Here’s a question for GetReligion readers who live far from the D.C. Beltway.
Do you remember Chandra Levy?
Levy was, of course, the intern who went missing in the post-Clintonian atmosphere of Washington, D.C., circa 2001. The case drew the kind of cable-TV news frenzy that is so common today, especially since this particular attractive white female was — the rumors turned out to be true — having an affair with a Harrison Ford lookalike in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then her face vanished from the media, lost in the crush of 9/11 news.
This very high-profile case remains unsolved and there were all kinds of sad and puzzling delays that stalled the very flawed investigation, before and after her remains were found in the District’s scenic Rock Creek Park. After a year-long investigation, the Washington Post has turned back the pages of time — in terms of journalism style — and is publishing a massive project about Levy’s death in a series of short, dramatic articles backed with videos and blogging. In other words, this is a kind of a tabloid serial project for the digital, multi-platform age.
All of this is interesting material for classes here at the Washington Journalism Center, and I have been reading the first four installments while wearing my journalism professor hat.
But, this morning, I hit a passage that raised a GetReligion flag. This particular story by Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno focuses on the grief, confusion and anger of the young woman’s parents, Robert and Susan Levy. Each chunk of this ongoing story is told in a series of short, punch flashes of information and color. Here is the part that raised faith-based questions for me:
The crisis forced the Levys to draw on a spiritual foundation they had spent a lifetime cultivating. With bushy eyebrows, receding salt-and-pepper hair and a kind smile, Robert Levy was a gentle soul, an oncologist grounded in science but captivated by New Age philosophy and various religious beliefs. His wife, Susan, was his muse — a tall, outdoorsy woman with high cheekbones and a hearty laugh who loved to ride horses, paint and sing.
The couple met at a mixer in 1968 while they were both students at Ohio State University. Robert Levy was an ROTC graduate and microbiologist who would go on to medical school. Susan Katz was an art education major. When he started his practice, Robert could choose among several cities that needed oncologists: Zanesville, Ohio; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Las Cruces, N.M.; Richmond, Va.; and Modesto, Calif. They picked Modesto out of a baseball cap.
By the time they moved, Chandra was 4. Soon, the family added a son, Adam. Robert Levy slowly built his practice and became known as “Last Chance Bob” for his aggressive yet holistic approach to treating cancer. Sometimes, he would come home after losing a patient and cry.
As Chandra and Adam grew up, the family traveled the world: Africa and Costa Rica, Israel, Jamaica and the Galapagos Islands. The parents delved deeply into spirituality, exploring their Judaism and blending in Buddhism, Pentecostalism and Hinduism.
With Chandra gone, none of it seemed to be helping.
And all the people said, “Pentecostalism?”
I do not, of course, know what kind of background information will be added in future articles about the family’s religious beliefs and practices. That’s one of the weaknesses of serial journalism. I know that the Associated Press Stylebook does not contain an entry that offers any insight into what is and what is not “New Age philosophy.” That’s the kind of vague religious term that cries out for specific information that lets the readers decide whether the label is appropriate. Or did the Levys use the term to define their beliefs? We do not know.
I am also aware that there are more than a few people blending Judaism and Buddhism — since entire books have been written on the topic. There really are sincere believers who call themselves “JUBUs,” short for “Jewish Buddhists.” However, once again, I am not sure this is a label that the Levys would accept.
Then there is the issue of Pentecostalism — by definition, a Christian movement — showing up in this list. What spiritual activities or beliefs led to the inclusion of this loaded term in the seemingly grab-bag list of faiths attributed to this grieving couple? The reporters need to show us why these words are accurate, in the case of the Levy family.
GetReligion has some regular readers who are practicing pagans or neo-pagans, which are two other terms that journalists tend to toss about from time to time. How do you feel about the term “New Age”? Do you think it has any actual content and, if so, what are the specifics? What are the essential beliefs and rites that reporters should investigate?
The bottom line: If you were putting a “New Age” entry in the stylebook, what would you write?