Newhouse

How can scribes capture Billy Graham's giant, complex life in newsprint? This will take time

How can scribes capture Billy Graham's giant, complex life in newsprint? This will take time

Back in the early 1980s, I sat in a meeting at The Charlotte Observer in which we discussed how the Rev. Billy Graham's hometown newspaper would handle his death. After all, he wasn't that far from the time when ordinary people start talking about retirement.

Graham, however, wasn't "ordinary people" especially in a town with a major road called the Billy Graham Parkway. The Observer team needed a plan. 

How do you sum up Graham's giant, complex, sprawling life in a few paragraphs? Try to imagine being the Associated Press pro who had to come up with the first bulletin that moved when the world's most famous evangelist died early Wednesday morning. Here is that story in its entirety:

The Rev. Billy Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died.
Spokesman Mark DeMoss says Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina on Wednesday morning. He was 99.
Graham reached more than 200 million through his appearances and millions more through his pioneering use of television and radio. Unlike many traditional evangelists, he abandoned narrow fundamentalism to engage broader society.

The priorities there seem solid, to me. The AP, of course, quickly released a full-length obituary.

As you would expect, there were stumbles in other newsrooms -- some of them almost Freudian. Consider the opening of the Graham obituary at The Daily Beast:

The Rev. Billy Graham, an evangelist preacher who changed American politics, has died at the age of 99. ...

Uh, no.

There were also some struggles to grasp the precise meanings of key religious words. For example, Graham was often called "America's pastor," but he spent very, very little time as a pastor, in terms of leading a congregation. There were some struggles, as always, with variations on words such as "evangelist," "evangelical" and "evangelizing." Was Graham a "fundamentalist"? The true fundamentalists would certainly say "no."

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Atheists sue after New Jersey shelter's 'blessing of animals' by generic religious order

Atheists sue after New Jersey shelter's 'blessing of animals' by generic religious order

On the face of it, the group American Atheists would appear to have a clear case: A cleric came to a county-funded animal shelter in northern New Jersey not once, but at least two years in a row, to "bless" animals in the shelter's care.

That's not the "blessing of the animals" we see in churches across the country, as exemplified by the video above.

But is this the kind of separation of church and state issue that rises to the level of the 1963 Supreme Court Abington School District v. Schempp Bible-readings-in-school decision, from which the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded the group? Who, exactly, is the religious group behind the blessings? Does it matter from a #journalism perspective? And why are there some important religion facts missing from this report?

I'll get to that first question in a moment. Let's first see what NJ.com, the Newhouse newspaper chain's Garden State website, has to say about how the "Atheists sue to stop blessing of shelter animals" began: 

A New Jersey atheist group best known for its national billboard campaign against Christmas now has its hackles up over an event that it calls unconstitutional -- the annual blessing of the animals at the Bergen County Animal Shelter.
The group, American Atheists Inc. of Cranford, claims in a federal lawsuit that the Teterboro shelter's event, in which animals are blessed by a Franciscan reverend, violates the First and 14th amendments.
It seeks an injunction against the county's participation, as well as legal fees. Bergen County, the shelter and its director, Deborah Yankow, are named in the suit.
Photographs of the events on the shelter's Facebook page show Reverend Kenneth Reihl of the Franciscan Order of the Divine Mercy in North Arlington blessing small animals, from "Bugsy the Bunny" to "Pittie puppy Petunia."

Now, the question of prayer and blessings in public spaces is a long-debated one, to be sure. But there's no law of which I'm aware that prevents me (or you) from walking into a public building, even a government-funded animal shelter, and offering a prayer for those homeless animals needing care.

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