CJR: Undoing journalism?

05 05coverThe current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review contains an essay that is must reading for anyone who cares about the future of American newspapers and the classic “American model of the press,” which is (or was) built on the concept that newspapers promised readers fair and accurate coverage of both sides in heated debates.

The piece is called “Undoing Darwin” and the authors, Chris Mooney and Matthew C. Nisbet, argue that American journalists must stop acting as if there is any kind of scientific argument left to cover related to Darwinism. Thus, “fairness” does not apply, since there are no critics of Darwinian orthodoxy worthy of being treated fairly. Thus, all the critics are religious nuts and there is no need to take their claims seriously or present their arguments accurately. It is a lengthy and highly detailed piece, and I urge readers to take the authors seriously and read what they have to say.

Here is the lead:

On March 14, 2005, The Washington Post‘s Peter Slevin wrote a front-page story on the battle that is “intensifying across the nation” over the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes. Slevin’s lengthy piece took a detailed look at the lobbying, fund-raising, and communications tactics being deployed at the state and local level to undermine evolution. The article placed a particular emphasis on the burgeoning “intelligent design” movement, centered at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, whose proponents claim that living things, in all their organized complexity, simply could not have arisen from a mindless and directionless process such as the one so famously described in 1859 by Charles Darwin in his classic, The Origin of Species.

If you read on, you will note that Mooney and Nisbet are arguing that the position newspapers should advocate goes even further than the language now being used and defended by the National Association of Biology Teachers.

There was a time then this group officially defined evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” However, in 1997 the association’s board — amid fierce argument and controversy — removed the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal,” saying that this kind of language could not be proven in a lab and, thus, was a kind of faith language for agnostics and atheists. Here is a quick overview by Dr. Eugenie Scott, who is hardly a leader of the Religious Right.

There continue to be echoes of this controversy in the CJR piece and in the wider public debate about Intelligent Design.

Note again the words of Mooney and Nisbet — “mindless and directionless.” How does one prove the lack of a mind? How does one document that a process is “directionless”?

You can, by logic, argue for such a position, and many scientists do. Many openly argue that Darwinism supports atheism or some form of deism. People on the other side — the Intelligent Design crowd — are trying to use the same sequence, arguing by data and logic for a philosophical position (that evidence points to a Creator) that cannot be proven in a lab. Once again, we see this science/ logic/philosophy sequence.

However, it seems that CJR is saying that newspapers must protect the public from this debate over philosophy and science.

Personally, I think journalism is a good idea. This is not to say newspapers cannot show that the overwhelming majority of scientists in this nation back Darwinism. But it would also help if these same newspapers demonstrated that many of the Darwinian authorities cannot agree on what the word “Darwinism” means and to what degree Darwinism does or does not “prove” that humanity is the result of a random and meaningless process that did not have humanity in mind.

I would also love to see editors justify to readers — from sea to shining sea — their decision to embrace advocacy journalism on such an important and controversial issue. It seems, to me, like a quick and easy way to further weaken the newspaper industry. I do not think this is what most editors want to do.

A note to those who wish to comment: Let’s try really hard not to turn this into another row over science and religion. Please try to focus on the journalism issues involved. Thanks.

The Russians are voting (for the GOP)

TwoLubavitchThe Wall Street Journal editorial page, which often covers news stories that the news desk does not want, had an interesting feature this week about a quiet little political trend in American Judaism.

If the “pew gap” is the term used to describe the trend in Protestant and Catholic voting booths, we may end up having to call this one the “synagogue gap.” The problem with that, of course, is that this trend only affects certain sanctuaries.

And what is that story? Here it is in a nutshell:

On November 11, 2004[,] Haaretz News reported, “approximately a quarter of American Jewish voters cast their vote for Bush this time, as opposed to 18.5 percent four years ago. Experts calculate that about 85 percent of Orthodox Jews and about 95 percent of Haredi Jews voted for him. The high birthrate in these two communities helps to explain the significant rise in Jewish votes that went to the Republicans. . . . One thing that can be said for certain: The main issues that divide Israeli society — the moral foundation of life in Israel, and how to bring peace — are also the issues at the core of the disagreement in the U.S. between the Jews who voted for Bush and the majority among them who voted for Kerry.”

Gosh. Family life. Moral issues. And then you add on Israel. This sounds very familiar.

Anyway, the WSJ piece by Tony Carnes of Christianity Today zoomed in to look at a more specific issue: the tensions between the mainstream Jewish establishment — represented by Boston’s Larry Lowenthal of the American Jewish Committee — and Jewish immigrants from Russia.

To judge by his public statements and writings, Mr. Lowenthal’s idea of a faithful Jew is someone who opposes the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court, supports gay rights, abortion and euthanasia, and demands a strong separation of church and state. After all, as Mr. Lowenthal concluded approvingly in a July op-ed for the Jewish Advocate, Jews are “the most liberal” and “the least religious people in America.”

Imagine his consternation when an avalanche of emails from Russian Jews began to pour in to the Web site of the Jewish Russian Telegraph, a daily blog, in response to his article. About 100 people wrote to say that Mr. Lowenthal needed to stop making “outrageous statements” on behalf of people whom he doesn’t represent. Alex Koifman, who arrived in the U.S. from Belarus in 1978, and whom Mr. Lowenthal trained for his position as a board member at the Boston AJC, criticized his old teacher for overstepping his bounds, saying: “Since when are these concerns [abortion, gay rights, and church-state separation] concerns that are specific to the Jewish community? These are the Left’s concerns.”

Whoa. There’s more to this story, and it all points to the crucial role that religious tradition and practice play in American politics right now. The Democratic Party knows all about this. Its problem is simple, in the terms of James Davison Hunter: How do you appeal to the orthodox without offending the progressives? How do you tolerate the believers you believe are intolerant?

Has the, oh, New York Times had this story? If I missed it, let me know.

After Katrina: Open arms in Utah?

MoroniAnd speaking of ongoing questions about doctrines of the Latter-day Saints and their impact on Utah life, check this out. Let me assure you that I have read my share of materials on the Mormon decision to open the priesthood to African-Americans. But this Reuters story by Adam Tanner is evidence of how long it takes for perceptions and realities to change.

Asked whether he would relocate permanently to Utah after being brought here as a refugee from Hurricane Katrina, Larry Andrew rattled off a series of questions on Friday on the delicate issue of race.

“How do the adults really feel about us moving in?” he asked at Camp Williams, a military base 21 miles south of Salt Lake City housing about 400 refugees from last week’s disaster. “What if I find a Caucasian girl and decide to date her? “Will I have to deal with whispering behind me and eyeballing me?” asked the 36-year-old black man.

For the mostly poor, black refugees evacuated from New Orleans, few places are as geographically remote and culturally alien as this corner of Utah, where 0.2 percent of the population in the nearest town is black.

Local leaders say the door is open. The state is growing. Change takes time.

This was a better hook for a story than I thought it would be. Check it out.

By the way (and before anyone asks), I wonder if there is any family connection, somewhere along the line, between Adam Tanner and some other well-known Utah writers with the same last name. Tanner is a famous name in Mormon country.

About the photo: “Moroni on grey,” posted on Flickr by webmink (Creative Commons Deed).

The exaltation of Mitt Romney

Mormon CHoirStephen A., I think you’re missing a critical distinction. The Mormons are not Trinitarian, to put it mildly; their 19th century Scientology-like theology is in contradiction to every other Christian group, and certainly to doctrinally focused traditions such as fundamentalism. The fundamentalists think that the Catholics are wrong, to be sure, but the scope of error is entirely different. Listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” sometime and notice how they’ve changed the words. Indeed, that is part of the discomfort about the Mormons. Externally, they are relentlessly normal; their theological innards are, well, weird. . . .

Posted by C. Wingate at 9:30 am on September 8, 2005

I’d like to jump back to an earlier thread for a moment, for the simple reason that I think this is going to turn into a major news story sooner rather than later.

If you don’t believe me, just Google “Mitt Romney” and “Mormon” and look at the common themes. Click here for a recent Boston Globe look at this issue. More and more journalists are starting to smell the smoke from this fire. It also helps that the existing pool of GOP White House wannabes is seriously challenged in the sizzle category.

So, from a journalism point of view, what is the story here?

If I may, let me flash back to the Rocky Mountain News in the mid-1980s, when I had a chance to interview two of the 12 members of the top rank of Latter-day Saints apostles. I brought lots of marked-up reading materials with me to Salt Lake City and asked some very specific questions with the audiotape running.

On the record, they confirmed that — if taken to its logical conclusions (as man is, God once was) — Mormon theology would, in essence, be polytheistic. Yes, there are many worlds with their own gods (and the gods have wives) who are humans who have evolved to divinity. In LDS. doctrine, this is called “exaltation.” (Click here for a Protestant take on this doctrine.)

I went back to Denver to transcribe my interview tapes. Overnight, the Mormon press office rushed a transcript that included everything in the interview, except for the smoking-gun quote about polytheism. I wrote them back and let them know that my tape included that quotation and that I would be using it. Was there a problem with that? There was no word back from Utah. They knew that I knew that they knew what I knew.

So, yes, this is the ticking time bomb of a subject facing a Mormon political leader who wants to run in a GOP primary, especially below the Bible Belt. The irony, of course, is that many of these same conservative folks are very anxious, right now, to nail Democrats (and journalists) for using a “traditional Catholic” religious test to undercut conservative nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. What goes around comes around.

Anyway, I promise you that press-relations folks inside the GOP big tent are working on the Romney question right now.

P.S. I have searched and searched for the words to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s take on “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It would, in fact, be very interesting to look them over. Is anyone out there better than me with a search engine or two?

Is Mississippi on Newsweek’s map?

image holder6Let me offer a follow-up remark or two about the Newsweek “Pray For Us” cover story on Hurricane Katrina. I’ll put this in a separate post, so that readers don’t confuse my take on this with Doug’s piece. It’s not that I disagree with Doug. But something nagged me as I read the lead article through twice.

So here goes. Did I miss it or is the following, literally, the only direct reference in the main Newsweek article to Katrina victims outside of New Orleans?

The storm steered just to the east of New Orleans and blew away much of Biloxi, Miss. One Biloxi survivor, a Navy vet named Kevin Miller, described clinging to a tree as people floated by, “some dead.” Miller told Newsweek of grabbing a desperate woman by the hair — and losing her. “I just lost my grip,” he said, choking up. The suffering all along the Gulf Coast, where homes and whole islands vanished, has been terrible, with people’s whole lives falling into ruin.

I think that was it — between four or five sentences, depending on how one does the counting. By the way, I realize that there was a sidebar story on the impact of the storm on the oil industry up and down the coat and that it featured an astonishing feature photograph from Biloxi, Miss.

Does that seem a bit thin to anyone else, in terms of coverage of the area that was actually hit the hardest? One half of one paragraph? Did I miss anything else? Why focus so exclusively on New Orleans?

I do realize that New Orleans is turning into a much bigger disaster. I realize that it is the larger city and that, as far as we know, the relief efforts there have been a much bigger fiasco. I realize that the Big Easy is the cultural center that matters more to the national audience.

In effect, I am asking this: Is covering New Orleans such a singular priority because that story has political implications at a crucial time for the White House? In other words, I suspect that this offers more proof that in journalism politics trumps everything. It’s the highest value. Period.

I must stress that the main Newsweek article does a tremendous job of covering the personal and even political chaos in and around New Orleans. I know that’s the main story, for the national audience. But I still think that the magazine’s priorities are on clear display.

Come on. One half of one paragraph? There are towns elsewhere that are, literally, missing. They are gone. People need prayers there, too.

To take a long, sobering look at the stories that Newsweek blew past, check out Eugene Robinson’s poignant column in The Washington Post titled “Hard Path to Salvation.” It’s all about the tensions in the Gulf Coast between the Bibles and the gambling barges. I especially liked this passage about Biloxi, near the start of the article:

This is a town where people go to church on Sunday and mean it, but for material sustenance, Biloxi leads others unto temptation. Casino gambling has transformed this coastline, lifting thousands out of poverty. Now much of the industry is in ruins. . . .

Katrina’s strongest winds hit the Mississippi coast, and Biloxi is appallingly damaged. The Hard Rock Cafe’s iconic giant guitar still stands defiant, but the building behind it was smashed. Just about everything along the beach will have to be rebuilt, after the search dogs and the bulldozers and the huge military hovercraft complete their rescue-and-recovery mission. Even well inland, there are streets where most houses are missing a roof, or were bisected by a falling tree or simply have been reduced to rubble.

And then at the end, the local clergy are having to think hard about life after the storm and the casino boats.

“If people left, would they ever come back? And come back to what? The business of temptation was ruined in Biloxi. What was the right path to salvation?”

People are asking questions like that all up and down the Gulf Coast, not just in the great lost city of New Orleans.

Another source for Katrina news & views

hdr rightIf you are interested in news and commentary about the theological issues linked to Katrina, the Anglican Web Elves up north — wise guys in multiple meanings of that phrase — have started a blog that includes all kinds of useful links. This is the CaNN site, which stands either for Classical Anglican Net News or Clergy Against Nabobs of Negativism. I can never remember which is right. Wait, that last one would be Clergy Against Nattering Nabobs of Negativism, which would be CaNNN.

Today’s offerings can be found here. If you want to jump back to digests of previous editions — they are updating the contents every few hours — then you need to start at the home page and scroll way down. It does not appear that they have created an actual Katrina index page for all of the materials that they are collecting.

In terms of truth in theological advertising, be forewarned that this is a niche news site for a pack of quite traditional Anglicans. But right now, they are rounding up all kinds of viewpoints on this hot topic. For example, here is the official post listing the Katrina relief efforts that are recommended for atheists and skeptics. Once again, note the crucial role played by the “P” word:

A Call to Action from American Atheists

“All we have is each other . . .”

AMERICAN ATHEISTS urges all fellow nonbelievers to contribute to the rescue and other humanitarian efforts in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina. A number of secular, non-religious aid organizations are active in this relief campaign. They do not incorporate a religious message in their operations, discriminate on the basis of religion, nor do they proselytize to those vulnerable people currently in need.

AMERICAN NATIONAL RED CROSS (Founded by Deist-Unitarian Clara Barton) http://www.redcross.org

UNITED WAY OF AMERICA http://www.unitedway.org/

NETWORK FOR GOOD (has numerous listings for helping groups, both religious and secular) http://www.networkforgood.org

HUMANE SOCEITY OF THE UNITED STATES! (Our winged and four-legged friends need help, too!) http://www.hsus.org

* OTHER CHARITIES will be listed as we learn about their legitimate participation in the relief effort. Everyone [contributing] should be aware of scams; unfortunately, not all “charities” are legitimate and have a proven track record. Also, there are “religious” outreaches which do not proselytize as part of their efforts to help others. If you have a suggestion for an established, reputable secular humanitarian group that is worth of our support and would like to see it listed here, contact webmaster@atheists.org and we may be able to include it in this list. The list will be found at http://www.atheists.org.

I am sure there are denominational relief agencies that are anxious to be included in the non-proselytizing list. I’d like to see that list myself.

On the other side of the aisle, I am waiting — tell me if I have missed one — for a major newspaper to note the excellent job that some very, very conservative believers are doing in dissecting the theological arguments of the “God poured out His wrath” on New Orleans crowd. “Theodicy” is a very tricky business and, as C.S. Lewis liked to say, there really are people who should avoid trying to read and explain adult books.

Meanwhile, let me note that journalists may want to bookmark some of these sites in their browsers. When it comes to tropical storms, we are already up to the letter “O” and North America is still weeks away from the peak of the hurricane season. Sorry to bring that up, but it’s true. And Pat Robertson hasn’t even gotten busy — yet.

Religion questions? We are shocked, shocked!

CasablancaRenaultRick thumbDifferent people spew their breakfast drinks for different reasons. What gets to me, as a former headline writer, are those page-toppers that seem to say something so obvious that you want to pound your head on your bagel or anything else on the table at the moment.

Here is a real doozy: “Roberts Hearings Likely to Enter Religious Territory.”

Oh really? Uh, do you think so?

No, we are not dealing with an analysis piece from weeks ago, back when this nomination first jumped from speculation into reality, before the stakes were raised by an empty chair in the middle of the high bench. This is the headline from a brand new Washington Post piece by reporter Shailagh Murray. I am sure GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked to hear that activists on both the lifestyle right and left are pumped up about how the devout Catholic’s faith may affect his legal views and, thus, fire up their troops. The story even opens with a pastor saying prayers of blessing in the U.S. Senate hearing rooms where the Judiciary Committee will meet. It seems that some religious conservatives are upset about the role judges play in American life. Had you heard that?

There’s more:

The Roberts nomination is the first since conservative Christians became a key Republican voting bloc and transformed their beliefs into a political movement.

Say what? That would come as a real shock to journalists who covered the Reagan era.

The story also indicates that Democrats are a little bit concerned about perceptions in some parts of the country that their party is a little bit hostile to highly traditional forms of religious belief. Thus, different Democrats want to handle this situation in different ways. Shocker!

Judiciary members who have expressed curiosity about Roberts’s religious views include Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a liberal and a Catholic, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the panel’s most conservative members. Coburn queried Roberts privately about how his faith influences his work and ran into resistance. “He said, ‘I’m very uncomfortable talking about that,’” Coburn told reporters, adding he intended to raise the issue again.

Others do not want to touch it, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, who also is a Catholic. “Just as we’re supposed to be colorblind, we should be religious-blind,” he said. Sen. John Cornyn, (R-Tex.), responded angrily to a report that Durbin had asked Roberts about potential religious conflicts of interest, “We have no religious test for public office . . . and I think anyone would find that sort of inquiry, if it were actually made, offensive.”

And one more thing. Did you know that it is often hard to predict what Roman Catholics believe about constroverial moral issues and how those beliefs transfer over into their political lives? Like that Anthony M. Kennedy fellow? Really?

Kennedy’s religion attracted notice when it was reported that he had told then-Sen. Jesse Helms privately that he understood the North Carolina Republican’s opposition to abortion “because I am a practicing Catholic.” Questioned about the statement during his confirmation hearing, Kennedy said he was not trying to signal how he would rule in abortion cases. “It would be highly improper for a judge to allow his or her own personal or religious views to enter into a decision respecting a constitutional matter,” he testified.

In 1992, Kennedy co-wrote the court’s opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which upheld a woman’s right to an abortion but permitted certain state regulations.

You get the idea. You know what? I bet that religion may even play a role in the public debates about who replaces that crucial swing-voter on the high court, that world-class moderate named Sandra Day O’Connor. I have even read some stories that this may be linked to the issue of abortion on demand. You think?

Sex talks, behind closed Vatican doors

vatican7It seems that the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc and young Daniel Pulliam are both traveling this long weekend and I am all alone with the hurricanes, the U.S. Supreme Court and who knows what all. So I am, in my own way, going to punt. This means I am going to keep mining my deep, deep file of major stories on which I wanted to blog last week and did not have the time.

The mainstream media knows that sex makes headlines. But journalists are much less sure what to do with issues that in which morality and theology mix and there is no clear outcome. Everyone would know what to do if the Vatican called a press conference and a choir belted out, “We’re banning gay priests!”

But how do you cover the debate? How do you report the themes and variations that lead up to this announcement or, more likely, the quiet compromise?

The specialty publications lead the way, of course. Thus, several weeks ago,we saw this news in a totally logical place. The omnipresent John L. Allen Jr. at the National Catholic Reporter wrote that the long-awaited Vatican document on the ordination of gay priests — celibate or noncelibate — was now in the hands of the pope. He spoke to several American bishops who had just been to Rome:

Privately, some hope Benedict will decide to put the document in a desk drawer for the time being, on the grounds that it will generate controversy and negative press without changing anything in terms of existing discipline.

As one bishop put it to me, the policy against ordaining homosexuals is already clear — the only interesting question is, what do you mean by a “homosexual”? At one end of the continuum, it could refer to anyone who once had a fleeting same-sex attraction; at another, it could be restricted to someone who is sexually active and openly part of a “gay pride” movement. Most people would exclude those extremes, but where is the line drawn in between?

This story drew little attention. Then the action moved to Great Britain, where the Observer moved the story a bit closer to the headlines. This time, the focus is on the rumors about the content.

Can you say “trial balloon” in Latin? I knew you could.

The document expresses the church’s belief that gay men should no longer be allowed to enter seminaries to study for the priesthood. Currently, as all priests take a vow of celibacy, their sexual orientation has not been considered a pressing concern. . . .

The instruction tries to dampen down the controversy by eschewing a moral line, arguing instead that the presence of homosexuals in seminaries is ‘unfair’ to both gay and heterosexual priests by subjecting the former to temptation.

The key to all of this is the long-awaited — some would say “delayed” — effort by the Vatican to study the state of Catholic faith and doctrine on 220 campuses, which vary from strict Catholic conservatism to the far fringes of virtual secularism. The bishops and investigators doing the review could ask lots of questions about lots of issues. I, personally, would ask about belief in the Resurrection and the singular nature of the life and ministry of Jesus. But everyone knows that sexuality is where the hammer will fall. The issue lurking in the background is this: If gays make up a high percentage of seminarians and the Vatican bans gays, what will this do to the shrinking pool of priests in North America?

Now the Associated Press is turning up the heat, with your basic ticking-clock story that says the Vatican document is “drawing keen attention” behind closed doors. This story adds another statistic that is sure to infuriate the Catholic left.

Vatican congregations have been studying the issue of gay priests — believed to account for a quarter to more than half of American priests — for years, but the scandal brought a renewed focus. About 80 percent of the nearly 11,000 cases entailed abuse of adolescent boys.

Actually, 80 percent is a very conservative estimate on the number of cases that involved “ephebophilia” — recurrent, intense sexual interest in post-pubescent young people — instead of “pedophilia.”

So what happens next?

I think Allen is on to something. The American bishops are going to do everything they can to get a document that offers vague terms and wiggle room. But is that possible, when the left and the right are paying extra close attention? Does anyone think that it is possible to ask modern and postmodern Catholic educators direct questions and get direct answers?


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