Strange times, strange times

You know we are living in strange times when you are more likely to see the name of progressive heroine Ayaan Hirsi Ali in a Wall Street Journal byline than in a headline linked to a human-rights fest in Hollywood. She is, of course, the Somali-born Dutch liberal who has been forced to live in hiding because of her criticism of radical forms of Islam. Her op-ed essay focuses on issues linked to the rights of women in two nations that seem, at first glance, radically different — Iraq and Canada.

The first is the draft constitution of Iraq, now due next week. Iraqi women like Naghem Khadim, demonstrating on the streets of Najaf, are fighting to prevent an article from being put in the constitution that would establish that the legislature may make no laws that contradict Shariah edicts. The second case is the province of Ontario, in Canada. There, Muslim women led by Homa Arjomand, an activist of Iranian origin, are fighting — using the Canadian Charter of Rights — to keep Shariah from being applied as family law through a so-called Arbitration Act passed as law in Ontario in 1992.

It’s all about religious liberty, isn’t it? Now tell me: Is this a “liberal” issue or a “conservative” issue?

Are j-profs losin’ their religion?

ManAngelThat man Jay Rosen, a veteran professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism, is at it again — digging into the religious structures beneath the cathedrals of journalism.

A long, long time ago, a Sojourners essay took a stab at describing the links between religion and journalism, saying that journalists turn over the rock to reveal the dirt and ministers shovel off the dirt to reveal the rock. This is the same territory that Rosen covered in one of those essays that I hope every GetReligion reader has read — “Journalism Is Itself a Religion.” Note that this link takes you to the The Revealer, where it is stored as one of that blog’s statements of core doctrine.

If you want an update on some of those themes, check out Rosen’s “Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion,” which dissects the role that the Watergate Myth played in the idealism of a whole generation of journalism leaders. Here’s the readout from the top of that essay: “Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers — and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism — is a big question. Whether it should is another question.”

Now, if any of that interests you, you are ready for the Rosen report from the recent AEJMC convention in San Antonia (tmatt asks: Great summer climate. Was hell booked up?) where some veteran journalism professors had a chance to testify — in the Bible Belt sense of that word — during a panel discussion called “Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe.” It seems that the old-time religion just isn’t converting a new generation. As a journalism professor myself, I feel their pain.

It’s impossible to miss the faith language in the San Antonio remarks. Here is a clip or two from Rosen’s report:

First up was Carl Sessions Stepp, a contributing writer to American Journalism Review, a former national correspondent and editor for the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s J-School. He said that most of what he believed when he began teaching in 1983 he still believed, with one big exception.

Then he would have said that nearly all journalists employed in the field were people “on a mission.” They saw their work as a noble public service, and shared a sense of duty that helped them define what the service was amid a hectic news environment. Students quickly picked up on this creed, and newsoom culture supported it.

That was then. Now, he said, the sense of mission is not the same. He didn’t say it was gone; plenty of journalists still heard the call. And young people still showed up in his classes ready to believe. But changes in the news business and “workplace culture” have turned the mission into a fairy tale much of the time. There is no universal sense of calling any more, Stepp declared. Journalism as a whole isn’t “on a mission,” but journalists as individuals still can be.

The obvious question: What is the nature of this secular “calling”? As a Christian who works in mainstream journalism, I have always struggled with that word for the simple reason that many people hear it and link it directly to the work of ordained ministers. The traditional Christian doctrine, however, is that people are called to a wide variety of professions and God does not rank them — from rock & roll guitarists to airplane pilots, from (gulp) lawyers to painters. In that sense, one can be “called” to be a journalist, working in this industry to the best of one’s ability and following the rules of the craft.

Rosen argues that many journalists are actually semi-ordained evangelists in a church of journalism. They are on a mission from the gods and the gods have names such as Woodward and Bernstein, who produced The Good Book that inspired young believers to make personal professions of faith and walk the true path.

So what does it mean if young people don’t want to do “mission” work in modern newsrooms? What is the modern j-student seeking?

Back to Rosen’s report:

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the Online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that.

And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.

So do modern j-students want to preach, as in pour out their beliefs in secular sermons in openly partisan publications? Are we facing the rise of the new, New Journalists? Is the goal to do unto the bloggers what the bloggers want to do unto you?

These are interesting times and Rosen is must reading, no matter what church you have joined.

Sin and ink are still a volatile mix

It has felt strange to go several days without mentioning the media coverage of the scandal at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City involving the powerful 79-year-old conservative leader Msgr. Eugene Clark and his beautiful, married, much younger secretary Laura DeFilippo.

Just look for the New York Daily News tabloid headlines that scream “Beauty and the Priest.” This story has it all — sex, what certainly seem to be lies and one really interesting videotape by a private eye (which is evidence in a nasty divorce, of course). Here’s a tiny sample (leaving out the part where the priest is alleged to have made a kind of “touchdown!” scoring gesture to his secretary when he manages to register for the hotel room):

The Daily News viewed the videotape. After a two-hour brunch on the porch of the nearby Surfside Inn, Clark, dressed in a white polo shirt, was seen wheeling a small black suitcase into the White Sands Motel. His secretary, dressed in short white shorts and a matching top with spaghetti straps, followed him inside with an orange tote bag over her shoulder.

When they emerged about five hours later, the video showed Clark and DeFilippo wearing different outfits.

By the end of the week, Clark had resigned, the Vatican was involved and the Daily News was writing unique stories that featured items such as the following.

Have you seen a newspaper print something like this lately? This seems rather, uh, Fleet Street British to me.

The Archdiocese of New York accepted Msgr. Eugene Clark’s resignation yesterday. But there are still questions left unanswered for both sides. Here are a dozen:


You’ve been stripped of your priestly duties and have been suspended from the Eternal Word Television Network. What now?

Why would you stay at an Amagansett motel when you have a $2 million house nearby?

Were there any other women who have helped you with your “paperwork?”

You’ve railed against homosexuality in sermons. Where do you rank infidelity among sins?

How can a priest afford a pad in the Hamptons and trips to St. Bart’s?

What would you say to Philip DeFilippo and his children?

The New York Times played things much, much straighter.

But here is what interests me. You know the old saying about the murder mystery in which the pivotal clue was the dog that did not bark? That is what this case reminds me of. The newspapers have rolled out damning evidence and opinions. There have been loaded quotes, stunning second-hand anecdotes and lots more. Catholics are outraged.

So what is the dog that is not barking? I am not hearing the usual claims that the press is out to torch the church. I am not hearing the normal yelps — often justified, no doubt — about media bias. Conservatives seem to be as mad as progressives, even though the left is getting to make hay about Clark’s many sermons against the fruits of the Sexual Revolution.

A few conservatives have made the valid point that a man’s teachings can be accurate and orthodox, even if he fails to live up to them. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also preached many a strong sermon on marriage, family and fidelity. He spoke the truth, even as he struggled to heed his own words.

What we have here, folks, is an ordinary, very human pot-boiler. As I once wrote, in a column about an Episcopal cathedral scandal in Denver, “Sin and ink will always be a volatile mix.” And all the people said, “Amen.”

Kenneth Woodward’s “What’s in a Name?”

Earlier this month, I shared a dark confession. I was really hoping that somebody, somewhere, would post a copy of veteran Newsweek scribe Kenneth Woodward’s provocative essay in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy about The New York Times and its efforts to avoid the term “partial-birth abortion” in its headlines and stories.

Well, duh. It finally hit me that perhaps we could post it here at GetReligion. After several days of emails, I have been given the all-clear sign — by the author and the Notre Dame information office — to post the essay (Word file).

This is one of those cases where it really helps to read the article for yourself. Let me warn comment-writers in advance: It’s crucial to realize that Woodward is raising journalistic questions, not questions about Catholic theology or other issues linked to public battles over abortion on demand. Woodward is talking about issues of journalistic style and content, not science or faith.

I also need to say that I had, based one some of the clips from his essay posted elsewhere, misunderstood a key point about Woodward’s thesis. How?

It helps to discuss an example. The Times ran a story the other day — the headline was “Clinton’s Challenger Says She Opposes Late-Term Abortion” — in which reporter Patrick D. Healy used the words “partial birth-abortion” in the lead. Here’s the start of that story:

Jeanine F. Pirro, the new Republican challenger for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate seat, said yesterday that she opposed the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion, after taking a muddier stance on the issue four years ago.

Ms. Pirro, a favorite of moderate Republicans whose new position will probably help her woo the conservative voters she needs, said in an interview that she decided to oppose the procedure — except to protect the life of the woman — after researching and reflecting on the issue.

After seeing this, I dashed off a note to Catholic superblogger Amy Welborn — the source for the original tip about Woodward’s piece — in which I suggested this meant hell might be getting cooler. You see, I was impressed by pieces of Woodward’s essay in which he noted the remarkable lengths to which the Times had gone in its news copy to avoid the partial-birth abortion term (which, by the way, just entered the Webster’s New World College Dictionary). I thought this meant they were not using these words at all.

Wrong. Woodward quickly dropped me a note to say the wording used in this case — “that critics call partial-birth abortion” — is actually quite normal. Business as usual. Old hat.

I wrote back and said that I thought people really needed online access to his essay so they could evaluate his whole argument.

So here it is, as an HTML page.

Thank you, Ken Woodward and thank you, Notre Dame.

P.S. Attention, fans of the late David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times: Check out footnote No. 4 in Woodward’s piece, offering a postscript on the famous Shaw series on media bias in abortion coverage. You are not going to believe it.

Peter Jennings — a journalistic seeker

During the past few days, we have had some people ask why GetReligion hasn’t featured anything about the life and work of Peter Jennings. I held off because I quickly decided that I wanted to write about his years of advocacy for better MSM coverage of religion. My partners held off, I would guess, because they knew I had talked with Jennings about this in the past, right about the time that ABC World News Tonight took the leap of hiring religion correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer.

Jennings told me what he told others. ABC’s religion features consistently drew a higher rate of positive viewer responses than anything else aired during the broadcasts. He also told me that nothing caused more tension — creative and otherwise — in his newsroom than religion coverage.

I wish I could provide a link to the 1995 speech that Jennings delivered at Harvard Divinity School on religion and the news. I have a paper copy in my files on Jennings and ABC, but I have not been able to find the text online. It is crucial reading, if this topic interests you. You may also want to review the 1993 Freedom Forum “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media” document that helped shape or validate some of Jennings’ views on this topic.

In the past few years, ABC News replaced its own religion desk with a cooperative effort with the staff of Beliefnet (our BlogHeaven partners). CEO Steven Waldman has written a personal tribute to Jennings and, yes, we noted the original headline on the piece — hailing the anchorman as a “journalist who ‘got’ religion.” Beliefnet has also posted two excellent Q&A interviews from the past few years, linked to prime-time specials hosted by Jennings about the lives and legacies of Jesus and Paul. I used a quote or two from these interviews — with attribution, of course — in my Scripps Howard News Service column this week.

In these talks, Jennings offered glimpses into his own progressive, some would say postmodern, approach to Christian faith. What is crucial to this blog is that — to one degree or another — he successfully made a left-of-center argument in favor of aggressive, accurate, balanced coverage of issues rooted in organized religion, faith and spirituality. His appeals for improved coverage were based on journalism, not Christology. He was very clear about that. The goal (preach it) was and is improved news coverage, not some kind of covert evangelism for any religious perspective either left, right or agnostic.

Here is a piece of what I wrote in my Scripps Howard column today:

Jennings grew up as an altar boy in Canada. He knew the rites and the rules, learning that most Anglicans — clergy and laity — agreed to disagree about doctrine. It was OK, Jennings told, to say, “I’m not sure. I believe, but I’m not quite so sure about the resurrection.”

Over time, his globetrotting career turned him into what church researchers would call “a seeker” — even though Jennings disliked that trendy word. He declined to answer when asked: “Have you ever experienced anything that you believed was miraculous?”

To hear him tell it, a funny thing happened to Jennings the journalist. The more he wrestled with his faith, the more he discovered he was interested in how faith shaped the lives of others. He began seeing religious ghosts in news events, first in the Middle East and then in middle America.

Journalists strive to report the facts, he said. But it’s a fact that millions of people say that faith plays a pivotal role in their actions and decisions. This affects the news. Can journalists ignore this? During a 1995 speech at Harvard Divinity School, Jennings quoted historian Garry Wills making this point.

“It is careless,” Jennings read aloud, “to keep misplacing such a large body of people. . . . Religion does not shift or waver. The attention of its observers does. Public notice, like a restless spotlight, returns at intervals to believers’ goings on, finds them still going on, and with expressions of astonishment or dread, declares that religion is undergoing some boom or revival.”

Journalism that ignores, twists or mangles the facts about faith is bad journalism, said Jennings. In the end, this gap between most journalists and most Americans is a threat to the future health of journalism.

The goal is better journalism. Period.

And all the people said: “Amen.”

It’s the culture (and something else)

There is only one way that this pro-life Democrat can respond to the following little story in The Washington Post: Duh. You think? You think there’s a reason that people of various social groups keep voting against their economic self-interests? Here is the money quote about new data collected by Democratic strategists:

. . . (The) bad news: “As powerful as the concern over these issues is, the introduction of cultural themes — specifically gay marriage, abortion, the importance of the traditional family unit and the role of religion in public life — quickly renders them almost irrelevant in terms of electoral politics at the national level,” the study said.

Read it all. Hey Dan Balz, do you think this study deserved a bigger story?

Nicolosi and the Times, round IV

And now we return (music cue: a swirl of soap organ) to the continuing story of Hollywood screenwriter and Act One educator Barbara Nicolosi and her telephone dialogues with the principalities and powers at The New York Times.

It seems that America’s newspaper of record has discovered that the former nun can sling soundbites with the best of them, when it comes time to write about issues of faith and Hollywood. Thus, reporters keep calling her and Nicolosi — a friend of this blog — keeps posting her notes about these chats at her often riotous blog called Church of the Masses.

In the latest chapter, a Times reporter is looking for Christian responses to the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster (we assume it will be that) based on The Da Vinci Code. The twist here is that Sony is trying to find a way to make this movie less offensive to non-gnostic Roman Catholics and other Christian believers who are not into goddess worship.

So let’s tune back in, as Nicolosi chats up the reporter:

When the journalist called me I asked her, “Is this piece going to be fair, or a typical NY Times Christian-hating kind of thing?” The journalist expressed horror at the suggestion that Christians feel like The Times hates them. “Yeah,” I said wonderingly, “we kind of do.”

I didn’t have a lot of hope for the piece because at one point in our conversation, we had the following exchange . . .

Barb: I heard that the studio execs behind The Da Vinci Code are worried that some Christians are going to put them on a hit list. Someone claimed to have gotten death threats during the making of The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s so ridiculous. We aren’t the ones who throw bombs.

NYTimes Reporter: (paraphrase) Well, there are as many Christians out there throwing bombs as Muslims. Look at all the bombings Christians do of abortion clinics.

I didn’t take it further because, well, it was such an astoundingly bizarre statement that I — for once — was rendered mute. Here’s what I would have said if I could speak at the moment: “HUH!!? ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME?! AS MANY CHRISTIANS THROWING BOMBS AS THE HOURLY SUICIDE BOMBING NUTJOBS WHO THINK KILLING MAKES GOD SMILE?! ARE YOU SMOKING CRACK?!” . . . or something erudite like that.

Actually, Nicolosi does give credit where credit is due. She thinks the piece by reporter Sharon Waxman turned out pretty good — which means accurate and balanced. All kinds of smart people show up in this piece, even Amy “Open Book” Welborn. Bravo.

Minute of your time, archbishop?

A great hard-news lead care of Associated Press reporter Garance Burke. Methinks this story is not over. Mitre tip to Open Book, of course.

SAN FRANCISCO — Archbishop William Levada, soon to be the highest ranking American at the Vatican, was welcomed to his final Sunday Mass here by thousands of admiring parishioners, a few critics and a subpoena compelling him to testify about sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.