.

Zack’s mother is Delilah Rene, the most-listened-to woman in American radio. She lives with her large family on a 55-acre Port Orchard farm, along with one zebra, three emus, three dogs, four pigs, five sheep, six cats, 30 goats and dozens of chickens. A remodeled 1907 farmhouse on the property serves as her six-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot home. A multiwindowed turret on the second floor is set aside for prayer. This farm is where Zack grew up and made friends with local kids who still come over.

“Stuff just shows up,” Delilah says, standing in the rain at the grove. “I come out here and find little tokens, mementos, stakes and flags.”

She still dreams of Zack: happy, beautiful, ageless.

When asked how she gets through each day’s mix of regret and sadness, she mentions God. “I know he’s with Him,” she says. “And when my time comes, I’ll be with him.”

No, this writer isn’t afraid of faith — even complicated faith — which will become more clear if you read the whole piece in the Times’ Pacific NW Magazine.

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This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.

It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.

With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.

Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.

I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?

This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”

So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?

It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”

So here’s what’s at stake:

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival.

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When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to life inside the D.C. Beltway, veteran scribe Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard (RIP) has seen a thing or two — to say the least.

So when Barnes describes a political scene as one of his favorite Washington vignettes, that’s saying something. In this case, a classic Barnes anecdote is a great way to introduce readers to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focuses on media coverage — or the lack of coverage — of the persecution of religious believers.

Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up to follow our podcasts.

It’s pretty clear that many journalists, perhaps following the lead of government officials, consider some stories about religious persecution to be more important than others. So why do some stories leap into A1 headlines or the top of evening newscasts, while others receive little or no digital ink at all (other than coverage by the religious press)?

So our symbolic mini-drama takes place in 1994, when President Bill Clinton and his political team was working to improve trade, and thus political ties, with the People’s Republic of China. The strategy was to focus less attention on human rights issues and more attention on communication and, well, bartering. I like the wording in this Slate article, noting that the “Clinton administration made a sudden about-face, declaring it would ‘delink’ Chinese trade policy from human rights.”

One would expect political liberals to protest this heresy. Correct? And one would expect that Republicans would welcome anything that improved the lives of American corporate leaders. Correct?

There was, however, a subject that changed the dynamics in this story — religion.

Many conservatives — that’s the Religious Right, in pressthink — opposed these Clinton moves because of rising concerns about the persecution of China’s growing underground churches (Catholic and Protestant). At the same time, many mainstream liberals were not comfortable clashing with a Democrat in the White House, especially if that meant standing next to religious fanatics.

However, there were still idealists on the cultural far left — think Hollywood, in particular — who stood their ground, due to their fury over China’s treatment of Tibetan Buddhists.

So the setting for this Barnes anecdote was a protest rally near the Clinton White House. On the rally stage, activist Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council approached another speaker — actor Richard “Pretty Woman” Gere.

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Lee Habeeb likes to tell human stories, but The Daily Beast smells culture wars

Lee Habeeb likes to tell human stories, but The Daily Beast smells culture wars

Lloyd Grove’s Daily Beast profile of Lee Habeeb and his Our American Stories venture in Oxford, Miss., calls to mind the aphorism that the late Clare Booth Luce kept on an embroidered pillow: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”

Many conservatives consider NPR, as Grove writes, “rightly or not, as inhospitable to anything that isn’t progressive or politically correct.”

For a good example of why conservatives should entertain such thoughts, listen to Terry Gross of Fresh Air anytime she welcomes Jane Mayer as a guest. The default setting is not to have conservatives speak for themselves, but to have one writer present speculations about why conservatives do what they do.

That NPR receives any federal funding for such programming becomes doubly galling to conservatives.

Conservatives have launched hundreds of programs on talk radio since the Ronald Reagan years. The difference in Habeeb’s effort is his emphasis on storytelling instead of political arguments. It’s a rare conservative radio host who will tell the back story of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, remember the late character actor John Cazale or give props to the rock forerunner Sister Rosetta Tharp.

Amid this programming, Grove inquires about the funding behind Habeeb’s nonprofit foundation:

The program is produced by a tax free nonprofit that Habeeb established in 2014, American Private Radio, which is supported largely by charitable donations (a cumulative $3.3 million in tax years 2015 and 2016, as reflected on APR’s publicly available 990 forms).

The program has begun to share advertising revenue with the local stations (three minutes of commercial time per hour, vs. five minutes for the stations). Habeeb, however, refused to discuss his financial backers.

“Donors have a right to privacy. I respect it,” he said in an email, citing several court decisions that protect the anonymity of donors to nonprofits. “They like the stories, which are positive, and love that we tell stories about American history, about people like Steinway [the piano maker] and US Grant [the Civil War general and president] and so on … I am waiting to see if you take a deep dive on such matters about Pro Publica and the host of left wing non-profits that arise, and will you be scouring the 990’s of those institutions?”

It’s fair enough to bring the gimlet eye to any person, but what difference does it make if this conflict-averse content is quietly funded by the Koch Brothers, Chik fil-A or Tom Monaghan?

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Church flipper: Why this pastor has a passion for finding the new faithful for old houses of worship

Church flipper: Why this pastor has a passion for finding the new faithful for old houses of worship

All too often, shuttered houses of worship are converted into nightclubs, restaurants and even condominiums, as former GetReligion contributor Mark Kellner noted in a Religion News Service story back in September.

Kellner’s report highlighted “a growing desire to keep houses of worship within the tradition in which they were originally established, even if the founding congregation has diminished.”

A few months earlier, our own tmatt commented on a New York Times article from Quebec with this provocative headline: “Where Churches Have Become Temples of Cheese, Fitness and Eroticism.”

Now, via the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, comes a feature on a “church flipper.” Pastor Paul Marzahn, it seems, is the “Fixer Upper” of houses of worship.

The Star-Tribune’s lede:

Pastor Paul Marzahn is best known as the founder of several south suburban churches. But he’s gaining a new reputation for an unusual side job he’s juggling — as a church flipper.

The Methodist minister scouts for “For Sale” signs on churches with an eye toward rehabbing the buildings and selling them back to new faith-filled owners. He’s also a consultant to clergy looking to sell or buy.

Marzahn’s nonprofit, for example, purchased the historic Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis and last year turned it over to a fresh congregation. His own Lakeville church bought an aging Inver Grove Heights church, rehabbed it, and made it an auxiliary campus.

He’s now helping a ministry serving the homeless revamp a former Catholic Charities building.

“I drive by these church buildings for sale and think, ‘Who do I know who would be a good fit into this building?’ ” said Marzahn, senior pastor at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Lakeville. “That’s my calling. To see churches or nonprofits save some of these great buildings.”

It’s a really fascinating piece.

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