Is it a news story if a church is set on fire or vandalized in some other way? What about if it’s part of a string of incidents? What if it happens five times? How about 10 times?
What if there are flames pouring out of one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals and it’s Monday of Holy Week?
We will come back to the flames over Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in a moment.
The answers to the earlier questions are yes, yes, yes, yes and, of course, yes! As someone who worked as a news reporter (and later a editor) at two major metropolitan dailies (at the New York Post and New York Daily News) and a major news network website (ABC News), I can tell you that any suspicion of arson at a house of worship, for example, is a major story.
It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.
That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.
This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.
It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.
There will be more to come on the Notre Dame story in the hours and days that follow and comes at the start of Holy Week, the most solemn time on the Christian calendar.
But back to my questions about the earlier string of fires and the lack of coverage.