iPad publication meets the Amish

The journalism world is abuzz over the launch of Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily, the first publication “built from scratch” for the iPad. The Poynter Institute’s Damon Kiesow suggests that it’s “too early to pass any judgment on the content.”

Already, though, one story in particular has prompted a popular Big Apple website called The Awl to declare:

The Daily really is the New York Post goes to college

Conveniently enough for your GetReligionistas, the story at issue has a strong religion angle. Here’s what The Awl (a site featured by The New York Times back in October) had to say today:

As you know if you have been near the Internet, everyone is discussing The Daily. … The reviews are … all over the place. There is love! There is hate! I have not yet truly indulged but I have been reading some of their web-published stories, such as this very unusual feature: “AMISH SMUGGLERS’ SHADY MILK RUN”! It’s very bizarre stylistically. It has the short paragraphs and quirks of the Post–it opens with an “intriguing” and cloudy scene: a mysterious man delivers “contraband” to Manhattan! Oh gosh! But “he wasn’t selling them anything they planned to smoke, snort or inject.” No it’s just raw milk. Then come the government stats about this public health menace, and then a rather stilted scene back in Amish country with a “leading raw milk advocate.”

And then, at the end, our intrepid correspondent says that he will try some of the raw milk, despite his “very serious reservations.” And then he doesn’t tell us how it was!

Very rude.

Now, before I give my own assessment of this piece, let me agree with one part of The Awl’s analysis. I, too, was disappointed that the writer left that big question hanging: What did he think of the raw milk?

Seriously, though, I’m more concerned about the religion ghosts that haunt this 1,300-word report.

The tabloid approach aside, I found the subject matter fascinating. This was the first I had read about a dispute between the Amish and the federal government over raw milk, although a bit of Googling quickly revealed previous reports by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Daily News, just to name a few.

Early in The Daily story, we learn this about the man with a “black-brimmed country hat, suspenders and an Amish beard” featured in the lede:

Samuel is part of a shadowy community of outlaw Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers who risk fines, loss of equipment and product, and even imprisonment to transport raw milk across state lines and satisfy a burgeoning appetite for illegal raw milk in places like New York. In January, The Daily rode along on one of these smuggling runs.

Unpasteurized milk is increasingly popular among foodies and health nuts for both its taste and its supposed nutritional benefits. But government authorities take a hard line, warning that unpasteurized milk may contain salmonella, E. coli and bacteria that can lead to typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

“Raw milk is inherently dangerous and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose,” says the Food and Drug Administration.

A shadowy community of outlaw Amish and Mennonite dairy farmers. Who wants to help me write the pilot for that sitcom? Just kidding …

Before I focus on the religion angle, I can’t resist questioning the general premise of the story: Where are the concrete numbers to back up claims of a burgeoning appetite for illegal raw milk — or as it’s described later — the growing number of raw-milk fans? Where are the specific stats to confirm the unattributed claims of a small but growing number of devotees and the description of raw milk as increasingly popular among foodies and health nuts. This report provides none of those details.

From a religion perspective, the key question would seem to be this: How does Samuel — and the other “smugglers” interviewed — balance apparently deep religious beliefs with an obvious willingness to break federal law?

The Daily scratches at that issue, but not hard enough:

When he brings a shipment of illegal milk to New York, Samuel has more than 140 customers waiting for him, ready to pay $6 a gallon.

Samuel’s smuggling run started in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, where his family farm is located. As Amish doctrine prohibits him from operating an automobile, he paid a non-Amish person to drive.

The final destination was an unmarked converted factory on the eastern edge of Chelsea. Upstairs, the milk deals went down in an unadorned room teeming with a crowd similar to what one might find at a Michael Pollan book signing.

Samuel is well-aware that he’s breaking the law.

OK … he won’t drive a car, but he’ll break federal law? Why? How does smuggling raw milk fit with his personal values? The story doesn’t say.

Isaac, another Amish farmer who agreed to be interviewed if the publication kept his identity confidential, offers this perspective:

For Isaac, the issues are cultural. When it comes to dairy farming, becoming a smuggler was the only way to maintain a pure, Amish way of life. “I want my family on the farm,” he said. “I don’t want them out in the world.”

He wouldn’t be able to make ends meet in his traditional dairy operation if he was operating above board, he said. “We have church restrictions, and our people are losing that because of the way modern dairy farming is being done.”

He wondered aloud why the state won’t let him pursue his preferred way of life.

But what does his religion say about breaking the law? Would God approve of what he’s doing? The story fails to tackle such basic questions.

From a GetReligion standpoint, The Daily is off to a shaky start: too much milk and too little meat.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Kell Brigan

    Actually, I think the foodies like raw milk because you can leave it out overnight and turn it into creme fraiche…

  • Passing By

    But what does his religion say about breaking the law?

    Funny you should ask, because just last night I was reading from here

    In Sapientiae Christianae, Leo (Pope Leo XIII) defines the duties of Catholics in civil society that are more basic and thus even more important than those described in his more famous encyclical (Rerum Novarum). He emphasizes that Catholics need to obey God, even if that brings them into conflict with civil authority. If civil law clearly contradicts divine law, “then, truly, to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime.”

    One supposes that something like that could have been written by Ghandi or Martin Luther King.

  • Passing By

    Sorry, I should have read more carefully and not just addressed your question. Of course, that’s a worthy discussion and it would be interesting to know more about Amish theology in general. You can read a little bit here. Unfortunately, The Handbook which contains their confession and tracts about their religious life doesn’t seem to be online.

  • joye

    The Anabaptist traditions have a long, long history of hostility to government, right from the Peasants’ War in the 1520s. There are many things that the Amish do in this country that aren’t breaking the law only because the government gave the Amish an exception:
    1. Not attending school past 8th grade
    2. Not paying into social security
    And so on. The key thing to remember here is that the Amish made it clear that they wouldn’t obey the law if there was a law, and the government decided, basically, that the Amish are such a large and otherwise low-maintenance group that giving them the exception was better than the hassle. It was not worth it to the government to put all the Amish in jail for refusing to pay Social Security or send their children to high school.

    However I know all of this because I grew up in “Amish country” though I am not myself Amish. I agree that this kind of background belonged in the article. At least a few sentences saying that the Amish have traditionally been very broad with the “unjust law is no law” idea.

  • kristy

    The raw milk controversy is big news on the local front here in Central Wisconsin. Both Amish and dairy stories are ongoing local news. I, too, wonder about how breaking the law and possibly making people sick (and yes, you can get very sick from unpasturized milk) is handled by the Amish folks out East, and was disappointed that more pointed questions on that topic weren’t raised.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    kristy, Any good links of coverage there in Central Wisconsin concerning the Amish and raw milk?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    As a raw milk lover (if it was good enough formy grandparents…) I can only rejoice upon reading that the Amish have joined the battle!

  • Martha

    ““Raw milk is inherently dangerous and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose,” says the Food and Drug Administration.”

    This makes me feel, for the first time in my life, like an exciting rebel outsider. Move over Marlon Brando and James Dean! Who knew that, as kids drinking out of the churn before the milk lorry collected it for the creamery, that we were indulging in dangerous contraband? :-)

    Ah, it’s Rupert Murdoch. What did anyone really expect? He established his presence in Britain by taking over “The Sun” and immediately turning it into a sex’n'sensation rag (he had already purchased “The News of the World” as a scandalsheet the year before), so why change a winning formula?

    I’m just curious as to why he thinks the iPad is shifting sufficient units to be worth his while to get a toe-hold in that market. If he’s right, then it augurs a poor look-out for the dead tree media.

  • lincolnlady1121

    I drank raw milk when I was a kid and I am still here. Of course that was many years ago. What I don’t understand is with all the dairy farms in New York State including Amish owned-why do they have to bring it from Pennsylvania to New York.

  • John Wickey

    joye is right about the Amish. To this day, they remain aloof of the outside world. They don’t vote and do not serve in the Armed Forces. When I was an Amish child, they also had no phones and traveled with difficulty. I think reporters owe them a better understanding of their way of life before they write about them, a way of life that may well change more than they wish with iPads and cell phones.

  • Passing By

    The Dallas Morning News is also moving into some exclusive online content, with i-phone and i-pad apps available.

    Is this the future of dead trees news?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Is this the future of dead trees news?

    That’s the $64,000 question. It depends in large part on whether any consumers (and how many) show a willingness to pay for such content. There’s no shortage of consumers willing to read news via iPhone and iPad apps. The challenge is monetizing it, and doing so in a way that comes anywhere close to the revenue that once supported a 500-person newsroom (I’m guessing) at somewhere like the Morning News. I’m a daily reader of the Dallas coverage of the Texas Rangers. Sometime in the next few weeks, I’ve got to decide if I’m willing to pay each month for that service. And how much.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    Bobby, you are on your game with this post. full of wicked sarcasm that makes a point. Yes, the article did miss the point on so many angles. I wonder if health food is a religion too?

    http://www.RedLetterBelievers.com, “Salt and Light”

  • Mike

    What is this story about?

    Is it about the growing demand for raw milk products?
    Is it about farmers, who happen to be Amish, smuggling their products to market?
    Is it about Amish farmers breaking federal law and perhaps religious values to smuggle their products to market?
    Is it about Amish farmers struggling to hold onto their way of life by selling raw milk products?

    Any of these angles could certainly be developed as a story. As it stands, though, the article seems a little bit of everything, with even a horse and buggy tossed in for style!

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Any of these angles could certainly be developed as a story. As it stands, though, the article seems a little bit of everything, with even a horse and buggy tossed in for style!

    Excellent point, Mike.

  • Chris

    Even more than religion, I love how the article doesn’t get statistics. I’m amused by the equality of Mr. Maurer’s statement that he’s never “heard of anyone getting more than a bellyache from the stuff” vs. the statistics offered by the FDA of 1600 illnesses in 10 years and 2 fatalities. That’s the minimum number–what is reported to the FDA. Doesn’t sound like much–does it? The risk, however, is only bourne by those who use raw milk. Most people in the US (it’s a big country) use pasteurized milk–only a small minority use raw milk. So that 1600 illnesses isn’t spread out over 250 million people over 10 years–it’s spead out over a much smaller number. Let’s say a million over 10 years. Then the chance of having an illness is 0.2% over 10 years. But that’s assuming the person isn’t immunosuppressed in some way (like getting chemotherapy, or pregnant). The risk is likely higher in such people. Depends on how much you love raw milk, I guess–but loving something isn’t a good guide to infectious disease public health policy. There’s a reason Louis Pasteur is famous…

  • kristy

    Here’s part of the big story I was talking about. Amish, raw milk, and state law are all part of it.

    Less about beliefs of the Amish than the subsistence level of most of the Amish in this part of the country.

    Gov. Doyle vetoed a law that would have made raw milk sales legal, mostly because it was not specific about the kind of testing that ought to be done. I think it actually helps raw milk sales in the long run, because the bill can come back with more stringent standards and safer raw milk will be the result.

    I drank it as a kid, and never got sick, but I had a friend who did, and missed a quarter of school because of complications.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks for the link, kristy!

  • rxc

    I am an American, living in France, and we buy a liter (about a quart) of raw milk each week, right in our local market. Non-pasturized, non-homoginized and quite tasty (better than the UHT milk that we also buy here. It is also sold in large grocery stores.

    3.5 years, no problems so far ( I used to work in the “risk” business so I understand what “so far” means). And the cheese – extremely good.