Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

It's not often a news story or feature geared toward the general public mentions the indigenous Chinese religion known in the West as Taoism (also spelled Daoism), but The New York Times managed to produce one last week. So how’d America’s newspaper of record do?

Let’s call it a less than “A” effort. But it did expose the difficulties that Western news media tend to encounter when trying to explain Eastern traditions that view religious beliefs through an entirely different lens — which is why it merits a GetReligion post.

I'll say more about that later. But first let’s deal with the merits of this particular Times story. Please read it in full to better follow my reasoning.

The focus was the impact that organized religion -- China’s traditional faith movements, in particular -- are contributing to the nation’s newfound emphasis on environmental awareness. Taoism, in the form of a $17.7-million “eco-friendly” temple located on a “sacred site” named Mao Mountain, provided the anecdotal lede.

The piece itself only superficially sought to explain Taoist beliefs and their role in contemporary Chinese society. It utterly failed to address questions such as, what’s the justification for a $17.7-million temple when Taoist philosophy has a clear emphasis on the virtue of simple living?

(One thing Eastern and Western religions apparently share is the human affliction we’ll refer to as the edifice complex — also known in some American Buddhist circles as “spiritual materialism.” Ah, but that’s a post for another time.)

Nor does the Times story break new ground -- but how many news features actually do?

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Oregon's homeless: The Eugene Register-Guard doesn't explore why many people help out

Oregon's homeless: The Eugene Register-Guard doesn't explore why many people help out

Oregon’s second-largest city, Eugene, is located in a bucolic part of the state along Interstate-5. Set against low mountains, it is only an hour from the state’s legendary beaches and rocky coast. Its temperate climate has also attracted a problem that’s plaguing the entire West Coast: Rampant homelessness. The local police chief says the scene in Eugene is the worst he’s ever seen

Its largest newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard, just got lauded by the Poynter Institute for its ongoing editorial project on homelessness. The reason this caught my eye is that the Register-Guard is one of the most religion-free newspapers I’ve ever seen. And that's saying a lot in the Pacific Northwest where the religion coverage everywhere is pretty sparse. 

But with homelessness, I thought, they can’t avoid the faith element, can they? How about the 60-year-old Eugene Mission, which has a long track record of helping the homeless? Or how of all the helping-the-homeless groups in Eugene, two have connections to the Catholic Church?

But avoid it they have. On Feb. 12, the newspaper said in an editorial: 

Our goal in this project is to highlight efforts locally and elsewhere that are proving successful, examine what it will take to improve and expand those efforts, and to identify how local organizations can work more efficiently and collaboratively to close gaps in the system. The editorial page coverage will be supplemented by periodic Register-Guard news articles on the issue. And because this project will be a journey for all of us, we’ll adjust plans along the way.

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Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Sharing a few big ideas in a long goodbye

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Sharing a few big ideas in a long goodbye

How do you telescope nearly 20 years of a show about religion into an hour or two?

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the PBS news magazine that made television religion-coverage history, announced late last year that it was ending its long run in mid-February of this year. It used its last two episodes to sum up the changes and trends the show has covered since its debut in September 1997.

Meanwhile, erstwhile funder, the Lilly Endowment, is sinking its money into another venture involving religion and ethics. More on that in a moment.

R&EN took awhile to wrap up what’s been an impressive haul of stories. Here’s a show that sent correspondents to cover the faith community’s help in cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina; the work of Catholic Relief Services after the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of southeast Asia and the deaths and elections of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis.

Their Rome coverage alone was amazing considering they had not nearly the budget nor personnel as did the larger TV networks.

This month, the show’s correspondents each focused on a different aspect of the show’s coverage as well as which of the many things they covered still stands out. Judy Valente chose programs on America’s poor

JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: In my years reporting for Religion & Ethics, I interviewed many people who not only had compelling stories to tell, but ended up deeply touching my own life. One of those unforgettable people lived in tiny Pine Apple, Alabama, a place so poor many residents still get their water from outdoor spigots. Dr. Roseanne Cook cared for the poorest of Pine Apple’s poor. Not known to most of her patients, she also happens to be a Sister of St. Joseph, a Catholic nun. She told one story I will never forget, about being robbed on a secluded road.

Kim Lawton focused on the show’s interfaith coverage and the growth of the “nones.”

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Religion news on TV: A not-quite post mortem on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

Religion news on TV: A not-quite post mortem on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

Late last year, a story broke about the impending demise of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the almost 20-year-old PBS show that is unique in American journalism. No other network has mounted such an ambitious effort to cover faith and ethics with Washington-based talent and staff.

Those of us on the religion beat were amazed when the show began in September 1997. Imagine, a TV news magazine about ethics (unheard of) and religion (nearly unheard of). Instead of the obnoxious religious TV that constantly hit you up for contributions, R&E had enough funding from the Lilly Endowment to keep those telephones quiet. WNET, whose head office is in New York, produced the show and PBS distributed it.

It also had star power behind it in the person of Bob Abernethy, a widely traveled NBC news correspondent who in his retirement years (age 69) started the show. The show set up shop in offices on H Street, borrowed studio space from Reuters and took off.

Religion News Service told us how it’s all ending two decades later:

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After that devastating flooding in Louisiana, there's hope — but apparently no faith

After that devastating flooding in Louisiana, there's hope — but apparently no faith

In the wake of the Louisiana flooding, a number of my Facebook friends posted about that Deep South state's heroic people coming together and showing their resiliency amid a major disaster.

But here's what I was curious about: how to mesh that totally appropriate narrative with the recent racial protests and violence in that same state.

I wanted to see journalists explore the big picture in Louisiana.

So here's the good news: The Washington Post did exactly that in an 1,800-word takeout on Sunday's front page. Well, sort of.

And that segues to the bad news: The more I read, the more something seemed to be missing. Something big. Something that just might have to do with all those evangelical Christians and Catholics who make up such a large proportion of Louisiana's population. 

Holy ghosts, anyone?

Let me share the crux of the Post story — dateline Baton Rouge — and then explain what I mean:

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Flashback 2015: New Religion News Service editor goes global (PBS looks to 2016)

Flashback 2015: New Religion News Service editor goes global (PBS looks to 2016)

So we know how the Religion Newswriters Association poll viewed the Top 10 news stories of the year (commentary here and "Crossroads" podcast here). The original RNA press release is right here. So what did other mainstream religion-news outlets have to say?

I will let veteran reporter Kim Lawton and a panel of experts at the PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly broadcast speak for themselves. The video is up top and the transcript is here.

So how does the broadcast open? Well, it's about 2015, so I'm afraid that we are talking ISIS, terrorism, refugees and Donald Trump. And then Pope Francis.

Over at Religion News Service, Jerome Socolovsky -- the wire service's the new editor -- offered a list of what he billed as the "most consequential religion stories of the past year."

I think that is "consequential" in the sense of "important or significant," as opposed to "self-important; conceited." All I know is that this is a very thoughtful and well-developed list and I recommend it highly, especially if you are interested in the global angle on religion news over the past year. In particular, I thought the wording on the No. 1 item is especially strong:

ISIS and the lure of the apocalypse

We had already been introduced to the unspeakable cruelty of this group called the Islamic State, or Daesh in Arabic. And it continued this year: Coptic Christians were slaughtered on a Libyan beach in an act shown to the world in high-definition video.

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Religion & Ethics Newsweekly punts on Zaytuna College coverage

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly punts on Zaytuna College coverage

I’ve been following Religion & Ethics Newsweekly since its inception nearly 20 years ago as only TV news magazine totally devoted to religion. Over that time period, this show has won a ton of awards and the members of the team have done yeoman reporting on far scantier budgets than what any of the Big 3 networks operate on. Their broadcasts are carried on PBS stations.

Thus, I was interested in a recent piece they had on Zaytuna College, the only Islamic liberal arts institution in the United States.

You see, about 12 years ago, I was assigned a series by the Washington Times on the phenomena of fast-growing conservative religious institutions in academia and I scouted around for a Muslim example. But in 2003, there was nothing out there. Today there is.

However, the piece in R&E seemed short on any critical perspective. Instead, it felt like some very timely PR in the light of recent Muslim-inspired terrorism only a few hundred miles from the campus. Here’s the beginning of the transcript of the 8 ½ -minute segment:

LUCKY SEVERSON, correspondent: This is Zaytuna College, located on what is called Holy Hill in Berkeley, California. It’s unique because Zaytuna is the very first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States, and one of the few in the world. Zaytuna was cofounded 5 years ago by internationally acclaimed Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf.

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Religion journalists save the day for young scribes

Last night I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion for The Fund for American Studies’ Institute on Political Journalism. This summer program gives students internships at media organizations, coursework in politics and economics, and other features (such as mentors to guide you as you start your career).

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The soul in Dave Brubeck's jazz

Jazz great Dave Brubeck died yesterday, a day before his 92nd birthday.  Along with much of the rest of the world, I was a fan. I have a sizeable record collection and found you could hardly go wrong with a Brubeck LP. I was curious how the obituaries would handle his sacred compositions and his religious life — including his reception into the Catholic Church.

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