Christian niche news bad for The Nation?

I thought some GetReligion readers might find the following Dallas Morning News report interesting (even though I show up in it as a source).

In some ways, this feature by reporter Colleen McCain Nelson is old news. Conservative Christians have been turned off by mainstream news for a long time, which helped fuel the rise of the televangelists long ago and clearly sparked some of the talk-radio blitz, too. Now we are seeing another rise in the power of niche market cable television and web news on the right. Here is Nelson’s summary:

(Many) Christians are seeking out alternative sources of news, and not just for information on religious topics. With the number of Christian television networks, radio stations, Web sites and magazines on the upswing, they have plenty to choose from.

The number of religious radio stations grew by 14 percent in the last five years, from 1,769 to 2,014, according to Arbitron. And a recent report by The Barna Group found that more people use Christian media than attend church. Technological advances, a polarized electorate and the increasing prominence of evangelicals have spurred the growth in Christian news.

On one level, more media is always a good thing. But at some point you have to wonder if anyone in the culture is going to be coming into contact with points of view other than their own. As a journalism educator, I really worry about things like that. What comes after that? Googlezon?

Take, for example, this recent irony.

This same basic topic — alternative forms of Christian news — got grilled big time recently in the Columbia Journalism Review in a lengthy cover article titled “Stations of the Cross: How evangelical Christians are creating an alternative universe of faith-based news.”

As you might expect, reporter Mariah Blake had lots of bad things to say about this trend, many of them valid. However, I did find it kind of ironic to read such a long attack on highly partisan, ideologically defined, agenda-driven, biased niche news in the hallowed pages of CJR — especially one that ended with the following credit line:

Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at CJR. The magazine gratefully acknowledges support for her research from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.

Say what? This strong warning about the dangers of advocacy journalism was funded by The Nation? Isn’t that sort of like Focus on the Family funding a documentary on the life of Elton John? Or a Rush Limbaugh newsletter expose on Hillary Clinton?

Colson and Howie mull Deep questions

It isn’t every day that one gets to read Howie Kurtz and Chuck Colson and mull over moral issues linked to journalism and politics and the politics of journalism. Still, it’s clear that people are a long, long way from being done talking about the Deep Throat case. To get back the original post by the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc, please click here.

So, to get the mood right, just light up a cigaratte and keep reading. Let’s start with the key section of a new Colson BreakPoint radio commentary, in which he once again argues that Felt — a close associate of Colson’s in those days — was not being heroic.

You will not be surprised that this conservative Christian apologist believes this case offers us another insight into the moral conflicts — are there absolutes? — of our day. It also helps to remember that Colson went to jail for doing precisely what Felt did. Here’s the key part of the text:

Today, I’m not concerned about how Mark Felt, or those of us involved in Watergate, or the press is judged by history. All of us have to be responsible for what we did ourselves. What I am concerned about is how, in the eyes of many people, Mark Felt’s end justified his means.

I’ve watched some of the classroom discussions on TV, and, almost to a person, students say he did the right thing because his end was good. This is terribly wrong. I know we live in an era of moral relativism — everybody chooses what is “right” for them. But this is a path to chaos and a lawless, ungovernable nation.

That’s the religious and moral side of this drama.

It is also possible to ask questions about how this case impacted the ethics and morality of journalism. That’s the larger question that has been bothering me and it also seems to have been bothering the nation’s top news-media-beat reporter, over at The Washington Post, of all places.

Here is how Kurtz starts off:

Was Watergate bad for journalism? On its face, the question seems absurd. The drama of two young metro reporters for The Washington Post helping to topple a corrupt president cast a golden glow over the news business in the mid-1970s.

Newspapermen became cinematic heroes, determined diggers who advanced the cause of truth by meeting shadowy sources in parking garages, and journalism schools were flooded with aspiring sleuths and crusaders. But the media’s reputation since then has sunk like a stone, and one reason is that some in the next generation of reporters pumped up many modest flaps into scandals ending in “gate,” sometimes using anonymous sources who turned out to be less than reliable.

We are just getting started with this, methinks. So keep reading, and don’t let the smoke get in your eyes.

The story that is haunting me today

Today’s Washington Post is so full of religion stories and religion haunted stories that I hardly know where to begin — from abortion rulings to the latest Koran crime update, from a reporter taking a Bible Belt trip through her past in a vanishing Virginia town to yet another stunning Catholic clergy abuse lawsuit settlement. This does not even include the religion page.

So how come the story that has haunted me all day seems to have no religion in it at all? Why do I want some other shoe to drop in this crime-beat story, just so that I am not haunted by the reality of evil? Click here to find out what I am talking about. Does this story spook anyone else? Sense the ghost?

Tobacco, alcohol, spirituality & trouble

A brief shout out to my friend Prof. S.J. Dahlman, who sits in the desk I occupied at Milligan College and has the wonderful duty of writing about religion in the beautiful mountains of Northeast Tennessee. The last time we checked in with Jim and his “Face to Faith” column in the Johnson City Press was talking about snakes and how they are not typical of faith in the region.

Now he is writing about two other substances that, in the Southern Highlands, have an almost religious and anti-religious following — alchohol and tobacco. Now what happens when they get mixed up with native cultures?

Tobacco was a sacrament in the old Cherokee religion, the smoke a messenger carrying prayers to the spirit world. Wine is part of a sacrament in the Christian tradition, symbolizing the blood of Jesus.

Dr. R. Michael Abram, co-owner and co-curator of Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery in Cherokee, N.C., finds irony here. “Take those two items and put them in each other’s culture with no religious meaning,” he said by phone this week, “and both get into trouble.”

Update: Good news in Iran — sort of

Here is a short update on a religious liberty story that I have been trying to keep my eye on — which is hard since the MSM rarely deals with these issues. I refer to the frightening case of Hamid Pourmand, a lay pastor in Iran. To see the earlier post, click here.

This is another case where we need alternative, online media to find out what happened. The good news is that the Assemblies of God leader is not going to lose his head after all. But, as Compass Direct reporter Barbara G. Baker notes, it isn’t exactly clear how he got off. Here is a key section of her report:

An Islamic court in southern Iran acquitted Christian lay pastor Hamid Pourmand on charges of apostasy and proselytizing two days ago, declaring, “Under sharia (Islamic law), there are no charges against you.” . . .

Pourmand’s judge reportedly told him, “I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does. You must be an important person, because many people from the government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

But instead of dropping the charges, the judge declared he was acquitting Pourmand, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity 25 years ago, because he had “done nothing wrong” according to Islamic law.

What does that mean? That the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good thing, all of a sudden? Check out Article 18.

Noonan: Felt had his reasons

Sorry to have gone all but AWOL in the past few days due to intense teaching and editing duties at our SIJ 2005 journalism boot camp here in Washington, D.C. Let me jump in here for a moment to urge you to check out the lively exchanges on the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc’s post on Mark Felt, ethics, modern journalism and a host of other topics — with guest appearances by whistleblowers, Clinton administration fans, Nixon critics (on the left and right) and folks offering many, many other points of view.

Who knows, the debate may even circle back around to journalism!

Meanwhile, I would also like to point readers toward the new column by Peggy “friend of this blog” Noonan over at The Wall Street Journal. She has lots of questions about the granting of hero status to Felt. Here is one of the most interesting paragraphs:

(Felt’s) motives were apparently mixed, as motives often are. He was passed over to replace J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI by President Nixon, who apparently wanted in that place not a Hoover man but a more malleable appointee. Mr. Felt was resentful. He believed Nixon meant to jeopardize the agency’s independence. Here we have a hitch in the story. The liberal story line on the FBI was that under Hoover it had too much independence, which Hoover protected with his famous secret files and a reputation for ruthlessness. Mr. Felt was a Hoover man who joined the FBI in 1942, when it was young; he rose under Hoover and never knew another director. When Hooverism was threatened, Mr. Felt moved. In this sense Richard Nixon was J. Edgar Hoover’s last victim. History is an irony factory.

You don’t have to agree with Noonan on everything to enjoy her romp through the moral minefields in this case. And she stresses one major truth — the journalism side of this story is not over.

Amen to that, sister. Here is my question: Does anyone know if Felt is or was a smoker?

Separation of coven and state in Indy

There is an interesting church-state case going on right now in the heart of Indiana, and prog-blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters of Wildhunt wants to know why more religion writers are not interested in it.

Actually, this is a coven and state case, which is one of the reasons it is so interesting. First of all, let’s look at the Indianapolis Star report that tells how two Wiccan parents ran into a judge who does not approve of their faith. Here is the key section of reporter Kevin Corcoran’s news story:

Cale J. Bradford, chief judge of the Marion Superior Court, kept the unusual provision in the couple’s divorce decree last year over their fierce objections, court records show. The order does not define a mainstream religion.

Bradford refused to remove the provision after the 9-year-old boy’s outraged parents, Thomas E. Jones Jr. and his ex-wife, Tammie U. Bristol, protested last fall. . . . The parents’ Wiccan beliefs came to Bradford’s attention in a confidential report prepared by the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau, which provides recommendations to the court on child custody and visitation rights. Jones’ son attends a local Catholic school.

“There is a discrepancy between Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones’ lifestyle and the belief system adhered to by the parochial school. . . . Ms. Jones and Mr. Jones display little insight into the confusion these divergent belief systems will have upon (the boy) as he ages,” the bureau said in its report.

This led to the following comment by Pitzl-Waters, which was echoed by folks over at The Revealer:

This is an outrage. An outrage that will most likely be ignored by all those God-bloggers and religion reporters who don’t mind a little persecution so long as it isn’t happening to them. How many dead canaries in the coal-mine do we need before there is a problem?

I don’t know which God-bloggers he had in mind, as opposed to god-bloggers or gods-bloggers or whatever. But he is right. This is an important parents’ rights case and is, in a strange way, very similar to the cases in which Muslims, Orthodox Jews and traditional Christians wrestle with public-school officials over the moral education of their children.

Religious liberty is only as strong as the rights of miniorities. Take away the rights of parents to advocate their own faith to their children and the next thing you know you’ll have evangelical kids forced to sit in school classes that openly attack the faith taught in their homes. Wait, that’s happening already, isn’t it?

But the point remains the same. Parents have a right to pray with their kids and even preach to them. If Christians — even very conservative ones — want that right they should defend that right for others.

Meanwhile, note the strange twist that the Wiccan dad is sending his kid to a Catholic school. I wonder what the Catholic authorities think of this publicity?

That angle did, however, remind me of a great quote from a Beliefnet message board, sent to me by a friend. Someone wrote: “I am a werewolf . . . and also Catholic. . . . But too progressive for some Catholics.”

Wait! Did he say “some” Catholics? Now there is a story.

What will Andrew Sullivan say to this?

That sound you just heard on the other side of the Atlantic was the million or so people who still sit in pews in the postmodern Church of England picking up a copy of the Sunday Times and shouting, in unison, “Say WHAT!?!?!”

This will be followed by a louder response to the same headline at altars in the more traditional Anglican Third World.

The headline on reporter Christopher Morgan’s exclusive says it all: “Church to let gay clergy ‘marry’ but they must stay celibate.” And here is the opening of this amazing story, which will almost certainly infuriate all kinds of people on both sides of the church aisle.

Homosexual priests in the Church of England will be allowed to “marry” their boyfriends under a proposal drawn up by senior bishops, led by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The decision ensures that gay and lesbian clergy who wish to register relationships under the new “civil partnerships” law — giving them many of the tax and inheritance advantages of married couples — will not lose their licences to be priests.

They will, however, have to give an assurance to their diocesan bishop that they will abstain from sex. The bishops are trying to uphold the church doctrine of forbidding clergy from sex except in a full marriage. They accept, however, that the new law leaves them little choice but to accept the right of gay clergy to have civil partners.

You have to hand it to Williams, that bookish Oxford don with the knack for splitting hairs — poetically. This compromise is really going to calm things down before that tense June 21 conclave that is supposed to sort out all of the loose ends about sacraments and sexuality (and major donations from the rich Episcopal Church in the United States). Things were tense enough in the Anglican Communion as it was.

“Married,” but with mandatory celibacy. I wonder who came up with that compromise? Try to figure out the theological logic of it, beginning on either the left or the right. In other words, Pope Benedict the XVI may want to check his voicemail for calls from England.

Which raises another question. Anyone want to predict what Andrew Sullivan will have to say about this? I asked him, a year or two ago, why he had not left Rome in order to join the C of E. He never answered back.