Why should the devil have all the best press?

Satan sells newspapers.

Where would newspapers or television be without devil stories? Satanic ritual abuse, exorcisms, secret cults and rituals, demon possession — all are beloved by editors, and as Dan Brown knows well are snapped up by readers. I would make my fortune if I could write a story whose key words include Satan, an albino member of Opus Dei, Miley Cyrus and the Episcopal Church.

The Satan angle has propelled the news of what would otherwise be an unremarkable conference being held this week at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum into the eye of the European press.

Coincidentally, a student club at Harvard has caught the attention of the Catholic Church and, through one of the heroines of the Catholic blogosphere, the American media after they announced plans to hold a Black Mass. The reaction to the Harvard story leads me to ask whether the press has sensationalized this incident. No one seems to have asked the question: What sort of Harvard Satanists are we discussing? Atheistic Satanists in the tradition of Anton LaVey, devil worshipers or silly students?

Which also prompts me to ask, who gets to define what a Satanist is?

The European wire service ANSA reports:

Catholic prelates from 33 countries are in Italy for the ninth annual conference on exorcism. ‘Exorcism and Prayer for Liberation’ is on through May 10 and is expected to draw 200 participants from countries as far afield as Australia and South Korea. Events are spread between Rome and Bologna. “It’s devoted mostly to priests who are the first to learn the ministry of exorcism, but not only to them,” said Father Cesare Truqui, an exorcist from the Legionaries of Christ, which is organizing the conference together with Catholic organization GRIS. “A priest is usually side by side with a group of laypeople who help,” he told Vatican Radio.

The story provides colorful comments from Father Truqui, who:

… noted that Pope Francis in his April 11 homily admonished the faithful to “learn to fight the devil … who exists even in the 21st century”. “The pope reminds us,” added the exorcist, “that speaking of demons doesn’t mean creating a new theology outside the Gospels, but rather staying within Jesus Christ’s teachings”.

It was after having read these Italian press accounts of the annual exorcism conference in Rome that I came across stories in Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald about Satanism at Harvard. (The Boston Globe has since filed their report.) The story has piqued the imagination of the Catholic press and spawned (spawn of Satan?) a great deal of chatter on the Internet. Is the noise justified from a press perspective, though?

The Herald approaches the story through a statement released by the Archdiocese of Boston calling upon the school to “disassociate” itself from a Black Mass planned for Monday.

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It’s a mystery: Kicking a cardinal — Guardian-style

Who is the target in this story from The Guardian on the gay marriage vote in the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly? Better still, who should be the target? Why is the paper favored by the Nomenklatura in Britain hammering Cardinal Sean Brady?

The article from the newspaper’s Ireland correspondent reports the news that the Unionist parties (Protestants) in the Assembly will block a motion introduced by Sinn Féin to permit gay marriage. The Catholic hierarchy in Northern Ireland has also called for the bill to be blocked.

The Church of Ireland (the Anglicans) were on record as opposed to the change — however this last bit of news is not stated outright. We can infer the Anglicans were opposed by statements reported in the closing paragraphs. The article reports that Anglican gay activists were disappointed with their church’s stance.” (Here is their statement.)

If it is the Protestants, who as a group, are blocking gay marriage, why then is The Guardian beating up on the Catholic Church? Or are they beating up on one particular Catholic?

Here is the lede:

The Catholic church has backed unionist politicians’ moves to block marriage equality in Northern Ireland. A Sinn Féin motion to introduce legislation that would allow gay people to marry in the region is likely to be defeated at the Northern Ireland assembly. …

Both the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party are to introduce a so-called “petition of concern”, which would ensure there was no cross-community support in the chamber for the marriage equality bill. Under the rules of the Stormont assembly, legislation cannot pass if the representatives of one community refuse to support a new bill, thus ensuring that no one section of the divided populace can impose laws on the other.

It appears that The Guardian editors have placed a Catholic veneer over the Protestant political story of rejecting gay marriage.

Also note that The Guardian team uses the phrase “marriage equality,” telegraphing its support for the initiative. However it drops after the lede and switches to “gay marriage” for the rest of the story. A curious move. Did an editor allow the editorial voice in the lede and then adopted less political language in the body of the story?

Language aside, I wonder whether The Guardian has chosen wisely in deciding how to lay out the story. Kick the Catholics over their stance on gay marriage — and bring up the clergy abuse scandal, while giving Prots a pass. Not that I mind good press for Anglicans — heaven knows we seldom get it, or deserve it.

After the lede the story moves into an examination of the Catholic position with a lengthy quote.

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African simony assertions from Religion News Service

As a good Protestant (in an Anglican context, of course), I reject the doctrine of purgatory — that intermediate state after death where those destined for paradise “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

I am not as courageous, however, as the author of a recent piece in The Federalist. Denoucing the cult of saints as un-Scriptural and un-Christian on the day before Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were celebrated as saints by the Vatican was a turn worthy of Ian Paisley in his prime. But I digress.

I am, nevertheless, tempted by the doctrine of purgatory for I have just spent 24 hours at the Atlanta airport — the intermediate state for all travelers destined for the paradise of Florida.

Sanity was preserved, however, through application to my writing coupled with meditations on the devotional book I had packed for the journey: P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith (1924). Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby joined the Earl of Emsworth, Psmith and the dastardly Rupert Baxter as companions on my journey.

The close of Leave it to Psmith — a summary of its plot can be found here, but plots matter little in a Wodehouse piece — finds Psmith unmasked as an impostor by the efficient Baxter. He is not the modern poet Ralston McTodd whom Lord Emsworth was sent to fetch from London. Yet Psmith can explain. When the peer mistook him for the poet at the Senior Conservative Club in London, Psmith decided to step into the breach and save him from the “inconvenience of having to return here without a McTodd of any description.”

His lordship digested this explanation in silence. Then he seized on a magnificent point. “Are you a member of the Senior Conservative Club?”

“Most certainly.”

“Why, then, dash it,” cried his lordship, paying to that august stronghold of respectability as striking a tribute as it had ever received, “if you’re a member of the Senior Conservative, you can’t be a criminal. Baxter’s an ass!”

“Exactly.”

We may laugh with Wodehouse and applaud his verbal dexterity — but we should not laugh at the logic of the Earl of Emsworth. Whether it is called class, tribe or our crowd, most reporters face the temptation to write for a particular audience with whom they have shared assumptions, experiences and prejudices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern newspaper readers — and it is worse on the Internet — are unlikely to stay with a story after the first few sentences unless it strikes their fancy. (I expect I have lost a good chunk of those who have clicked through to this article already.) To keep the reader’s interest a good reporter needs to find a hook that keeps them coming for more.

The trick for a reporter is not to let the hook overcome the story. A recent story released by the Religion News Service makes this error — basing its reporting on assumptions rather than taking on the journalistic task of accurately reporting voices on both sides of a very hot topic.

The article entitled “Conservative Anglican leaders back Uganda anti-gay law” recounts a meeting last week in London of leaders of the conservative or traditional wing of the Anglican Communion. Eleven archbishops whose churches account for roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the active members of the worldwide Anglican Communion released a statement at the close of their gathering.

The London-based Daily Mail interpreted the statement as a challenge to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Church of England to clarify its stance on gay marriage. The lede of its article “Church of England split fear as African bishops speak out over clergy flouting a ban on same-sex weddings” stated:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was last night facing mounting pressure to crack down on clergy who marry their gay partners — as the threat of a split in the Anglican Church grew.

A powerful group of conservative African Archbishops said they were ‘deeply troubled’ by liberal Western attitudes towards homosexuality and that Church of England clerics were flouting a ban on same-sex weddings.

From the statement, which enumerated local concerns held by the various archbishops, the Daily Mail highlighted the closing two paragraphs, which focused on the traditionalists’ displeasure with Archbishop Welby for waffling on gay marriage.  The church press in England and the United States also read the statement in this way. (That is how these Anglican documents are written, by the way, their hook comes just before the close.)

This RNS piece took a radically different approach to the story. It said nothing about the threat to the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but opened as follows:

WASHINGTON (RNS) Leaders of the conservative wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion equate the experiences of Ugandans who support a new anti-gay law with those of victims of an earthquake or a terror attack.

The Global Anglican Future Conference — made up chiefly of Anglican archbishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America — concluded a two-day meeting in London on Saturday (April 26) with a statement that expressed concern for violence in South Sudan and Northern Nigeria. It then said:

“We are equally concerned for the affected communities in Chile from the recent earthquake, terrorist attacks in Kenya, and the backlash from the international community in Uganda from their new legislation.”

In an odd interpretation of the document, RNS then moved to the recent contretemps over Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, even bringing on board President Barack Obama’s views on that legislation. The RNS piece then took a giant editorial leap.

But despite the GAFCON statement’s equation with catastrophes, the archbishops’ response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Ugandan law. The “backlash” line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million in financial aid and project support from the World Bank, the U.S. and other countries. According to IRIN, which covers humanitarian issues, this included $6.4 million intended for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which backed the legislation.

Yes, you read that right. The key word was “seems.”

This is a curious interpretation of the document at best. The phrase the “response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Uganda law” is speculation — period. The two may seem to be connected in the mind of RNS and if this was a news analysis piece or an opinion article there is nothing untoward about RNS proffering this argument. Yet this article is billed as a news story.

Let me digress (again). I have a degree of knowledge about the individuals and institutions under discussion after covering the overseas Anglican world since 1998. I have interviewed the last three archbishops of Uganda and discussed the issues facing the church in private chats as well as in formal interviews. In my opinion the opinion expressed by RNS about the connection is specious nonsense.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, as George and Jerry tell us. But to make their argument RNS should have done some reporting with real Ugandans.

Rather than ask the Church of Uganda, whose press office is quick to respond to queries from overseas reporters, RNS makes a further assumption that is not supported by facts linked to sources. The key statement — the “ ‘backlash’ line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million” — could easily have been checked. Or RNS could have read the myriad reports in the church press as well as in the Ugandan press about the anger felt by Ugandans over what they see as the racist and patronizing attitude of the West.

In other words, there are multiple points of view on these complex issues. Find them. Quote them.

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Is Mehmet Ali Agca crazy or just a bad Catholic?

The upcoming canonizations of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II have generated some very good press for the Roman Catholic Church. While a few articles have sought to punch holes in the reputations of the soon to be saints — a frequent criticism I have seen is that John Paul was negligent in disciplining the serial abuser Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ — most converge has been positive.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel published an in depth piece on the miracles associated with John Paul, that treated the issue with sympathy and empathy. It is too early to tell how outfits normally hostile to the papacy such as the BBC or the European leftist press will present this story. However, interest in the canonization outside of religious circles appears to be very high.

On Friday Vatican Radio reported that 93 nations will send official delegations to the April 27 canonization service, while two dozen heads of state and as many as 150 cardinals and 1,000 bishops will be present at the Mass.

One oddball item that caught me eye amongst the flurry of articles was an interview conducted by the Italian wire service ANSA with John Paul’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Here the lede of the story that ran with the headline: “Foiled killer said sinful to ‘deify’ John Paul”:

Pope John Paul II is not a saint, because only God can be considered holy and attempts to “deify a human being” are sinful, Ali Agca, the man who tried to assassinate the pope in 1981, said Thursday in an interview with ANSA.

The article offers some background information on Agca, who in 1981 shot and nearly killed John Paul — a crime for which he served 20 years in an Italian prison, before being deported to Turkey, where he served a further ten years imprisonment for a 1979 murder. The article further notes Agca:

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Buddhists boldly bully buzzed Brits

The obnoxious Englishman abroad is a well loved story in the British press. The opprobrium once reserved for the British football hooligan abroad has now spread to his vacationing cousins. Cheap airfares and package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean, Florida and points East have given the Briton abroad a reputation for boorishness, lewdness, and alcohol-fueled vulgarity.

“They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, told the New York Times in 2008. “It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French”.

Are the British the world’s worst behaved tourists? I think Americans can still give the Brits a run for their money. Let me note the annual horror of Spring Break here in Sunny Florida in defense of my claim of American exceptionalism. Aesthetically speaking the sunburnt, tattooed, shaven-headed, bandy-legged Briton abroad is an unpleasing sight. And the men are even worse!

The British government keeps track of the bad behavior of Englishman abroad, publishing an annual report on consular support given to jailed tourists, football hooligans and other assorted louts.The British press has a love hate relationship with yobos abroad. The Daily Mail and other popular newspapers will run stories bemoaning bad behavior and vulgarity with headlines like: “Beer-swilling British women are branded the ‘ugliest in the world’.” However, British television celebrates the bad behavior with documentaries and series like Channel 4‘s “What happens in Kavos” — an English version of the soft porn “Girls gone wild” films distributed in America.

The news that a British nurse vacationing in Sri Lanka is being deported from that country due to a Buddha tattoo that state officials find to be offensive to Buddhist sensibilities is being reported along these lines — the clueless tourist acting in a way that insults the locals. The Guardian‘s story came from the French wire service AFP, which stated:

Sri Lanka has detained a female British tourist for having a Buddha tattoo on her right arm and ordered her deportation, police said on Tuesday. The unidentified woman was arrested at the country’s main international airport on Monday and appeared before a magistrate, who ordered her deportation, police said in a statement.

The statement said she had an image of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower tattooed on her right arm. “She was taken before the Negombo magistrate, who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” it said, adding that she was arrested shortly after her arrival on a flight from neighbouring India.

It did not say what charges were brought against her, but Sri Lanka barred another British tourist from entering the island in March last year for showing disrespect to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm.

Subsequent stories in the Guardian and other Western news outlets reported the woman’s name and provided a photo of the tourist showing off her Buddha tattoo. The Guardian also ran an opinion piece noting that the Buddha tattoo was offensive to Sri Lankans arguing:

The arrest and pending deportation of a 37-year-old British nurse, Naomi Coleman, from Sri Lanka for sporting a tattoo of a meditating Buddha on her right arm has once again raised the issue of tourists being woefully unaware of religious and cultural sensitivities in places they visit.

While alcohol was absent from this incident, the photos of the tattoo and its wearer, coupled with statements that the tattoo was considered offensive by Buddhists, slots this story into the ugly Briton abroad category.

But … is this all there is to say on this story? Are Buddhists offended by tattoos of the Buddha? Why is this offensive?

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Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians

Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward by ITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?

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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

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Francis links abortion with abuse, yet press doesn’t follow

The Italian press has placed an interesting interpretation on Pope Francis’ Friday comments on the clergy abuse. It reports that in the pope’s mind clergy abuse of children is tied to the “abomination” of abortion. Look for this theme in the Anglo-American press and tell me if you can find it? I can’t.

Francis’ comments to the International Catholic Child Bureau meeting at the Vatican on April 11 received wide spread coverage. CNN reported:

Pope Francis made his strongest condemnation yet of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Friday, asking for forgiveness and pledging to impose penalties on “men of the church” who harm children.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests — quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests — to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” the Pope said in remarks quoted by Vatican Radio.

As an aside, I chose CNN’s story over the others because of its aesthetic and journalist quality. It is really quite good. To my mind Daniel Burke is one of the most highly skilled writers covering religion and this article shows why he deserves that accolade. The language is tight, conveying the story in a minimum of words.  The story is told well with very little fluff or filler. The article is balanced — offering comments from abuse activists while also allowing Francis to speak. The author’s views on the issue can be discerned by the layout of the story — paragraph placement is one of the key elements in constructing an article — yet there is no preaching or bombast in a topic (clergy abuse of children) that is often spoilt by opinion masking as news. A great job all round.

Yet, Burke is back in America and must rely on material provided by others when reporting on Rome. Has he been given the full story by his stringers in Rome?

For on the same day as the pope spoke to the International Catholic Child Bureau, he addressed a pro-life group. For the Italian press, the messages Francis offered on the clergy abuse scandal and abortion were intertwined. The lede to the story ”Pedofilia, il Papa chiede perdono per gli abusi commessi dai sacerdoti” in the Milan-based Corriere della Sera makes this clear. (N.b. with a circulation of over 350,000 Corriere della Sera is one of Italy’s largest and most influential newspapers. It’s main competitors are the Rome’s la Repubblica and Turin’s La Stampa.) It states:

Pope Francis has asked “forgiveness” for the child abuse perpetrated by men of the Church. In unambiguous tones, Francis said: “I am called to this burden” to “ask for forgiveness”, and to assure you that we will not take any “step back” in addressing this problem and seeing that “penalties will be imposed.” Children should be protected and have a family, the pontiff said. “They have a right to grow up with a father and mother.” And before that children must be protected in the womb, he added, because “the unborn child is the innocent par excellence.” Drawing upon the words of the Second Vatican Council Francis added “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”

The Corriere della Sera article gives a fuller picture of Francis’ views on the clergy abuse scandal than the CNN piece by stressing Francis’ argument that both are crimes against children and against God.

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