LAT: Replacing reporting with boostering

There are puff pieces and then there are puff pieces. But this Saturday Beliefs article from the Los Angeles Times borders on well-disguised press release.

I hate to pick on the same religion reporter, but LA is my hometown, and this article was clearly written without any independent reporting or even thought.

The subject for the story was interesting: Photographer Rick Nahmias has published a new book of photos about what he sees as marginalized folks of faith. From the Website for “Golden States of Grace“:

“Golden States of Grace: Prayers for the Disinherited” aims to give image and voice to some of these groups, people who, because of the world, society, or themselves, have been all but silenced.

These people include Jewish drug addicts at Beit T’Shuvah, who actually have a voice; Mexican sex workers; deaf Mormons. To which LAT religion reporter Mitchell Landsberg wrote in “Finding the faith that links disparate Californians“:

Nahmias found that all of these disparate Californians shared a sense of spirituality that infused and helped define their lives. As he spent time with them, he said he found “stories of dignity and stories of people going against the grain.” …

Throughout, Nahmias has interwoven commentary and prayers from the subjects of the photographs. He intentionally placed prayers from one group next to photographs of another; a way, he said, of emphasizing the universal nature of religion.

Maybe “faith” was the wrong word. I think the word the headline writer was looking for was “spirituality” or simply “worldview.” In other words: Religion is religion — just variations of the same unifying concept.

Of course, Landsberg isn’t saying he believes that. Nor would I have a problem with a religion reporter who did — assuming they still curiously and sincerely approached their subjects.

The problem is that this story relies almost entirely on Nahmias’ perspective. There is no effort to talk with, say, a religious studies professor about just how intertwined different — even marginal — religious communities are.

Only one comment comes from someone other than Nahmias. It was from a Catholic nun who showed slides of the book to inmates she works with at the California Institution for Women:

“As they looked at all these groups, their reflection was, ‘Oh my, we’re all one, it’s the spirituality that unites us,’” she said. “You know, people fight over their religions, but spirituality is [uniting]. So if you dig deep enough, you’re going to find the common wellspring where we’re all one, all in need of the sacred. Whatever it is for you, it may be different than it is for me, but we’re all in need of it. So it was pretty powerful.”

In other words: generic spirituality unites, religion divides. We’re all universalists now.

That may be Nahmias’ perspective. And I’m not saying a reporter needs to criticize it. But they shouldn’t just parrot it.

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  • gfe

    Most of us who have been reporters for any length of time have written the occasional puff piece about a local author who has published a book or that sort of thing. I’m not sure that’s necessarily bad; in the real world, sometimes it’s better to do a perfunctory story about something rather than nothing at all. I don’t think it’s necessary in every article to go into opposing points of view or turn a simple article into philosophical debate.

    What’s strange about this story, though, is that it reads exactly like a well-done press release. I can’t even tell for sure that the reporter talked with the subject of the story. For all I can tell, everything in the article could have come from the book liner or the foreword. It’s not even clear that the reporter talked with the nun in the story; it sounds like a quote that could have come from the publisher’s PR person.

  • Brad A. Greenberg


  • Dave

    When did “booster” become a verb?

  • Ivan Wolfe

    I think comment #1 has it and the initial post has it wrong. It’s not “well disguised” at all, though it is “well done.” I would call it a poorly disguised, if well written, press release.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Certainly before last night.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I highly doubt many of the deaf Mormons would appreciate his manipulation of their words.

    This is not giving a voice to the voiceless, but using the marginalized as tools to advance ones own philosophy. Deaf Mormons would proclaim Jesus Christ is the only way to Salvation. They would proclaim that a man must be born of water, that is baptized by one having proper priesthood authority, and that proper priesthood authority must be that traced back to Peter, James and John confering the priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

    Most importantly, a prayer of a deaf Mormon would always and invariably close in the name of Jesus Christ. A prayer of any Jew, at least by most definitions of Jews, would not do so.

    Thus we have the fact that we have two groups where neither would ever give the prayer of the other.

    In fact this reminds me of the story I once heard from the president of the LDS Detroit Michigan Temple. He mentioned he was at a wedding, I want to say it was Catholic, and he was asked to give a prayer. He did so and afterward many people complimented him on it. At some point one person said “it is quiet impressive that at your age you could remember such a long prayer”. He realized then that what he thought of as prayer and what these others did was totally different. He had not memorized the prayer, but said it spontaneously as he went along.

    Thus, to act as if people in one religion can be arbitrarily paired with prayers said by those in another religion is just dishonest. It is not just the words of prayer that change, but the function, meaning, purpose and method.