sects

Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

Hey New York Times: Why visit the 'Old Believers' in Alaska and then ignore what they believe?

It was hard to find any relevant art to accompany this post about the recent New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Football Among the Old Believers, in Alaska."

That's a compliment. This was a really unique subject for a news story.

I couldn't run the Times art, of course, because it's brand new and under copyright (and the newspaper didn't post a YouTube feature about the piece, as news organizations often do). The subject matter was so strange and specific that it was hard to find other art that combined the various subjects at the heart of the story. I mean, look at the second part of the double-decker headline:

Keeping a high school football team together is tough, between a Russian Orthodox sect leery of the outside world and the chores of life in an isolated village.

So we have high-school football, way up north, in a village that's home to a very specific "sect" -- I would have said "splinter group" -- linked to the Russian Orthodox faith that is a crucial part of the history of Alaska. Remote? We're talking 50 or 60 families on the Kenai Peninsula 200-plus miles south of Anchorage.

It's a classic old-faith wrestles with modernity tale, the kind of semi-National Geographic feature often written after a visit to Amish country.

What is missing? The whole point is that these people practice a bizarre faith that makes it hard to do "normal things" -- like play football -- in the "real" world. Readers are shown many symbolic details that illustrate what that looks like. The problem is that the Times team all but ignored the contents of the faith that defines these lives. It's like reading a sociological report about monks that ignores their prayers and worship. Imagine a story about members of the New York Philharmonic that ignores their love of music.

Here is the overture:

VOZNESENKA, Alaska -- The football players wore their black and yellow jerseys to class last Friday, a day before the home opener for Voznesenka School, the smallest high school in Alaska to field a team.
But a game required at least 11 players. And so far at practice this summer, the Cougars had fielded no more than 10.

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CNN offers fine look at Prince the believer (while missing a key Jehovah's Witness belief)

CNN offers fine look at Prince the believer (while missing a key Jehovah's Witness belief)

It is perfectly normal for mainstream journalists to have to explain complicated subjects to their readers. It's part of the job.

At the moment, political reporters are trying to explain the differences between country-club Republicans, libertarian Republicans, neoconservative Republicans, Log Cabin Republicans, culturally conservative Republicans and Donald Trump. This is tough work. A few years ago I read a newspaper story that managed to explain the off-sides rule in soccer. Amazing!

But when it comes to stories that involve religious doctrine, journalists often stumble or punt. How many solid articles have you seen that explained the crucial doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

This brings me to two news features about the final years of Prince, the time in which he retreated even further from public view after joining the Jehovah's Witnesses. CNN offered a fine piece, but omitted a crucial piece of doctrine at the heart of controversies about this religious movement, which many Christians consider a sect or even -- in doctrinal terms -- a cult. The Los Angeles Times, however, managed to give readers a short description of this doctrinal clash.

The CNN piece was quite solid in its fine details about the singer and the believers who knew him as another believer in their flock. Here is the overture:

(CNN) The world knew Prince as a pop star with a flamboyant, larger-than-life stage presence, overtly sexual songs and videos and gifted musical genius. But at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, St. Louis Park congregation, Prince was just an understated man in a simple black suit.
"He was exceptionally shy," recalled congregation secretary Bruce McFarland.
Here they called him Brother Nelson and remember him slipping in after the opening song in the Sunday morning service, dutifully holding up his hand, clutching his Bible marked with post-it notes, patiently waiting his turn to discuss the Scripture.

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