Ave Maria and the MSM square off

 3How busy have things been around here lately? Earlier this week I was quoted in a mainstream newspaper about GetReligion’s response to recent news coverage (as opposed to old coverage) of Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida. If you don’t recall this blog’s response to that, there’s a good reason — I haven’t had the time to blog on that yet. I think the Oscars thing jumped in there.

Several GetReligion readers emailed me to let me know they didn’t think much of NBC’s recent Today coverage of the alternative, highly traditionalist Roman Catholic campus being built near Naples, Fla., by the activist philanthropist Tom “Domino’s Pizza” Monaghan. The college is controversial enough, but what really set off the fireworks this time was the growing awareness that the university would sit in the middle of a planned community called Ave Maria, Fla., and that Monoghan and other insiders were going to request that businesses setting up shop inside the city limits consider, well, not embracing pornography, birth control and abortion.

I didn’t see the NBC report, but I did read the recent Newsweek/MSNBC story by Susannah Meadows, the one with that somewhat snarky headline “Halfway to Heaven — A Catholic millionaire’s dream town draws fire.” Here is a pretty typical sample of the text:

For Tom Monaghan, the devout Catholic who founded Domino’s Pizza and is now bankrolling most of the initial $400 million cost of the project, Ave Maria is the culmination of a lifetime devoted to spreading his own strict interpretation of Catholicism. Though he says nonbelievers are welcome, Monaghan clearly wants the community to embody his conservative values. He controls all the commercial real estate in town (along with his developing partner, Barron Collier Cos.) and is asking pharmacies not to carry contraceptives. If forced to choose between two otherwise comparable drugstores, Barron Collier would favor the one that honored that request, says its president and CEO, Paul Marinelli. Discussing his life as a millionaire Catholic who puts his money where his faith is, Monaghan says: “I believe all of history is just one big battle between good and evil. I don’t want to be on the sidelines.”

The ACLU of Florida is worried about how he’s playing the game.

The key phrase in that, of course, is “his own strict interpretation of Catholicism.” You see that kind of language all the time, which seems to underscore the fact that many journalists think the Roman Catholic Church is an evolving democracy in which liberal Catholics who oppose the teachings of the church have the same doctrinal status as, well, the pope. In this story, is the key the fact that Monoghan’s beliefs are controversial or those of Pope Benedict XVI?

oldtimechurch inside2Clearly all kinds of legal hellfire will break out if Monoghan and others try to outlaw — using government power — certain sins in the community. The question here is whether they can use their economic clout to make it easier for some businesses and harder for others. It’s one thing to control the moral climate of the campus. But will the town be the ultimate gated community?

That’s a valid story (and a dang good story, too), but that does not mean journalists have to assume that Monoghan is the “pizza pope” who is trying to establish some kind of Roman cult within air-strike range of South Beach.

Sure enough, the powers that be at Ave Maria have tried to tone down their language a bit. The university also has set up a website with links to some of the recent coverage, both good and bad. It would be good if more religious institutions took a similar approach.

Meanwhile, reporter Joan D. LaGuardia of the News-Press in Fort Myers called me up and asked what GetReligion thought of all of this. I made it clear I hadn’t seen the television coverage, but that some of our readers had. She wrote a short story on the mini-media storm that included the following:

Media critics said the three-day flurry of reporting was typical of the wider debate over Christian values in the nation.

Terry Mattingly, head of getreligion.org, a Washington D.C.-based Web site that dissects secular coverage of religion, said he got a few e-mails about Friday’s coverage. One said Katie Couric of the “Today Show” “displayed incredible skepticism for anything that the people from Ave Maria said and no skepticism for anything anyone else said.”

That’s typical of major media reporting on religion, Mattingly said.

However, Aly Colon, who teaches journalism ethics and diversity at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, said Christian groups attempting to influence government and society put themselves in the limelight for tough reporting.

“There has been an increasingly assertive approach on the part of Christian organizations to bring their values into these secular environments,” Colon said. “The more visible that becomes, the more attention it will draw.”

In a way, that makes it sound like I disagree with Colon and I do not. Clearly, the Ave Maria folks deserve some tough questions. But the people who oppose them deserve a few raised eyebrows, too, Katie. That’s what journalism is all about. Right?

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South Dakota reconsiderations

dcfightEven though our reputation is only slightly above ex-cons, I’m extremely proud to be a reporter.

Most journalists, or at least the ones I’m privileged to know, strive to be fair and helpful in their coverage of contentious and confusing stories. Most succeed. In fact, the number one thing that surprised me about reporters — when, in my second career, I became one and dwelt in their midst — was that they managed to be so fair given how liberal they are personally. It’s true, reporters are more or less liberal. But having personal convictions does not make you biased. Being a sloppy, lazy and unethical reporter makes you biased.

But there is one issue where it’s harder to find good coverage than bad. There is one issue where we do such a horrible job covering it that it makes me ashamed: abortion. I have thought about it for years and have been unable to figure out why reporters tend to botch portrayals of the opposing sides or fail to dig into the non-political aspects of the issue. From style guides on down to local reports of protests, journalists forget much of what they learned when they work on this issue.

Which is why I continue to be so thankful for Stephanie Simon on the faith and values beat at the Los Angeles Times. She found a really interesting angle for her story on the South Dakota abortion ban: how opposing sides on the abortion issue are dealing with making political compromises for their cause.

Some foes of abortion — fearful that South Dakota has moved too far, too fast — now find themselves reluctantly opposing efforts to protect all fetal life from the moment of conception. They are even angling to block another abortion ban that seems likely to pass in Mississippi.

For their part, some abortion-rights activists feel they must acknowledge the sentiment behind the South Dakota ban by assuring America that they, too, regard abortion as a grave moral concern. But such language outrages others in their movement, especially abortion doctors, who feel it stigmatizes and alienates their patients.

That some pro-lifers wish this South Dakota ban had not passed is fairly well known. But that pro-choice activists are considering reshaping their message is news. Mark Stricherz, a really smart friend who is a Roman Catholic and populist writer, has been following the Democrat abortion debates regularly. Yet I haven’t really seen good mainstream news coverage of the political questions pro-choice activists and Democrats are asking.

While the Republican Party is officially pro-life, many of its members and elected representatives are not. On the Democrat side, there has been a striking decline over the last couple of decades in the percentage of elected members of Congress who oppose legalized abortion. There has also been a striking decline in political power, which I wrote about recently. That’s leading some Democrat strategists to wonder whether pro-choice orthodoxy is such a good idea. Of course, this debate is happening at the same time that Kate Michelman is considering entering the Pennsylvania Senate race to thwart the chances of Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat.

abortionIn other words, this is a great story for the political and religion beats. Here, Simon looks at the various views on the pro-choice side:

The liberal think tank Third Way is circulating a memo on Capitol Hill advising politicians who support abortion rights to recalibrate their message. Instead of stressing a woman’s right to choose, they should tell voters that they support “personal liberty,” but accept that it’s a “moral responsibility” to reduce the number of abortions. (That number has declined steadily from a peak of 1.43 million in 1990 to 1.29 million in 2002, the latest year statistics are available.)

A number of abortion-rights activists have bought into that strategy. They’ve been on the defensive for more than two decades, ever since conservative and fundamentalist Christians began pushing social issues like abortion to the forefront of political debate. . . .

Such tactical positioning infuriates Dr. Warren Hern, who runs an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo. He, too, would like to see fewer women with unwanted pregnancies; he counsels all his patients on contraception. But in his view, the availability of safe, legal abortions should be a cause for national pride — not shame. . . .

One out of every three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. . . .

Above all, [National Women's Health Organization president Susan Hill] said: “We have to stop apologizing” for the nation’s abortion rate — and start mobilizing the millions of women “who believe it was the best choice for them.”

This jockeying among Democrats and the pro-choice advocates with whom they are so closely entwined should not have caught reporters by surprise. Strategist James Carville has been openly discussing losses in membership from Roman Catholics for almost a year.

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Hollywood’s Moral Majority acts out?

I almost posted a link to this piece last week. However, I thought at the time that it was — for GetReligion — one of those “dogs that didn’t bark” stories. After all, the piece does not mention the red vs. blue zip code divide or the theme, previously seen in Los Angeles Times stories, that some people in Hollywood might be getting sweaty palms, in an era of crashing box office numbers, about holding a Brokeback Mountain wedding shower.

Oh well. Whatever. Never mind.

Click here and see the amazing predictions late last week by David Carr in the New York Times. So we must ask, what did he know and when did he know it? Or better yet, for this blog, why did he know it? Was this, to dig up that quote from Ken Tucker of New York magazine, a victory for the “insecure, the idiots, or the insecure idiots”?

It will be interesting to watch Hollywood meditate on the meaning of this Oscar upset. As one would expect, Andrew Sullivan and his sparring partner Mickey Kaus are already up and at it.

But Kenneth Turan at the newspaper of tinsel record has already written the rough draft of the Culture Wars talking points for today. His Los Angeles Times piece — was the page framed in black? — gets right to the point. Dang it, is it possible that some people in Hollywood are actually afraid of America? Does Hollywood has a closeted Moral Majority? Is there some Southern Baptist, traditional Catholic or Orthodox Jewish cabal out there on the left coast that we don’t know about? Did Pat Robertson threaten some people?

Turan vents:

Despite all the magazine covers it graced, despite all the red-state theaters it made good money in, despite (or maybe because of) all the jokes late-night talk show hosts made about it, you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable.

More than any other of the nominated films, “Brokeback Mountain” was the one people told me they really didn’t feel like seeing, didn’t really get, didn’t understand the fuss over. … In the privacy of the voting booth, as many political candidates who’ve led in polls only to lose elections have found out, people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed “Brokeback Mountain.”

However, if there are people in Hollywood who are deep into mourning, they may need to remember that it is the season of Lent and, thus, a time for reflection (I dare not say repentance).

As it turns out, the pastors at the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston may be just the men who can feel the pain of all those in Hollywood, New York City and college towns everywhere who are grieving today. Here (hat tip) is a clip from last week’s Ash Wednesday sermon by Father J.A. Loftus, S.J.

I suspect many in this community have already seen Brokeback Mountain. If not see it; if you have, see it again and reflect on the consequences of not being interiorly free, the consequences of not knowing who you really are and want to become, the tragic consequences and subsequent devastation that comes from only living in a “pretend” world. Watch carefully the price of dishonesty in yourself and with those whom you try to love.

Let this Lent be a Brokeback Lent.

That’s all for now. Let us know if you see mainstream journalists and commentators who dig into the moral and religious implications — what a world — of Oscar night.

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Will evangelicals rediscover crosses?

crossIn Wednesday’s Lenten post, I noted that Slate‘s Andrew Santella wrote an interesting article about the revival of Lenten practices among Protestants. I chided him for throwing all Protestants together, from those that have marked Lenten penitence since the beginning with those evangelicals that are rediscovering the practices of the church.

Well, the Baltimore Sun‘s Matthew Brown hit one out of the park with his story on the same topic. By narrowing his focus to one local evangelical congregation, he was able to tell a fascinating story:

People approached the dais one by one. Standing before them, the Rev. Jason Poling pressed his thumb into a small bowl of palm ashes and traced a cross on the forehead of each.

“Remember that you are dust,” he said. “And to dust you shall return.”

Christians throughout the world marked the start of Lent yesterday by receiving the mark that is meant to remind them of their mortality — a tradition that dates to the first millennium. But for New Hope Community Church, an evangelical congregation in Pikesville, the early-morning service was a first.

Brown describes the difference between most services at New Hope (very casual) and Ash Wednesday’s service (Poling wore a robe, draped the lectern in purple and put a cross on the platform). He quotes the pastor talking about the power of the liturgy and explaining the use of liturgical traditions to his congregation.

With the megachurch movement, too much baby was thrown out with the bath water, he says. (I’ve decided that would make a great title for a paper on how some Protestants came to reject infant baptism.) Anyway, Brown gets some outside analysis from Robert Webber, president of the Institute for Worship Studies and author of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. In the late 1990s he surveyed evangelicals about their faith practices:

“They didn’t like contemporary worship anymore,” said Webber, a professor of ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. “They were looking for an encounter with God, they were looking for mystery, they were looking for more Eucharist.”

The whole article is interesting. Brown ties in the anti-Vatican II sentiment among some modern Roman Catholics and writes as if he understands why some Christians use symbols, rites and rubrics and why others don’t. Knowledge of a given situation seems like a minimum requirement for reporters of religion, but sometimes it’s hard to come across. Brown interviews an evangelical congregant who used to be Roman Catholic — providing a great perspective for the piece.

Brown even includes innovative criticism of the evangelical return to ritual from an Anglican Dominican priest in Philadelphia who teaches evangelicals about rituals:

“I worry that they tend to take these practices completely out of their context and practice them in a way that I sometimes feel trivializes them to the point that, well, this is the latest spiritual fad,” [Rev. Kevin Goodrich] said.

Poling says he is sympathetic to the concern.

“Evangelicals are independent,” he said. “When we appropriate traditions, we do so on our own terms. We feel the freedom to modify them as appropriate to our beliefs and theology. But I think there is a genuine humility to us going to the well of the ancient faith.

All in all, a very nice piece by Brown — both from a local perspective and the larger religious trend angle.

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Penitence, fasting and pride

ash 22698BToday is Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent for the Western Christian church. According to an ancient rite, ashes — made by mixing the burnt palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations with a bit of olive oil — are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of their depraved nature and dependence on God for forgiveness. During Lent, purple paraments drape the altars of liturgical churches and Glorias and Alleluias are omitted from the liturgy. These changes are meant to focus the worshiper on the penitential nature of the season. For their part, some worshipers traditionally mark the season by fasting from meat and alcohol, as well as spending more time in prayer and reflection.

Feast days and fast days are great hooks for reporters looking to explore larger religious issues, and today is no exception with papers from New York and North Carolina to Ohio and Nebraska getting in on the action. Overall, reporters did a fabulous job of getting local angles on this day that is observed by much of the Christian world.

Cheryl Sherry of the Appleton Post-Crescent wrote a substantive account of the season of Lent, especially considering how brief her piece is. She got quotes from a variety of clergy, and her narrative managed to do a better job explaining Lent, in fact, then the quotes themselves did. She wrote another piece with Lenten fish-fry recipes.

Bob Withers of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch explained why the season begins midweek:

Lent started as a pre-Easter fast of 40 hours, then was expanded to a week, then 30 days, and in 325 A.D., to 40 days, to memorialize Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness. Confusion followed because Sundays weren’t supposed to be fast days, but omitting them threw off the count.

Pope Gregory I fixed the problem in the late sixth century by adding four days at the beginning of the period and counting Good Friday and Holy Saturday as well. Thus, for 14 centuries, Lent always has begun on a Wednesday.

Leslie Palma-Simoncek, religion editor of the Staten Island Advance, found a great angle for her piece on Ash Wednesday. She spoke with public officials who receive the imposition of ashes:

For some believers, the day presents a dilemma: Keep the ashes on through the workday or discreetly wash them off before returning to the office. . . .

“On this day, you wear your Catholicism on your sleeve,” the councilman said. “It’s a feeling of pride, really.”

Pride? Those of us who do receive the ashes, however, must admit that humiliation is not the only feeling we have when we walk out of church with ashes on our foreheads. Palma explains more, getting a great handle on some of the unintended consequences of this rite:

“It’s one of the biggest opportunities for people to confess their faith, and they feel some solidarity because a lot of other people are wearing the symbol as well,” [Sister Elaine Schenk] said. “It’s a good reminder.”

Ash Wednesday also provides a teachable moment for Christians to explain their beliefs in a society that is increasingly multifaith.

“People will sometimes come up to me and ask me about them. They are usually very respectful,” she said. “That’s a good opportunity to explain the custom.”

Palma explains that not all Christians observe Lent and why. She also gives a mention to Orthodox Christians — such as Old Man Mattingly — for whom Lent began earlier and is a much more austere season. She does such a great job with this story, in fact, that I hope I come across more of her pieces.

In any case, this reminds me that I had a reporter friend who came to her newsroom with ashes on her forehead and had multiple colleagues tell her she had dirt on her forehead. True story. You can read more on newsroom Ash Wednesday capers here.

A Massachusetts paper writes that Lent is a Roman Catholic liturgical season, with no mention of the other groups that celebrate the church calendar. A Florida paper went so far as to give an estimated count of how many Lutherans, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics in the area would receive ashes. On that note, Andrew Santella wrote a very interesting article in Slate about how Lenten penitential practices are increasing in popularity.

If you grew up, as I did, thinking of Lent as the Time of the Frozen Fish Sticks, you can’t help but be surprised by the expanding enthusiasm for the pre-Easter season of penitence and fasting. Lent, it seems, isn’t just for Catholics anymore.

nomeatLike I said, the article is interesting and has some great tidbits of information. The only problem is that Santella completely oversells his argument. While Lenten practices may be increasing in popularity among those folks who used to despise the liturgical calendar, Lent has never been just for Roman Catholics. He quotes Martin Luther, a huge proponent of the spiritual benefits of fasting and Lenten penitence, in a passage about Protestant opposition to Lent. We all tend to surround ourselves with similar folks. But if you’re going to write a piece about how Lent isn’t just for Catholics anymore, perhaps you should do a bit of research going in. Then, for instance, you would know that many mainline Protestants and confessional Protestants mark Lent with pious devotion. To that end, local reporters did much better than Slate.

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Everyone a beer minister

luthbeerSometimes I am in conversations with friends who talk about having certain types of ministries. Confessional Lutherans have only one type of ministry — Word and Sacrament — so the terminology always amuses me. When my friends tell me they have a young mothers ministry or youth ministry or music ministry, I always try to fit in by telling them I have a bar ministry.

I picked this one because I find bars to be a great place for discussion of theological matters. Folks who hang out in bars tend to understand the sinful condition and the alcohol lubricates the discussion. Also, I am in bars a lot.

Roman Catholics in the Washington area also have a bar ministry, where young people gather at a local bar to talk theology with a priest. “Theology on Tap” is hardly a new concept and one can find such groups throughout the country, but Washington Post reporter Leef Smith did a great job covering the Catholic Diocese of Arlington’s bar night.

Church leaders say the “six-pack seminars” — each seminar consists of six weekly sessions — are not intended to replace worship services. Instead, they are a way of integrating religion into parishioners’ daily lives, while building and sustaining church membership. Each seminar consists of six weekly sessions.

Smith answers all the questions one might have about such a group — is it a glorified singles’ night? How does the bar owner feel about the invasion of theology? How do unsuspecting bar patrons feel when they come in that night?

But what I particularly liked is how Smith subtly explains to the reader the Catholic understanding of the importance of these sessions relative to partaking in the sacraments. For many Christians, sacraments are central to the life of the church. And yet they tend not to be covered by reporters as much as politically-infused sermons or charity work. That’s understandable in the sense that sacramental concepts can be difficult to grasp. But I like how Smith subtly brings it out, by letting Rev. Daniel Hanley, who leads the sessions, speak freely:

“A lot of people haven’t had a connection with a priest since they were in the second grade,” Hanley said. “Here, they can walk right up and shake my hand. That’s big.”

Or maybe someone hasn’t been to confession in a long time and feels burdened. Perhaps, Hanley reasoned, the person doesn’t feel that God will grant forgiveness.

“We hope they see the face of Christ in us,” Hanley said. “Suddenly, they open up and they say, ‘Father, can I talk to you?’ And then, bam! There it is. That stuff happens in airports and all over the place.”

Maybe, it is suggested to Hanley, bars are a logical place for priests to do outreach. After all, they offer emotional and psychological counseling — a lot like bartenders.

“Only, we serve a much more potent cocktail,” Hanley said. “It’s heartening to see young people desiring to be close to God. That’s what I see. . . . Young people interested in knowing God more deeply.”

I have known about Northern Virginia’s Theology on Tap for years. But I still found the article interesting and informative. The piece is full of color, quotes a wide variety of observers and participants, and permits its subjects to express themselves on their own terms.

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Who lit the bomb in Nigeria?

NigeriaStatesMapAnyone who knows anything about global religious-liberty issues has known for several years that Nigeria is a bomb waiting to go off. In the north, Muslim states have pressed for sharia law. In the largely Christian and animist south, leaders have struggled to embrace the rule of law, as defined in the West. The two legal doctrines cannot, by definition, coexist and, thus, Nigeria has been sitting on a legal and religious landmine.

Now the cartoon intifada may have caused the long-awaited explosion. First the MSM headlines talked about riots and deaths inspired by the Danish cartoons, complete with churches burning and Christian neighborhoods being attacked. Now the headlines are dominated by the horrific account of the second wave of violence, with Muslims facing the fury of the Christians and animists they previously attacked.

As for me, I think that the top paragraphs of this New York Times report by Lydia Polgreen did a solid job of capturing both sides of this deadly equation, under a headline that cited the source of the violence, rather than simply blaming one side or the other: “Nigeria Counts 100 Deaths Over Danish Caricatures.” Here is the opening of that story:

Dozens of charred, smoldering bodies littered the streets of this bustling commercial center on Thursday after three days of rioting in which Christian mobs wielding machetes, clubs and knives set upon their Muslim neighbors.

Rioters have killed scores of people here, mostly Muslims, after burning their homes, businesses and mosques in the worst violence yet linked to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper. The violence in Nigeria began with attacks on Christians in the northern part of the country last week by Muslims infuriated over the cartoons.

Now old ethnic and political tensions between Muslims in the north and Christians here in the south have been reignited, with at least 33 bodies still visible on the streets of Onitsha on Thursday and a local organization that has tried to collect the scattered corpses reporting that it has already picked up 80 others. The cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian violence has pushed the death toll in the last week well beyond 100, making Nigeria the hardest-hit country so far in the caricature controversy.

The hellish images and quotations speak for themselves. There is enough evil and blood in this story to cover the hands of violent people on both sides. Yet the Times did not bury the key fact that the bloodshed began, once again, with riots against the cartoons of Muhammad.

If GetReligion readers want a one-stop list of URLs for this story, they should click here and head — of course — to the Christianity Today weblog. Editor-reporter Ted Olsen jumped on the Nigeria story early enough to have posted one collection of links about the violence against the churches, with the haunting headline “Muslim Riots Move from Anti-Europe to Anti-Christian.” Now he is following up with the second wave of violence against Muslims.

nigeriaI have to admit that I was relieved when I read the Times report, in large part because coverage in the Washington Post seems to have paid more attention to the second set of riots than the first, kind of like a basketball referee who sees the second foul and not the first that inspired it.

You can see this in the series of wire service reports that covered the anti-cartoon riots (here, here and here), the riots in which the victims were Christians. Then the coverage kicks up a notch with Post editors turning to their own correspondents for coverage of the hellish violence unleashed against the Muslims. Here is a piece of one of those reports, with the blunt headline “Christians Turn on Muslims In Nigeria; More Than 30 Die.”

Christian mobs in this southern city attacked Muslim motorists and traders Wednesday, leaving more than 30 people dead, according to witnesses, as religious riots sparked by the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad continued into a fifth day in Nigeria. Nationwide, the death toll reached at least 80.

Hordes of angry men marauded through Onitsha armed with machetes, guns and boards with nails pounded into their ends, witnesses said. The mobs burned two mosques and looted and destroyed Muslim-owned shops as they sought vengeance for similar attacks against Christians in two predominantly Muslim cities in northern part of the country.

“They’ve been killing our brothers and sisters in the north,” men shouted Wednesday morning, according to Afoma Clara Adique, 40, a motorist who had driven through Onitsha. She escaped the mobs, she said, but only after speaking to the men in a regional language used by Christians. Before she could get away, Adique said, she saw burned and dismembered bodies along the side of the road. … Her traveling companion, Tony Iweka, 45, a magazine editor, said a man in the mob raised his right hand to display what appeared to be a freshly decapitated head.

The Post did note that, with all of the anti-cartoon riots around the world, this was the first clash in which there were “counterattacks by Christians.”

It is impossible, of course, for reporters to get around the need to describe who attacked who.

However, can I make a suggestion? No doubt, there are radical Islamist clerics who are firing up their people to take to the streets and do whatever it is that rioters are going to do. There may be cases in which it is accurate to say that “Muslim” believers did horrific things, perhaps even while shouting “Allahu akbar!” Now, if reporters can find Christian leaders — clerics, actually — calling for violence, then by all means quote these ministers. It certainly is relevant that some of the rioters are leaving, in their wake, violent graffiti that refer to Christians taking revenge. Reporters have to report the facts.

But here is my suggestion. Right now, I think it is safer, especially in headlines and leads, to identify the victims of the violence than to be absolutely clear as to the faith-based motives and the identity of the thugs and demons doing the violence. It is safer to say that rioters killed Christians and burned churches. It is safer to say that rioters killed Muslims and burned mosques.

It is easier for journalists to prove — with their own words — that specific Muslims or specific Christians did or said something than it is to pin the blame for those actions on entire communities. This is true in France, the Netherlands, England, Jordan, Egypt, Nigeria and many other places. It may soon, sadly, be true in North America.

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Tooning in

southpark2Just a quick note to follow-up on Old Man Mattingly’s post about different standards for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Catholic church leaders in New Zealand are calling for a boycott of television stations that plan to screen an “ugly and tasteless” episode of South Park, according to the BBC. I have seen many episodes of South Park and I can’t think of one that wasn’t ugly or tasteless. Sometimes they’re even funny.

Anyway, the problem for the church leaders is that the episode depicts the Virgin Mary in a sacrilegious way. The stations, which recently apologized to Muslims for airing the cartoons, have a different response to the Christian protests:

TV station C4 is to air the cartoon earlier than planned in response to the levels of publicity it has generated.

The episode was originally scheduled for a screening in May, but will now be shown on 22 February. . . .

Rick Friesen, head of TV Works, which runs C4, said that if Catholics felt they would be upset by South Park, then they should not watch it.

Quick style note: It really bothers and confuses me how so many reporters use Catholic when they mean Roman Catholic. Catholic means universal and Roman Catholic refers to that church based out of, well, Rome. There is a difference. Many people who are not Roman Catholic consider themselves catholic — and even Catholic sometimes.

But it looks like the New Zealand station has found a consistent strategy for dealing with potentially offensive material — apologize to Muslims and tell Roman Catholics to buzz off.

Stories like this also makes me wonder why American media are not fighting on behalf of press freedom in this ongoing cartoon controversy. We can certainly imagine that if it becomes culturally or legally impossible to make any criticism of Islam in political cartoons, religious adherents of all types will expect equal or similar treatment.

Do reporters and editors really want a world where we can’t criticize any religion in cartoons? Maybe the heroes in Team America should pay a visit to a few of our newsrooms and straighten some folks out.

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