The gods of style struggle with abortion

I decided to look in the Reporter’s Holy Book, by which of course I mean the AP Stylebook, to see what those gods of style have to say. The entry for abortion reads: “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.

I guess only one side gets to choose their name. Not fair. Not balanced. . . .

Posted by Stephen A. at 9:05 pm on July 25, 2005

SusanAnthonyStephen,

Thanks for jumping back to the question at the heart of the original post. These language issues show up in the press all the time, often with bizarre results.

Right now, the media has two options under the AP bible. Like I said, anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights are imperfect terms, but they are certainly better than the even worse spin that was in place in the 1980s — anti-abortion and pro-choice. Click here to see David Shaw’s classic Los Angeles Times series about that era.

Now, you can take a magazine approach and use pro-life and pro-choice, indicating that these are the terms the groups apply to themselves. This is a fair approach, but still does not unpack the terms in any way. It still leaves us with only two camps.

My point, concerning Jane Roberts, is that at some point — on left and right — the press has to move past the easy labels and discuss what people actually believe. Yes, she is anti-abortion. But that is not all she is. If this topic is going to hit the Hill linked to her husband and the U.S. Supreme Court, the hearings ought to dig beneath the stereotypes, and the MSM will have to cover that. This will require a more nuanced approach to language.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is not Pope Benedict XVI.

For the matter, the Rev. Jim Wallis is not the Rev. Carter Heyward.

Joe Lieberman is not Barney Frank. And who knows WHAT Hillary Clinton is these days, although I think we know where her heart is.

Registered Democrats who are opposed to abortion on demand are not the same as old-guard Republicans, when it comes to issues related to health care, education, jobs and other issues related to, well, the agenda of a group such as Feminists for Life. The press is going to need to do some stretching.

One gets the impression that, for most MSM journalists, this is the only issue that matters. As that great Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd once quipped, the cultural right is trying to repeal Woodstock. Abortion rights is the ultimate safeguard of the sexual revolution.

Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I wrote my master’s thesis on the struggle in mainstream newsrooms to improve coverage of religion. A short version of that turned into a 1983 cover essay for Quill.

On the 10th anniversary of that cover piece, I did a Quill update on the same topic — with an emphasis on what I believe are the four biases that most influence work on the Godbeat. That shorter essay opened with an anecdote about — GetReligion readers will not be surprised — the language that journalists use to describe competing camps in a major story. Here it is:

Deadline was three hours away and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion protests. I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp “pro-choice,” its chosen label, while we call the other “anti-abortion,” a term it abhors?

The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more neutral terms. I wasn’t fond of “anti-abortion.” It seemed to fit Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as “pro-abortion rights.” This might be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial spin of “pro-choice.”

The assistant editor said “pro-choice” was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use “pro-life.”

The city editor stepped in. Minus a few descriptive words, here’s what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren’t really pro-life. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we’ll call them whatever we want to call them.

I’ve been thinking about that issue ever since, especially when covering the work of people who are politically progressive, yet also opposed to abortion on demand. The basic question: Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”? Do we need some term — other than “anti-abortion” — to describe people whose views are more complex than those of, let’s say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell?

You have probably guessed where I am going with this — the U.S. Supreme Court. Easily the most interesting story during the Week One coverage of John G. Roberts Jr. focused on a fascinating biographical detail about his wife, Jane. The Los Angeles Times had the scoop and reporter Richard A. Serrano set the tone.

The key: Jane Roberts held “antiabortion” views. And she appears to be a devout Catholic.

A Roman Catholic like her husband, Jane Roberts has been deeply involved in the antiabortion movement. She provides her name, money and professional advice to a small Washington organization — Feminists for Life of America — that offers counseling and educational programs. The group has filed legal briefs before the high court challenging the constitutionality of abortion.

A spouse’s views normally are not considered relevant in weighing someone’s job suitability. But abortion is likely to figure prominently in the Senate debate over John Roberts’ nomination. And with his position on the issue unclear, abortion rights supporters expressed concern Wednesday that his wife’s views might suggest he also embraced efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

The obvious question: What does it mean when a highly educated Catholic lawyer is part of a group called Feminists for Life?

What does this group stand for, other than its opposition to abortion on demand? The title implies that this group is not, let’s say, a kissing cousin of Focus on the Family.

The only hint in this groundbreaking story:

Feminists for Life has sponsored a national advertising campaign aimed at ending abortion in America. One of its mission statements proclaims: “Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Now think back to what my editor said in Denver. The people who call themselves pro-life are not really pro-life. They are the kinds of people who think human rights begin at conception and end at birth. They are pro-unborn child, but anti-woman.

So here is my question for my fellow MSM journalists. What happens if Jane Roberts (and even her husband) holds views that are not easily jammed into a perfect left-right split? What if she was and is some kind of pro-life moderate? Someone who was trying to heed all of the Catholic Church’s teachings? What if she was what some call “consistently pro-life”?

Reporters Lynette Clemetson and Robin Toner of The New York Times chased the original Los Angeles Times story and at least suggested that Jane Roberts might not be a right-wing robot.

Here is a section of that report, which once again included that interesting concept that American society has “failed to meet the needs of women”:

Mrs. Roberts, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was not recruited by Feminists for Life, but sought the group out about a decade ago and offered her services as a lawyer, said its president, Serrin Foster. The group was reorganizing at the time and beginning to focus its work on college campuses. Its mission statement, driven home in advertising in recent years, says: “Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Mrs. Roberts served on the board of the organization for four years, and later provided legal services. Ms. Foster said that as an adoptive parent, Mrs. Roberts made contributions that included urging the group to focus more on the needs of biological mothers, and adding a biological mother to the board of directors.

Ms. Foster said Feminists for Life was committed not only to ending abortion, but also to making it “unthinkable” by providing every woman with the assistance she needs. Reversing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, is a goal, she said, “but not enough.”

Read that again — “but not enough.” That might be an interesting concept for further coverage and, might I add, some questions from courageous Democrats. If they ask those questions, people on both sides of the issue will be nervous. That will be good. There is a ghost in there. Trust me.

Any real news about a Third Party?

Regular readers of GetReligion will know that we don’t spend much time blogging about religious media, unless it is a site offering very solid information that is of interest to mainstream Godbeat reporters. The work of Ted Olsen and the CT blog crew leaps to mind. There are valuable sites on all sides of the Anglican Wars, too. And so forth and so on.

But every now and then you can catch a passing reference to an uncovered news item in niche media targeting various religious camps — especially when you are dealing with, let’s say, the Alpha Celebrities who head powerful parachurch groups. It also pays to read between the lines of the denominational press organizations on both sides of the Culture Wars, such as — sort of — Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press.

The politico turned activist/apologist Chuck Colson is just such a person — an evangelical Alpha Male of the highest order. The radio commentaries written by Colson and his team of researchers often deal with political events, which is not surprising. But the current commentary with the title “The Long Run: News Cycles and Nominees” includes a very interesting glimpse into a scene that is predictable, yet interesting nevertheless.

The short script is about the guessing games leading up to the nomination of John G. Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. People on both sides of the church aisle were tense. On the right, people were nervous about Judge Edith Clement being another Justice David Souter. Enough said. Then we find this passing reference:

This concern, while understandable, made three unsupported assumptions: first, that Clement really was a Souter-in-waiting; second, that she was actually the nominee; and third, if activists made enough noise, they could pressure the president.

When speculation shifted to another candidate, many activists breathed a sigh of relief, but during the hours Clement spent as the front-runner, saw more than one meeting regarding a possible third political party — and panicky phone calls to the White House, and alarmist traffic on the Internet, as if we could control events.

Colson goes on to offer some patient words, urging other evangelicals to be patient. I expect he wrote this script himself.

So — WHOA — what was that about multiple meetings to discuss a Third Party? Does anyone have a list of the folks in those meetings? Talk about burying the lead. What was discussed? Who represented the White House, urging calm? Dr. James Dobson makes this threat every few years. So who else was inside the closed doors?

A quick Google of “Third Party” and “Christians” yields no news. Anyone out there seen anything? I am still in dial-up land and I cannot do my usual blitz work.

What’s shaking?

Catching up on that little court story

Mercy! What a 48 hours or so to disappear into the zoo of I-95 while listening to the latest Harry Potter novel. It seems that I have missed a minor development up here in the greater Washington area.

My work on the blog will be spotty in the days ahead. Verizon will not have the just-moved Mattingly family’s DSL up and running for a week or so. At least that is what the computerized Ms. Darth Vader said in the company’s hellish automated service system. My fair wife was switched around and cut off three times. Also, I don’t start work on the Hill at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities until August 1. My Scripps Howard News Service column this a.m. — the second of two columns (here’s the first) on the mini-media storm involving The New York Times, the popes and evolution — should have opened with this credit line: “Today’s column is brought to you with the assistance of Panera Bread.” Try the Cobblestone.

Anyway, it seems that Newsweek may have nailed the heart of the Supreme Court story this past week. Check here for a refresher. The big idea was that the country-club side of the GOP was worried that “an obsessive focus on abortion and gay marriage will jeopardize what they regard as a once-in-a-generation chance to unshackle commerce from the grip of federal regulators.”

So, crucial to the success of the John Roberts nomination is the media spin that the libertarian side of the yin-yang GOP is happy and that the Religious Right is not too happy. But who is actually happy? How would we know? Who will find out if this guy ever sits in a pew?

Of course, in the age of the blogosphere, the quickest way to catch up on this drama within the drama is to turn to media-hot blogs on both sides. For starters, you turn — naturally — to Andrew Sullivan. Here is a link near the start of his blitz into fretting and praise, as he relaxes for a few months and then rides more tense emails and then repeats the cycle. The bottom line is that if Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and other cultural conservatives believe they have reason to worry, then there is reason for the Lifestyle Left to hope. More than ever, Sullivan is a must read for the next few weeks (and you know the elite reporters are reading him).

Meanwhile, the blog crew at Christianity Today already has a link-happy report online about religion-turf reactions. Enquiring minds want to know, of course, what the human warning siren on the Religious Right thought of the nomination. Here is a piece of Collin Hansen’s report:

The question of judicial philosophy is central because Roberts did not deliver an opinion on the D.C. court about abortion, religious symbolism, gay rights, or many other contentious social issues. For these reasons, Roberts may avoid the combative confirmation process that so many groups have been predicting and promising since Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement July 1. However, this same fact renders him somewhat mysterious, even for supporters.

“To my knowledge Judge Roberts has never talked about abortion and he certainly has no rulings about it, so we don’t know what his private views are,” said James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family. “But we do know that he is what Justice Scalia called an ‘originalist,’ who will interpret the Constitution as written, not dream up his decisions based on some preconceived ideology.”

Ah! But is the good doctor bluffing? Who consulted who? Who winked and who nodded?

I hope the good people here at Panera Bread in Glen Burnie will let me come back in the days ahead and find out.

P.S. Can you believe The New York Times didn’t use “beam me up” in this obituary headline? Others could not resist. Ah, that British culture.

MIA: Those Chaplain Corps wars

From time to time, GetReligion, The Revealer and other sites that dissect religion coverage are criticized for being too negative and not pointing out the good as well as the bad.

This past week was a very busy one, so I never got around to blogging what I thought was one of the best stories of the week. So let me do that now, as I get ready to turn off the computer and head out the door to Baltimore-Washington. I am referring to Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times feature, “Evangelicals Are a Growing Force in the Military Chaplain Corps.”

The dateline on the story is Colorado Springs, but this is not — believe me, it is not — another tired follow story on religious liberty issues at the Air Force Academy. GetReligion has been watching that story carefully, of course, since we’re big on the whole issue of offensive free speech. However, there is a larger issue lurking in the background of that emotional story.

Goodstein has the story. It’s the story of a legal war that has been raging among military chaplains as the rising tide of American evangelicalism crashes into the fortress of the oldline Protestant and Catholic establishment in the armed forces. This has been covered, blow by blow, in some of the denominational news services and in mainstream Christian publications.

While the Air Force story hinges on claims that evangelicals are smothering, well, virtually everyone, the legal battle centers on claims by evangelicals that they face discrimination from the oldline world — clergy in collars, in other words.

This is a story packed with land mines, for an oldline newspaper like the Times. It’s clear that one factor in all of this is the negative attitude that the old-line churches have toward the modern military, in the age of Iraq and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The progressive churches are also in a statistical freefall in the pews. The Catholics are growing, but the priesthood is shrinking. All of that affects the chaplains issue.

There are doctrinal issues, too. Evangelicals believe in evangelism and hell. They take both seriously. The modern oldline and Catholic worlds are, in effect, universalist when it comes to salvation. It is easier for clergy on the left to exist and speak their minds in a pluralistic, interfaith military than it is for traditional Christians. Yet the government is not supposed to practice “viewpoint discrimination” on religious speech issues. This is a tough row to hoe on both sides.

Goodstein’s article features articulate, compelling voices from both sides of this debate. There are many sections I could quote. Here are two key passages:

Part of the struggle, chaplains and officials say, is the result of growing diversity. But part is from evangelicals following their church’s teachings to make converts while serving in a military job where they are supposed to serve the spiritual needs of soldiers, fliers and sailors of every faith. Evangelical chaplains say they walk a fine line.

Brig. Gen. Cecil R. Richardson, the Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, said in an interview, “We will not proselytize, but we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.” The distinction, he said, is that proselytizing is trying to convert someone in an aggressive way, while evangelizing is more gently sharing the gospel.

And, of course, there is the Vietnam factor:

The churches that once supplied most of the chaplains say they are now having trouble recruiting for a variety of reasons. Many members of their clergy are now women, who are less likely to seek positions as military chaplains or who entered the ministry as a second career and are too old to qualify. The Catholic Church often does not have enough priests to serve its parishes, let alone send them to the military.

There are also political reasons. Anne C. Loveland, a retired professor of American history at Louisiana State University and the author of “American Evangelicals and the U.S. Military, 1942-1993,” said the foundation for the change in the chaplaincy was laid during the Vietnam War.

“Evangelical denominations were very supportive of the war, and mainline liberal denominations were very much against it,” Ms. Loveland said. “That cemented this growing relationship between the military and the evangelicals.”

I could go on and on. There are sections of this feature to disturb and provoke readers on both sides. This is what journalism does. I hope this important free-speech story is out in the main pages and will stay there. Goodstein got the story.

Who gets to define “occupying forces”?

The Associated Press has producted a solid update on an emerging MSM theme in the wake of the London bombings — the debate inside mainstream Islam over when violence is acceptable and when it is not. A serious uptick in coverage of this issue is crucial, especially for moderate Muslims and others interested in religious liberty.

I’ll keep this short, since correspondent Thomas Wagner’s report about the gathering at London’s largest mosque is wire-service direct and you can read it for yourself. The heart of the whole matter is Israel, of course, but the wording also applies to Iraq. The key: suicide bombings can be used against “occupying forces.” Would this also include Saudi Arabian heretics in Mecca, if the first name of the person making this deadly theological decision is Osama?

“There should be a clear distinction between the suicide bombing of those who are trying to defend themselves from occupiers, which is something different from those who kill civilians, which is a big crime,” said Sayed Mohammed Musawi, the head of the World Islamic League in London.

“The media in the West are mixing the difference between these two, and the result is that some of our Muslim youth are becoming more frustrated and they think that both are the same, even though Muslim law forbids killing any innocent lives,” Musawi said.

Once again, please let us know of other stories addressing these issues. I hope, for starters, AP lets Wagner and others stay on the topic.

Harry Potter — blood and religion?

HalfBloodThe snail mail is extra, extra late today here in West Palm Beach. So late that it may end up being delayed into the regularly scheduled evening summer thunderstorm.

You think the mailperson is carrying any extra weight today? A few copies, perhaps, of the Book That Need Not Be Named? The Mattingly family will hold off on reading it until Monday, as — it’s time to move — we start the long drive to the Baltimore-Washington area. We’ll have the amazing Jim Dale on CD in one car and the family librarian reading in the other car.

No word yet on the religious content of the book from my good (Russian Orthodox homeschooler conservative) friend John Granger, he of Hogwartsprofessor.com and the Barnes & Noble online Harry Potter seminar. No, I have not looked and listened ahead to find out who dies, and the reviewers — who are raving, as a rule — have not let the White Bumblebee out of the bag.

There is, however, a fascinating remark about the faith element at the end of Sandra Martin’s review in the Globe and Mail. This is, you see, a “terror”- and “terrorism”-haunted book, and her lead is blunt: “Call out the grief counsellers.” Concerning J.K. Rowling, Martin writes:

Since then she has remarried (an Edinburgh doctor) and had two more children. She has dedicated The Half Blood Prince to her daughter Mackenzie who was born in January, calling the book her baby’s “ink and paper twin.” That sentimental linkage between creating a book and a baby shines through much of the novel. For all its mayhem and gore, this novel is really about the importance of loving and protecting children and overcoming prejudices based on blood and religion — themes that are both timeless and universal.

Please help us watch for the religion-angle stories and columns. They should hit in the next few days.

L.A. review of the Book that Need Not Be Named

OK, OK, but for about half of America — for competing reasons — this is a religion news story. Here is the early Los Angeles Times review — by Emily Green — of you know what. Everyone keep their eyes open for religion-angle stories tomorrow and Sunday.

At the end of the book she says she was crying — big time.

Oh, and here is the official BBC blog for reviewers. Does the book contain any terrorists?