Clemente Lisi

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

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Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Journalists love polls, surveys and studies. One week, wine, for example, is good for you. Seemingly the next, it’s not. There is especially true of medical studies. It was also true during the last presidential election. When it comes to polls, studies and surveys, there has been a reckoning of sorts. Nonetheless, news outlets can’t stop reporting on them despite issues with veracity.

The primary reason is that they get clicks.

As a result, they are widely shared on social media platforms. Another reason is that they provide news sites with diverse news coverage. It “can’t be Trump all the time” has become a popular newsroom refrain the past few years.

What we learned this month is that polls, survey and studies involving politics and health — despite their polarizing natures — are fair game. The ones around faith — and specifically around a specific belief — is not. How else would one explain the dearth of coverage around a Pew Study released on August 5 around a central belief that should be held by Catholics, but is increasingly not. Catholic news sites were abuzz with coverage, but secular news outlets chose to ignore it. 

Transubstantiation — the belief that during Mass the bread and wine used for Communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ — is central to the Catholic faith. Pew found that just 31% of U.S. Catholics believe that statement. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the priest’s offering of bread and wine, known as the eucharist and a re-enactment of The Last Supper, are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The reaffirmation of this doctrine came in the year 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. When consumed, God enters the life of a Catholic. This is essential to salvation.

On the other hand, let’s take another subject that sparks debate and division: belief in ghosts and UFOs. Yes, the phenomenon of people seeing an Unidentified Flying Object, sparking the belief that alien life is out there, has been taken more seriously in the press than any Catholic belief deemed too magical or strange by secular society and mainstream news outlets.

Don’t believe me? UFOs have been in the news this summer, and at other periods of the year, whenever possible. It’s a subject that stretches one’s imagination. It serves as clickbait. It’s important. These are all reasons why UFO stories may be covered, even though they border on conspiracy theory whenever the government may be involved.

For example, Politico, USA Today and the BBC all chose to do UFO stories this month. Why not transubstantiation? By comparison, the central belief of the Catholic faith — so out of reach for many reporters to understand and explain — is relegated to the religious press.

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Democratic socialists vs. traditional Catholics: Guess who gets better news coverage?

Democratic socialists vs. traditional Catholics: Guess who gets better news coverage?

Every profession has a national convention. Bankers, plumbers and even electricians hold them. Journalists have several each year (I have attended some in the past), as do journalism college professors (I have attended those as well). Earlier this month, The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication — a mix of both professions — held their annual conference in Toronto.

That begs the question of when is a national convention worthy of news coverage?

The answer goes to the heart of journalism, potential bias and why reporters and editors choose to cover an event over another. It’s a no-brainer when the gathering is the Republican or Democratic National Conventions held every four years. After all, that’s where each party officially nominates a presidential candidate. It’s where speeches are delivered and news is made.

What’s the bar for coverage when it comes to lesser-known gatherings? Two very distinct conventions earlier this month may shed some light on who is worth covering these days and why.  

The Democratic Socialists of America held their convention last week in Atlanta. By coincidence, the Knights of Columbus held their annual convention in Minneapolis. Readers of this space should find it to be no coincidence whatsoever that the Democratic socialists received plenty — and perhaps more favorable — coverage compared to a Catholic group.

Most can infer who the Democratic socialists are. They have gained lots of influence in the Democratic party and broader political debate since Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016. Many of the group’s anti-capitalist policy positions have gained traction among those running for president in 2020.  

The New York Times wrote about the gathering in an August 6 feature. This is how the piece opens:

Three years ago, the Democratic Socialists of America had 5,000 members. Just another booth at the campus activities fair, another three-initialed group an uncle might mention over lunch.

Today, dues-paying D.S.A. members exceed 56,000. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star of American politics, is one. So are a couple of dozen local elected officials across the country. Senator Bernie Sanders, a current presidential candidate, is not, but he may as well be: He identifies as a democratic socialist and enjoys a totemic status with the group’s members.

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Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

Beyond covering vigils and funerals: What’s the Catholic church’s position on guns?

I have attended many vigils and funeral services in my years as a news reporter. I did so primarily as a general assignment reporter covering crime in New York City throughout the early 2000s.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I attended dozens of funerals for firefighters and other first-responders who perished during the collapse of the World Trade Center in the biggest terror attack on American soil.

There is a new terror threat that faces our nation. The rise of domestic terrorists with easy access to guns have made even a routine weekend trip to the mall something to fear. Those memories of covering vigils and funerals — many involving children and teens shot and killed in senseless gang violence — came flooding back to my mind this past weekend.

The back-to-back massacres — one at a Texas Walmart on Saturday and another in an Ohio nightclub the following day — cast a pall on our nation at a time when many families are enjoying time at the beach.

Again, the violence had to do with guns. As flowers and candles piled up at both scenes of the tragedy, the political response was all about finger-pointing and racism. It was yet another example of our country’s increased political (and news media) polarization. Mainstream media news coverage could be summed out this way: Democrats blamed President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, while Republicans pointed the finger at mental illness and violent video games.

The news coverage was predictable, boilerplate even. As usual, it lacked any real focus on religion, either in the many main news stories of the first few days or the sidebars that evolved. You would think the aftermath of two major tragedies wouldn’t lack talk of faith. Instead, the focus was politics — both regarding the motives of the shooters in each case and the need for gun control.

It’s a topic that comes up each time there is a mass shooting. And each time the coverage lacks any real consideration for what faith-based organizations are doing to try and stop future incidents. That is, have religious leaders offered more than prayers.

In this case, what the Catholic church has done to reduce gun violence has gone largely unreported or underreported the past few years.

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Today's must-read story: Linger over the @NYTimes multimedia report on Notre Dame fire

Today's must-read story: Linger over the @NYTimes multimedia report on Notre Dame fire

Forget Twitter for a moment.

Forget American politics, in fact and the circular firing squads that both political parties seem anxious to stage at least once a week. Forget You. Know. Who.

What you need to do right now — if you have not, as my colleague Clemente Lisi recommended this morning — is read the massive New York Times multimedia feature that vividly tells the story of the firefighters who risked all to save Notre Dame Cathedral, making decisions in a matter of minutes that kept this holy place from collapsing.

Read and view it all: “Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved.”

Yes, I know that some readers will say: “You mean the same New York Times that made that embarrassing mistake when covering the fire, confusing a priest’s reference to saving the ‘Body of Christ’ (sacrament) with rescuing a mere statue?

Set that aside for 15 minutes and did into this piece.

The key to the story is the heroism shown by the firefighters who saved Notre Dame’s north tower, where flames were already threatening the beams that held some of the cathedral’s giant bells.

The equation: If those beams broke, the bells would fall. If the bells fell, the north tower would fall. If the north tower fell it was al; but certain that the south tower would, as well.

That would pull down the entire structure of Notre Dame. Here’s a crucial passage linked to that:

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Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Church vandalism cases in France starting to get the journalism attention they deserve

Spending two weeks in France earlier this summer was a wonderful experience. While I was there to cover the Women’s World Cup, I did get an opportunity to travel extensively throughout Paris and the northern part of the country.

During my travels, I walked into a lot of churches. France is one of the few countries I have ever visited where churches were always open. There was something comforting seeing churches with their doors swung wide, inviting anyone to walk right in.

The other thing I noticed was how empty these houses of worship were. It’s not surprising given that church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world.

I’m used to New York City, where churches are often locked when Mass isn’t going on. The reasons are plentiful. Theft, vandalism and other factors often goes into why this has become a practice. You’d think they would have heeded the warning in France, where the vandalism of Catholic churches has become an all-too-common occurrence the past two years.

This trend has largely been ignored in the mainstream press (we discussed this extensively at GetReligion at the time of the Notre Dame blaze and again in the aftermath). It should be noted, once again, that the fire at Notre Dame was an accident and not part of the spate of attacks.  

This takes us to a great piece of journalism by Real Clear Investigations, the same people who run Real Clear Politics (full disclosure: I have written for Real Clear Sports in the past). A recent piece posted to the site takes a deep dive into the trend, quantifying it with anecdotes, lots of data and interviews with people in the know. The reporting sheds a spotlight on the string of attacks and what it has done to France. It may be one of the best reported pieces on what’s been going on there by any news organization to date.

What Richard Bernstein has been able to do here is the kind of reporting that we no longer see. A former foreign correspondent at The New York Times, Bernstein worked as the paper’s Paris bureau chief from 1984 to 1987. His knowledge of the country, the history and factors that may have influenced the events of the past year shows through his reporting. These two paragraphs early on, for example, illustrate the magnitude of the problem — with help from data collected by various French authorities:

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Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

In this politically polarized world, there are issues that can drive a large wedge between people — including several that, one way or another, are tied to religion.

Immigration and abortion are two of the biggest in the Donald Trump era, issues that dominated the Supreme Court’s recently-completed term and the Democratic presidential primaries that are just underway. Then again, immigration and abortion are the issues that dominate news on the web and cable TV.

Religious freedom, an old-school liberal issue now largely taken up by conservatives, is often lost in mainstream news coverage. Lost in this coverage is an issue of such importance to Roman Catholics, that it may very well be the biggest fallout to come from years of clerical sex abuse when it comes to how it affects the law.

The California State Senate, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bill (the first of its kind in the United States) that would compel a priest — violating centuries of Catholic law and tradition — to disclose to civil authorities any information learned in the confessional if it involves the sexual abuse of a minor committed by another priest or lay worker. The bill was supposed to head to the State Assembly later this summer, where Democrats hold a majority.

On Tuesday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing, State Sen. Jerry Hill withdrew the bill after realizing he didn’t have the votes to get it passed out of committee. Opponents may have rejoiced, but this issue is far from over. It certainly will gather steam again in future legislative sessions. That means reporters need to be better equipped to cover such an issue in a balanced and fair way.

If this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider what it would have mandated: the government would have been allowed to control a religious sacrament by legally punishing a priest for not breaking the seal of confession. Passage of such a law would be a major violation of religious freedom for both the priest and the person in the confessional. It would also have a chilling effect for those seeking to go to confession, but fearing possible legal troubles.

Mainstream news coverage of this bill has been largely muted over the past few months. This bill hasn’t, for example, been made a bigger issue by national media outlets such as The New York Times. Compare that to the coverage on immigration and abortion.

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Concerning the familiar journalistic need to seek out history (and a Catholic angle to July 4th)

Concerning the familiar journalistic need to seek out history (and a Catholic angle to July 4th)

A trip to Washington, D.C., especially around the time of Independence Day, is always a good way to get the history juices flowing. It’s also a good way to get story ideas if you’re an editor or reporter looking for a new angle to this annual holiday.

Walking around the nation’s capitol is also a reminder of how much religious faith and this nation’s founding are connected, in terms of personalities and big themes. God is everywhere in this country’s past and the monuments that populate this wonderful city are a reminder of it.

One statue that many often ignore or neglect to focus on is that of Charles Carroll located in the National Statuary Hall collection. Not only is his life an excuse to cover July 4th through a new lens, but also gives readers the chance to learn about our country’s religious origins.

Who was Carroll? It’s a question not too many people have asked, in recent decades. It is one that editors and reporters should be flocking to cover. If anything, it would allow for news coverage to get away from the standard tropes that include fireworks, grilling recipes and mattress sales. Carroll was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and its longest-living signer. That alone would be reason enough to focus some of the coverage on this man, especially in Maryland media — in the state where he lived and died.

Crux did a wonderful feature in 2016 on Carroll, complete with tons of history and interviews with experts who studied Carroll’s life. This is how the piece opens:

On July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence — one of the most amazing coincidences in U.S. history unfolded. On that day, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s author, and John Adams, perhaps its greatest advocate, died within hours of each other.

David McCullough’s masterful biography John Adams tells the poignant story of how the two patriots he called “the pen” and “the voice” of the Declaration, who had helped forge liberty in their new nation later became bitter political rivals but in their old age corresponded as friends.

But their rivalry even extended to their dying moments, as McCullough noted that Adams on his deathbed in Massachusetts whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Yet earlier that afternoon, Jefferson had died in Virginia.

And then there was one.

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Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

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