Is adjunct academia indeed the devil’s bargain?

Screenshot via Slate.com

All the necessary components were there: 83-year-old woman, beloved and career adjunct professor, cancer patient, devout and traditional Catholic, poor both in spirit and pocketbook, released unceremoniously from Duquesne University after 25 years of semester-to-semester service.

Indeed, this piece from Slate easily could have trended toward the martyrdom of Margaret Mary Vojtko.

The hashtag vigilante would have rejoiced, as many students and proponents of better treatment for contracting professors already had claimed her (#IamMargaretMary) as their social media rallying call.

But readers emerge as the only winners in this piece.

Careful, thorough, even-handed treatment of all entities involved leads us to an understanding of this “brilliant” woman who spoke five languages and the life and career choices she made navigating the world of higher education as it evolved into the business model of today.

Be warned: There is no happy ending. I’d say that’s all the more reason to read and reflect on this story and the larger issue at hand involving adjunct professors at religious universities and whose role it is to provide for the sick and elderly.

The author clearly identifies her objective:

Who was Margaret Mary—the person, not the symbol of victimhood? I went to Pittsburgh to find out more about the life of a woman who’d become famous only for her death. I talked to dozens of her family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues. I visited the campus where she’d taught for 25 years, the restaurant where she’d spent nights after her furnace broke, and the house she’d grown up and grown old in. The story I uncovered was more complicated than the story that went viral. The reasons Vojtko’s life ended in misery had much less to do with her status as an adjunct professor than tweeters using the #IamMargaretMary hashtag might believe.

She did find those individuals by retracing Vojtko’s life steps. The approach sounds so simple in our high-tech reporting culture, but it worked beautifully in this case. Among her sources: a Capuchin friar, a friend who offered to buy her a space heater, the handyman who boarded up windows in her home after vandals tried to break in and various students.

We hear from Duquesne, its faculty and labor representatives as well as Vojtko’s lawyer. Their words are interspersed with Vojtko’s own take on the issues, gleaned from her writings, and show the tension between the teacher and her employer:

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Missing Catholic voices in Belgium’s euthanasia debate

Let me commend to you an excellent article on a horrible subject.

The Associated Press story “Belgium considering unprecedented law to grant euthanasia for children, dementia patients” reports on moves by the ruling Socialist Party to permit doctors to euthanize children as well as adults with dementia. This report — long at 1000 words from a wire service — offers a balanced account on the move to extend the right to die to children.

It is thorough, balanced, provides context and expert analysis to allow a reader to make up his own mind. Yet, are some voices missing? The article opens with a question:

Should children have the right to ask for their own deaths?

It lays out the issue:

In Belgium, where euthanasia is now legal for people over the age of 18, the government is considering extending it to children — something that no other country has done. The same bill would offer the right to die to adults with early dementia.

Advocates argue that euthanasia for children, with the consent of their parents, is necessary to give families an option in a desperately painful situation. But opponents have questioned whether children can reasonably decide to end their own lives. …

Provides context:

Belgium is already a euthanasia pioneer; it legalized the practice for adults in 2002. In the last decade, the number of reported cases per year has risen from 235 deaths in 2003 to 1,432 in 2012, the last year for which statistics are available. Doctors typically give patients a powerful sedative before injecting another drug to stop their heart. …

And offers opinion from a Catholic archbishop and medical ethicists.

“It is strange that minors are considered legally incompetent in key areas, such as getting married, but might (be able) to decide to die,” Catholic Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard testified. Charles Foster, who teaches medical law and ethics at Oxford University, believes children couldn’t possibly have the capacity to make an informed decision about euthanasia since even adults struggle with the concept.

“It often happens that when people get into the circumstances they had so feared earlier, they manage to cling on all the more,” he said. “Children, like everyone else, may not be able to anticipate how much they will value their lives if they were not killed.”

There are others, though, who argue that because Belgium has already approved euthanasia for adults, it is unjust to deny it to children. “The principle of euthanasia for children sounds shocking at first, but it’s motivated by compassion and protection,” said John Harris, a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester. “It’s unfair to provide euthanasia differentially to some citizens and not to others (children) if the need is equal.” …

The AP’s sentiments are with those opposed to euthanizing children — closing with comments by an anti-euthanasia voice that lands a solid hit on those who call for death-choice. But it nevertheless offers both sides to the story and refrains from demonizing those with whom it disagrees. For a template on how to write a story about a contested moral issue, I would offer this piece.

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The Merc is shocked, shocked, by Santa Clara U move

There’s nothing the mainstream press likes more than a controversy, even if it has to puff a protest to do so.

In early October, Santa Clara University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, decided it would no longer provide health insurance that pays for elective abortions. Given that SCU is a Roman Catholic school run by the Jesuits, that decision shouldn’t have been all that surprising.

Nevertheless, the editorial team at The San Jose Mercury News was shocked — shocked! — that a Catholic university acted in concert with the doctrinal content of its faith and clear guidance of the late Blessed John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae:

One week later, both sides in this argument — the Catholics and the local press — were at it again. Santa Clara University is now being joined by Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, also a Jesuit-run school, in dropping abortion coverage, and again, the Merc, as it’s known locally, is ON IT:

Santa Clara University saw a quiet protest Wednesday as some faculty members stood with signs objecting to the school’s decision to end employee health insurance coverage of elective abortions.

The decision last week, coupled with a similar one last week at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles — both Jesuit Catholic institutions — came out of a concern for their religious identity, school leaders said.

Catholic institutions are revisiting the issue after U.S. bishops’ recent battle to keep them from having to cover birth control and sterilization under the new national health insurance law. And some of their faculties reacted angrily.

Apparently, too, the faculty at SCU didn’t get the memo about the whole Catholic/Jesuit thing, and that church leaders — such as Father Michael E. Engh, S.J. (pictured), who is SCU’s president — have a commitment to uphold Catholic teaching. The school held a discussion on the subject, and a few instructors decided to skip the discussion to raise a squall of protest.

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Why did Time fabricate a quote? Correct

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“Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie if you believe it.” George Costanza, “The Beard”, Seinfeld, Episode 102, 9 Feb 1995.

Time Magazine‘s “Swampland” blog appears to have fabricated a quote in its story about the revision of the Air Force Academy’s honor code. While one may well assume mistake or malice lay behind the creation of a quote, there is the suggestion of deeper purpose.

In reporting on the contretemps over the Academy’s honor code, Time might well have been making a statement on the purposelessness of honor codes in general. Could it be asking the philosophical question: “What is truth?” — offering an answer drawn from deconstructionism that posits that truth exists only in the eye of the beholder?

Follow me through this tale and tell me if you see what I see.

When published on 28 October 2013 the article entitled “On a Wing, But Not On a Prayer” the article began:

While there may be no atheists in foxholes, the Air Force Academy has decided there will be no mandatory God in the heavens. The academy — at 7.258 feet above sea level, the closest of all the nation’s military schools to God’s realm — has long had a reputation as the most Christian of the nation’s military learning institutions. But the Colorado Springs, Colo., academy has decided to make the “so help me God” coda to its cadet oath optional after a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (not surprisingly, the Christian Fighter Pilot group denounced what it calls a “dramatic change” on its website).

The version that appears on Time‘s website as of 30 October 2013 is slightly different. The subordinate clause contained in the parentheses in the concluding sentence is absent. Perhaps this is due to the Christian Fighter Pilot group not having said what Time claims it said.

The Christian Fighter Pilot website noted:

After pointing out that this website did not “denounce” the decision (in fact, quite the opposite) and that the “dramatic change” comment was clearly facetious, [Time] deleted the reference.

Time corrected but did not note its error in the story. But the question how, or why, the error occurred remains. The Christian Fighter Pilot website suggested:

Given that [Time] clearly didn’t read the article, one wonders how he came to the conclusion that it was ”not surprising.”  It’s almost as if he has preconceived notions about Christians in the military.

That is certainly a possibility. It may well be that Time read the blog, but misunderstood what it read. Given the need for speed in preparing internet stories, misreading a source will happen. Or, the author relied upon information passed to him by a person whom he trusted — a form of the  “hat tip” [h/t] some bloggers use in citing the source of information in their posts (usually with attribution to the source), but often not confirming its veracity. Mistake rather than malice explains most sins.

The suggestion of bias raised by the Christian Fighter Pilot, however, finds support in the tone of the Time piece. On first reading I thought the Time piece somewhat heavy-handed in its approach to the story — “closest” to God, “no mandatory” God. To my ears these attempts at wit rang a false note. A wan smile was all that they elicited from me — juvenile, but not dreadful.

But other possibilities soon emerged.

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Got news? Looking at key facts in the Chris Davis timeline

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It’s the last day of the regular baseball season and for fans of the Baltimore Orioles there was a very bittersweet taste to the year. What does that have to do with religion-news coverage? While many will argue that baseball is a religion (click here for a classic), trust me that I will get to the real religion hook in this post soon enough.

While our O’s narrowly missed the playoffs, the team did have another winning season and made life uncomfortable for the Boston Red Sox. Do the math, people. It’s hard to have a winning season in the American League BEast. Cleveland Indian fans should feel thankful they are where they are.

Of course, one of the other big stories here in Charm City was Chris Davis and his Babe Ruth-ian season in terms of extra-base hits and home runs.

Although Davis has been a moon-shot slamming muscle man since high school, the rate at which he hit the long ball over the past 18 months or so raised predictable questions about performance-enhancing drugs. However, insiders noted that the big man actually lost weight entering this year and increased his foot speed, trends that rarely are linked to steroids.

So, if drugs weren’t the story, then what was the X-factor that helped calm down this anger-management case, allowing him to get his act together?

Simply stated, there is the baseball side and the personal-religious side. You would think that the two stories could be blended into one, but that does not appear to be a task The Baltimore Sun team is willing to attempt, other than the occasional tiny dose of vague God talk.

Here’s my question: What if it could be argued, looking at the timeline of the Davis lift-off into superstardom, that his marriage and his return to practicing the Christian faith of his youth were actually — in terms of on-the-record facts — crucial to this sports-news story? Should a newspaper go there, asking journalistic questions about those aspects of his life and including them as PART of the story?

With that question in mind, let’s look at the new Sun story about Davis’ year. Here is the overture:

Hank Aaron never hit as many as 53 home runs in a season. Neither did Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Frank Robinson nor Mike Schmidt.

So with 53 homers going into the final game, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is not only the most prolific single-season slugger in club history. He’s part of a select group that includes just 17 power hitters in baseball history.

As the Orioles wrap up their season Sunday, short of the playoffs, it’s worth reflecting on what a rare show Davis gave Baltimore fans in 2013. He found that hard to do himself, talking about his season the day after the Orioles were eliminated from postseason contention. “It’s hard to reflect and look back on personal accomplishments right now, because I still have a sour taste in my mouth,” Davis said.

So what happened? Can Davis keep it going?

Davis knows he will enter next season facing a level of outside expectation he’s never experienced. If he returns to his 2012 level — 33 home runs would’ve placed him top 10 in the majors this year — fans will crinkle their noses. But he doesn’t seem concerned.

“I’ve expected it for myself for a long time,” he said. “I had struggles in Texas, and I think that’s where I got away from it. I tried to be a player that everybody else wanted me to be instead of the player I knew I was capable of being. Obviously, when you hit 50-plus home runs in a season, you’re going to draw some attention to yourself, but I just hope that everybody counts on me to be there every day and compete. The numbers are going to be there at the end of the season.”

So that’s one valid way to write the end-of-the-year story. It’s the baseball exclusive approach. What would the personal approach look like?

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Der Spiegel: Never let a good @Pontifex go to waste

The clear differences in the style of Pope Francis as opposed to his predecessors, both as Bishop of Rome and in his former position as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, have electrified the world media. Here, they exclaim, is a clergyperson who is “walking the talk” about living to serve others.

Few places seem to relish this new approach more than Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly issued forth from Hamburg, in the mostly-Protestant north of the country. On Sep. 14, in an article now translated into English, the magazine declares:

Last week Rudolf Voderholzer, 54, the bishop of the Bavarian city of Regensburg and one of Germany’s younger church leaders, was taken to task at the Vatican by the pope himself. In an admonishment to the German bishop and others attending a seminar for new bishops in Rome, Francis said: “Be close to the people and live as you preach. Always be with your flock, do not succumb to careerism and ask yourselves whether you are truly living as you preach.”

Now, there’s nothing in the official text of the speech to suggest a direct attack on Voderholzer or anyone else. In fact, the official text doesn’t even contain the exact words Der Spiegel is quoting here, though the English Spiegel text is a translation from the German; there might have been some modification in the process.

Regardless of translation, the current pope’s emphasis on austere and authentic living is clear, and it gives Der Spiegel a chance to bash both the German Catholic hierarchy and Francis’ predecessor, who just happens to be German as well:

“This is a new message for German princes of the church. Many of them have long cultivated a lifestyle oriented toward strict dogmas, prestige and a career within the church, much like former Pope Benedict XVI. But now that his successor arrives at meetings in an old car, there has been a fundamental shift. Loyalty to the pope is being completely redefined, and not just in Regensburg, where Voderholzer’s predecessor Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a fervent devotee of former Pope Benedict, alienated many Roman Catholics.”

After repeating the much-told bit about Pope Francis’ eschewing of the papal apartments for more modest quarters, Der Spiegel again hones in on national Catholic officials:

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Bloomberg’s totally unbiased abortion story

The best construction I can put on the article we’re about to look at is that Bloomberg editors and reporters accidentally put an abortion rights op-ed in the news section by accident. And yet there are enough things about the piece that make it seem like it was a failed attempt at a news story to make me think otherwise.

The op-ed article begins:

At least 58 U.S. abortion clinics — almost 1 in 10 — have shut or stopped providing the procedure since 2011 as access vanishes faster than ever amid a Republican-led push to legislate the industry out of existence.

I read that, assumed the media professional who submitted it had accidentally flagged a particularly histrionic op-ed (as sometimes happens), and looked for the name of the Planned Parenthood official or other abortion rights supporter who had penned it. One expects to see such bias in ideological media, but one would hope for more impartiality among people claiming to be news writers. I’ll note way up top that the story does not substantiate the lede. There’s no way it could, to be honest. But, hey, other than that problem …

I’ll also note, up top, that if you want to work for one type of political campaign, practice writing “access” as much as possible. However, that word is a really weak word to use for news writing.

More generally, I find the anti-regulatory bias of this piece just fascinating. I’m trying to imagine a mainstream media report about another industry that had a bunch of health and safety problems. Many dozens of reports of legal, health and safety violations all across the country. Including, say, a major practitioner in that industry being convicted of serial murder of very young children and horrible treatment of customers. Urine. Blood-soaked instruments. Narrow hallways that prevented evacuation of dying customers. That sort of thing. And then imagine that legislatures passed stricter regulations for same. Then imagine that some of the regulated parties were unable to or chose not to meet the basic standards required of other similar outfits.

Do you think the lede would be about how awful the regulators were? Of course not! One might even expect to see a story about how awful it was that the regulated industry was unable to meet basic standards of care or health or safety.

Anyway, the entire story is something of a mess, but let’s just look at the next few sentences:

A wave of regulations that makes it too expensive or logistically impossible for facilities to remain in business drove at least a third of the closings. Demographic changes, declining demand, industry consolidation, doctor retirements and crackdowns on unfit providers were also behind the drop. More clinics in Texas and Ohio are preparing to shut as soon as next month.

Opponents have tried to stop access to abortion through civil disobedience, blockades and legal action. Clinics were bombed and doctors killed.

Again, such a fascinating opposite-day spin on meeting health and safety regulations. Unfortunately there’s not substantiation in terms of data to support the claim that meeting the same standards as other outpatient surgical centers do is somehow impossible. Perhaps that’s why the second line is added. More use of the word “access”! I’m trying to think of some way to respond to “clinics were bombed and doctors killed” but I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence. We all know that this hackish and unprofessional. Particularly for an article about safety and health regulations at abortion clinics that somehow doesn’t mention Kermit Gosnell …. once. Literally not once. No mention of the charges against him. The grand jury report. The convictions for murder.

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Off to war again. But a just one?

Everyone ready for another war? Ready or not, it appears that we are about to go to war with Syria. Or, as the Washington Post says:

An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country’s civil war, former U.S. officials said Tuesday, warning that history doesn’t bode well for such limited retaliatory interventions.

It’s all happening rather quickly and there are lots of angles to cover — the intelligence situation, the lack of Congressional approval, the political outcomes expected, etc. — but what about the religion angles? Of the many religion angles in this story, one deals with whether this war can be considered “just.” The Huffington Post hosted a piece by Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of International Relations at Catholic University of America who serves on the Core Group for the Department of State’s working group on Religion and Foreign Policy, which notes:

St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined a world in which chemicals could kill thousands of people in a breath, but these old moral codes can still provide guidance in modern warfare. [Just War Theory] is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that even during warfare we are still capable of moral behavior, and still obligated to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between realpolitik, which always allows war, and pacifism, which never allows war.

What are the arguments that bombing Syria is just? What are the debates surrounding whether this would be a just war? Well, I haven’t seen a particularly thorough treatment of the issue, but I did want to highlight a couple of pieces that did a great job introducing some discussions. The first comes from Religion News Service and begins:

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the Obama administration readies for a probable military strike against Syria, Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria in light of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility? Here are their responses, which have been edited for clarity.

And we get a series of responses from folk such as Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here’s one sample response:

The Rev. Drew Christiansen

Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs

My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack.

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