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How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

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Friday Five: Alex Trebek, flipping churches, clumsy Oregonian, Babylon Bee, Twitter personalities

Friday Five: Alex Trebek, flipping churches, clumsy Oregonian, Babylon Bee, Twitter personalities

Word missing from the new “Jeopardy!” video about host Alex Trebek’s cancer recovery …

What is “prayer?”

Readers will recall that back in April, Trebek credited prayers with helping him overcome stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and we explored some of the holy ghosts in news coverage.

In this case, it seems to be “Jeopardy!” itself that is haunted in its video touting the show’s new season.

While reflecting on that, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Our own Terry Mattingly made a really important point this week on the growing trend of old churches being being sold and flipped:

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Go ahead and read it all.

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Is 'Queer Eye' more Christian than most Christians? Some folks say yes

Is 'Queer Eye' more Christian than most Christians? Some folks say yes

The last time I wrote about “Queer Eye for a Straight Guy” had to do with their lone Muslim cast member and what might be his fate were he living in a majority Muslim society.

Since then, the show has become simply “Queer Eye,” a Netflix reboot and a “spiritual” icon for today’s America. Several media have taken up the idea that the gay quintet’s accepting and gracious demeanor is very much like what Jesus might look like if he was here. At the current rate, these guys are going to outdo Oprah in the spiritual force department.

This recent New York Times piece by Amanda Hess piece notes that the show’s makeovers, redecorating and shopping have become the new chic form of expressing repentance and beginning a new life. Born again?

Every episode is the same. Five queer experts in various aesthetic practices conspire to make over some helpless individual. Tan France (fashion) teaches him to tuck the front of his shirt into his pants; Bobby Berk (design) paints his walls black and plants a fiddle-leaf fig; Antoni Porowski (food) shows him how to cut an avocado; Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) shouts personal affirmations while shaping his beard; and Karamo Brown (“culture”) stages some kind of trust-building exercise that doubles as an amateur therapy session. Then, they retreat to a chic loft, pass around celebratory cocktails and watch a video of their subject attempting to maintain his new and superior lifestyle. The makeover squad cries, and if you are human, you cry too.

Van Ness, by the way, with his long brown hair and beard, is a dead ringer for many of the cinematic depictions of Christ over the past 50 years.

The reporter then packs a masterful punch in What It All Means.

Because “Queer Eye” is not just a makeover. As its gurus lead the men (and occasionally, women) in dabbing on eye cream, selecting West Elm furniture, preparing squid-ink risotto and acquiring gym memberships, they are building the metaphorical framework for an internal transformation. Their salves penetrate the skin barrier to soothe loneliness, anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, absentee parenting and hoarding tendencies. The makeover is styled as an almost spiritual conversion. It’s the meaning of life as divined through upgraded consumer choices.

Hess’ article is dripping with spiritual lingo and is a delight to read.

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There will always be an England? BBC helter-skelter cathedral report misses a crucial fact

There will always be an England? BBC helter-skelter cathedral report misses a crucial fact

Let me state the obvious. This is one of those stories that people would worry about if it ran at a satire-news website like The Onion or, especially, The Babylon Bee.

It would fit either place since it combines British humor, pop culture and a 12th century cathedral.

But, no, this report is from the venerable BBC. And what a wild story it is, combining outlandish visuals with a solid hard-news angle that is perfect for religion-beat coverage. The only problem is that BBC totally omitted the serious-news content in this strange story. The headline states, “Norwich Cathedral: Bishop delivers sermon from helter-skelter.”

Helter skelter? No, we’re not talking about The Beatles song and there’s no link here, obviously, to the Manson Family. No, this is a story about a painfully hip bishop (#IMHO) and an oldline Protestant institution that is really, really anxious to pull a few people through its doors. Here is (hang on tight) the overture:

God would be "revelling" in the joy a "glorious" helter-skelter has brought to Norwich Cathedral, its bishop has told his congregation from its slide.

The fairground ride had been in the nave of the cathedral for 11 days. It was intended to give people a different view of the building, although some accused the cathedral of "making a mistake".

The Bishop of Lynn, the Rt Revd Jonathan Meyrick, delivered his sermon from halfway up the ride.

"God is a tourist attraction," he told his congregation during the cathedral's final service with the helter-skelter as a backdrop. "God wants to be attractive to us. ... for us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world around us and this glorious helter-skelter is about just that."

The bishop had climbed to the top of the helter-skelter before edging halfway down the slide, where he stopped to deliver his sermon. He then received a loud cheer as he whooshed to the bottom.

On one level, this strategy worked, since cathedral officials noted that about 20,000 people paid a visit between August 7-18 and about 10,000 newcomers chose to slide down the helter-skelter.

The online version of this news story also did include a tiny note, and a quick hyperlink, to a traditional Anglican response to this rather unique approach to evangelism.

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Concerning that 'prominent' 'Mormon' 'bishop' peeping around at a ladies dressing room

Concerning that 'prominent' 'Mormon' 'bishop' peeping around at a ladies dressing room

Take, for example, the word “bishop.” What does this term mean in (a) the Church of Rome, (b) the United Methodist Church, (c) the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (d) various Pentecostal denominations and (e) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (formerly known to newsroom pros as the “Mormons.”)

While we’re at it, what does “evangelical” mean in the title of the ELCA, one of America’s most doctrinally progressive-liberal flocks?

Words matter. So you just knew we were in for a rough ride, journalistically speaking, when headlines like this one began to sprout online: “Peeping Tom in Nashville Store Turns Out to Be High-Ranking Mormon Leader.” Things got really rough when local-TV news kicked in.

Now, I realize that this particular headline ran at a Patheos advocacy site called — Friendly Atheist. But this online post did combine lots of the issues and stumbles one could find elsewhere. Let us attend:

It’s bad enough that a man in an H&M retail store inside the Opry Mills shopping center in Nashville, Tennessee was caught spying on a woman whom he led into a dressing room (apparently acting like a sales rep).

It’s even worse that the man’s wife attempted to stop the woman from calling police.

But the kicker? The man in question, Stephen Murdock, is a Mormon bishop.

Combine the present-tense reference to this man bing a bishop with the phrase “High-Ranking Mormon Leader” and it would appear that a member of the church’s national hierarchy had fallen.

Here is how The New York Post summed up the crucial information about Murdock’s standing:

A high-ranking member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was busted taking photos of a woman in a store’s dressing room, according to police and church officials.

Steven Murdock, 55, a Mormon high councilor and one-time bishop, encouraged a woman to use an empty changing stall at an H&M in a Nashville mall, where she then saw a phone camera pointed at her, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Nashville Tennessean.

Like I said, religion-news can get complicated.

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Bob the Journalist has the scoop: 'VeggieTales' is coming back (for those wondering, it did leave)

Bob the Journalist has the scoop: 'VeggieTales' is coming back (for those wondering, it did leave)

“Are you watching VeggieTales?” asked my wife, sounding surprised as cartoon vegetables sang in our living room.

“I’m watching the trailer,” I said. “It’s coming back.”

“Did it ever leave?” she replied.

For those wondering — including parents such as my wife and me whose now-grown children were raised on Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and friends — actually it did leave.

Bob (the journalist, not the tomato) has the intriguing, behind-the-scenes story for Religion News Service.

Before I get much deeper into this post, I should point out that I have a history with this story. Back in 2002, while serving as religion editor for The Oklahoman, I interviewed Mike Nawrocki, the squeaky voice of Larry the Cucumber and a co-creator of “VeggieTales" and Big Idea Productions.

I asked hard-hitting questions befitting a serious journalist, as I noted at the time:

For example, my first question: "Can you please sing me a Silly Song?"

"I'm taking requests," Nawrocki joked.

Wonderful! How about "The Water Buffalo Song," "The Hairbrush Song" and "I Love My Lips?"

I also pried into Nawrocki's eating habits. "I'm a big vegetable fan, as long as they're not talking," he told me.

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Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

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The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

Social media went nuts this week — overwhelmingly positive nuts — over the official trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers that will hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving.

As Esquire notes, “The film is based on a profile of Mr. Rogers that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 1998. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized version of the writer, embarking upon the profile of the kids television icon with initial reluctance before forging a friendship with his subject, the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.”

Hmmmm, a movie about the relationship that develops between a journalist and his subject.

Perhaps this formula could work for a future movie about Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a leading evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump.

Except that — when Hollywood tells Jeffress’ story — he’s not likely to be portrayed as “the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.” Instead, think Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

The basis for the Jeffress screenplay? The big screen could do worse than Texas Monthly’s long August cover story on “Trump’s Apostle.”

Writer Michael J. Mooney sets the scene this way:

Here’s Robert Jeffress, talking to the hundreds of thousands of people watching conservative cable news on a typical Friday evening, and he’s defending President Donald Trump against the latest array of accusations in the news this week. And he isn’t simply defending Trump—he’s defending him with one carefully crafted Bible-wrapped barb after another, and with more passion, more preparation, more devotion than anyone else on television.

As Lou Dobbs finishes his opening remarks, Jeffress laughs and nods. It’s early January, about two weeks into what will prove to be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are missing paychecks, worrying about mortgages, car payments, utility bills. Some have started going to food banks. But Dobbs waves his hand up and down and tells Jeffress that he hasn’t heard anyone—“literally no one!”—say they miss the government. The jowly host revels in Trump’s threats that the shutdown could continue “for months, if not years,” if that’s what it takes to get more wall built on America’s border with Mexico.

Jeffress, speaking from a remote studio in downtown Dallas, agrees completely. “Well, he’s doing exactly the right thing in keeping this government shut down until he gets that wall,” he says.

Jeffress is the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, a 13,000-member megachurch that’s one of the most influential in the country, but he’s known best for appearances like this one: he’s often on Fox & Friends or Hannity or any number of sound-bitey segments on Fox News or Fox Business. His own religious show airs six days a week on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has a daily radio program too, broadcast on more than nine hundred Christian stations across the country, though it’s TV he loves best. Dobbs invites Jeffress onto his show nearly every week.

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