Landmines in abortion reporting

landmineThe Washington Post has a religion-heavy article on Nicaragua’s therapeutic abortion ban. Until a few weeks ago Nicaragua permitted abortions to be performed on women who had been raped, whose babies were abnormal or who faced medical risk, according to reporter N.C. Aizenman. Abortion opponents claimed that the loophole for therapeutic abortions was being abused.

Stories about abortion and the laws that govern it are very difficult to write. Unfortunately, mainstream media don’t have an excellent track record with handling the issue fairly. This could be because they are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion on demand. We’ve discussed this before, needless to say.

Our story today begins with a tragic anecdote about Jazmina Bojorge, a five-months-pregnant woman who died in a hospital there recently. Proponents of legal abortion say she died because the law forbade her from having an abortion to save her life. But the hospital director says that’s wrong on two points:

Julio César Flores, director of the hospital, countered that the new legislation, which took effect Nov. 19, hadn’t even been signed into law when Bojorge arrived for treatment. Her death, which remains under investigation by Nicaraguan medical authorities, “has nothing to do with the abortion law,” he said. “These charges are being made by people who are taking advantage of what happened.”

So the director of the hospital says the law wasn’t even in effect when she was admitted and that Bojorge’s death had nothing to do with the abortion law. So what does the caption that accompanies the story say? It says:

Rosa Rodriguez shows a photo of her daughter, Jazmina Bojorge, who died when denied a therapeutic abortion.

I mean, it’s one thing to use an anecdotal lede extremely sympathetic to one side of a contentious debate. It’s another thing to use an anecdote that fails to hold water. But to caption the piece with new information that is contradicted in the story takes it to a new level. Yes, some abortion advocates have diagnosed from a distance that the fetus should have been killed to save the life of the mother, but it’s not backed up by the medical staff treating her. The caption shouldn’t take sides, should it?

The rest of the piece discusses the influence of Roman Catholic and evangelical church leaders, including Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, in pushing for the ban on therapeutic abortion. Let’s look at how it characterizes the debate:

On Oct. 6, Obando, [Archbishop Leopoldo] Brenes and various evangelical pastors led tens of thousands of citizens in a march to the National Assembly to demand a repeal of the exception for therapeutic abortions. Legislators obliged, fast-tracking consideration of the ban under procedures normally reserved for national emergencies.

Every major medical society in Nicaragua opposed the proposed ban. Their concerns were echoed by Nicaragua’s health minister and a long list of foreign embassies and international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program.

Gee, I wonder what foreign service staff writer N.C. Aizenman wants us to believe here about which side should have been listened to. I love that the foreign agents are unnamed and the addition of the scare phrase “normally reserved for national emergencies.” Just in case you didn’t get the point that the pro-lifers were bad people. The legal analysis isn’t substantiated by any source. You just have to trust the reporter.

nicaragprotestIt would be interesting to see how the reporter would handle the issue if the story were reversed. Let’s say the abortion opponents were the foreign influences and the abortion supporters were citizens.

Do you think the story would similarly situate the two sides, nudging the reader to support listening to foreign embassies and ignore the voice of the people?

The Post story fits the pattern for much abortion reportage, though. Mainstream media, as was reported in a Los Angeles Times study 16 years ago, tend to use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates, quote abortion rights advocates more favorably and often than abortion opponents, and ignore stories favorable to abortion opponents. One last paragraph to highlight:

Advocates for greater access to abortion argued that even that law was too restrictive, prompting an estimated 32,500 women to get illegal and potentially unsafe abortions in Nicaragua every year and accounting for 16 percent of the more than 100 maternal deaths here annually, according to a 2002 ministry study. By contrast, the Health Ministry recorded only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year.

A law banning abortion prompts people to have illegal abortions in the same manner a law banning rape prompts people to rape illegally. You may personally think either action is fine, and you may personally think either action should be legal and protected. But that’s not the point. Neither rape nor abortion is something an individual must do. Making either action illegal does not force the illegal action.

It’s also interesting that Aizenman says there were only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year. A BBC report last week — very heavy on the religious angles — says there were 30,000 therapeutic abortions last year. I wonder if something was lost in translation.

Aizenman should follow the lead of other reporters who’ve successfully tackled the difficult subject: Keep personal opinions out, pick anecdotes carefully, quote liberally and describe situations in the sparest way possible. Otherwise these abortion stories will continue to be landmines.

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Story behind the story in Istanbul

Constantinople5Press reports are starting to filter in on Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Turkey for the Feast of St. Andrew.

This is one of those cases in which there is a story that will be on the news and then there are other stories in the background, perhaps even buried or ignored in the mainstream coverage of the story. However, I have hopes that this will not be the case.

Why? Check out the opening of the initial report from Ian Fisher of The New York Times:

Pope Benedict XVI originally wanted to visit Turkey a year ago, for one quiet night, and Islam had nothing to do with it.

It was meant as a trip to help heal the 1,000-year rift with the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians. The pope would celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew on Nov. 30 with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the worldwide Orthodox Church, who lives in Istanbul, then return to Rome.

But for various reasons having to do with its complex relationship with Orthodox Christianity, the Turkish government protested. No doubt the nation’s leaders wish they had approved a visit then. Now, after the pope’s speech two months ago that many interpreted as suggesting that Islam was prone to violence, the trip that starts Tuesday has become far more complicated.

An even earlier report in the Los Angeles Times managed to balance the same two topics. Here is a key paragraph:

The Vatican has made it clear that the pope is traveling to Turkey chiefly to meet the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, an ethnic Greek. Although he is a Turkish citizen and has lobbied hard for membership for Turkey in the European Union, Bartholomew is mistrusted by many here as a “Greek agent” seeking to reestablish Christian influence in this country.

The question, of course, is whether the tiny Christian minority in Turkey can be granted any kind of religious liberty without provoking violence among Islamists. Then again, how does Turkey hope to enter the EU if it cannot enforce the rule of law and basic human rights, such as religious liberty for minority groups?

So there is reason to hope for good journalism in a tough situation. Now we have to see if the 3,000 or so reporters making this trip into Turkey can meet the test.

Any event that even hints at Islamic relations and/or the European Union is going to grab the headlines. That’s a given. But it helps to remember that the original purpose of this trip was to push for religious liberty for minority groups in the allegedly secular state of Turkey. At the same time, this pope — as was the case with Pope John Paul II — is trying to test the edges of ecumenical relations with the other great ancient Christian communion, Eastern Orthodoxy.

Reporters who have been following that story for a decade or two will be paying close attention to any hints Big Ben may make about his concepts of limited forms of papal authority in the East or even a return to a first-among-equals relationship with the other patriarches in the ancient churches of the East. At the very least, he may try to better define the “impaired communion” that exists between East and West.

Here is a good summary paragraph about what is at stake from Catholic scholar George Weigel, writing in Newsweek:

There is … a link between what Benedict XVI thinks he’s doing during his Turkish pilgrimage and the world’s expectations of another episode in the confrontation between the West and Islam. That link involves the dramatic restrictions under which Patriarch Bartholomew and the Ecumenical Patriarchate must operate, thanks to the obstacles put in the patriarchate’s path by the Turkish government — restrictions that raise serious questions about Turkey’s ability to meet EU human-rights standards. Should the papal visit to the Phanar (sometimes referred to as the “Orthodox Vatican,” much to the aggravation of the Orthodox) focus world attention on the gaps in Turkey’s practice of religious freedom, the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate might be improved — and so, in consequence, would Turkey’s chances of a closer relationship to the EU.

Phanar2A key moment will occur when the pope passes the famous locked front gate of the Phanar (pictured), which — as I noted in 2004 — was

… (Welded) shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

What will Benedict XVI do at this door? Will he pray there? Leave flowers? Choose that site as a backdrop for his remarks on religious liberty? Stay tuned.

Anyone interested in the original purpose of this papal journey should read Weigel’s essay. Also, for those interested in the picky details, the Vatican has already posted some of the details on the ecumenical services.

UPDATE: I did not know, when I wrote this, that Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher had published a column in The Dallas Morning News today based on the same theme as this post. By all means, read it all. Here’s a key passage:

Benedict has a clearer eye about Islam than his predecessor, who rarely missed an opportunity to abase himself before Muslims for the sake of improved relations and received little for his efforts. This pope is different. He is not prepared to pretend that it is of no matter that in Europe Muslims are free to worship as they please and to build mosques at will, while in Turkey and the Muslim world, Christians are generally not permitted to build churches and face state-sanctioned discrimination. It is better, says Benedict, to speak frankly about the world as it is, rather than about the world Western elites wish we lived in.

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Presiding bishop wronged by shallow newspaper

obispaThanks to the energy of GetReligion reader Greg Popcak, we now know that the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church does not share my enthusiasm for the contents of that strange little New York Times Magazine mini-interview with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

According to a letter from Robert B. Goodfellow, the new presiding bishop’s media aide, the brilliant primate, scientist and airplane pilot was quoted out of context by reporter Deborah Solomon and, if the remarks were read in context, all of those Roman Catholic and Mormon breeders out there in the blogosphere would not be as upset as they are at the moment (click here for background and URLs).

Here is the key part of that letter:

I am writing to thank you very much for the candid expression of your concern regarding the Presiding Bishop’s recent interview published in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

The reality is that media interviews do not always convey the whole nature of a conversation had between interviewee and interviewer. A few paragraphs of text cannot distill with complete accuracy a lengthy conversation.

I can also assure you that the Presiding Bishop does not think other Christians uneducated, ignorant, illiterate, or somehow or otherwise not smart simply because they are not Episcopalian.

Note the presence of the words “simply because” in that latter statement. Classic!

Now, I have — back in the days before I was a columnist — been involved in a few of these exchanges with the media aides of brilliant, nuanced, complicated mainline Protestant intellectuals.

Note that Goodfellow does not claim Jefferts Schori was misquoted. The controversial quote stands. In other words, the new leader of the Episcopal Church did, while discussing membership losses in her church, truly say:

Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children. … We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

Jefferts Schori’s office simply wants the world to know that she said many other things and that, as a reporter, Solomon did a poor job of selecting material from the longer interview when she was assembling this edgy little Q&A. I am told by people who spend more time than I do in The New York Times Magazine that this interview with the archbishop is a perfect example of Solomon’s style, which strives to humanize public figures by asking questions that are more personal and casual.

But here is my final observation. Many elite thinkers on the theological left have learned how to surround their beliefs in a kind of nuanced theological fog that serves as a protective barrier. Insiders know what the symbolic word clusters mean, but this strategy prevents many people in the pews — the kind of ordinary people who write checks — from understanding what is going on. There are exceptions, of course, such as the retired Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong of Newark, who never used a fly swatter when a baseball bat would do.

The problem for reporters is that when you select one crisp quote out of the fog this allows the offended intellectual to say, in effect, that the reporter simply wasn’t smart enough to understand the rich tapestry of the total interview and, thus, misquoted the speaker, even though the quote was accurate. It’s a sad thing, don’t you see, when leaders have to communicate high thoughts through such a low medium — like The New York Times.

Our sympathies go out to the poor reporter, who will surely learn from her error.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if Jefferts Schori continues — Spong style — to fire away as freely in interviews with news organizations that she trusts.

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In praise of quirky news interviews

DontBelieve I have been feeling kind of guilty because GetReligion hasn’t even mentioned the bizarre semi-story of the week that has been so hot out there in the blogosphere, especially on conservative Catholic sites.

I am referring to that strange little interview that New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon did with Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. In case you missed the wave of cybercoverage of this story, including in our own comments pages, here are the remarks that have been getting so much attention:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

As you can imagine, great fun was had in the usual places because of this statement. Anglican capitalists sprang into action, as did humorists. Lots of amused or angry people wrote letters to

This would explain why the Episcopal Church has, in a generation or so, lost a million members and many that remain are getting a bit long in the tooth. Losses have been especially sharp in the past two or three years, as discussed in this story in the liberal mainline Protestant journal The Christian Century.

Catholic writers, in particular, were rather miffed that the Episcopal leader created such a stark equation that said, in effect: Our numbers are declining because we are smarter and care more about the environment than all of those populist Catholics and Mormons (recall that Jefferts Schori was bishop of the tiny Diocese of Nevada before her election as archbishop).

88284924v6 240x240 BackBut I didn’t quite know what to say about this Times mini-interview because, for starters, I thought the questions were interesting and so were the answers. It is also true that when people get richer, more urban and very highly educated they tend to have fewer children. And the heart of the Episcopal Church’s leadership comes from areas that are rich, urban and highly, highly educated. At the same time, the Episcopal Church’s parishes that are experiencing rapid growth tend to be in the Sunbelt, in growing suburban areas and popular with young, growing families.

So it was a good interview, with a few interesting questions that produced interesting responses, much like that Here & Now public radio interview that produced the new presiding bishop’s revealing comments about people finding salvation through the culturally appropriate religion of their choice.

Quirky questions. Quirky answers. That’s good, right? Like that question about her husband and their long-distance marriage?

You were previously bishop of Nevada, but your new position requires you to live in New York City. Do you and your husband like it here?

He is actually in Nevada. He is a retired mathematician. He will be here in New York when it makes sense.

The question for me is whether Jefferts Schori will continue to be this candid in interviews with news organizations that she respects and to which she wants to talk in order to reach her liberal base. Is it possible that she felt too comfortable talking to the Times and to a public-radio show? That she felt a bit too secure?

I, for one, hope that her candor continues. I have always enjoyed covering religious leaders — on the left and the right — who have strong convictions and are not afraid to share them near microphones and pens.

Image credits: Revolution 21, Midwest Conservative Journal.

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Round up the usual suspects!

CasablancaAirportSorry for the delay on this one folks. I have, for some time now, been meaning to post the link to some interesting comments from the noted Vatican watcher John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter. In a way, it’s a meditation on the need for reporters — especially when covering Roman and American Catholicism — to dig past the easy layers of official sources and talk to real people on both sides of the church aisle.

There are some behind the scenes tidbits in here, the kind that have made Allen one of the world’s most famous Vatican storytellers (for better or for worse, depending on how you view his take on things Roman).

However, Allen also notes that the problems mainstream journalists have covering Catholicism must be linked to a larger topic.

… (There) is a deep cultural gap between Rome and the United States, which means that even when reporters get the facts right about something the Vatican has said or done, they often get the story wrong. … Further, most news organizations don’t take religion seriously as a news beat, so it’s covered part-time, often by people without any special training or background. (In Fort Worth, for example, I’m told that one local religion writer also has the rodeo beat). “News” is generally defined as something new or different (“man bites dog”), so for a 2,000 year-old tradition that prizes continuity, a broad swath of Catholic life will never count as “news” for most media outlets. Further, because conflict is the stuff of drama, news reports rarely focus on instances of harmony or quiet service, another way in which much Catholic life flies below the radar screen. Additionally, because “the church” is usually understood to mean the clerical caste, the vast range of works carried out by laity are at times all but invisible. (I was recently asked by the BBC to recommend someone from the church to interview on the subject of women in Catholicism. Since Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, happened to be in Rome that week, I passed along her name. The producer’s response was, “But we want someone from the church!”)

Yes, there is that whole thing about many mainstream journalists failing to get religion. We sort of agree with that.

However, there is something deeper going on as well. How do journalists pick their sources? Why do certain names keep showing up in major media over and over (think Pat Robertson or Father Richard McBrien)?

Well, the other day Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher sort of hit the wall on precisely this topic and pounded out this rather dark meditation on precisely this subject. You need to read the whole thing — but here is the heart of it. I would like to stress that Rod is describing bad journalism in this post and there are many reporters out there, including some we salute over and over at this blog, who prefer to do good journalism. It can be done.

So how do the journalistic usual suspects become the usual suspects who get rounded up in news report after news report? Take it away, Rod:

1. Outright bias. The reporter has an agenda, and calls the expert he knows will give him the quote he wants to spin the story a certain way. If, for example, you want to make Evangelicals come across in a certain way, you will call Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, even though their influence on the broad swath of Evangelicalism has long been waning.

2. Laziness, or expedience. No reporter can be expert in everything, and all reporters work under strict deadlines. Lots of times they’ll do a Google or a Nexis search to see which expert in which given field has been previously cited by reporters. “Norman Ornstein” turns up a lot. He’s an American Enterprise Institute scholar who knows a lot about Washington politics. Nothing wrong with his advice, but one reason he’s so widely quoted is … because he’s been so widely quoted.

3. Ignorance. This is closely related to No. 2. A reporter who means well, and who has the time to research a story, may be unaware of the nuances of a particular field, might not understand that the favored expert is not really expert. She’s going on past reputation as a guide to present expertise. The difference between this and No. 2 is that she really may be trying to do the best job she can, and not cut corners, but her ignorance of the subject area leads her to fall back on the usual suspects, thinking she’s gone to the leading expert.

4. Media-friendly sources. Nothing makes a source rise to the “must-call” list of a reporter faster than the source’s willingness to take the reporter’s call, or to call him back as soon as possible. Again, it’s a deadline thing. A lot of the experts you see quoted so often build up their reputation with the media by being helpful and accomodating. It’s hard to express to those not in the business how helpful that is to a reporter on deadline. (This is why it’s good to remember that if a reporter calls you for a quote, if you intend to speak to the reporter at all, call her back as soon as you can; she’s got a story to file, and if you don’t get back to her promptly, she’ll go to somebody else who will.)

Leaders of major religious organizations may want to clip that list and file it for fun reading on bad-press days. Remember, reporters cannot call you if they do not know you exist. And some reporters may not want to know you exist, because you might spoil the story they have already written inside their heads.

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Who believes what about birth control?

BIRTH CONTROL PILLSOne of the most important things that journalists get to do is pick the right words to describe complex situations, especially when defining what religious believers do or do not believe.

Thus, I have a question about the top two paragraphs in a Washington Post report by Christopher Lee about the work of the Bush White House’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Pay close attention, because here’s the lede:

Despite his work for a Christian pregnancy counseling group that opposes contraception, the physician who yesterday began overseeing federal family-planning programs has prescribed birth control for his patients, a Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said.

And here are the two subsequent paragraphs:

Eric Keroack, a nationally known advocate of abstinence until marriage, served for more than a decade as medical director for A Woman’s Concern, a Massachusetts nonprofit group that discourages abortion and does not distribute information promoting birth control. But HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson said yesterday that most of Keroack’s professional time had been devoted to his private practice of 20 years, not the group.

“When he was in private practice as a doctor, he did prescribe birth control,” Pearson said. “And he did family planning with patients at their request as part of his private physician role.” She said Keroack has prescribed contraceptives for both married and unmarried women.

Now forget for a moment the issue of whether Keroack, as a private physician, prescribed contraceptives. Note that the work of A Woman’s Concern is described in two rather different — I would say inconsistent — ways.

In the lede we are told that this countercultural women’s center “opposes contraception.”

Then, in the second paragraph, we are told that the group “does not distribute information promoting birth control.”

Well, which is it? Does the center actively oppose contraception, which I would assume means that it attempts to convince women and men not to use contraception, or does it simply decline to actively provide information about how to obtain and use contraception? Is the group trying to remain silent on the issue?

And why would that be? I would assume A Woman’s Concern is a ministry that works with volunteers, donors and doctors who are Roman Catholic, as well as Protestant. In other words, the coalition that backs the center may include people who have a spectrum of different beliefs — a diversity of beliefs, even — on moral issues linked to birth control and when it should or should not be used.

The Roman Catholic Church heirarchy actively opposes contraception, although most American Catholics do not. Many Protestant groups do not oppose contraception, but many Protestants hesitate to urge the use of birth control by young people without the knowledge of their parents. There are a variety of other stances that modern pro-life Christians take on issues linked to contraception. Members of all of these groups are often active in the work of crisis pregnancy centers. These are ecumenical and, in some cases, interfaith coalitions.

I bring this up because there are signs — note this E.J. Dionne Jr. column — that Democrats, including some pro-life Democrats, are going to do everything they can to craft legislation that will allow them to be seen as opposing abortion without having to make any legislative compromises that might actively limit some abortions. In a way, I think this is a good thing, especially if it focuses more attention on the ways that poverty forces many women into abortions they do not want. It will be good to have public debate on these issues.

However, this is going to lead to complex debates about moral and religious issues linked to birth control, and I think it would be a good thing for journalists to realize that it will be important to accurately describe who believes what.

At the same time, it will be interesting to see if Democrats — as well as journalists — can find a way to work with conservative Roman Catholics and to let them remain active in public life. It’s hard to address issues of poverty and health care in North America without running into the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants who respect the Catholic Church.

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Christ-free Christmas? Don’t blame Islam

trafal guysndolls 011I heard something interesting last summer while I was over in Oxford helping lead a seminar on press freedom and blasphemy.

A veteran British thinker told me something interesting. Obviously, the whole concept of multiculturalism — often simply called “multicult” — has continued to gain power in Great Britain. The question was, “Just how powerful is multicult going to become?”

In many ways, this boiled down to the issue of how well the Island of the Mighty would learn to deal with the growing Islamic presence in its midst.

Could multicult trump academic freedom? Just try to find courses on textual criticism of the Koran (as opposed to the Old and New Testaments).

Could multicult trump artistic freedom? That’s an easy one too.

Then things got tougher on the secular British left.

Could multicult trump feminism? That, I was told, has come to pass. But what would happen when multicult took on sexual freedom? Was it possible that multicult could trump even that? Would some segments of the British and, yes, the European left even back away from confronting Islam on that precious issue? I don’t know, let’s ask Theo van Gogh and Hirsi Ali.

But this past week, reporter Paul Majendie of Reuters wrote a story that raised an even more interesting issue. What would happen when multicult actually clashed with Islam itself? What if the drive to wash away many of the traditions of Great Britain actually reached the point where Muslims began to be offended or began to fear some kind of backlash? Here’s the lede:

LONDON — Christian and Muslim Britons joined forces yesterday to tell city officials to stop taking the Christianity out of Christmas, warning them that this simply fuels a backlash against Muslims. They attacked local authorities who used titles such as “Winterval” for their Christmas celebrations and avoided using Christian symbols in case they offended minority groups, especially Muslims and Hindus.

The question of how best to integrate Muslims into European society, which has Christian roots but is increasingly secular, has become a burning issue, with Britain playing its part in the debate after years of promoting multiculturalism. The Christian Muslim Forum, set up by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Church of England, complained that taking the Christian message out of Christmas played into the hands of extreme nationalists who then accuse Muslims of undermining Britain’s Christian culture.

“The desire to secularize religious festivals is in itself offensive to both our communities,” said Ataullah Siddiqui, vice chairman of the forum.

Anglican Bishop of Bolton David Gillett said that when local authorities rename Christmas so as not to offend other religions, their stance “will tend to backfire badly on the Muslim community in particular.”

manageremptyIs it possible that Islam has a more favorable view of Jesus and his mother Mary than the mainstream British multicult authorities who think they are trying to discern the true wishes of Islam? This is, after all, England — not Saudi Arabia.

Now this is a Christmas wars story worth following, certainly more complex and interesting than the Merry Christmas standoffs that are already making headlines on this side of the Atlantic. But here come the Christmas wars stories, like them or not.

So thank you to the GetReligion readers who are already sending URLs for early Christmas stories.

But folks, that’s just too easy. Let’s raise the bar. Look for the really good stories and the really bad ones. Let’s look for news coverage, like this Reuters story from London, that breaks new ground — for good or ill. Here we go.

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Wanted: One “Passion Playbook”

window 02For the second time in a week, I am about to get on an airplane and head out to the Los Angeles area, which means testing the battery life on my iPod video again.

But these trips also allow me to talk to people who care about what goes on in Hollywood. Which brings me to a story I have been meaning to mention on the blog for more than a week. I am referring to that Variety report by Steven Zeitchik about the ongoing quest in Hollywood to learn how to sell more tickets to people who go to church. The story opened with an interesting image that I, for one, am tempted to believe is literal:

Two years after “The Passion of the Christ” fueled $600 million in global B.O., Hollywood is discovering that faith is harder than it looks.

To support the growing genre of faith-based movies, the industry has embraced an ever-growing set of guidelines described by some as the Passion Playbook. Among its edicts: Thou shalt woo the Bible Belt. Court the favor of local pastors. Avoid major media if they might send the wrong message.

Now Hollywood professionals — like politicians — can turn just about anything into a focus-group topic that produces a set of talking points. Does anyone doubt that multiple PR or market-research firms have turned out some expensive memos that, in effect, claim to be the “Passion Playbook”? I am sure there are church-related groups that are doing the same thing.

So can someone please send me copies of some of these things?

All kinds of people think they can pull off the Passion formula and, clearly, some of them are nuts. Take, for example, the people who produced Jesus Camp. Remember that controversy? They did hire a top faith-based PR pro in Larry Ross, best known for his Billy Graham work. They did special church screenings. They actually thought that this movie was going to appeal to the very people it attacked.

Meanwhile, you have the FoxFaith people and that Gener8Xion Entertainment crowd. And, as Variety noted, you have Anonymous Content manager Adam Krentzman setting up a fund that will finance three or four low-budget Christian-themed movies a year, what he called “Hit-you-over-the-head, Jesus-loves-you kind of films.” Speaking of which, the $100,000 Facing the Giants is still out there and has made $8.2 million or so.

nativity3 smallBut the interesting case study to watch is the Dec. 1 New Line release called The Nativity Story, which, as The New York Times put it, is an open attempt to land the Passion audience. But the more interesting side of this movie — other than the smashing performance of Oscar Isaac as Joseph — is the story behind the people who made it.

Let me see if I can piece together a few of the most interesting parts of that story:

In many ways, the movie is testament (no pun intended) to the profoundly changed attitudes in Hollywood toward religion as mainstream entertainment, which this is certainly intended to be. And it is attracting some strange bedfellows. … The film’s screenwriter, Mike Rich, is a practicing Christian from Portland, Ore., who has written sports movies like “The Rookie.”

. . . And something else was shifting among certain Hollywood insiders and decision makers. Marty Bowen, a Harvard-educated partner at United Talent Agency, with clients like the screenwriters Charlie Kaufman (who named his obnoxious agent Marty in “Adaptation”) and Larry McMurtry (“Brokeback Mountain”), took a close look at his life and decided he wasn’t happy.

. . . Coincidentally, one of Mr. Bowen’s closest friends in Hollywood, the producer Wyck Godfrey, was going through a similar period of self-scrutiny. Mr. Godfrey, a former executive at New Line Cinema, had been president of Davis Entertainment, helping to produce big, commercial studio movies like “Daddy Day Care,” “I, Robot” and “Alien vs. Predator.”

. . . The two decided to team up and produce movies that were meaningful to them and would speak to the heartland communities in which they grew up. Mr. Bowen came from a traditional Roman Catholic family in Texas, where he was an altar boy and his parents served as lectors at Mass. Mr. Godfrey was raised in a charismatic Christian church in east Tennessee, where parishioners, he said, spoke in tongues and were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Both had strayed far from their roots to Hollywood Babylon.

Now that’s an interesting story in and of itself.

But note this: If anyone is going to be able to create a “Passion Playbook” that is worth the paper it is printed on, it’s almost certainly going to be talented Hollywood professionals who — for a host of valid reasons, personal and professional — choose to make quality movies for a massive, mainstream audience.

However, I still want a copy of some of the memos behind all of this.

Top photo from Church of the Masses.

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