Columbia Journalism Review

Religion News Service fallout III -- A press release sheds neither heat nor light

Religion News Service fallout III -- A press release sheds neither heat nor light

More fallout continueth from the Religion News Service explosions of two weeks ago with the release of a press release that sounds like a directive out of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.

A quick review: tmatt’s April 24 post was the first reporting by anyone on this on RNS’s problems. Then I offered this mega-piece on the 26th,  which beat two magazine stories on the topic by almost a day. Then I followed up with this piece on the 27th, which looked at those pieces in The New Republic and the Columbia Journalism Review and then included the first official word of the Religion News Foundation's upcoming $4.9 million Lilly Endowment grant.

Make sure to bone up on the history of this conflict before going further. All that, plus Richard “Religion Guy” Ostling’s memo a few days later has resulted in some pretty decent coverage and commentary from the team here at GetReligion.

So this past Monday, RNS, through its crisis PR firm Athene Strategies, released the following:

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Recent announcements at Religion News Service, including new staff and a pending $4.9 million grant, demonstrate the strategic adjustments RNS is making to honor its 84-year legacy and ensure its bright future.

With these changes, RNS aims to do more than simply survive in a 21st century media landscape. Our vision requires bringing renewed energy and an innovation mindset to the field of religion journalism. By educating and informing a growing audience, we can help cultivate mutual understanding among people of different cultures, faiths and traditions. The result? More peaceful, pluralistic communities around the world.

So RNS holds a key to world peace? That's quite a journalistic mission.

We can do better. This reminds me of the “community journalism” craze of a few decades back mixed with UNESCO agitprop. Am also curious why the story is datelined out of Missouri. Yes, I know there are administrative ties to the University of Missouri, but why not dateline it in Washington, DC where RNS is based? 

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Beware: Middle East freelancing isn't just dangerous -- it may also leave you broke

Beware: Middle East freelancing isn't just dangerous -- it may also leave you broke

Many GetReligion readers are undoubtedly familiar with the name Terry A. Anderson, the Associated Press Middle East correspondent taken hostage in Lebanon in 1985 by Hezbollah, and who remained a captive until 1991.

If not, click here for a refresher. Or here for a column by our own tmatt about Anderson’s Catholic faith -- written days after 9/11.

What you may not know is that Anderson has a daughter, Sulome Anderson, who personifies the chip-off-the-old-block cliche -- the block being journalism of the most difficult and dangerous sort. I’m referring to richly reported, long-form pieces about Middle East (some say militant, I say terrorist) groups who take delight in convulsing the always explosive region.

Still in her early 30s, Sulome’s an award-winning freelance veteran who’s been published by a bevy of top-quality outlets. Her grit is obvious, as are her courage and journalism chops. She’s also an acclaimed author; her book, “The Hostage’s Daughter,” was greeted with acclaim when it was released in 2016.

But despite her success -- brace yourself for the sad truth of her situation -- she found herself unable to make a decent living by pursuing her passion for Middle East reporting. Forced to find another way to pay the rent, she left the region no returned stateside.

The saddest aspect of this, journalistically speaking, is that she’s by no means unique.

Now to what others here at GetReligion refer to as their “guilt files” -- which for me means my online file where I stash links and notes on individual stories or broader issues that I hope to post on, someday.

In that file dwells this story from earlier this year. It’s a piece on the younger Anderson’s professional plight published by the Columbia Journalism Review.

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RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant

RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant

Since I came out yesterday with the first news analysis on the implosion at Religion News Service, two other publications have published solid stories on the imbroglio.

This, as I was finishing this follow-up post, a Lilly Endowment press contact got back to me to confirm a whopping grant that RNS, through the Religion News Foundation, is poised to get. That's one of the major pieces of this giant, painful, puzzle.

There's been a lot of discussion about a pending deal between RNS, the Associated Press and, a related web news curator (see this earlier post by our own Richard Ostling about this site), that will be funded by the Lilly Foundation, the base funder for RNS throughout the years. Communications director Judith Cebula just emailed me the following:

Lilly Endowment approved a grant to Religion News Foundation in December, 2017, in the amount of $4.9 million subject to a favorable determination regarding private foundation tax law requirements. Because the condition has not yet been satisfied, no grant payments have been made. For additional information about the grant, please contact the Religion News Foundation.

The words "subject to" are always important. So stay tuned.

I don't know who first suggested that Lilly facilitate broader distribution of religion news to publishers thru AP but the deal has been percolating for some time. AP would get the lion's share of the money, but RNS and would also make out well.

Apparently enlightened minds at AP want to strengthen their religion reporting (AP only has one national reporter, Rachel Zoll, out of New York), via RNS content. This would be a major coup for RNS in terms of visibility and distribution of their work. What this would be for their current subscribers, fees for content, etc., I have no idea.

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Think 'Catholic' voters: Looking ahead to next round of Donald Trump vs. Pope Francis

Think 'Catholic' voters: Looking ahead to next round of Donald Trump vs. Pope Francis

It's an important question, one that any serious journalist must take seriously as the pace begins to pick up in the race -- or at this point races -- for the White House.

How will candidate x, y or z fare in the contest to win the mythical "Catholic vote." Whoever wins the "Catholic" voters wins the race. Hold that thought.

This time around, of course, we have already had a collision between two of the world's most amazing public figures, each a superstar in radically different forms of "reality" media. I am referring, of course, to Citizen Donald Trump and Pope Francis.

Journalists love them both in completely different ways.

So let's pause, in this weekend think piece slot, and look back at three different thoughts related to that recent media storm involving the pope and the billionaire.

(1) The mass media is waiting, waiting, waiting for a second round. As M.Z. "GetReligionista emeritus" Hemingway noted at The Federalist:

Our media, currently in the throes of one of the most damaging co-dependent relationships with a candidate the country has ever seen, immediately ran with headlines about how Francis was definitively saying Trump is not a Christian. If Trump is like an addict whose illness is in part the result of family dysfunction, then the media are his crazy parents who can’t stop enabling him. Francis is playing the role of the out-of-town uncle who thinks he’s helping but is just furthering the dynamic. OK, maybe that analogy isn’t working. But there is no way that Trump suffers from being criticized by the Pope, and the media enablers get to spend even more time obsessed with their favorite subject.

(2) This brings me to a Columbia Journalism Review think piece by Danny Funt -- "How one letter changed the story in Pope v. Trump" -- that I really intended to point GetReligion readers toward soon after the controversy about what the pope did or didn't say about the state of Trump's soul.

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On abortion coverage: Is the Houston Chronicle capable of listening to both sides?

On abortion coverage: Is the Houston Chronicle capable of listening to both sides?

Early in 2010, I was wandering about my old haunts in Houston’s Eastwood section, which is southeast of downtown. One obvious change was that a new neighbor was moving into a former bank building on I-45, locally known as the Gulf Freeway -- Planned Parenthood, which was expanding into the six-story building.

Local opponents were claiming that Planned Parenthood would be performing abortions through the 24th week of pregnancy, while PP kept saying it’d only do them through the 19th week. Also, the building was Planned Parenthood’s largest U.S. clinic, a distinction many Texans weren’t wild about. And it was in a majority black and Hispanic area, a fact that opponents frequently note when arguing that Planned Parenthood targets minorities. I think they chose that dodgy area of town because it was close to Hobby Airport and nearly across the street from all the co-eds at the University of Houston.

The day I showed up, the protesters weren’t there, so I drove about the building and snapped some photos. Some of my friends still living in the area had protested against the place, which was walking distance from their homes and my old church. Since it was such a huge facility, it’s no huge surprise that an undercover team of pro-life investigators decided to film what goes on there.

Posts by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., talked about the original coverage of the now infamous Planned Parenthood videos last July, plus the current reaction when a grand jury gathered to investigate PP on organ trafficking charges decided instead to indict the two undercover videographers who brought Planned Parenthood’s activities to light.

The bottom line: I want to highlight a story that appeared in the Houston Chronicle that was so one-sided, I’m guessing that the editorial-page team must have moved its operations into the newsroom. It starts thus:

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Your weekend think piece: A different take on America's shortage of minority journalists

Your weekend think piece: A different take on America's shortage of minority journalists

For several decades, one of the primary goals of those who run American newsrooms has been (and justifiably so, from my point of view) increasing the number of mainstream journalists who are African-American, Latino, Asian, Native Americans and part of other minority groups, defined by race.

At the same time, there have been less publicized debates -- mostly behind the scenes -- about the need to bring more intellectual and cultural diversity into our newsrooms. As one journalist friend of mine once put it, what's the use of bringing in more African-Americans, Latinos, etc., if they all basically went to the same schools as everyone else and have the same set of beliefs between their ears?

You can see these two issues collide in William McGowan's the much-debated 2003 book, "Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism." He argues that years of diversity training in American newsrooms has actually made them more elitist and narrow, purging many professionals who come from blue-collar and non-urban backgrounds.

Before you write that theory off as conservative whining, what was that statement near the end of the famous New York Times self-study entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust (.pdf)"?

Our paper’s commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason -- to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.
The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting.
We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar). 

And also: 

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Plain or with bias? CNN's reporting on gays and law reveal contradictions

Plain or with bias? CNN's reporting on gays and law reveal contradictions

I was just about to hand a bouquet to CNN for a sensitive video about the Indiana pizzeria that closed under a barrage of pro-gay hate. But I feel more like serving them bad anchovies after seeing the same kind of shallow, irresponsible coverage in Georgia.

In one video, CNN takes a close look at Memories Pizza in Indiana and interviews the owner, and looks into how this matter of individual rights mushroomed into verbal violence. In the other video (shared with us by a reader who calls herself TheAnchoress), a CNN reporter ambushes five florists in rural Georgia with a "gotcha" question: "If you had gay customers come in here to buy flowers, and they said, 'We want you to come do our commitment ceremony' -- marriages are not allowed in this state yet -- would you do it?"

But OK, the nice one first. CNN's follow-up tells some of the travails of the O'Connor family after they gave their opinion on catering gay weddings.

"Social media unloaded on the pizzeria ... many too vulgar to share," CNN says. The network also reports the tweet by one Jessica Dooley to burn the place down. Adds the network: "Detectives who investigated have recommended charges of harassment, intimidation and threats."

The story also highlights tweets and Facebook posts in support of the pizza parlor. One calls the harassment "cyber bullying" and a "lynch mob." Another says how ironic it is to threaten in the name of tolerance.

CNN then reports on a GoFundMe campaign to compensate the O'Connors for their loss: donations of $842,387 in three days.  The network also does an on-air interview with Lawrence Billy Jones II, a commentator on the Dana Loesch Show, who launched the fund drive.

In the accompanying video, CNN's Brooke Baldwin asks Jones if the O'Connors would, indeed, decline to cater a gay wedding. He says they would, but he's allowed to qualify that they would serve gays who sat down in their restaurant.

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