Las Vegas

Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything

Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything

It was in 1981, while I was doing my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that I had a long conversation with the late George Cornell of the Associated Press about the state of mainstream religion-news reporting. Cornell used to say that he was, basically, the AP religion reporter responsible for all of Planet Earth.

That was, I think, the first time I heard him work his way through a list of the wire service's Top 10 stories of a given year, noting that most of them contained some essential news "hook," or set of facts, linked to religion.

Now, Cornell was not claiming that each of these stories was a "religion" story, per se. He was saying that reporters couldn't understand what was happening in these events and trends without taking the religious angles seriously. He didn't say that these stories were "haunted" by "religion ghosts" -- to use the defining image of this weblog -- but that was basically what he meant. I've been thinking about his words for decades.

I remember that he said there were lots of events that were not, in and of themselves, "religion stories." Take, for example, the Roe v. Wade decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. For most editors, that was a "political story." But how could a reporter cover it without talking to  religious leaders and activists, on both sides? Another example: I wrote my Baylor graduate project about "civil religion" themes in the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Note that those were specific events, with complicated backstories. During this week's long "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I went into "extra innings," so to speak, talking about this year's Top 10 religion stories, according to a poll of members of the Religion News Association. Click here to tune that in.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the No. 1 item, which was different in the RNA list and then in my own. Here is the top RNA item.

1. Conservative evangelicals gain strong representation in the Trump administration, notably with Vice President Mike Pence, and on the president's informal religious advisory body. Trump maintains strong grassroots support among white evangelicals, polls show.

Now, for me, Pence was a 2016 story. So was the strong old-guard Religious Right presence in Donald Trump's political base during the GOP primary season. So what was the "big event" linked to that 2016 story that made it the top individual "story" of 2017?

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Sometimes chasing 'Why?' questions pushes scribes past motives, into evil and tragedy

Sometimes chasing 'Why?' questions pushes scribes past motives, into evil and tragedy

When it comes to the big question in Las Vegas, news consumers around the world are still waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more.

Journalists want to know what kind of label to pin on the motives of Stephen Paddock, so we can go back to wrestling with theodicy questions like, oh, why so many Democrats voted for Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton. Where was God on election day?

Alas, new details in Vegas (Paddock shot a security man before the massacre began?) have only complicated the timeline of this tragedy.

What are journalists supposed to do? Well, this is the rare case when I want to point readers to a think piece during the middle of the week (as opposed to our weekend slots), in part because I get to plug a Poynter.org essay while sitting in the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. I've been here for several days speaking to a circle of international journalists.

The Poynter.org essay is called "The Journalism of Why: How we struggle to answer the hardest question," and it was written by veteran journalist and educator Roy Peter Clark.

Clark starts where I started here at GetReligion, hours after the massacre: With that familiar journalism mantra Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

Who? We got that information pretty quick (unless you're talking about Paddock having help).

What? We got that. When? The massacre timeline is evolving, but we know (or think we know) some of the basics. Where? You get the point. Then Clark notes, quoting one of the journalism scholars who most influenced my academic career:

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Putting God on trial, 2017: What if Stephen Paddock really just snapped in Las Vegas?

Putting God on trial, 2017: What if Stephen Paddock really just snapped in Las Vegas?

All over America, and perhaps the world, people are trying to make sense out of the actions of the mysterious millionaire (we think) gunman Stephen Paddock.

That isn't news. But in a way, the only big news that we have is that there hasn't been any big news since this vision of hell unfolded on the Vegas Strip.

The waiting continues. The one thing mainstream journalists (and their sources) seem to agree on is that the massacre in Las Vegas just doesn't make sense, it doesn't fit into any of our familiar intellectual file folders that we use when tragedy strikes.

Islamic State terrorism? There are debates, but no evidence that has been made public.

Some other form of religious or political fanaticism? Lots of talk, but no evidence.

Massive gambling debts? Ditto. Some kind of mental breakdown, maybe a brain tumor? Maybe science will give us an answer? Maybe chemistry? Paddock was taking Valium, along with legions of other people. So there.

The bottom line: What happens to our minds and hearts if this act turns out to be random and senseless, now that the gunman is dead and cannot explain his actions? What mental file folder do we use then to help us move on, other than the one that says, "Where was God?"

During this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), I defended my statement -- made at the end of my very first Las Vegas massacre post -- that there was a religious element to this event, no matter what. In fact, a massacre with no answer to the "Why?" puzzle is especially troubling, in terms of "theodicy" questions. I said, at that time:

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On second thought, were Pat Robertson's comments on Las Vegas more newsworthy than we said?

On second thought, were Pat Robertson's comments on Las Vegas more newsworthy than we said?

"Don't take the bait: What Pat Robertson said about Las Vegas isn't really news."

Somebody made that case the other day.

OK, maybe that somebody was me.

But after hearing some excellent feedback from respected Godbeat colleagues (more on that feedback in a moment), I've reconsidered my position. Have I actually changed my position? You'll have to read on to find out.

In case you missed my original post, a few mainstream media organizations — including the HuffPost — reported on Robertson blaming disrespect for President Trump, in part, for the Las Vegas mass shooting in which 59 people died and more than 500 were wounded. 

Others mentioning his remarks — and I discovered this only after publishing the first post (thank you, Cheryl Bacon!) — included the New York Times.

The relevant paragraph from that Times article, headlined "Terrorizing if Not Terrorism: What to Call the Las Vegas Attack?":

Then the F.B.I. knocked down the Islamic State angle, noting that the group has a history of false claims. The guessing game resumed: Was it a plot by “deep-state Democrats” (Alex Jones of the conspiracy site Infowars) or perhaps divine punishment for the “profound disrespect”shown to Mr. Trump and the national anthem (the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson)? Was it something to do with country music, given the concert crowd Mr. Paddock targeted? Could it be linked in any way to the long-ago history of Mr. Paddock’s father as a bank robber on the F.B.I.’s most-wanted list?

The gist of my original argument against turning Robertson's comments into news:

When there's a major tragedy, here's another thing you can count on: Pat Robertson opening his mouth.
So yes, Robertson weighed in on Las Vegas. Was there any doubt that he would? But is there any possibility that what he said amounted to actual news?
Probably not, as a million (only slightly exaggerating) past GetReligion posts make clear.
"The key is that there are so many people within evangelicalism who are — for better and for worse — more interesting and influential than Robertson at this point in his career," GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly wrote way back in 2005. (That same year, Poynter.org published another excellent Mattingly piece on this subject, titled "Excommunicating Pat Robertson.")

The pushback against my position came on my personal Facebook page, where I had shared a link to the post.

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Still watching the Las Vegas dice: Did Stephen Paddock leave a note? Was he taking Valium?

Still watching the Las Vegas dice: Did Stephen Paddock leave a note? Was he taking Valium?

Still waiting. Still reading.

Still watching, every now and then. And I remain convinced that some kind of religion/beliefs shoe is going to drop in the Las Vegas massacre, no matter that Eric Paddock says about his brother Stephen's lack of political or religious ties that bind.

However, I will add this concern, even if it is only receiving attention on right-wing news sites and in a UK tabloid that is consistently NSW quality.

The question: Did the gunman leave a note behind in his suite at the Mandalay Bay? There is discussion, with a photo, at The Daily Star:

Images have leaked showing Paddock lying dead on the hotel room floor with blood pouring from his mouth. The gunman appears to be wearing a brown shirt, black slacks, loafers and a pair of gloves.
Chillingly, he appears to have left some kind of note on the side table.
Paddock’s motives remain a mystery, with the millionaire property developer having no criminal history. He appears to have checked into the high roller hotel days before in a meticulous plot to kill.
A note left by the gunman may offer clues to his reasons for slaughtering country music fans at the Route 91 Harvest Festival.

Readers cannot tell, of course, what kind of information is in the note seen in the photo. It could be Paddock's room-service form, for all journalists know. Still it will be interesting to see if and when this discussion is validated by investigators and, thus, breaks into mainstream media. (I have not visited the world of 24/7 cable news in several hours.)

In most discussions of the "Why?" factor in this story -- click here for a typical list -- it is also clear that reporters are taking seriously some kind of inherited mental illness, in light of the FBI most-wanted list history of Paddock's father.

Several GetReligion readers have asked if investigators are checking medical records, to see if the gunman suffered from a fatal illness or even a brain tumor that might steer him into madness. The Las Vegas Review-Journal has published a story in which sources say Paddock, in June, was given a prescription for Valium, which raises questions about anxiety attacks.

Then there is the Islamic State.

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Please don't take the bait: What Pat Robertson said about Las Vegas isn't really news

Please don't take the bait: What Pat Robertson said about Las Vegas isn't really news

A headline from The Onion, of all places, went viral Monday after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

In recent years, the "'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens" story has become a staple of the satirical newspaper.

When there's a major tragedy, here's another thing you can count on: Pat Robertson opening his mouth.

So yes, Robertson weighed in on Las Vegas. Was there any doubt that he would? But is there any possibility that what he said amounted to actual news?

Probably not, as a million (only slightly exaggerating) past GetReligion posts make clear. Terry Mattingly wrote one of my favorites way back in 2005.

The good news is this: My Google news search found very few mainstream news organizations jumping on the latest Robertson quotes. But the Huffington Post — which still does some straight news reporting — was among them.

HuffPost's headline:

Pat Robertson Blames Las Vegas Massacre On ‘Disrespect’ For Donald Trump

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Roll the 'why?' dice: Waiting, waiting to learn why the Las Vegas gunman did what he did

Roll the 'why?' dice: Waiting, waiting to learn why the Las Vegas gunman did what he did

Right now, I am doing what I assume many of you are doing, especially GetReligion readers who work in news media.

I am reading everything that I can about 64-year-old Stephen Paddock and the massacre in Las Vegas and I'm waiting for the shoe to drop. It's the "why?" shoe, as in "who, what, when, where, why and how?"

As is so often the case, in this sinful and fallen world, the next shoe could have something to do with religion. Islamic State leaders have already done what they do and, in this case, that statement looks even more cynical and senseless than usual. A CBS story noted:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed ... that the man who opened fire on concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing at least 50 people, was acting on behalf of the group, but offered no evidence. ...
The statement offered no proof of a link with Paddock, nor did it identify him by name.

The next shoe to drop could be political, at which point the political content will take on cultural and perhaps even religious content. Why? Because that's the way things work in culture-wars America.

When you heard that the slaughter was in Vegas, that caused you to ponder one possible set of motives for a shooter. When you heard that the victims were at a country-music show, that triggered another set of assumptions, at least about the people being shot. That appears to have been the case for one lawyer linked to CBS -- Hayley Geftman-Gold (but not tied to the newsroom). In an update, CBS fired her.

“If they wouldn’t do anything when children were murdered I have no hope that Repugs will ever do the right thing,” wrote Geftman-Gold on Facebook. ... “I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country musica fans often are Republican gun toters.”

From his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, was Paddock shooting at conservatives? Republicans? He was a gambler, apparently. Had things gone wrong and he was simply shooting at human symbols of Las Vegas? People who stood for America, period? Why?

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Las Vegas churches love coffee, except for maybe -- hmmmm -- can you think of anybody?

Las Vegas churches love coffee, except for maybe -- hmmmm -- can you think of anybody?

It's one of those cutesy little newspaper features that is what it is.

The Las Vegas Review Journal reports that Las Vegas Valley churches take their faith — and their coffee — seriously.

If you like your ledes with plenty of cream and sugar, this will one will give you just the right jolt of "java and Jesus":

Coffee, tea and Christianity. Las Vegas Valley churches take their caffeine consumption seriously.
We're not talking about a simple pot of joe and a few cookies in a cultural hall after church. Many valley churches operate full-service coffee bars and shops with equipment and service to rival Starbucks.
From The Crossing and Central Christian to Calvary Chapel Spring Valley, coffee is a way of life before, after and even in the sanctuary during services.
At Holy Grounds, the shop inside First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Jill Smith, one of the managers, said they serve more than coffee. There are juices, fresh fruits, doughnuts, bagels and "delicious quiche."
"Our coffee shop is relaxed and gives members and visitors a comfortable place to mingle and get to know each other in a casual setting," she said. "Music is playing, and laughter is always heard. It's our fastest-growing ministry."
"It goes together — java and Jesus," said Vikki Sergio, manager of the Coffee Tree at the International Church of Las Vegas' Westcliff campus.

It's a mildly interesting trend piece, even if churches with espresso bars aren't exactly breaking news.

But as I kept reading, I kept wondering: Um, what about you know who?

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Don’t divorce an NYT article from sharp reporting

It’s especially crucial for journalists to, well, GetReligion when the story is about a “get.” That religious divorce paper — called a “get” — is important for traditional Jews, especially Jewish women. Without it, they cannot marry someone else under religious law. That gives ex-husbands a whip handle over the women — either to coax money or property out of them, or simply to spite them.

The New York Times made a brave attempt to explore the depths of Jewish law over this issue (this one has been in the GetReligion “guilt” file for a while), and the related question of how to remain faithful to it while serving the obvious needs of women. The newspaper’s in-depth article brings out some lesser-known facts, and it couches the women’s dilemma in wrenching terms. But like such marriages themselves, the story doesn’t end well.

It opens with one of those spiteful husbands, Meir Kin, showing some chutzpah in a Las Vegas wedding, although he never gave previous wife Lonna a religious divorce. He’s holding the get hostage for $500,000 and custody of their son. Observers disparage the event, but the article suggests he just may get away with it:

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