I’m lost: Is adoption a bad thing?

silohuetteOK, I have read this story over and over and I cannot figure it out.

What, precisely, was The New York Times looking for in its investigation into the back stories of the adopted children of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and his wife, Jane, she of the Feminists for Life connection on her resume? The Dallas Morning News has the story, in large part because of the ticked off response to the Times investigation by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

A spokesman for the nation’s newspaper of record did fess up, sort of.

On Friday, the Times said no one had ordered an investigation of the adoptions, calling the inquiry part of a routine effort to “report extensively on the life and career” of a nominee for high office.

“Our reporters made initial inquiries about the adoptions, as they did about many other aspects of his background. They did so with great care, understanding the sensitivity of the issue,” said Times spokesman Toby Usnik. “We have not pursued the issue after the initial inquiries, which detected nothing irregular about the adoptions.”

So the journalists were, it seems, looking for evidence of illegality or shady doings in the adoption of Josephine and Jack Roberts, ages 5 and 4. Is that it?

Or is there some chance that they were trying to find something embarrassing in the private lives of two active practicing Catholics, who got married when they both were 41? They adopted their children four years later. You see, traditional Catholics are supposed to get married early and have lots and lots of their own children. That’s the ticket.

Help me out here. What am I missing? What was the goal?

The Dallas Morning News goes infrared and ultraviolet

There is a quite bizarre little feature in today’s edition of the celebrated Dallas Morning News religion section. It’s an almost random set of statistics about life in the whole red-blue age, with an emphasis on what the News calls the infrared and ultraviolet states — the really extreme examples of the two extremes.

Infrared America includes, in alphabetical order: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Ultraviolet America is California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, and the District of Columbia.

It’s kind of fun, but I still have no idea what the point of the exercise is.

First of all, the non-Borg (I assume, even with its new Reformed component) here at GetReligion never really thought much of the red state-blue state thing, since that really tells us more about the electoral college than it does about the American people. I do, however, think the key is the difference between red zip codes and blue zip codes. That’s where you can find the really interesting differences in beliefs and lifestyles, even in locations as stereotyped as, well, Dallas. There are blue zip codes almost everywhere and, right in New York City, there are some red zones. But I digress.

I also thought it was strange that the News didn’t really get into the “pew gap” issue in American political life, since that is the issue that turned up the flame under the red-blue pot in the first place. I would have, as always, appreciated some breakouts about people in Dallas and Texas, since that is where, I assume, most News readers live and worship.

But we do find out that ultraviolets have more education than the infrared and we learn, no surprise:

More “I do’s” among the red than the blue

Marriage is far more prevalent in infrared states. Nineteen of the 23 have a higher percentage of married adult residents than the U.S. average (Led by Idaho and Utah, at 62 percent each). Eight of the states with the lowest percentages are ultraviolet. (The lowest, by far, is the District of Columbia, at 36 percent.)

It’s a strange little feature. Are we supposed to chuckle or merely shake our heads in wonder?

Dionne’s salute to a “good cop”

lapd retiredHave any of you taken up my challenge to read the David Shaw series on abortion coverage? (Rather quiet on the comments front, in light of this barrage.)

E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post is thinking along the same lines — that the best tribute to the work of the late David Shaw is to read the man’s reporting. After all, it was about detail, detail, detail and awesome research. Here is the abortion coverage section of Dionne’s tribute, under the headline “The Media’s Good Cop.” Shaw was

. . . celebrated by many and derided by some for a lengthy 1990 report showing — conclusively, I think — that “the news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.”

Shaw showed that abortion rights advocates “are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.” His conclusion “that abortion is essentially a class issue in the United States” and that reporters reflected an upper-middle-class bias applies across a broad range of other questions. I’d argue that this bias points the media to the right on economic issues. What matters here is that Shaw had the essential trait of the best press critics: He could almost always see through his own biases.

Shaw took a lot of grief for his abortion series, but don’t think he was somehow “anti-feminist.” In 1991 he wrote a series on how the gender of editors affected coverage of stories on sex. Women, he found, tended to favor greater candor in reports on rape, AIDS and the private lives of politicians — and he pointed to a shortage of female editors.

Note that dead-on Dionne reference to the MSM’s elite roots pointing it left on culture and right on economics. Amen, preach it. At least that is what this premodern populist thinks.

Strange case of the missing Orthodox story

One of the strangest things about writing a weekly column is that funny factor called “lead time.” That’s the time that elapses between when you write the column and when it appears in print. This is an even bigger hurdle in magazine work, of course. In some journals your lead time might be six months.

Anyway, I write my “On Religion” columns on Tuesday nights and edit on Wednesday mornings for a noon deadline at the Scripps Howard News Service here in Washington. In most newspapers, the column appears on Saturday. By definition, this means that I rarely get to cover breaking news and I often end up having to frame columns in interesting ways in order to write about events in which there could be major developments during that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday “lead time” between when the column is finished and when dead-tree-pulp readers see it.

Here is why I bring this up. There was a news event last week involving the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and its decision to quit the National Council of Churches. This presented several challenges, not the least of which was that Antioch is my church. I decided to go ahead and write the story in as straightforward a manner as I could, with as little commentary as possible, because I strive to avoid first person if at all possible. I just quoted the key people and let them speak for themselves. With WWW help, I was able to work in a crucial quote from the key figure on the left who was not available — with an attribution to Presbyterian News Service.

But I was worried crazy about “lead time.” What were the odds of no one writing the hard news version of this story during the entire week that transpired between the event and my column appearing?

Thus, I wrote a soft lead that focused on the annual rites of summer conventions, when religious groups talk about all kinds of things and rarely act on them. In this case, the Antiochian Orthodox had — like it or not — done more than talk. If you want to read the column, click here.

Then I sat back and waited for the Associated Press or someone to write the news story. The convention took place near Detroit. Surely the local media would have it. Nope. ’Tis a puzzlement.

I kept Googling the word “Antiochian” in but nobody in the MSM wrote the story until (logically enough) Kevin Eckstrom at Religion News Service covered the hard-news element.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church has decided to pull its membership from the National Council of Churches, a move that some conservatives hope will prompt other churches to leave the liberal-leaning ecumenical body.

The 339,000-member Orthodox church voted to leave the NCC on July 28 during its General Convention in Troy, Mich. The decision to leave the New York-based NCC was supported by its leader, Metropolitan Philip.

Topping a list of grievances, apparently, was the NCC’s liberal drift and actions by its outspoken general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar. “It got to be too much,” church spokesman the Rev. Thomas Zain told Ecumenical News International. “There was no reason to be part of it.”

By the way, the Arab-Americans in this flock would bristle at one mistake in this article, the part that said: “The Antiochian Orthodox Church traces its roots to Arab-speaking immigrants who previously belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Well now. The birth of the Church of Antioch is detailed in the Book of Acts and its first leaders were those saints called Peter and Paul. We love our sisters and brothers in Russian Orthodoxy, but Antioch is the older body. I think what RNS meant to say is that in the 19th century, Russian Orthodox missionaries reached America and there was a time — before that Russian Revolution — when all Orthodox Christians in North America, including the Arabs, were all in one body linked to Russia. Then this united body tragically broke apart as the great Russian era of Communist persecution caused lines of pain and division and then the formation of multiple Orthodox bodies in this new land.

Thus, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church of North America shares some ties in the United States with the Russians and what is today called the Orthodox Church in America. One of the stories linked to the NCC exit is the growing momentum toward a renewal of Orthodox unity in this land.

Isn’t the religion beat complicated?

The lawyer for the archbishop said what?

Please follow these instructions. Sit down. Click here. Read the story. Then click here just to confirm that this is not, in fact, a story from The Onion. This is, in fact, a report from the Los Angeles Times. Now read the story again and note that this is the rare opportunity to do what reporter William Lobdell has done — quote outraged Catholic traditionalists and progressives in the same story.

Once you have done all that that, click here. Now, get up off the floor.

Yes, words mattered to David Shaw

MarchforLife7BIt was, for those of us who study media bias, one of the most famous anecdotal leads in the history of the mainstream media’s awkward attempts to write about itself.

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

“Her message was clear,” Okie recalled recently. “I felt that they were . . . (saying) ‘You’re hurting the cause’ . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line.”

Okie says she was “shocked” by the “disquieting” assumption implicit in the complaint — that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

It was crucial that this appeared in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. It was crucial that it was followed by a stunning wave of feature-length reports that dug into a wide range of topics linked to abortion and the press. It was also crucial that the byline above this story and the ones that followed belonged to David Shaw, one of the small handful of MSM reporters who built a career on stories that probed into the inner workings of the very news industry in which he worked and excelled.

The “nut graphs” that followed that first lead back in 1990 stung many mainstream reporters and editors. But there was no way to deny his conclusions, because of the massive research files that backed them up. Here we are, 15 years later, and rarely a month goes by that I do not see or hear a quote from the Shaw reports on abortion coverage. This series looms in the background of event after event — such as the upcoming Supreme Court wars.

Shaw was low-key but blunt:

But it’s not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employes at many major papers, has officially endorsed “freedom of choice in abortion decisions.”

On an issue as emotional as abortion, some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial.

The whole series was read into the Congressional Record and, quite frankly, I wish someone up on the Hill would stand up and do some kind of tribute speech sooner rather than later. I say this because the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and writer died earlier this week at the age of 62 after a battle with brain cancer.

Shaw wrote about a wide range of topics linked to the press, including, to cite the Times obituary, “movie criticism, best-seller lists, editorial cartooning, the use and abuse of political polls, the perceived influence of editorial endorsements in politics, coverage of the abortion issue, restaurant criticism, the Pulitzer Prize selection process, coverage of the pope and obituary writing.” He also, beginning in the mid-1980s, covered the ongoing struggle of the MSM to, well, get religion.

I know from personal experience that Shaw felt awkward, at times, discussing these topics. It must have been painful to have fierce critics of your industry waving copies of your work during rallies. Shaw wanted his work to be read as journalism, not as punchy polemics painted on protest posters. You could hear this tension in his voice when you asked him questions about the implications of his work — especially the abortion series.

But, let’s face it, this series is the cornerstone of his career. If someone could deal with this hot MSM bias topic, they could deal with just about anything. The Times obituary said as much.

Admirers of his work cite one series in particular that showed Shaw’s eagerness to blaze new ground on a topic. That was the four-part report, published in 1990, on coverage of the abortion issue, which scrutinized journalists’ cherished self-image of impartiality.

For the series, he reviewed print and television coverage of the issue over an 18-month period and interviewed more than 100 journalists, as well as activists on every side of the abortion debate.

He found “scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play.”

Writing in National Journal last week, William Powers noted that the series “dramatically shifted the paradigm of abortion coverage, overnight.”

So if you care about basic values of fairness, balance and accuracy in journalism, take some time this weekend and read this Shaw series once again. And brace yourself for the Supreme Court hearings. Come on, people: It’s journalism.

Partial-truth semantics at the Times

I have a confession to make. From time to time, I have been known to read about a fascinating article that is in some elite publication that does not publish online versions of its articles and then wait to blog about it until somebody, somewhere goes ahead and posts the text anyway. Thus, I can link to it. Bloggers out there: have you ever done this? Come on. Come clean. You see this happen on bulletin boards all the time.

Well, that happened for me the other day when the Catholic superblogger Amy Welborn posted a long and detailed note about an essay in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy by veteran Newsweek Godbeat scribe Kenneth Woodward. He sent her the text, so she posted large chunks of it.

The topic is most provocative, especially in light of our recent GetReligion go-round (or two) about newspaper style issues involving coverage of abortion. Woodward set out to study The New York Times and its refusal, under any circumstances, to publish the term “partial-birth abortion.” Welborn sums up the basic thesis:

(Woodward) begins by noting the difficulties of defining and naming this procedure from 1995, when it first came to public attention and Clinton vetoed a bill banning it. The difficulty is that it’s not a medical term (but then, neither is “heart attack”) and that the medical community had not named it, mostly because it was a procedure not performed by reputable physicians, for the most part. It was an underground procedure. Once names were determined (Intact dilation and extraction), for example, they were too awkward for headline writers. So even though “partial-birth” abortion was the term of choice for pro-life advocates, it became the most popular way to refer to it, in journalism, usually in scare quotes or with “what opponents call” attached to it.

But not . . . Woodward notes . . . in the NYTimes which steadfastly refused to use the term at all, even in scare quotes, even without the modifier.

The Times jumped through row after row of journalistic hoops to avoid the actual words that were being used in this heated public, political and legal debate. Clearly, notes Welborn, this is a matter of journalistic dogma. The newspaper’s point is that “partial-birth abortion” does not exist if the Times does not say it exists. This horrific procedure is, merely, a myth created for political purposes by those who are opposed to abortion on demand.

It is a “metaphor,” a “slogan.” That is all. There is no moral content to the discussion.

Thus, Woodward concludes (with a nod to recent debates about how the Times views the world in general):

This conclusion should not surprise long-time readers of the New York Times. Nor am I under any illusion that the Times will, on this subject, rethink its one-dimensional newsroom practices, much less its constraining newsroom culture. A walk through the Times, as Okrent put it, can indeed make readers feel like “you are traveling in a strange and forbidding world.” It is a strange world where “women” carry “fetuses” but where it is forbidden to ever write that “mothers” carry “babies.”

In the end, it is a battle over words that is more than a battle over words. But in journalism the words matter. As Woodward noted in a Notre Dame forum last March focusing on “objectivity” in the news:

Woodward also said that magazine writers and editors look for a story line and controlling themes.

“Journalism is not a science and not an art, but it is a craft,” he said. “Morality in journalism has much to do with our commitment to the language.”

If anyone sees another source for the complete Woodward essay, please let me know. Perhaps Woodward can post it somewhere himself? I will try to ask him.

Silence on that hot Vatican scoop?

Every now and then, a story comes out in a niche magazine or alternative form of media that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me say, “Wow! What a scoop! What will the MSM do with that?”

Since this is a blog about the major media and religion news, I tend to wait until someone else picks up the story before I write about it. Recently we had one of those “Wow!” stories and I have been waiting and waiting and waiting and . . .

So I guess I better let GetReligion readers help me figure out what happened to the hot story that the one and only John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter broke not that long ago. You knew it was a big story, because Andrew Sullivan blasted away from the progressive side of the church aisle and Catholic World News was encouraged on the traditional end of the kneeler. The story?

Sources indicate that the long-awaited Vatican document on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries is now in the hands of Pope Benedict XVI. The document, which has been condensed from earlier versions, reasserts the response given by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2002, in response to a dubium submitted by a bishop on whether a homosexual could be ordained: “A homosexual person, or one with a homosexual tendency, is not fit to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.”

That reply was published in the November-December 2002 issue of Notitiae, the official publication of the congregation.

It is up to Benedict XVI to decide whether to issue the new document as it stands, to send it back for revision, or to shelve it on the basis that for now such a document is “inopportune.”

So did I miss the story somewhere else? Or did Allen nail it with a piece of enformed speculation lower in his report? You see, people tend to forget that sexuality issues in the Catholic world are not strictly a left vs. right affair. It is also a matter of public vs. private.

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?

Watch Allen for the updates. He is the insiders’ insider. It is hard to overemphasize how important this story is among Catholic politicos. I cannot believe that the MSM did not chase the work of a reporter as plugged in as Allen.