Problems with parachuting into AFA

Air Force Thunderbirds Aerial Demonstration

Remember that reporter vice I discussed last week? If you need a refresher: Reporters and people and people are prone to temptation and maybe the greatest temptation of a reporter on deadline for a story they aren’t married to is to rely, often over-rely, on previously quoted experts.

This is the way little-known academics or think-tank folks or advocacy organizations become go-to sources. That’s not to say sometimes the reputation isn’t deserved; in many cases it is. But even when it is deserved, there is a dearth of voices that begins to appear over the life cycle of a newsworthy story.

This appears to not be an issue for Lance Benzel, a reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette. The proof is in the pudding. The pudding is Benzel’s version of the story about the Pagan worship site at the Air Force Academy, which was the impetus for my previous reporter-vice post.

The article is short and sweet, but does what’s necessary. Benzel includes a great detail about the design of the cross, which was made with two railroad ties, and, more importantly, revealed facts that all his competitors at the big papers, the folks who parachuted in, missed. For example:

Wiccans, pagans and other followers of Earth-centered religions have been active on campus for at least a decade, and are now among 14 religious groups recognized under a program that sets aside time for cadets to worship on their own, said cadet wing chaplain Lt. Col. William Ziegler III.

“We’re here to serve as caretakers to support every cadet’s religious freedoms,” Ziegler said of Special Programs in Religious Education, or SPIRE.

Really? Every story I read suggested that if it ain’t evangelical, then it ain’t welcome at the Air Force Academy.

Benzel, like the AP and unlike the Los Angeles Times, also talks with the lay leader of the AFA’s Pagan group, Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier. (I’m still shocked Longcrier didn’t make it into the LAT piece.) And, shocker, no mention of Mikey Weinstein here, though Benzel still — miraculously — managed to mention the sentiment that the academy did not take the cross incident seriously enough.

Longcrier charged the academy downplayed his Jan. 17 complaint about the incident, which he called a hate crime.

Unlike in the LAT article, this allegation wasn’t in the lede and wasn’t overemphasized, and no part of Benzel’s reportage felt like it was based on a press release. All in all, well played.

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  • Judy Harrow

    Really? Every story I read suggested that if it ain’t evangelical, then it ain’t welcome at the Air Force Academy.

    Actually, what we have here is some (thankfully) obsolete information. Just a couple of years ago, there was major scandal at the Air Force Academy about one particular form of Christianity being shoved down cadets’ throats. Thsi included stuff like religious pamphlets at their places in the dining hall.

    Worse, it fostered an atmosphere in which it was OK for cadets who held those partocular beliefs to harass other cadets who did not. Weinstein’s sons were cadets at the time, and one of them blew the whistle — which is how Weinstein got involved in the first place.

    Here’s a reference to the investigation of these First Amendment violations. It’s rather shocking that something like this transpired as recently as 2005. But the good news is that the AFA administration now seems to be serious about freedom of religion, as they should, since they are under oath to uphold the Constitution. The erection of the stone circle shows that they actually mean it.

    I suspect that the desecration of the circle was a sort of holdover from the former situation. Cultural change takes a while. However, the grapevine tells me that the incident is being appropriately investigated and, hopefully, appropriate disciplinary action will follow in due course.

  • dalea

    Brad says:

    Benzel, like the AP and unlike the Los Angeles Times, also talks with the lay leader of the AFA’s Pagan group, Tech. Sgt. Brandon Longcrier. (I’m still shocked Longcrier didn’t make it into the LAT piece.)

    Pagans do not have a system of ordained clergy, so technically all the people involved are lay. Pagans have a system of initiations which do not have any necessary connection to what looks, from the outside, to be a clergy. Since so much of Paganism is tied to the seasons, the clergy at any given ceremony would be chosen more by age: at a solemn service like Samhain, the elders officiate. At a playfull ceremony, young people officiate. Years ago, I would Priest at Oimel, Spring Solstice and Beltane. Now I do Lammas, Mabon and Samhain.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, dalea

    You are correct that Wicca does not make a great big distinction between clergy and laity, although other Pagan groups certainly do.

    However, the military has their own designating system. There are people they call “Distinctive Faith Group Liaisons.” These are volunteers who, in addition to their regular military work assignments, organize worship and study for their own faith group. Part of their job is to communicate with the Chaplain about things like reserving space for meetings and requesting needed supplies. Many of them also represent their faith group at local interfaith councils (although I’m not sure what the proper military term for these councils is). These volunteers lead worship, teach classes, counsel military members and families on spiritual issues and more.

    DFGLs must be sponsored by what the military calls “Ecclesiastical Sponsoring Organizations.” These groups have to be properly qualified and registered with the military before they can sponsor DFGLs. So DFGLs are not exactly clergy, but they do some of what ordained clergy do. In my opinion, “lay leader” is really not a bad civilian term for a DFGL.

    Brandon Longcrier is in fact the Pagan DFGL at the Academy.

  • dalea

    Hi Judy,

    I stand corrected. My experience has been that other Pagan groups have arrangements very like Wicca with a group of people who are usually in charge but had not realized that this extended to having a distinct clergy.

    In my opinion, “lay leader” is really not a bad civilian term for a DFGL.

    While it may be a good civilian term I am not so sure that is is a good religion reporting term. From what I have seen in the press, there is a lazy tendency to try and explain all religions in a Christian framework. Stories about salvation in Buddhism, Judaic Biblical innerancy, and Pagan clergy all are shoving very different systems into a mold that is a bad fit. I prefer that religions be reported on in their own terms, not those of another religion.

  • Sarenth

    Within Paganism and even within Wicca there is a distinction often made between those who are initiated, and those who are law-defined clergy. Some initiated may act as priests, but there are indeed clergy within Paganism’s ranks, and the particulars of what is required to be one differs Tradition to Tradition, and perhaps state to state depending on requirements.

    In regards to the journalism, I would have liked more open exposure about this with full quotes from the parties interested in this case.

  • Judy Harrow

    I dunno, dalea (and I’m beginning to wonder whether we’re maybe trying other folks’ patience by discussing this here).

    Part of me emphatically agrees with you that describing any one religion using the categories and vocabulary of any other tends to distort perception.

    On the other hand, this is a Christian-majority country, and I suspect it’s easier for many readers to understand Paganism if they can use familiar categories. “Lay leader” is not a horribly inaccurate term for a military DFGL, and mutual understanding is surely for the good of all.

    Plus, there’s been plenty of explanation from the actual working journalists here about the limitations of time and space under which they must operate. So I really think we should appreciate all fair-minded attempts to understand and describe contemporary Paganism, rather than nit-picking them. What’s that old saying about not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good?