Birmingham

Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

It’s one of the mantras I recite every now and then when describing journalism trends in this troubled age: Opinion is cheap, while information is expensive.

Week after week, readers send us the URLs to opinion pieces and op-ed essays about subjects that, in a previous age, might have received serious news coverage that explored the views of people on both sides of these arguments and standoffs.

This does not mean that these pieces are not important or that they don’t contain valid information about important news stories.

That’s certainly the case with this “opinion column” that was published recently by the Alabama Media Group — AL.com — with this headline: “Why does God need public records? In Alabama, that’s a real question.” The author is political columnist Kyle Whitmire.

The overture is somewhat confusing, but that’s sort of the point. What we have here is a case that involves press freedom, religious freedom, the death penalty and who knows what all. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Why in the name of God would anyone need a public record?

After all, doesn’t the Almighty already know what those documents show?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. For Tabitha Isner, they were real, asked of her by a lawyer for the Alabama prison system. And she had to answer under oath.

Swear to God.

Or, if you care about transparency and accountability in government, just swear.

Like the Holy Bible, maybe we should start in the beginning.

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Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Southern Baptists in Birmingham. Roman Catholics in Baltimore.

Clergy sexual abuse scandals, obviously, high on the agendas in both places. Lots of reporters in the house, in both places.

Yes, the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and the spring general assembly of U.S. Catholic bishops made lots of headlines this week.

So we better dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer has a nice wrap-up of the SBC meeting, reporting on three ways churches will tackle abuse after the meeting.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey also has an interesting roundup, explaining that while the SBC took action, some question whether it’s enough.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein delve into the pros and cons of the Catholic bishops’ decision to create a hotline for reporting abuse.

Some of the GetReligion posts on the Baptists and Catholics this week:

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Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

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New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

To be honest, I had shoved the Ginia Bellafante feature at The New York Times — “Abortion and the Future of the New South” — so far back into the “think piece” folder of guilt that I almost forgot that this “Big City” masterpiece still existed.

In this case, the term “masterpiece” is defined as a piece of first-person journalism that has to be in the running as one of the greatest summary statements of Gray Lady-speak ever put on paper.

I mean, Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher — a former Brooklyn resident — had already produced this truly fab summary statement of what’s going on here. Before we get to the latest response to the Bellafante opus — at Scalawag, hold that thought — let’s let Dreher kick off this thinker-fest:

I’m so sorry. Really, just very sorry. Here entitled Yankees like the NYT’s Ginia Bellafante thought the American South existed to give Millennial Brooklynites a place to reproduce Park Slope, but more affordably, and now we’ve gone and ruined it for them with our deplorable social and religious views.

Ah, right. All that icky religious stuff. That really messes things up for “Tess” and other relocated New Yorkers. Here is the essential Times-talk overture:

Tess wanted her own kingdom, and New York — forbidding, impossible — wasn’t going to let her build it. The start-up costs for the baking and catering business she envisioned were going to be too high; the rent on her apartment in Bed-Stuy was increasing. When she moved in it was $1,800 a month; just a few years later, it was approaching $3,400.

This young woman was a citizen of the New South now. Her business, Tess Kitchen, was thriving. Her New Orleans apartment, at $1,900 a month, had three bathrooms.

I called Tess on the day that the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee backed legislation to prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat was detected. This came 24 hours after Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, one that does not allow exceptions for rape or incest. That followed the passage of another restrictive abortion law in Georgia.

Living in a very liberal city in a very conservative state is a trick mirror. “You really forget that you are in the Deep South here,’’ she said.

Need more? It’s all about the word “backward,” you see. You see the people who are, to New York-raised reformers, still yearning for the “Old South” are still fighting the Civil War.

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Friday Five: Arizona kerfuffle, synagogue shooting, religious persecution, plugs for Dawn and Mollie

Friday Five: Arizona kerfuffle, synagogue shooting, religious persecution, plugs for Dawn and Mollie

“He is risen!” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey posted on his official Facebook page on Easter.

Thus began a church-state controversy that resulted in the Arizona Republic quoting sources who said the post violated the First Amendment.

The story was almost as interesting as the Twitter exchange between the governor and Republic journalist Maria Polletta.

With that, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Saturday’s deadly shooting at a Southern California synagogue was the week’s top religion story. Tied to that, the Los Angeles Times’ Jaweed Kaleem reported that the attacks in are Poway, Calif., and Pittsburgh six months ago are part of an increasing trend of physical violence against Jews.

Among GetReligion’s posts on the shooting, Julia Duin examined the initial media coverage, and Terry Mattingly noted that the shooter, John Earnest, put “the Christian label into play” and said that’s half the equation that reporters need to cover.

In a separate post, tmatt delved into the “weaponized Calvinism” of the accused shooter who apparently believed his salvation was assured no matter.

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Good reporting takes time: Yes, the London attacker had a complex journey into Islam

Good reporting takes time: Yes, the London attacker had a complex journey into Islam

Whenever there is an act of international terrorism, I get emails wanting to know why elite newsrooms are hesitant to connect the dots and use the word "Islam" in the initial coverage.

Well, there have been cases in which reporters have worked their way around some rather obvious, and easy to report, clues that point in that direction -- such as words shouted by the attackers, as reported by eyewitnesses. Often, journalists bury the name of the suspect it is points toward the Middle East or another majority-Islamic culture.

However, there are also cases in which these kinds of clear, on-the-record references are not initially available. At that point, you have public officials saying that they are treating the crime as an act of "international terrorism," and everyone is supposed to know what that means. You can see an example of this in the overture of an early New York Times report about the attack at Westminster Bridge.

LONDON -- A knife-wielding assailant driving a sport utility vehicle mowed down panicked pedestrians and stabbed a police officer outside Parliament on Wednesday in a deadly assault, prompting the hasty evacuation of the prime minister and punctuating the threat of terrorism in Europe.
At least four people, including the assailant, were killed and at least 40 others injured in the confusing swirl of violence, which the police said they assumed had been “inspired by international terrorism.” It appeared to be the most serious such assault in London since the deadly subway bombings more than a decade ago.

This does raise a question: Does the Associated Press Stylebook now include a reference stating that "international terrorism" is officially a reference to radicalized forms of Islam?

Of course not. It is also important that reporters not rush ahead of the facts -- even as ISIS leaders send out their social-media taunts. The bottom line for journalists: Don't hide the early evidence, but don't make assumptions, either.

It's crucial to keep reading, day after day, as journalists (and security officials) do their work. You can see this in the solid Times follow-up on that hellish attack, a lengthy feature that attempts to trace the attacker's journey into radical Islam. It's clear that officials are looking for ties to other groups, but are also being cautious.

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