God, libraries and Harry Potter

GobletAs GetReligion readers may know, I am starting to get interested in podcasting (in this post-Katrina era of crowded commuter trains). One of my favorites is the weekly Pottercast program put out by the fanatics at The Leaky Cauldron. This week’s episode (No. 6) is linked to the annual Banned Books emphasis by the American Library Association.

Listening to the show reminded me of a recent piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education that was sent to me by the most excellent librarian who is my wife. It’s titled “The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian” and it was written by David Durant, head of the government documents and microforms desk at East Carolina University. At first glance, this seems to be an article about politics. Durant writes:

The problem is not that most librarians have liberal or leftist views. It is that the overwhelming prevalence of such views has created a politicized atmosphere of groupthink and even intolerance, in which left-wing politics permeate the library profession and are almost impossible to avoid. . . .

The solution is not to replace left-wing with right-wing politicization. Rather it is to leave politics to the individual. Just as we should collect and provide access to materials representing a broad range of beliefs, we should welcome diverse viewpoints within our profession.

And so forth and so on. It seems that ALA meetings may, in the near future, turn into Michael Moore film festivals.

Like I said, this sounds political. But when you listen to the Pottercast, you realize that — at the local level — the conflicts between librarians and their conservative patrons are almost always about (wait for it) — sex, salvation and, OK, some people would say Satanism. The entire story of the challenges to the Harry Potter books is built on the distrust that exists between the powers that be in public libraries and conservative parents.

But there is more to this story than “banned books.” If journalists want to cover this story, I suggest that they dig a bit deeper. Once again, there are interesting people on both sides of these debates. A few years ago, I had a chance to cover Nimbus 2003 — a global Potter studies festival — and I was surprised to find that the two largest flocks in the hallways were real-life witches (Wiccans and druids, mostly) and, believe it or not, evangelical Christians (many homeschool moms). It was interesting watching them study each other before and after the main sessions.

With that scene in mind, I wrote the Pottercast staff a letter. I offer it here, in case it might interest any journalists who are thinking about doing Banned Book Week stories or follow-up reports on faith and the Potter books.


I wanted to make a comment or two about your Banned Books Podcast.

First of all, please know that I am a mainstream journalist who covers religion and church-state issues; the husband of a librarian; a life-long Democrat; and the father of two children who has, after some initial skepticism, read all of the Potter books to them myself — in part because of JKR’s highly intelligent use of traditional Christian images, names and themes. I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, although I was raised Southern Baptist. Art and reading are crucial in our home.

Now, a few quick comments. Much of the protest about the Harry Potter books is, in my opinion, uninformed and knee jerk. Yes, they should read the books and even some of the books about the books, on both sides of the argument.

You should know, however, that there are millions of dedicated Rowling readers out there in church pews — something you have never addressed in your Podcasts. It is wrong to leave your listeners with the impression that, when it comes to things Harry, the world is divided into smart secular people and stupid religious people. You also need to know that many people, when they talk about Banned Books, tend to forget:

* To consider a different form of banning, which is the issue of books that librarians — acting on their own biases — never purchase in the first place. What shape might this bias take? As New York Times columnist David Brooks has noted, in the months leading up to the 2004 election “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations” by librarians “was a whopping 223 to 1.”

Now, I am not all that interested in the political implications of this. What I wonder about are the religious and cultural implications. What percentage of the best-selling religious books in America never make it to library shelves or are never given multiple-copy status (even with millions of copies being sold across the nation)? What controversial books by cultural conservatives never make it to shelves and are, thus, banned books of a different stripe?

* That many parents do not fear the presence of objectionable books in libraries. They fear that tax-funded professionals will deliberately undercut parental authority. In a school context, they fear that children will be required to read objectionable books — with no alternatives given.

Many parents do not want to ban books. They want alternatives. Try to imagine public school teachers and librarians deliberately assigning objectionable books to, let’s say, Muslim parents. Try to imagine an educator assigning a Unitarian kid a book by, let’s say, Pat Robertson.

Parents have rights. They do not have the right to ban books for other people’s children. No way. But parents should be able to trust librarians and teachers not to actively attack the values taught in their home.

So I would urge you to open up your Podcasts to more points of view, not fewer. I would urge the people who organize the Banned Books events to be open to more points of view (and more books), not fewer.

The bottom line: Liberials can ban books, too, especially if they are in charge of library budgets.

So let’s hear a cheer for diversity and intellectual freedom — beginning in libraries.

Oh, and if Sirius Black died in the (using alchemical terms) black book, and Albus (white) Dumbledore died in the white book, who might die in the RED, or final, sacrificial stage of the alchemical process? Rubeus (Latin for “red”) Hagrid? Someone in a family that is, well, rather red-oriented? Just asking.

Meanwhile, at the Darwin Derby

imagesWhile Washington, D.C., holds its collective breath waiting for the next round of the Supremes game, anyone who really wants to catch up on events in the Darwin Derby need only click over to the blog of the omnipresent Ted Olsen, Rob Moll & Co. at Christianity Today. They have decided to call this the “Unintelligently Designed Edition” and, yes, its 300-plus links sprawl out — but in a way that is not random or impersonal.

Even a quick glance through the dozens of links on the evolution wars will demonstrate that the MSM remains at a total loss when it comes to describing the beliefs of the various groups involved in this story. Some people are trying to stick with the smart scientists vs. stupid religion people framework — “evolution” vs. “creationism” — but there are so many people on both sides of the debate who do not want to play along.

Evolution? Is that “micro” or “macro”? Is there such a thing as “theistic” evolution and, if so, did or does the God of that camp have anything to do with creation? And creationists? “Young earth” or “change over time”? Scan the articles yourself. The Associated Press Stylebook committee needs to call an emergency meeting.

So an anonymous priest walks into a newsroom . . .

cassromanflWhere do we begin, when it comes to talking about the recent flurry of news reports about the Roman Catholic Church and the proposed — repeat, proposed — “ban” on the ordination of homosexual priests?

We are still at the trial balloon stage. But if we want to talk about this as a journalistic subject, which is the purpose of this blog, we should probably start with (cue: drum roll) Andrew Sullivan. No, we don’t need to talk about his views of Catholic theology of sexuality. No, Sullivan recently launched into another topic that actually hits closer to home for journalists. Take it away Andrew (this gets long, but the content is crucial):

Money quote from a new piece in the Catholic newspaper, the Tablet: “Most gay priests, like myself, have been prevented from speaking about our own experiences, and sharing with our parishioners our rewarding lives as celibate men. Most have been formally silenced by bishops or religious superiors on the topic, so the Church can deny our existence. (That is the reason for my pseudonym: I would much prefer to write under my own name.) And many who have not been formally silenced fear reprisals from their bishops and some parishioners. As a result, the only public model of the ‘gay priest’ is the notorious paedophile.

To which Sullivan responds:

There is a solution to this. It’s called courage. I am actually tired of hearing from all these gay priests who refuse to use their names and give blind quotes to the press. Memo to them: your silence is empowering Benedict and the forces of bigotry. You have a choice now: come out to your congregations, explain your lives, stand up for yourselves and the pope, or continue to be scapegoated, exiled, punished. . . . Don’t quit; come out and fight; force the bishops to fire you in the daylight of the press and the people. If all gay priests did that, up to a third of the clergy could call the Vatican’s bluff. The time for hoping this will blow away or that somehow you can avoid facing it is over. And your time has come.

The journalism hook in this is obvious.

In the wake of recent scandals — in the priesthood of the newsroom, not the church — all kinds of journalistic bishops have been confessing the sins of their institutions and promising to do better in the future. The New York Times is merely one such Principality and Power. Part of this journalistic “crisis of faith” is a commitment to avoiding, whenever possible, anonymous sources.

Sullivan is right. This is a story in which more of the Roman Catholics who want to overturn the teachings of their church on sexuality need to step forward and be quoted. We are already seeing waves of MSM stories that are built on anonymous quotes. The logic is natural. These men cannot speak without being punished. If we quote them on the record, we will be hurting their cause. Thus? What do you do?

The result, in a Chicago Sun-Times piece, sounds like this:

“Flying in the face of reality and scientific evidence, rather than dealing with the real issue of psychic immaturity in priests who are either gay or straight — which is clearly the problem for pedophiles . . . — they are going on a witch hunt to get rid of all the gays,” said the priest, who requested anonymity. “It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

“Why stop at seminaries? Why not deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals? Are they going to be asked if they are homosexuals and if they are, be forced to resign their positions?” he said. “If that happens, there will be many empty offices, many empty parishes and many empty sees.”

Once this game has started, the National Review Online folks can turn to anonymous sources and print something that sounds like this:

I was in the seminary from 1984-87 and can personally attest that the homosexual problem was huge. Conservatively, I would estimate that at least half the seminary was homosexual. The problem with this is that seminaries get a reputation as centers of homosexuality and the priesthood becomes known as a homosexual profession. Who wants to be associated with that?

Another problem comes with the simple temptation of homosexuals living exclusively with other men. This is comparable to a straight seminarian living with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. You can imagine the scandal and temptation that would lead to. Once that gay undercurrent starts, it’s virtually impossible to control it and gay and straight cliques form amongst the students and faculty. (Trust me, I’ve seen them.)

But we all know that this battle will, for the American Catholic elites, be fought out at the level of the New York Times news and editorial pages.

30579F4sThe Catholic establishment in North America is, in many ways, a very conventional oldine progressive church. There are many men and women there who fiercely oppose Catholicism’s ancient doctrines on sexual morality and want to see them modernized. They teach in seminaries and universities and hold jobs in church bureaucracies and ecclesiastical offices both local and national. This is true in all of the mainline religious groups, as anyone who can read a newspaper knows.

But the Times is supposed to be cutting down on anonymous sources. Right? But how do you quote the Catholic left on this story without giving these men and women the safety of anonymous-source status? If they speak up, they will be quoted on the record in Rome as well as in newspapers and broadcasts.

It is early in this story, but a crucial piece so far was Laurie Goodstein’s recent “Gay Men Ponder Impact of Proposal by Vatican.” The gay men, of course, are seminarians and priests. Thus, the story opens:

Word that the Vatican is likely to issue instructions soon that could bar most gay men from joining the priesthood has set off a wave of anger and sadness among some gay priests and seminarians who say they may soon have to decide whether to stay or leave, to remain silent or to speak out.

“I do think about leaving,” said a 30-year old Franciscan seminary student. “It’s hard to live a duplicitous life, and for me it’s hard not to speak out against injustice. And that’s what this is.”

In telephone interviews . . . with gay priests and seminarians in different parts of the country, all were adamant that their names not be used because they feared repercussions from their bishops or church superiors.

I have many questions about this situation, even though I understand the logic.

Stop and think about this for a moment. Where do these anonymous sources come from? What groups and causes do they represent? Would conservatives making anonymous claims be treated by elite MSM reporters in the same manner? Is it fair to allow one side in such a hot debate to remain cloaked, while the other is defending its views in a harsh spotlight?

Or how about this question: Does the Vatican have a right to attempt to ordain men who actually believe the teachings of the church? This leads to another question, which I am sure we will continue to see journalists ask (and they should): Is the proposed Vatican policy an effective way to attempt to screen out men who do not believe the teachings of the church?

Stay tuned. There are, I think, many more trial balloons ahead.

Jerry Falwell, gay-rights activist?

My Scripps Howard News Service column is out and it’s about the story behind an odd little news story involving a new gay-rights activist named Jerry Falwell. Does anyone have any theories as to why this story did not get more MSM attention (other than the fact that Falwell is as far from the limelight these days as Pat Robertson should be)? Just curious.

Journalists and “cafeteria” Catholics

totebag 270Talk about rigging the debate. While nothing may be higher on the Catholic agenda than abortion (even more, it appears at time, than war and poverty), it doesn’t mean the death penalty is some minor issue unrelated to Catholic teaching. A Catholic who supports the death penalty is a cafeteria Catholic. The church is not neutral on the death penalty and it is clearly in opposition to church teachings even if abortion is the only litmus test . . .

Posted by Michael at 2:20 pm on September 27, 2005

This is a very important issue and the kind of factual question that journalists wrestle with all of the time. I wish I had the time (it’s column day) to dig out all of the links you need on this, right now.

Amy Welborn! If you are out there, please leave us a comment or two.

The Vatican has certainly expressed strong doubts about whether the death penalty can be used in a just way in a society torn up by racism, poverty, etc. But the death penalty itself has not been completely written off. Also, this is not an issue on which the church has been united for, oh, 2,000 years or so — such as abortion (where the condemnation is from the highest levels of the pre-schism universal church).

Just war theory is also ancient, but people within the church often wrestle with application. John Paul II condemned the war in Iraq, but this was not raised to a level of doctrinal certainty. Abortion has been at that level for centuries and centuries.

Economic justice is a perfect example of a topic where the goal is sure, but the means are not. What has caused more poverty in the U.S. in the past few generations — lack of commitment to economic justice or the fragmentation of the modern family?

Rome (and Eastern Orthodoxy, too) would say the best answer is both-and.

But there is the rub. Which modern American political party is on the correct side of both of those issues?

Michael wrote: “A Catholic who supports the death penalty is a cafeteria Catholic.”

That may be true in your church, but not in the Vatican’s church. A Catholic may also argue that the death penalty can be just, but that it is racist in this culture. There are lines people draw in different places on that issue. On abortion, the church’s teachings are ancient and universal. Catholics in modern America will argue about this (and they do and the press must cover that), but the doctrinal issue is quite clear.

Meanwhile, back to the original issue that started this discussion (keep those comments coming).

The New York Times also has a report out about the frightening rhetoric of that Cheryl F. Halpern woman, the new chairperson at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Once again, we are told — note the sneer quotes — that she is committed to “objectivity and balance” in public television and radio. There’s more:

Ms. Halpern’s commitment raised concerns among some broadcast executives who said her predecessor, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, used “balance” to justify providing the financing for at least one conservative program, featuring the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, and for monitoring programs that have been critical of the Bush administration.

Oh my gosh! Someone attempted to justify starting one — that number does appear to be one — conservative commentary program in a nation that is as strongly divided on political and cultural issues as this one? In the age of conservative talk shows and, yes, even the dreaded Fox News? What were they thinking? Ratings? Looking for bipartisan support?

Another dangerous appeal for balance

coppermug250x250 1 And now we return once again (cue: swirl of soapy organ music) to As Public Broadcasting Turns. That’s kind of what I hear inside my head whenever I read news reports about the ongoing tensions in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting linked to the work of chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who, reporters always remind us, had this strange idea that PBS and NPR lean to the left.

This, of course, is a ghost. While public broadcasting has its share of critics who are mere GOP politicos, NPR and PBS have also been criticized through the years for “liberal bias” on cultural and religious issues.

To make matters more complex, there is a solid and loyal progressive choir of listeners and viewers out there who sincerely like this progressive slant and feel quite possessive. So when NPR, for example, decides to reach out to a new demographic with an increased emphasis on religion news, these loyal listeners in the platinum-coffee-mug set tend to feel very uncomfortable.

Now, Tomlinson has stepped out of the line of fire and turned things over to yet another chairman, or chairperson, with conservative credentials — Cheryl F. Halpern. And, according to a report by Matea Gold and Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times, she is already saying dangerous things. For example:

“Our goal, whether it’s in our support of educational children’s television, insightful features and documentaries, or entertainment that sparkles, is to make public broadcasting a haven for the mind and for the spirit,” Halpern said. “We have a duty to provide the public an explanation for the kind of work we do — and we must honor the principles clearly stated in our charter: to encourage objective and balanced programming.”

Uh-oh. Here we have another one of those appeals to “balance” and even “objectivity” in news reporting. (Note to those about to click “comment.” I like the word “balance,” but much prefer “fairness” instead of the word “objectivity,” a term that tends to lead into philosophical minefields.) Clearly, this is pro-conservative code language that could skew news reports toward the middle.

We can tell that this is dangerous code language, because the same point shows up again a few paragraphs later. Is Halpern some kind of fanatic?

“There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability,” she told the Senate Commerce Committee at her confirmation hearing in 2003, according to Current, a public broadcasting trade publication.

After the board meeting Monday, Halpern was pressed by reporters on whether she shared Tomlinson’s view of bias in the system. Halpern demurred, saying that two recently hired ombudsmen were now responsible for fielding such complaints. “We will not be intervening within programming,” she said.

I find it interesting that these references to “balance,” “bias” and “accountability” lead directly to the assumption that she might try to “intervene” in programming. Is the implication that she might seek new voices, new shows and more diversity? Or are the reporters suggesting that she might remove voices she considers “liberal”?

Horrors! Might she even offer new programs that take a balanced look at religious and cultural issues? Might we hear PBS- and NPR-worthy voices from the conservative side of religious sanctuaries?

Hollywood conservatism unleashed?

E Hollywood signOne of the Big Ideas of this blog is that it is almost impossible to talk about the news business in terms of a pure “left” vs. “right” content, at least if you are going to use the old-fashioned definitions of words such as “conservative” and “liberal.” Most of our political conflicts today — other than issues of war and peace — are rooted in social, moral, cultural and even religious issues, not issues of economics.

Was Bill Clinton a “liberal,” except on moral and cultural issues? No way. Ask the labor unions that question.

What are the issues that cause warfare inside the GOP’s big tent? Economics? Environment? Sort of, but not really. The flash points are all linked to lifestyle issues and culture. Click here for one example — as the tension over Judge Janice Rogers Brown increases. Is this a classic left-right fight? No way.

Well, now we are seeing signs that Hollywood is growing more complex — as studios, in an era of declining box-office statistics — realize that it may not be wise to ignore or to constantly offend about half the U.S. population. So some journalists are beginning to talk about a surge of “Hollywood conservatism.” I wrote about this a few days ago, in connection with the film The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But this is only the latest in a series of recent films to cause a spike in MSM paranoia.

Remember The Incredibles? A.O. Scott of The New York Times does. Some of themes are woven into his feature titled “Now, from Hollywood, visions of conservatism.” He thinks it’s crazy to say Hollywood was ever “monolithically liberal.”

The notion that the American film industry is a hotbed of leftist propaganda is a venerable one, and some determined demagogues will cling to it no matter what the studios do. But the studios themselves, especially after the stunning success of Mel Gibson’s independently financed “The Passion of the Christ,” have tried to strengthen their connection with religious and social conservatives, who represent not only a political constituency but a large and powerful segment of the market. . . .

Last autumn, “The Incredibles” celebrated Ayn Randian libertarian individualism and the suburban nuclear family, while the naughty puppets of “Team America” satirized leftist celebrity activism and defended American global power even as they mocked its excesses. More recently we have learned that flightless Antarctic birds, according to some fans of “March of the Penguins,” can be seen as big-screen embodiments of the kind of traditional domestic values that back-sliding humans have all but abandoned, as well as proof that divine intention, rather than blind chance, is the engine of creation.

Yes, he thinks Intelligent Design shows up in The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the Terri Schiavo case looms in the background throughout Just Like Heaven. Did Team America really strike a chord with the Religious Right?

Once again, however, journalists should ask this question: What does “conservatism” mean in this context? What does “liberal” mean? If Hollywood is basically pro-profits and sold out to radical individualism and sexual freedom, isn’t this closer to Libertarianism (on moral issues, at least) rather than “liberalism”? Can anyone imagine Hollywood swinging right on, oh, sex and salvation?

Still, read Scott’s essay — just to see what the elites are thinking.

Finding Port Arthur (turn right at Houston)

house7aJust a personal note here tonight, after a day of watching Hurricane Rita coverage on various cable channels.

When I was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, we had an old saying that went something like this. If you wake up in the morning and your bed is surrounded by water, roll over and dip your finger in the water. If it’s fresh water, go back to sleep. It’s no big deal. The pumps will take care of it sooner or later.

However, if you roll over and taste salt in the water, get out of town because the seawall (pictured) is down and that means the Gulf of Mexico is coming back to claim everything.

Actually, it is never a very good idea to taste the water in that part of the world, because of all the oil and chemical processing plants. Some of this colorful atmosphere ended up in the music of local artists, people like the Winter brothers and that renegade named Janis Joplin.

Anyway, the sea wall held once again and the pumps will eventually get rid of the rainwater. But today also left me thinking about another reality linked to journalism and its, well, struggles to pin a news value on life and destruction.

I have to admit that I did rather enjoy watching Geraldo Rivera grandstand in the wasted downtown city streets of my old hometown. I kept waiting for him to wrap himself around the Janis Joplin statue during a big gust of wind.

It was also fun listening to the visiting newscasters find new and unique ways of saying things like Sabine Pass (it’s suh-bean, not SAY-bine). It was also clear that the MSM, for obvious reasons, was set up for Houston and Galveston, not for all of those strange out-of-the-way places in Southeast Texas. I loved the moment on CNN when someone said, “Jasper? I guess we’re going to have to find out where Jasper is.”

Maybe so. People live there, after all. But for most of today, the MSM reports were still dominated by visuals and information from New Orleans and from Houston-Galveston. I know why this is and it is, of course, all about numbers. This is understandable.

It made me think about that old myth about The Associated Press having a chart that shows the value of a human life, in news terms. If you are a journalist, you have heard about this.

In terms of people being killed in catastrophic events, one American dying is equal to 10 Brits or 50 people in France, which is equal to 100 people in Mexico and maybe 1,000 people in Afghanistan (unless those Afghan deaths would somehow hurt President Bush politically and make it harder to nominate a cultural conservative to that other open chair at the U.S. Supreme Court).

It’s a nasty, cynical concept, but precisely the sort of things journalists laugh about during long days in tired newsrooms. And that’s what I have been thinking about today. How many people in worn-out Texas and Louisiana refinery towns does it take to equal how many hip, NPR-feature-worthy folks in a colorful city such as New Orleans? I mean, try to imagine someone writing something crazy like this about flooded small towns along the Texas-Louisiana border:

New Orleans, our old flame, how bitterly we hate it that this has befallen you. Fate is crueler than we feared, to strip away the illusions that made us love you even better in your rich, ripe age than in the headlong passion of youth — which we secretly rekindled, if only in memory, each time we sank again into your warm embrace.

And, yes, of course, we’ll come to you again. Only perhaps not just yet, not in the merciless glare of the emergency ward, with the tubes encircling you like water snakes and the inescapable whiff of the bedpan.

Believe it or not, that is from The Dallas Morning News and it is not satire.

I understand. Honest, I do. I’m a veteran in the news business. But still, thinking about all of this created an interesting emotional undercurrent during a long day. Not all towns and not all people are created equal, in the headlines.

The seawall held. That’s the news.