5Q+1 e-visits with Russell Chandler

London Eye 1Everyone needs heroes. Back in 1980 or so, when I was trying to break into religion reporting, I decided that one of my journalistic heroes was going to be Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times.

If you know anything about the history of religion news in American, you know that this was a very predictable choice. Chandler’s work on the beat was winning every award known to humanity — often two or three times. There has never been a stronger advocate of basic, old-school, hard news journalism on this beat than Russ and, to push toward the future, he has helped create a national award for religion writing at the college-newspaper level.

Chandler earned a B.S. in Business Administration from UCLA, a master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Graduate School of Religion and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but has always been known for his fairness and rigor on both sides of various religious divides. With retirement on the horizon, he launched into writing books that focused on trends in American religion. To read a copy of a speech by Chandler, click here.

All of this is to say that Chandler is the first person to take part in our ongoing and still evolving 5Q+1 feature. As you can tell, he answered the questions via email. I’ve added some links. I am sorry about his kind first reference, but I have not censored him:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

Tmatt weekly columns; ReligionLink, a service of the Religion Newswriters Association; Christianity Today magazine; daily papers (local and The Wall Street Journal); Leadership Network postings; The Gathering newsletter (online); Commonweal magazine (some); TV specials (some), and AOL news items (some).

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just don’t get?

Evangelical Christians (of whatever denominational affiliation, if any) are not necessarily right-wing fundamentalists; militant extremists; or pre-trib, anti-environmentalists. The usual conservative, right-wing “Christian” spokespersons often quoted by elite and/or un-savvy reporters don’t necessarily speak for the majority of any group, only for themselves. Same for the “super-libs.”

(3) What is the story that you’ll be watching carefully in the next year or two?

How the ongoing religion/culture/power wars between Islamic groups in the Middle East play out.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

What people believe has profound influence on how they behave.

(5) What’s the funniest, most ironic twist that you’ve seen in a religion news story lately?

School Renames Easter Bunny ‘Peter Rabbit’

ABC News

(April 7) — A Rhode Island public school has decided the Easter bunny is too Christian and renamed him Peter Rabbit, and a state legislator is so hopping mad he has introduced an “Easter Bunny Act” to save the bunny’s good name.

Chandler comment: PC gone to seed!

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Why limit it to mainstream news media? We should be alert to how religion, ethics and values are covered by all media — the good, bad, right, left, ignorant and ugly.

Religion watchers’ eyes should rove to and fro throughout the entire spiritual landscape.

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Well, the AP seems to get it

32425179I was going to post this early in the week (hat tip to reader Larry Rasczak), but the Virginia Tech tragedy and several days of travel got in the way. I am currently in Southern California, after speaking for two days at California Baptist University.

Anyway, a hot topic of discussion on this blog, from time to time, is whether it is good or bad for professional religion writers to know a thing or two about religion.

Don’t laugh. This is serious.

There is a school of thought in many mainstream newsrooms that anyone who cares enough about religion to bother to learn much about religion is a person who is not dispassionate enough about religion to be allowed to cover religion. Or something like that. If you care enough about religion to want to cover religion well, then you care too much about religion to be allowed to cover religion. Is that better?

Anyway, Rasczak passed along this post from the Democracy Project:

Job Opening (March 15, 2007)

INTELLIGENCE REPORTER

The Associated Press is seeking an experienced journalist to join its reporting staff and cover intelligence issues from the nation’s capital.

Coverage areas include the intelligence agencies and Hill committees with oversight. Responsible for aggressive and imaginative pursuit of stories, solid reporting and attractive writing. Must have extensive reporting experience, with demonstrated excellent journalism skills.

Must have demonstrated the ability to develop sources and break stories against intense competition. Prior experience covering intelligence is a plus. Should be versatile, aggressive, productive and enterprising, with a thorough knowledge of the AP and enthusiasm for its mission.

Now, note that the Democracy Project’s post critiques the AP for considering knowledge only “a plus.”

Heckfire, I think that’s progress, when compared with some of the religion-beat war stories that I have heard from experienced, trained, talented, award-winning religion reporters who have been passed over for major jobs in favor of candidates with zippo religion-beat experience or studies of any kind. All of this, once again, calls to mind that 1994 Washington Post religion-beat job posting that said (All together now!) that the “ideal candidate is not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion.”

Now, consider the AP notice for that intelligence-beat job. As you read it again, stick “religion” in there wherever you can. That’s pretty good. I mean, we at least know that when push came to shove, the AP managed to get the job done right.

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Is GetReligion a ‘Christian’ blog?

Cb RedSeaThe iMacs on my desks at home and work share many things in common, including an overflowing (digitally speaking) email folder called “GetRel guilt.”

This file is full of really good, really bad or really interesting religion-news stories that I really, really wanted to write about on this weblog. However, something bad happened along the way and things just kind of slid until the topic was simply too old. Most of the time, the topic of the story is so important that I am simply too intimidated to write about it without pouring several hours of careful writing into the post. There are many times when — with my full-time academic job, starting a new program in which I am the director and lead lecturer — I just don’t have the time. Oh, and I write the “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard as well.

Thus, several times a week, I drag another couple of stories over to the “GetRel guilt” file, because my co-workers — working journalists, all — are too busy to write about them either. I imagine that they have their own guilt files.

Meanwhile, the waterfall of news roars on. And, in the midst of this, readers are constantly submitting links to stories from newspapers, magazines, wire services and networks that they want us to cover on the blog. Most of these tips are really good and we appreciate them very much, especially those from newspapers in cities and lands far from the oceans of ink poured out on the east and west coasts. There is no way that we can read even a tenth of the news that we would like to read. Television news is another major gap.

My guess is that we get about 10 to 15 of these news tips during a typical weekday, when traffic on the site is heaviest. Add that to the dozen or so items that the GetReligionistas share with each other day after day, as we try to figure out what we have the time or the smarts to write about on any given day while we do our various jobs.

So a week or so ago, a reader sent in the URL for a New York Times piece by Michael Slackman that ran with the headline “Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say.” It focused on a tour of digs that Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, provided for a pack of journalists. This media event

… prompted a reporter to ask about the Exodus, and if the new evidence was linked in any way to the story of Passover. The archaeological discoveries roughly coincided with the timing of the Israelites’ biblical flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.

“Really, it’s a myth,” Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom.

Thus, our reader commented:

… (P)lease understand that I am not necessarily saying THERE IS compelling physical evidence of the Exodus. I have my own questions about Biblical “history.” I am only commenting on the quality of this story and the major play it received in the NY Times, “the paper of record.”

I believe this story deserves comment on several levels:

(a) It’s a standard “where’s the beef?” story that pops up around every major “historically based” religious celebration — Jewish, Christian or whatever (well, maybe not all of them). This particular story line has been done for years in connection with Passover, which leads one to wonder why the Times bothered to redo it.

(b) The only source quoted touting the no-evidence line is an Egyptian, apparently a government official (no academic connection is mentioned so how else do you get to be Egypt’s chief anything?), which makes him suspect in this context, given Israel’s conflict with Egypt (despite the peace treaty) and the Arab history of seeking to deny any Jewish historical connection to the Holy Land for religious/political reasons.

(c) The counter voice by another Egyptian is deeply buried at the story’s very end.

(d) This piece talks only about one possible route into Sinai. There has been speculation about several possible routes.

(e) The writer fails to note that no proof it happened differs from proof that it did not happen.

Excellent points, all the way around. I remember thinking that I wish I could run this as an item on GetReligion, in large part because this particular reader is a religion-writing pro named Ira Rifkin. If you don’t know that byline, Rifkin is best known as the former national correspondent for Religion News Service, founding news producer for Beliefnet.com and Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine. His most recent book is Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval and you can read his work in lots of other places, as well.

But I didn’t get to that article and my co-workers didn’t, either.

tenCommandmentsAs you can tell, I didn’t throw it away. It was, however, almost certainly headed to the GetRel guilt file.

A few days later, another note showed up from Rifkin. It was blunt and it stung, in large parts because I agreed with much of it. It certainly needed to be taken seriously. Here is a shortened version:

The creators of any publication, online or dead wood, have the right to decide subject matter and perspective. Readers who differ can go elsewhere or start their own publication. So it is with some hesitancy that I write the following.

I’m a veteran religion journalist who reads GetReligion with some regularity because I agree with the blog’s basic premise — which is that one cannot understand human actions and world events without first understanding religious motivations, and that the popular media too often fails in its responsibility when it comes to covering religion. This is particularly so when the religious are traditional in nature. …

Reading the blog’s “Why We’re Here” page I am led to believe that critiquing popular journalism’s coverage of religion is the blog’s raison d’etre. There is no mention of a desire to spur insider wrangling over Christian theology, criticism of liberal Christian thinking or to evangelize from a traditional perspective. Also not mentioned is any desire to in any way limit the blog to Christian issues, even though most American media religion coverage is — and rightly so from a demographic perspective — about Christian issues and individuals.

Nonetheless, I find the blog to be Christian-centric in a way that contradicts the “Why We’re Here” page. I concede that I could be overly sensitive on this point as a non-Christian. I’m a practicing Jew; my theology is unorthodox but my practice leans toward what might be described as a blend of liberal and traditional. Moreover, I consider my faith tradition, in all its permutations, to be under considerable if not existential threat from external and internal pressures.

What prompts me to write this is GetReligion’s apparent decision not to comment on a story I submitted that ran in the New York Times last week under the headline: “Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say.” Perhaps it was inadvertently overlooked, or simply fell through the cracks because of Holy Week pressures, but several other important non-Christian stories I’ve sent in or have noticed in the major media also have not received comment by the editors. So I discern a pattern.

Why comment on Rachel Zoll’s AP piece on debunking Easter stories and not Michael Slackman’s Times story debunking Passover? I think anytime the Times gives prominent play to a controversial religion story it is worthy of GetReligion comment. …

So tell me, am I out to lunch? Am I simply on another wave length? I welcome repudiation, though agreement would be nicer.

Like I said, it’s an important letter. We’ve been dealing with some of these questions from day one or thereabouts (post No. 24), when Jeff “Killing the Buddha” Sharlet of The Revealer quipped that we want people to “get” religion — our religion. I stressed that we are interested in mainstream news coverage and that, well, we have no plans to add a “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” soundtrack to the site. That remains the case.

We really have no interest in doctrinal fights unless they get woven into the news and, believe me, they often do. That’s where the whole “tmatt trio” thing came from. Those edgy doctrinal questions grew out of my own work covering the Anglican wars, and I will argue again and again that they are valid, information-rich questions, if journalists want to dig beneath the political surface of that ongoing train wreck (and lots of other oldline Protestant stories, as well).

Obviously, reporters focusing on fault lines in Judaism, Islam, neopaganism and other newsworthy faiths would need to ask doctrinal questions appropriate to those groups. As an Orthodox rabbi in Denver once told me, when in doubt ask Jewish newsmakers if they believe in God and if they still believe in the state of Israel.

Meanwhile, I would like someone to show where the featured writers for this blog — as opposed to folks on the comment boards — have veered into evangelistic work. We are constantly trying to police the comments pages to try to get people to focus on the journalistic questions linked to the writing we do here. We should spike more comments than we do.

However, let me answer Rifkin’s main question: Is GetReligion a “Christian” weblog?

The most honest answer is that it is a journalism blog produced by mainstream journalists who are traditional, creedal Christians — Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian — who have never hidden their religious convictions.

Yes, I am sure we tend to write about the topics that we know the most about, in part because we don’t want to mess up. I, for one, am constantly aware that I am — this is my goal — writing to an audience of mainstream journalists and that I am also praising or dissecting the work of professionals. I also know that the GetReligion gang has never found a writer with the time to do a decent job covering religion news at the global level. That is another massive area of guilt.

I wish there were more hours in the day. I probably end up writing about one out of 10 news stories or topics that I want to write about. My GetRel guilt file keeps getting bigger.

Nevertheless, keep those news tips coming. And if you send us letters, as opposed to comments, please let us know whether we can publish them. We’re looking for all the content we can get. Believe me.

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Political data in the Pew pews

dday 0138Attention all journalists who cover religion, politics or both.

Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have always produced waves of interesting poll materials on issues linked to faith and public policy. And, at least for now, it is the home base for the always candid and insightful John C. Green, the scholar whose work — back in the late 1970s — began to put the political power of evangelical Christians on public display.

Now, the forum’s tech folks have started putting some of their information into a new form at Religion & Politics ’08. It looks rather simple, at the moment, with short profiles of six candidates — three in each party. It’s the usual faces, with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama on one side and Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney on the other. Obviously, there are more GOP profiles ahead.

Here is a bit of Hillary Clinton‘s religious biography:

The daughter of a Methodist Sunday school teacher, Hillary Clinton was raised in Park Ridge, Ill., attended Sunday school and vacation Bible school and was active in her church’s youth group. She is a lifelong member of the United Methodist Church, the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. After her marriage to Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, she taught Sunday school at First United Methodist in Little Rock, Ark. As First Lady, she regularly attended services at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

In her autobiography Living History, Clinton describes her faith as a “crucial, though deeply personal, part of my life and my family’s life.” Clinton has said that even if she had not been taught by her family to pray, “after I’d been in the White House for a few months, I would have become a praying person.” She writes that her faith helped her in the days and weeks following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton’s 1998 impeachment by the House of Representatives.

That’s part of the story, of course. A longer biography would have to address her college years and the impact of feminism on her faith. It will be interesting to see how deep these Pew religious biographies become as the campaign rolls along.

Meanwhile, the site provides lots of information and numbers to all kinds of familiar topics — abortion, church-state issues, the death penalty, education, the environment, gay marriage, health care, Iraq, poverty, etc. However, what struck me — the moment I opened up the site — was the strong mainline Protestant tenor of the leading candidates and the lack of a clear candidate for the conservative side of American religious life.

I mean, I knew that in my head. But it’s interesting to see it displayed so openly in this kind of site. With Rudy’s status as the official cafeteria Catholic, and McCain acting as a flashback to the silent, establishment Episcopalianism of the George H.W. Bush era, we really are looking at the revenge of the National Council of Churches.

This is especially true in light of the recent Pew study that found key elements of American society drifting toward unbelief, vague forms of faith and/or more liberal stands on moral issues — all of which helps the Democratic Party and hurts the conservative side of the bitterly divided Republican Party.

Thus, we have an interesting paradox. The world of liberal, mainline Protestantism has, for decades, been in sharp decline at the level of membership (worship statistics can be spun in a number of different directions). However, it appears that the religious left may be gaining power as part of an anti-Religious Right coalition with the growing ranks of hardcore secularists and the vague world of spiritual-but-not-religious voters.

yeste128This raises an interesting question. Politicos have focused a lot of attention on the percentage of GOP voters who claim they would refuse to vote for a Mormon. Has anyone asked how many Democrats would refuse to vote for a conservative, off-the-rack evangelical Protestant? I predict the percentage would be higher than the GOP Mormon number. How about a Catholic candidate who actually supports the teachings of his or her church on moral and doctrinal issues (yes, the whole “Culture of Life” spectrum)?

The Pew Forum will chart all of this, I am sure. We can also hope for an update from the City University in New York, where political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce should be getting done with an update on their interesting study of “anti-fundamentalist voters” and the Democratic Party leadership. (It appears that The Public Interest‘s report on their work is not available online anymore.)

But as I looked through the Pew site, I found myself becoming less interested in the politics of the religious left and more curious about the religion of the religious left. It would be interesting to see Pew focus its talented team on a poll probing the doctrinal side of life in this small but very powerful corner of the American religious scene.

May I, perhaps, suggest asking these voters the following questions or some variation on them?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

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It’s journalism, stupid

Typewriter KeyboardI have made it back safe and sound from exploring various mountain regions in the American West, often on small commercial airplanes. The air over the Rockies isn’t all that smooth this time of year. Take my word for it.

It’s been a long time since I have been so happy to see a nice strong WiFi signal in the toolbar at the top of my Apple screen. It’s kind of hard to blog on the (Windows) computers found in unfamiliar zip codes, so I have been quieter than normal. Let me offer a big “thank you” to my GetReligion buddies for the explosion of interesting posts in the past few days.

As you would expect, I had several hundred emails to answer upon my return home. Here is one of the most interesting, from a GetReligion reader named Stacy/orthodork.

I’ve been visiting Get Religion for quite a while, enjoying much of what you all have to say. I have not studied journalism but I have a couple of advanced degrees. All of that is to simply say that while I’m not an idiot, I admittedly do not know the ins and outs of the journalism profession. Mostly I know what I like and what I don’t like. For example, I refuse to watch the local news. I don’t like it.

Many of the articles you present here seem to me to not only be examples of the media not getting religion, but also examples of the media being poor journalists. I’m going to make an unfounded assumption that you would disagree with me and I’m wondering if you would take the time to explain to me why. If a journalist ignores essential material in the article creating a gap in understanding for the reader, is this not just poor journalism? While I get that the focus of the website is to focus on media and religion couldn’t it easily be understood that “the media just doesn’t get good journalism?”

I hope that you read that my tone is not antagonistic, but rather, curious. Is it possible to be a good journalist and to make the same errors regarding religion over and over again? Yes, of course it’s possible, but given journalistic standards (again, my ignorance regarding the fullness of those standards leaves much room for enlightening) is it feasible?

underwood5smallI have listened to lots of ticked off religious people in my day, and this is one of the most calm and constructive letters of this kind that I have ever read.

I think her main point is linked, in my mind at least, to the whole hot topic of whether talented journalists who lack experience and lack studies in religion are, for some strange reason, more qualified to cover the religion beat than are talented journalists who have experience on this beat and have studied religion, history, theology, etc.

There are people who believe that and many of them run newsrooms. Honest.

Anyway, I want to ask this question to the journalists out there in cyberspace who read this blog: How would you answer this concerned reader?

I have always said that the best way to improve religion coverage is to do the same thing you would do to improve coverage on any other complex beat — hire a trained professional who has proven skills on the beat and give her or him the time, space and resources needed to do the job.

In other words, let us all say, “It’s journalism, stupid.”

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Get your GetReligion swag

jitcrunch aspxI warned you that there would soon be some kind of GetReligion store.

We do not, at this point, have an official M.Z. Hemingway baby shower account set up at CafePress, but that is a possibility. Please note that the one-piece baby suit comes in blue and white, as well as the fashion-era hot pink. You may want to delay your orders for a few more weeks, pending additional input from Ms. Hemingway and Co.

Hey, M.Z., would the pink or the blue go better — at this point — with the highlights in your hair?

Like I said in an earlier post, we elected to avoid having a GetReligion thong and we skipped the controversy of having men’s boxers in the menu, too.

The official beer stein is available for use by Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Southern Baptists in parts of Kentucky and others who have no doctrinal problems with that part of God’s creation. The rest of you guys are on an honor system.

With a nod to my Orthodox friends who live and grill in the Sunbelt, I should note that the barbecue apron should be used only during non-fasting seasons. Also, I have no interest in hearing anyone’s claims that tofu works just fine on a grill (although I hear that shrimp is another matter).

So what else do you think we need to add to this rough draft of the GetReligion swag store?

I wonder if they would do book covers that could be used on either Bibles or Associated Press Stylebooks?

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A ghostly thought for the day

Garrison KeillorA Southern friend in a cassock and collar sent along this thought for the day, by way of Garrison Keillor and his Writer’s Almanac out in Public Radio land. You can listen to this online, of course:

It was on this day in 1891 that Henrik Ibsen’s (books by this author) play Ghosts opened on the London stage. Ghosts was considered a controversial play because it contained details about incest and sexually transmitted diseases, and Ibsen refused to give his audiences the happy endings they were used to. The play had already been banned in St. Petersburg on religious grounds when it premiered in London.

Henrik Ibsen wrote in Act 2: “I almost think we’re all of us Ghosts. … It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.”

Hmmmmm … I’m not sure I want to embrace that fear of the “lifeless old beliefs” of the parents, which certainly hasn’t been a major theme in my life. However, that Ghosts in the newspaper thing is rather nice. I like that image.

Does anyone out there want to offer some other (be nice) newsy thoughts for this busy day?

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Look down for the long, funny headline

megaphoneThe original headline said: “Friends, we hear you and we know that the body-text font size in the new design is too small and it will be fixed very soon (tmatt said, writing this in a headline so that the text will be large enough for all of you to read, wink, wink).” I removed it to make the “recent posts” feature shorter, etc. etc. So now we begin the text of the post with:

OK, OK.

Please consider this an open thread for further comments and advice on the new GetReligion design. Leave your comments here and, if you wish, repeat comments that you have sent us in private emails.

Almost all of you have been very positive about the new look and we thank you. It is here to stay.

We also hope, with the new logo, to have a CafePress shop up for GetReligion swag and, who knows, maybe other stuff in the future. Look CafePress over and tell us what you’d like. No, readers on the left, we will not consider a GetReligion thong. An official line of M.Z. Hemingway baby items is another matter.

So let us know what you think about the new look, but be kind. And you can also let us know people that you want us to interview with the 5Q+1 feature.

We’re listening. Honest.

P.S. Yes, I know that the tops of the letters in the font in the monster headline on this post are touching the letters on the line of text above them. But hey, I broke every headline rule in the book to write that monster. We don’t write two line heads. Things will be fine.

So there.

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