Pardon the interruption

grammyDylanSoyBombWhen I wrote about Linda Greenhouse’s problematic story anticipating the Supreme Court arguments over a federal ban on partial-birth abortions, reader Mattk wondered why we would cover it here at GetReligion:

Is it because most of the people who oppose abortion are religious? Is it because there are so many Roman Catholics on the court? Is it because over the years Justice Scalia has put on some pounds and maybe he is a practicing glutton? What’s the tie-in?

While abortion is not necessarily a religious issue, the coverage of the larger issue is riddled with religious ghosts. Many of the most ardent opponents of the practice are practicing Christians or religious adherents of another stripe. The questions surrounding abortion — such as when life begins, when life begins to have value, how our legal system defines personhood, how society feels about sexuality apart from procreation — all have a religious angle. That’s why we discuss abortion coverage here. And, you’ll note, many religion reporters include hot-button issues such as abortion on their beat.

The most interesting aspects of recent coverage include descriptions of the lack of exercise of judicial faculties and how the justices determined medical and health impacts. But there was also a law-breaking protester! Here’s how Charles Lane of The Washington Post reported it:

The most dramatic moment of the morning came moments later, at about 10:40 a.m., when a loud voice cried out from the back of the courtroom.

“Abortion is the shedding of innocent blood!” shouted a man later identified by the court as Rives Miller Grogan, 40, of Los Angeles. He was immediately tackled and dragged out by Supreme Court police, who charged him with violating a federal law against disrupting court sessions, as well as with offenses related to resisting arrest.

Lane’s article did a good job of characterizing the arguments, using neutral language and plenty of color. Linda Greenhouse’s wrap-up for The New York Times was also very good, although she somehow didn’t notice the protester. Maybe in her world abortion opponents aren’t factual realities. Still, ignoring the protester was better than what Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick did. She somehow heard the protester utter words that no one else heard and seemed a bit foggy about the whole event. Good reporting! Oh, did I mention her piece is headlined “Doctor, there’s a lawyer in my womb“? and that Slate is owned by The Washington Post? Anyway, here’s Lithwick:

For the first time in my eight years at the court, I watch as a spectator begins to shout, “Have you ever been a parent?” and something about Jesus and perishing, before he is tackled by court security and dragged out of the chambers. His screams can be heard for some time after he’s been removed. It’s quite distracting. I think from now on the court security guards should maybe carry Tasers.

Still, Lithwick reported a religious angle that no one else did. Apparently Planned Parenthood’s Eve Gartner told the justices that how a woman “wants her fetus to undergo demise” is a “very personal moral/religious decision.” Chief Justice John Roberts asked why decisions about the impact on the fetus were beyond the scope of things Congress can take into account. Interesting exchange.

Maybe I’ve been beaten down by decades of horrific abortion reporting, particularly with stories about partial-birth abortion laws, but these stories were not the worst I’ve seen.

The image, by the way, is of Dylan and his dancing protester of commercialism from a few Grammys ago.

On story selection and privacy

privacy is not a crimeI’m not sure if non-journalists understand how much of a news outlet’s work depends on the selection of stories. Here at GetReligion, we tend to focus on problems with the way a given story is treated. Whether it is treated at all is a bigger issue.

Reader Paul Strickert sent along a sad story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen wrote about a sweeps story for a local news station that took a tragic turn. A pastor committed suicide after a local television station planned to air an expose of his trips to adult bookstores.

Owen wrote that the possibility of harm that unnecessary reports can cause to the person under investigation — as well as family members and communities — needs to be considered by news outlets.

Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple wrote a note to readers explaining how his paper decided whether to run an article about the Ted Haggard story when it broke. He found out about the story from The Denver Post, which ran a small item on the second page of the local news section.

I wondered how a bombshell like that could have been buried on Page 2 of the second section. If true, what was it doing there? It should have been the banner. If not, what was the story doing in the paper?

As Rocky staffers carried through their day, they debated whether to cover the story and how to avoid pitfalls:

Even if we could talk to the escort, would we publish his claims? The cynics out there might say, come on, there was never any doubt you’d publish them. But they’re wrong. We know how easy it is to make false allegations.

When Haggard resigned from the National Association of Evangelicals, the decision was made for them. Temple’s account — which discusses which headlines were considered — is a fascinating look inside the newsroom. One editor ends up suggesting the word revelations in the headline:

Would evangelicals view the use of a word with New Testament echoes as unfair, even mean-spirited? Did it imply that the claims against Haggard were true? Many voices were heard. Staff members who openly identified as Christian spoke their minds, with some on both sides. Our religion editor was called at home. Family members were consulted, as were dictionaries.

I think it’s very interesting that he considered how Christians would respond to a headline on a story about the megachurch pastor.

Temple has written about other Haggard issues on his blog, such as why he permitted an article about odds for various outcomes in the scandal. He also answered a question about a photograph of Haggard speaking with reporters while his wife and children were with him:

I will not quarrel about the public’s right to know, nor will I debate the (First) Amendment as related to the media’s right to do their thing. I will, however, violently object to the logic behind publishing a photo that shows two of the Haggard children. Those kids don’t deserve to be a public part of the mess their father made of his life.

Reporters have every right to cover the goings-on of pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and shamen. But when they do, they should consider the ramifications of their coverage on families and reputations. That goes for all targets of stories, not just religious ones. But I think non-journalists should know that these discussions do take place in newsrooms, for better or worse.

Misusing Dylan

supreme courtYou might think that Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual” Greenhouse would be particularly careful when resuming her Supreme Court coverage for The New York Times. After all, she made a strong statement advocating abortion in a recent public speech. She was also reprimanded years ago for marching in an abortion rights rally.

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments about the constitutionality of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Greenhouse’s story starts out with that helpful context, for which she is rightly praised:

In defining the permissible limits on access to abortion, only six years after declaring a similar restriction unconstitutional in a case from Nebraska, the court must go a long way toward defining its stance toward precedent, its relationship to Congress, and its view of its own role in the constitutional system. As it decides the new cases, the still-emerging Roberts court will inevitably be defining itself.

That much is clear from briefs submitted to the court by the abortion rights side, where many believe that their only hope of prevailing lies in persuading Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to reconsider the position he took in an emotionally laden dissenting opinion in the Nebraska case. Justice Kennedy said then that states should be able to outlaw “a procedure many decent and civilized people find so abhorrent as to be among the most serious of crimes against human life.”

Very well done. And the vast majority of the piece looks at how legal arguments are being crafted with the goal of convincing Kennedy. But as we get to the end of the piece, the center has trouble holding. Take this, for instance:

Abortion opponents are now the ones who describe the procedure as rare, seeking to offer reassurance that banning it would not deprive women of access to safe second-trimester abortions.

In fact, in their eagerness to portray the procedure as aberrant, the statute’s sponsors declared in the preamble that “no medical schools” teach it. In fact, it is taught at leading medical schools including Columbia, Cornell, Yale and New York University.

What Greenhouse must know is that major medical schools added the procedure to their curriculum in the past few years. Pro-life critics allege that this was a transparent move to help the abortion movement.

Whether or not she agrees with the charge, the manner in which Greenhouse presented medical schools’ support of the procedure is insufficient. Is she ignorant because she only spends times with pro-choice activists and thinks her opinions on abortion are unquestionable facts? Is she actively letting her bias on this contentious issue dictate her coverage? Will The New York Times‘ public editor think that Greenhouse has never been accused of bias because I’m not writing this directly to him?

bringing bigHere’s another problem area. Keep in mind that in the first paragraph of the story, Greenhouse used the positively marrowless phrase “terminating a pregnancy” to describe abortion:

“Infanticide” is a potent label, frequently used by abortion opponents. One brief describes the procedure as “killing a child in the birth process.” While this description is true in the sense that uninterrupted gestation leads to birth — “He not busy being born is busy dying,” in the words of the Bob Dylan song — it is well off the mark as a description of what actually occurs.

The standard procedure used by Dr. Warren M. Hern, the author of a widely consulted textbook on abortion and one of the leading providers of abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy, is to “induce fetal demise” by injecting a drug one or two days before the abortion.

As pointed out by Matthew Franck at Bench Memos, the Supreme Court will look at legislation passed by Congress that defines partial-birth abortion as one in which

(A) the person performing the abortion deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother for the purpose of performing an overt act that theperson knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus; and

(B) performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus;

Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter Greenhouse must know that. So even if it is true that my fellow Coloradoan Hern — a bit of an outlandish character in the abortion battles — thinks that late-term abortion is usually performed by killing the fetus in utero, that has absolutely nothing to do with the Supreme Court debate at hand. The type of procedure he describes would not be banned by the federal law. The Supreme Court will look only at the federal ban on — as the brief she derides states — abortions performed on partially delivered fetuses. That’s a huge error on her part.

Hopefully Greenhouse will do better as the Supreme Court’s term proceeds.

The PB and her amazing technicolor dreamcoat

Jefferts Schori investitureThe Episcopal Church invested a new leader this weekend. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected the first female presiding bishop in June, and media reports then focused on the milestone. Jefferts Schori’s election also provoked a possible schism in the church because of her vote to confirm the election of a gay bishop, among other things.

I was curious whether the papers would feature hard-hitting pieces analyzing the threat posed by the investiture or whether they’d be cheerleading pieces. Let’s begin with Alan Cooperman’s lede for his Washington Post story:

Wearing multicolored vestments that represent a new dawn, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori formally took office yesterday as the first woman to lead the Episcopal Church and promised to seek healing and wholeness in a denomination threatened by schism.

Represent a new dawn? I know that Friday was National Cliche Day, but that seems to be laying it on a bit thick for the first paragraph, no? I believe that Jefferts Schori referred to her color choices as representing dawn, but it would help to attribute the phrase to her if it must be used.

Further, the meaning of the multicolored vestments isn’t explained. In liturgical churches, certain colors are associated with particular seasons of the church year. According to The Episcopal Church, liturgical colors include white or gold for Christmas and Easter; blue or violet for Advent; and red for Holy Week, Pentecost, and ordinations. Clergy’s stoles match the season, generally. Deviating from church traditions means something, I’m sure. Louis Sahagun’s Los Angeles Times piece also mentions the liturgical color changes with only slightly more explanation. You may also be interested in Julia Duin’s Washington Times piece from earlier in the week that anticipated the event.

Still, Cooperman devotes many straightforward and helpful paragraphs to explaining the nature of the division in the Anglican Communion:

But several primates in the Global South — developing countries where Anglicanism is fast growing and deeply traditional — have said that they will have difficulty sitting down with her, not so much because she is a woman as because of her views on homosexuality and theology.

Jefferts Schori . . .voted in 2003 to confirm the election of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican prelate. She has also supported blessings for same-sex couples, and she has said that, although she believes in salvation through Jesus, she does not think Christianity is the only path to God.

Those positions fall on one side of an increasingly bitter fault line in the U.S. church. Seven of the 111 Episcopal dioceses have rejected her authority, though they have stopped short of formally breaking away from the denomination. Some individual parishes have cut all ties to the Episcopal Church and have affiliated with more orthodox Anglican provinces overseas.

Don’t get me wrong: A pastor of a huge church cheating on his spouse with a male prostitute while using crystal methamphetamines is a really big deal. But so is leading a national Christian church body while not believing that Jesus is necessary for salvation. Isn’t it interesting how much coverage one story gets and how thoroughly pedestrian the other is considered?

RobinsonAnd on a related note, here’s a snippet from an email that was sent to me today by a reporter:

A pastor is married for years, has children, runs a successful church, advances in his denomination/sector of Christianity, and then “finds himself” and abandons wife and children for a live-in situation with another man. His reward? Consecration as a bishop in the Protestant Episcopal Church of America and wide-ranging media praise. LATimes, I believe, had a nice kiss-up interview with Gene Robinson just this week.

Another pastor apparently is married for years, has children, builds and runs a a successful church, advances in his denomination/sector of Christianity, fights temptation and loses, stays with his family, and when the dam breaks, is crucified in the press as his reward.

Whatever else you may think of these stories, there’s really no question that most reporters think only involves moral failure. How does that affect the coverage?

It would also be interesting to track which story ends up having the bigger fallout. That depends, of course, on whether Robinson’s story leads the 77 million-member Anglican Communion into schism.

Note: The liturgical stole pictured above is not the one worn by the new presiding bishop. This non-traditional stole comes from an online store for liberal churches. To see the vestments work by Jefferts Schori, click here for an Episcopal News Service photo from the event.

Note: The communications office at The Episcopal Church kindly notified us that we do have permission to use their photos. So I have replaced the original picture (which you can see here) with a picture of Jefferts Schori’s actual vestments. May there be peace in the land!

Rereading that Sharlet piece

harpersReader TK had a fascinating comment on a previous post about the Haggard coverage:

One statement that he has made, repeatedly, concerned me:

Haggard: “Does a Christian need to ask forgiveness each day? No! A mature Christian should not be sinning on a daily basis, so may not need to ask for forgiveness on a daily basis.”

The above quote came from a really interesting 09/12/2005 interview with Ted Haggard on the Issues, Etc. radio program hosted by Pastor Wilken. The interview was later rebroadcast, in two parts (part one and part two), on 9/13/05 with added commentary and listener call-ins.

. . . Now, with the allegations and his admissions of some guilt, I can’t help but question his doctrine, his steadfast belief, that true and mature Christians no longer sin. The “best” Christians I know live in daily repentance and full knowledge of their capability to sin.

It will be very sad to follow this story because of the many, many families who’ve followed him to Colorado Springs. Along with the Wilken interview, I highly recommend a lengthy article, Soldiers of Christ, by Jeff Sharlet of Harper’s Magazine from May 2005. In re-reading the article this morning about Haggard and those families who followed him to the “city of faith,” I found this passage ironic:

“Pastor Ted soon began upsetting the devil’s plans. He staked out gay bars, inviting men to come to his church.”

I don’t know what this says about me, but when I first heard the Haggard story, my thoughts immediately went to Jeff Sharlet. He runs The Revealer, a site that, like ours, analyzes media coverage of religion.

Jeff has written a few long-form reports on religious issues in his day. One, a detailed and insightful look at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, should, as TK says, be reread in light of this news cycle. He’s reposted it with the following introduction:

I’m re-posting my original Harper’s piece below not because I think I got the story right — if Jones’ story is true, I missed it by a mile — but because I hope it’ll help the journalists now on the job get the story right by not making the mistake I did. The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism. I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

Perhaps some reporters will be able to get the religious angle to this story.

My spiritual gift is crystal meth

crystal methI’m rather speechless about this whole Ted Haggard story. I grew up down the road from his New Life megachurch (pop. 14,000) and have followed his ascendancy for years. I’m rather uncertain what can be said about the media coverage, too.

Stories like this are difficult to write about, and we’ve seen some good examples of how to treat it. I’m not sure if this is simply a personal opinion or a journalistic one, but I absolutely loathe this news cycle. I’m not sure if people need to read about the allegations or why they’re reading about them now.

Whether or not the allegations are true, this is a person with a wife and five kids. Whatever else may be said about him, I doubt Haggard claimed he was sinless or without lusts. And public condemnation of sinful behavior does not mean his private life is open season.

Yes, it’s salacious and juicy, but I think that reporters should think ethically about how to handle this story. And I think I might be speaking more to myself — who always experiences a bit ton of schadenfreude at the Elmer Gantry-like downfall of megachurch or televangelist leaders — than anyone else.

Anyway, here’s one thing I’ve picked up from the story. Mr. Jones, the drug-selling male escort, is the only source for the story. He says Haggard a) paid him for sex, b) bought crystal meth and c) used it in front of him. He’s failed a lie-detector test, but the test administrator says it could be because he’s not eaten or slept well.

The evidence, as it were, is an envelope allegedly from Haggard as well as two voice messages allegedly from Haggard that discuss what Jones says is a meth purchase. Haggard has admitted to some of the allegations while vehemently denying the prostitution charges.

Those bits of substantiation don’t support the gay sex charge. They support the drug usage claim. I think it’s interesting that reporters are leading and pushing the gay sex claims rather than the meatier drug claims. I’m not really sure what it means, I just find it interesting.

On this site we look at whether the media do a good job of understanding the religious angles to stories. And that is and will be a concern as this story develops. But reporters on the religion beat or any other beat should make sure to get the facts straight before anything else.

Once those facts are laid out better, Bible Belt Blogger Frank Lockwood asks an interesting question:

But why is it that many of the biggest names in the Pentecostal movement — over and over again — end up disgracing themselves and the church as a whole?

He notes that Haggard describes himself as Southern Baptist but applies some Charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues, the laying on of hands for healing, and prophecy. I think back to Eric Gorski’s excellent series on Bishop Dennis Leonard up I-25 at Heritage Christian Center. He linked the theology of prosperity to the church’s financial dealings.

The bottom line: Newspapers should follow The Denver Post‘s lead by having religion reporters heavily involved in the coverage. It’s bound to pay off.

When less isn’t more

evangelicals for mittGosh, once we get through Tuesday, it’s only two years until the next presidential election. And unless Tom Cruise throws his hat in the ring, it looks like Mitt Romney will be the candidate whose religion will get the most media attention.

In that vein, Scott Helman of The Boston Globe filed a report yesterday about meetings Romney is holding with evangelical leaders. Romney has met with Southern Baptist Richard Land and conservative activist Gary Bauer, as well as local pastors in South Carolina.

The meetings have touched on several themes, participants say, but two topics being discussed are Romney’s religious beliefs and how he should address his faith as the campaign progresses.

The story also says that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which Romney belongs, is meeting with newspapers and other media outlets in an attempt to explain its beliefs and practices. It’s a very interesting story, but for a story about religion, there is very little in it. For instance:

Polls indicate that the religion is widely misunderstood and viewed skeptically by many in the United States.

This is a great thing to mention, but I wonder why there are no details.

What polls? How is the religion misunderstood? What does widely mean? This is sort of the whole point of the story, so it would be nice to have some details about the situation on the ground.

The story discusses a group that was formed to demystify Mormonism called The group runs focus groups that have found voters’ views of the Mormon religion could affect election results. What are those views? How are those views wrong? How does shape voter opinions? No details. Helman does speak with one of the 2,000 supporters of, Kris Murphy, a stay-at-home father who lives in Alabama.

“I was born and raised in the church and served a mission, and frankly I am sick and tired of the mischaracterization of Mormons not being Christians,” Murphy said, citing a belief held by some evangelicals. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to talk about what Mormonism is, . . . we are ready and willing and able to talk about it.”

Me, too! But unfortunately, there is no talking about it in this article.

Murphy’s claim that the view is a mischaracterization is just left hanging there. At some point, some reports are going to have to cover some of these issues in more detail.

I’m Martin Luther, and I approved this message

Bush Antichrist  2 Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann is a Republican candidate for the U.S. House. She’s a member of a congregation affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Media coverage of her campaign has delved into religion repeatedly but I couldn’t quite find the time to mention it here.

A few weeks ago, some Lutheran readers here sent along some articles about the way she was campaigning. Lutherans tend to follow the practice of the Two Kingdoms, which for our purposes can be described as the view that worship is so important and sacred that it shouldn’t be mixed with earthly political machinations. But Bachman delivered a speech one Sunday from the stage of a nondenominational church center, claiming that God wanted her to run for office and that she was a fool for Christ. That’s not what you might expect from a confessional Lutheran.

Even though her behavior was noteworthy, the articles about her behavior weren’t quite bad enough to mention here. But then my pastor sent along an article that’s definitely worth covering. See, even though Bachmann hasn’t been campaigning as a Lutheran, Democratic bloggers have decided to attack her for the 16th-century confessions of the Lutheran church. Sometimes I love politics. Anyway, here’s the story from Pamela Miller of the Star-Tribune:

The labyrinthine doctrine of a theologically conservative Lutheran denomination has wound its way into the Sixth District congressional campaign, a twist that has Republican Michele Bachmann’s campaign fuming and DFLer Patty Wetterling’s denying any role.

Labyrinthine? As in complicated or tortuous? I mean, I’m not even that opposed to the word because of its negative connotations. But I’m not entirely certain that Lutheran doctrine commonly receives that adjective, particularly in the context of where this story is about to go.

Liberal blogs are abuzz with claims that the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the parent of Bachmann’s church, holds that the pope is the antichrist.

It’s about time Lutheran doctrine gets discussed on the pages of a major paper! But what an unbelievably ridiculous story. Anyway, the candidate was asked about it on a radio show and she denied her church teaches that. She also mentioned that some of her family members are Catholic. To her credit, the reporter goes to other sources to get to the bottom of things:

In Christian theology, definitions of the antichrist range from a being who embodies evil to teachers of heretical doctrine. In the 1500s, the term was tossed back and forth between Protestant reformers, most prominently Martin Luther, and the Vatican.

The Rev. Jonathan Brohn, co-pastor at Bachmann’s church, Salem Lutheran in Stillwater, said the synod views the antichrist — or “antichrists,” as the Bible sometimes refers to — as “someone who stands in the place of Christ.”Luther saw the office of the papacy as falling into this role because it stands between man and God and tries to take too much authority from God,” Brohn said. “The modern-day pope retains that authority but doesn’t use it much.”

Okay, if you’re going to give coverage to a political hit piece such as the anti-Lutheran attempts of the lefty bloggers, I think the reporter did fine to a point. But the religious ignorance of the reporter is too much. Religious divisions exist for a reason. Roman Catholics and Lutherans disagree about the means by which humans are saved. Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1521 over the serious disagreements.

Christ Antichrist 01But if reporter Pamela Miller is going to turn this political season into a referendum on religious doctrines, I wonder how far she’ll take it. Is she covering any Roman Catholic candidates? What do Roman Catholics believe about Lutherans? It just so happens that we covered this in my church this week when my pastor read declarations of the Council of Trent (the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation), it being Reformation Day and all. Here are a few of that council’s statements:

Canon 9: If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema.

Canon 32: If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs . . . does not truly merit . . . eternal life . . . let him be anathema.

In other words, if anyone is Lutheran, let him be cursed and damned to hell. The church councils haven’t exactly backtracked on those views.

People who take religion seriously take religion seriously. It’s not surprising that two churches with such different ideas about the means by which people are saved would defend their views strongly. Lutherans and Catholics who take their doctrines seriously are able to systematically debate aspects thereof because of how clearly the differing views are laid out. I agree with the Lutheran confessions and yet I’m able to write about Catholic doctrine in such a way that half of the reader e-mail I receive assumes I’m Catholic. Religious tolerance does not mean you have to check your beliefs at the door — even if those views seem impolitic by the standards du jour.

All that to say that Pamela Miller is having trouble giving the proper weight and context to the, uh, labyrinthine doctrines of the two churches. Either she should get help from a religion reporter or she should reevaluate her story selection.

P.S. I stole the headline to this post from Wonkette commenter dougjmcn.