LA Times honors universalism

temple3selfrealizationWe’ve got a Got News? feature here at GetReligion that highlights a well-documented story that has somehow been missed the MSM. Maybe it’s time to add a Not News feature.

My first candidate: a story from the Los Angeles Times about a gathering of the Self-Realization Fellowship, headlined “L.A. Convocation honors the world’s great religions.”

The story has no conflict and nothing new to report. It is puff journalism at its finest — I’m not sure even Barack Obama got such fluffy treatment in the run-up to the presidential election.

While reporter Duke Helfand does an exceptional job educating readers about what the followers of the late Indian swami Paramahansa Yogananda believe, the article ends up reading like it came from the Self-Realization press office.

For example:

The fellowship’s recognition of other faiths is evident in its practices: Disciples open their prayers with an invocation that mentions not only their line of gurus but also Jesus and the “saints and sages of all religions.” The fellowship’s Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades also has a “Court of Religions,” with monuments to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.

“We must recognize the unity of mankind, remembering that we are all made in the image of God,” Yogananda said during the Lake Shrine’s opening ceremony in 1950, according to an account provided by the fellowship.

And:

“It’s like spiritual medicine,” said Laura Katsanis, 58, a homemaker from San Diego. “I’m connecting with my inner self.”

And:

Patricia Anderson, meanwhile, came away from her first convocation feeling a psychic buzz.

“I have gotten grounded, calm and happy to be around a lot of people who know they’re on a path,” said Anderson, 61, of Anchorage. During the how-to-live class on moral choices, another monk, Brother Achalananda, lamented that spiritual growth had failed to keep up with the spread of material wealth, but he predicted that the world was at the beginning of a new age of greater knowledge.

He urged devotees to follow the yoga system of Pantanjali known as the “Eightfold Path.” It calls for practitioners to be truthful, content and self-disciplined as they concentrate and meditate to reach the final goal of “absoluteness,” or realizing truth beyond all intellectual understanding.

“Meditate. Love God. Serve others,” he told the gathering. “Do the best you can, and you’ll get there. God bless.”

While such universalism isn’t for me, I think it does belong in the newspaper. It’s just that I would prefer it actually include some news.

A Self-Realization Fellowship temple.

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  • Jerry

    What is news can be an interesting question. I read a story in my local paper that I found online Jakes Counsels Patience in Economic ‘Sorrows’. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=8311577

    After reading your review of the LA Times story, I could classify the Jakes piece also as a puff piece.

    But I found both stories interesting because they did NOT have the typical conflict. Instead I learned something from reading them. Maybe that’s not really news, but I’m grateful to have seen both stories.

    Assuming you disagree, Brad, I look forward to reading your reasoning about how the Jakes story is news and the one above is not.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I’d say the Jakes piece works more so because it’s really a personality profile that using global events as its news peg.

    I too appreciated the educational aspect of the Self-Realization Fellowship story. And I by no means think every story needs to have conflict — though the best stories typically have some, whether it is internal or external. But my biggest beef was the way this story, in the Los Angeles Times and not some small-town paper, read as if it had been written for the Self-Realization newsletter.

  • bob

    An article describing theological fructose corn syrup. Irresponsible not to include a dose of insulin while reading. But just what is expected of journalism talking about religious topics. Imagine box scores with no hits, runs, errors, no winner or loser. Kind of a different sports page.

  • David

    Brad,

    Such universalism isn’t “for” anyone, since it violates the law of noncontradiction.

    They obviously assume that the claims of no religion are objectively true, but they don’t think they’re wrong, or are even an issue of true or false. In other words, they respect religion even less than the New Atheists.

    I’d take Christopher Hitchens over them any day.

    And no, this isn’t news, because such a non-perspective is dominant in our culture. They should at least mentions that members of most of those religions might object.

  • Jerry

    Brad, I think that’s a fair distinction you drew between the articles. But I don’t agree that the best stories necessarily need to have some conflict. I personally would define the best to be a story which is accurate and balanced and which puts events into a larger context. If conflict is part of the story, that’s fine, but I would not define conflict as an a priori necessity.

  • http://bobbyrossjr.com Bobby Ross

    To me, this particular story seems like a harmless little feature — and a well-written, informative one at that.

    I often agree with Get Religion’s posts on the L.A. Times, but in this case, that paper did a relatively short story about an obscure religious group holding a world convention with 2,000 people in its home city. Hard for me to find fault with that.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t Get Religion advocated reporters getting out of the way and letting people of faith tell their own stories (a la “It’s like spiritual medicine. I’m connecting with my inner self.”)? Is that quote really “puff journalism” or is it a succinct quote that gives readers a bit of insight into that religion’s followers? Perhaps if this is an in-depth investigative piece, the reporter has time to come up with a better quote. But on a daily story probably reported and written under deadline pressure, I can live with that quote.

    The rant about this particular piece just strikes me as much ado about nothing. Speaking of “Not News,” are there no bigger fish in the world of religion reporting for Get Religion to fry?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I couldn’t agree more that reporters need to get out of the way and let people tell their stories, but that doesn’t mean they should turn their newspaper into the (fill in the blank) house organ.

    This article probably wouldn’t have struck such a nerve with me if, in fact, it hadn’t been from my hometown paper. Sadly, since Stephanie Simon left for the Wall St Journal and Bill Lobdell moved on, this is about as in-depth as religion reporting gets at the Times. A rare exception was this excellent story from Teresa Watanabe — of doubting Exodus fame — about the under-fire pastor of First AME.

  • Bern

    Local event draws 2000 people. Local reporter reviews press materials, attends (in part), asks a question or two, takes a note or two, leaves, files (bland) story. Does such an assignment really require seeking out comment from those that didn’t/wouldn’t attend? Mostly, I think it’s just August: typical fill-in-the-blank time at traditional media.

  • http://bobbyrossjr.com Bobby Ross

    The story on the under-fire pastor is excellent, but arguably, the self-realization story provides more religious insight. Except for a “God quote” sprinkled here and there, the investigative piece about the pastor could be about a leadership furor at a private school with no religious ties. At least the self-realization story takes you to a worship service and gives you a bit of insight. I would have loved some detail in the AME story about what it’s like on Sunday morning when all these feuding parties get together and perhaps some confirmation (or not) of the alleged 3,000 new souls brought to Jesus during the pastor’s tenure.

    But I’m swatting gnats. I feel your pain on the demise of religion reporting in your hometown paper. I still miss the Saturday religion section in The Dallas Morning News, back in the days when they had three or four top-notch, full-time religion writers. Of course, I live in Oklahoma City and don’t know that they even sell the Morning News this far out anymore.

  • Dave

    Brad:

    It was my strong impression for years that, at least in the case of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, religion news was all but captive to church press releases. The religion page (back when there was one) seemed to be almost as far in hock to the institutions that it supposedly covered as the automotive section. The occasional exception was a religious column from a syndicated source (like Terry Mattingly). But in the mechanics of the newsroom that was another external text to be fit between the ads.

    This story is quite in the same line, but it doesn’t reflect the press not getting religion. It reflects the press getting religion superficially. Not news.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Anders and DavidJ,
    The purpose of this site is to discuss the way the news media covers religion, not to debate the coming of the Messiah. This is why your comments have been removed.