Please. Pretty please. Can we ask Katie …

image1945536So what are the questions that faithful GetReligion readers would like to ask Katie Couric?

You think I’m joking? Click here to head to the new Couric & Co. site:

“Dear Katie …”

Is there a question you’re burning to ask Katie? This is your chance. Send us an e-mail with your question — one question per e-mail, please — and over the next several days we’ll sift through them and ask Katie to answer them.

A few ground rules:

Questions must be serious and substantive. (But witty and substantive will also be accepted.) No questions about hair, makeup, shoes or wardrobe. Please. Pretty please.

Questions must be brief and to the point. We may edit them for length, clarity and, yes, grammar.

And so forth and so on.

As you would expect, I am tempted to email in the tmatt trio. You may remember them.

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

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

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Yes, it is true that these are questions I use when trying to find out where Christian leaders fall on a doctrinal (not political) scale from left to right, from progressive to traditionalist. And, yes, the issue for a journalist is not what she believes, but how accurately she can cover the beliefs of others, including those with whom they strongly disagree.

Yet is is precisely where Couric’s religious critics have faulted her in the past and I assume they are now watching her every move like hawks. Also, social, cultural and religious issues have long dominated most polls and debates about media bias.

I have to admit that I have not been watching the CBS Evening News lately. I would be interested in knowing if any major religion stories have been covered on her watch. I assume that the pope story drew some serious air time. Any comments from GetReligion readers?

Any questions that you would like to ask Katie? I would assume that the out-of-bounds instructions — “hair, makeup, shoes or wardrobe” — would also include questions about camera angles and legs.

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Revenge of VeggieMadonnaGate!

12743 detailWe have entered a quiet stage in the VeggieTales/Madonna wars involving what religious believers can and cannot say on NBC. I have held off for a couple of days since the last update in order to watch for developments in this story and, sure enough, we had some more over the weekend.

The big news is that NBC has changed its VeggieTales story, after earlier changing its Madonna story.

The even bigger news is that the Los Angeles Times reported this change in very blunt language, beginning with the headline that read (take a deep breath), “NBC Issues New Explanation for ‘VeggieTales’ Cuts: After first blaming time constraints, the network says some references to God were edited out of the kids’ series to avoid advocating any religion.”

Bravo. Alas, NBC executives offered this confession in the form of a press release.

The new statement came in the wake of mounting criticism from advocacy groups that questioned why NBC had asked the creators of “VeggieTales” to take out the references.

“NBC is committed to the positive messages and universal values of ‘VeggieTales,’” the statement said. “Our goal is to reach as broad an audience as possible with these positive messages, while being careful not to advocate any one religious point of view.”

This is a really interesting claim, since the key statement that has been banned is the VeggieTales motto used at the end of each episode, which is: “Remember kids, God made you special and he loves you very much.”

This statement was removed to avoid advocating “any one religious point of view.” This would be the controversial doctrinal point of view which maintains that God loves children. Of course, NBC leaders may have assumed that the statement that “God made you special” could be taken as an attack on evolution. That’s the ticket. Meanwhile, I should stress that Bob the Tomato does not do anything faith-specific while making this closing benediction, such as falling on his knees and making the sign of the cross. Bob the Tomato (see second image) does not have knees or arms.

The Los Angeles Times article also quoted some statistics that may or may not be raising eyebrows in NBC office suites.

So far, “VeggieTales” has been very successful for NBC in a Saturday morning time slot that has traditionally been difficult for the networks. Thanks to Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, NBC saw its biggest ratings jump last weekend in Saturday morning children’s programming since 2003. …

In May, NBC Universal entered into a venture with Scholastic Corp., Corus Entertainment Inc., Classic Media/Big Idea Inc. and ION Media Networks to create a Saturday morning block of programming called Qubo. A week ago, in its second week of broadcast, Qubo averaged 402,000 children between the ages of 2 and 11. “VeggieTales” at 10 a.m. was the most watched of the Qubo shows, averaging 430,000 kids, a 16% jump from the previous weekend.

In other coverage of this controversy, The New York Times offered the most interesting spin on the ironic conflict at NBC between the Veggies and Madonna. Check this out:

NBC has drawn protests this week from religious conservatives over the content of two television shows, but for different reasons — in one instance for excluding references to God and in the other for possibly including religious imagery.

The disputes, over the network’s proposed broadcast of a Madonna concert that includes a crucifixion scene and over its cutting religious references from the animated children’s show “VeggieTales,” have some critics charging that NBC maintains a double standard toward Christianity.

bilde 01Note that the heart of the story is that conservatives are protesting, not that NBC leaders have taken several different public positions on both of these programming decisions in recent weeks.

It’s an especially nice touch to suggest that many traditional Christians are upset about the concert segment in which Madonna hangs on a disco-mirrored crucifix because it contains too much religion. This is something like saying that Muslims were upset about the Danish cartoons because they contained too much religion, as opposed to the fact that they contained religious content that they considered offensive.

Anyone who is interested in knowing more about the actual edits that NBC demanded in the VeggieTales episodes may way to check out this report in The Tennessean, which caught up to this — for that Nashville newsroom — local story last weekend. VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer offered some nice details.

Eliminated lines from one episode included “Calm down. The Bible says we should love our enemies.” In another episode, Vischer said, NBC allowed the line “the Bible says Samson got his strength from God.” But the next line — “And God can give us strength, too” — was out.

The changes included cuts in dialogue where characters utter the word “God” and were so last-minute and awkward, Vischer said, that in some cases “it makes the stories not work very well.” For the sign-off, where the original words were simply voiced-over, “the lips don’t match, so it kind of looks like a Japanese cartoon with lips moving” out of synch with the words, he said.

Actually, that sounds pretty funny to me. I can see Bob and Larry having lots of fun with that effect.

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Purpose-driven response

Rickwarren 01Well, friends, I am back from my honeymoon. I have declared it the Best Honeymoon in the History of the World — but I don’t have much to compare it to. Tanned, rested and ready, I am. And married. And operating under a new name. So many changes.

Please bear with me as I get back up to speed on media coverage of religion. You’ll be pleased to know I had the chance to read the entire Time cover story on the Prosperity Gospel while away, so I look forward to highlighting that.

In the meantime, I have to share my favorite comment received in response to a recent posting on a Wall Street Journal story about Rick Warren’s church growth methodology:

RICK WARREN’S COMMENT
I hate to spoil the party, but the Wall Street Journal article was filled with errors and incorrect statements. Actually there were too many errors to mention all of them.

Journalist are often rushed, so instead of taking the time to fact check everything, the repeat things they read from previously printed articles, without bothering to confirm if it was actually true. So errors get repeated.

For the record:
1. I have never encouraged any pastor to kick out any member of any church. In fact, in the Purpose Driven Church training, we teach the EAXCT OPPOSITE. Leaders must love everyone in the flock and lead them gently. The premis of the entire article was absurd in this respect.

2. I have never taught any pastors to “remove the pews” or any of the other claims mentioned. My staff got a real laugh out of that

3. I have never “preached in sandals” in 26 years as a pastor. Anyone who has attended Saddleback would know that. But the WSJ reporter read that error somewhere and didn’t check it.

4. Over 400,000 pastors worldwide have taken the Purpose Drive Church training over the past 26 years. resulting in tens of thousands of testimony letters about the positive effects.

This article tried to make a “TREND” out of 3 or 4 failures at implimentation. Anecdotes are not trends. How about the hundreds of thousands of healthy churches on the other side of the scale?

5. A failure at implimentation does not mean a failure of the concept. It’s just poor leadership.

I could go on, but people believe what they want to believe. rick warren

Particularly in light of the spelling and grammatical errors, I wasn’t sure it was really Rick Warren. But the IP address checks out, for what it’s worth.

I thought Suzanne Sataline’s article delivered what it promised — a picture of congregants who don’t get on board with the Purpose Driven message. I wonder if Warren delivered these complaints to the paper and to what effect. Anyone know?

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Who outed George Allen?

george allen2The apparent destruction of the presidential ambitions of Sen. George Allen, R-Va., has been interesting to watch. The story goes several layers deep, and I’ll do my best to probe the more interesting, religion-oriented ones in this post. Feel free to post your thoughts on how religion was played in the hundreds of articles written on the politician who has been dubbed the darling of the religious right and a clone of President Bush.

The candidate one would think would benefit the most from Allen’s implosion is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, but that remains to be seen. Check out what The Revealer wrote Monday on the issue:

The liberal blogs, Salon, and now the mainstream media (AP) have been making hay out of Allen’s bigotry, but the media that matters in this case won’t be public. It’ll be email. It’ll be telephone calls. It’ll be the quiet, behind-the-scenes conferencing by Christian Right powerbrokers who are about to pull the rug out from Allen.

Nailing down who pulled, or will pull, the rug out from Allen’s presidential hopes is tricky, but one thing is for sure, it was not the mainstream media. As best I can tell, The New Republic (as tmatt likes to say, that right-wing rag to which we link a lot) started it all with a couple of Ryan Lizza articles on April 27 and May 15 that addressed Allen’s “race problem.” Here we found out that Allen had a long association with the Confederate flag, among other sketchy things.

Then Allen famously uttered “macaca” (video) and all hell broke lose on his campaign, including renewed speculation that he could be Jewish. That ended up being true, but Allen didn’t appreciate it very much, as revealed in this snarky Washington Post piece by the religious right’s favorite columnist (sarcasm on), Dana Milbank:

At a debate in Tysons Corner yesterday between Republican Allen and Democrat [Jim] Webb, WUSA-TV’s Peggy Fox asked Allen, the tobacco-chewing, cowboy-boot-wearing son of a pro football coach, if his Tunisian-born mother has Jewish blood.

“It has been reported,” said Fox, that “your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?”

Allen recoiled as if he had been struck. His supporters in the audience booed and hissed. “To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don’t think is relevant,” Allen said, furiously. “Why is that relevant — my religion, Jim’s religion or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?”

“Honesty, that’s all,” questioner Fox answered, looking a bit frightened.

“Oh, that’s just all? That’s just all,” the senator mocked, pressing his attack. He directed Fox to “ask questions about issues that really matter to people here in Virginia” and refrain from “making aspersions.”

“Let’s move on,” proposed the moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

Yes, let’s — but not before we figure out what that was all about. Turns out the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported that the senator’s mother, Etty, “comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family” and continued: “If both of Etty’s parents were born Jewish — which, given her age and background, is likely — Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother.”

george allenSo as the Post and others play catch-up on the story that Allen is not a very good person and is sensitive about his heritage, one has to wonder what instigated it all. Was it just an unfortunate falling of the cards that instigated Salon investigations and subsequent catch-up stories (followed of course by the Associated Press and the Post) into whether Allen used the N word while playing football at the University of Virginia? The mainstream media have been all over the “live” events, such as the video and Allen’s reaction to the Jewish question, but they’ve done little hard reporting, which has been reserved to less mainstream left-of-center publications.

Is this a liberal attempt to oust a senator with hopes of regaining a Senate Majority? A smart Democrat would save this material for 2008 in order to throw the GOP presidential nomination process into chaos. Who is attempting to out what appears to be at worst a closet, or at best a former, racist and possible bully, before he became the religious right’s standard-bearer?

Ryan Lizza’s articles in The New Republic didn’t happen in a vacuum. I doubt he woke up one morning and thought, “I need to investigate Sen. Allen’s racial attitudes.” I also doubt that Michael Scherer of Salon thought, “I will call all of Sen. Allen’s teammates from his time as the quarterback of the University of Virginia to find out if he said some racist things back in the day.”

And to cap it all off, the issues raised in the book by Allen’s sister, Jennifer, in her book Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter, have been around for six years (surviving Allen’s first election) and no one seemed to notice until now. So what gives?

Who is out to trash a potential leading candidate of the religious right?

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A question of the law

lady justicePeter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times had a revealing article in Saturday’s paper about a Washington conference sponsored by the Family Research Council. During the conference, conservative evangelicals talked about the importance of the November elections and said if Republicans are not elected, the country will go down the toilet. Well, they didn’t say Republicans, but they did encourage people to support candidates who understand their values.

The article has a very ominous tone. A major issue, as discussed in this post, is that the Internal Revenue Service is threatening churches’ tax-exempt status because of political statements from their pulpits.

Wallsten skillfully ties the IRS issue to the conference, where Focus on the Family’s James Dobson urged participants to use their pulpits to support candidates who share their socially conservative agenda. It was a much-needed connection, but Wallsten failed to finish the picture. Wallsten discusses the difference between voter guides and actual endorsements, and quotes church-state separationists, but more legal questions are raised than answered. Is Dobson encouraging the churches to act illegally?

Critics say Dobson and his allies are crossing the line and giving bad advice to churches. The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, mailed letters this week to 117,000 churches in 11 states warning them not to go along with voter registration drives and other activities.

“They are talking about a systematic effort to get churches involved in political activity,” said Lynn, who attended the conference and met privately backstage with Dobson to debate the question. “They say this isn’t partisan, but then they turn around and make it clear that their goal is to keep Republicans in power.”

Friday’s events showed that evangelicals intend to broaden their focus on issues that can motivate voters. Leaders framed the GOP’s signature issue of terrorism as a matter of “protecting the family” and winning a war between Judeo-Christian traditions and Islamic extremism.

So is it illegal to hand out voter guides? Someone give Wallsten a legal brief on the matter so he can inform his readers. Last time I checked, it is not illegal [commenter Chip smartly points out that these rules can be easily accessed here]. One can have a legal opinion that voter guides are essentially endorsements, but that should be addressed in the article if it is indeed an issue.

In the American legal system there is a sense of finality in issues or at least the potential for finality. What have the courts and the lawmakers said? You can quote experts and political hacks all day long on the constitutionality, but that doesn’t matter if an issue has been decided.

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The pain of “lead time” (revisited)

0310706238 01  SCLZZZZZZZ V55034292  01What the heck is going on with NBC and the VeggieGate — or is it MadonnaGate — story?

It looks like the ground is still moving under that Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote earlier this week, the one that ended up being affected by the harsh realities of the journalism condition called “lead time.” Click here if you want to catch up on the background of what I’m talking about.

What we have here is a religion-beat story. A top NBC official had twice said, in print, that the network had seen the Madonna special and that the disco-crucifix number was acceptable. Now they say they are thinking about it and there’s a good chance that Madonna may be told “no,” forcing her to slink away with great PR but no prime-time special.

Also, NBC had — apparently — ordered snips in the Bible verses and God-language in the new Saturday a.m. VeggieTales materials.

Then people, like me, began to connect the two decisions.

Now, NBC is trying to retreat on the Veggie slicing. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

In a statement, NBC said the editing was done to keep the shows under a certain time limit. “‘VeggieTales’ was originally created for home entertainment and in most cases each episode is 30 minutes long,” according to the statement. “‘VeggieTales’ has been edited down for broadcast without losing any of its core messages about positive values.”

But Phil Vischer, creator of the show, maintains that the network received five to six episodes, all of which were 23 minutes, the length requested by the network. Vischer said the network requested editing out specific references to God such as “God made you special” and “He loves you very much.”

Now, think about all of this like a reporter.

Vischer works in his own independent shop, these days, after the sale of Big Idea Inc. That’s a long story. But suffice it to say he is not sitting in a big studio somewhere on the Left Coast, ready to do lots of face-to-face editing sessions with NBC people. I assume that they work like everyone else in the digital age — by email, fax, IMs, telephone, etc.

So was this a matter of cutting for time limits, when the shows were already the right length? Or was this blue-zone folks with sweaty palms about Bible verses and vegetables that tell children about God’s love? Somebody has some memos on this, somewhere. But I know this: There’s no way that anyone from VeggieTale land volunteered to cut out the signature statement of their message to children, which would be “God made you special and He loves you very much.” No way.

Dang it, I wish I had a shorter “lead time” between writing and publication. Madonna? Bible verses? Punch lines? Singing fruits and vegetables? This may be a story.

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Toppling a three-legged stool

Stool4I think it’s time to say this again: We have entered the age in which many reporters and their sources are going to have to record interviews that are linked to complicated and/or controversial stories.

People on both sides of the notebook record each other so that the reporter knows that the source knows that the reporter knows what the reporter asked and what the source said. This can be a hostile thing or it can be a smart thing (or both) in an age in which just about anyone can, with a few clicks of a mouse, use a website to post a hostile review of a story or, even better, a verbatim transcript of the interview.

So turn on that digital recorder. Otherwise, we are left with he said vs. he wrote debates — like this one.

Reporter Adam Parker of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., recently waded into the Anglican wars while covering the election of a new bishop in the Diocese of South Carolina. The headline was terrible, which is always a bad start: “Bishop vote reflects schism.” So, who used the loaded “schism” word? This is important since this is one of the seven dioceses in the U.S. Episcopal Church that have asked Canterbury for “alternative primatial oversight,” rather than submit to the authority of the progressive establishment on this side of the Atlantic.

Much of the story was based on an interview with Father John Burwell, dean of the Charleston deanery, including this passage:

Burwell explained the controversy by citing 14th century theologian Richard Hooker’s “three-legged stool.” The church, Burwell said, is governed by three primary forces, the most important of which is Scripture, followed by reason and tradition. God’s word trumps all, he said, but he endowed human beings with minds and expects them to be well used. When Scripture and reason conflict — which is inevitable because reason, a imperfect human quality born of the fall of man, can lead to sin — the tie-breaker is tradition, or the precedence set by the church over the centuries.

Thus, Burwell said, “the Church can err. If the Church is doing something counter to Scripture, we have to stop it, we have to repent. This has been the genius of Anglicanism all along: Law.”

Thus, it must be somewhat awkward for Parker and his editors to see Burwell’s letter to fellow clergy, as posted at the TitusOneNine weblog for conservative Anglicans and others who want to read several dozen items a day about the Anglican civil wars:

If you saw this morning’s Charleston paper, you saw quotes attributed to me that I did not make. … I did not, nor would I ever refer to a “three-legged stool.” I spoke to the reporter about the primacy of Scripture, and how, because of the fall we may err in our ability to interpret what Scripture says (what I called “reason”). I told him that many today are placing wrong interpretations of what Scripture plainly says. And I told him that we Anglicans have always additionally consulted what the Church has thought on a particular Scripture subject down through the ages (tradition), to counteract flawed reason. I called this reliance upon the primacy of Scripture the genius of Anglicanism.

There is not a “three-legged stool,” nor can there be, because a stool, with three equal-length legs, would infer that Scripture, reason and tradition are equal. They are not. I did say that the Church can err. She does, and She has on numerous occasions.

. . . I never once mentioned the name Hooker. Not once. As you no doubt know, Hooker did not speak of a three-legged stool. Neither did I. I have no idea where Adam Parker (the reporter) came up with these statements that he attributed to me. Perhaps one of the other people he spoke to used “stool” language, and he assumed that I would agree. I only know that I didn’t, and wouldn’t, and don’t.

Ouch. In effect, Parker quoted a conservative leader using language that is, these days, almost totally the vocabulary of the Episcopal left. This is not good. There is a snowball’s chance in hell that Burwell said what he is quoted as saying.

However, if Parker has a digital audio file stashed somewhere, then the ball is in his court.

Does the priest have the interview on a disc somewhere? Does Burwell have a transcript he can post?

He should. That’s the age we live in.

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Romney vs. McCain on torture

romney with bushThe latest scuttlebutt on the 2008 presidential hopes of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has him cozying up to President Bush on the torture and interrogation of terrorists. And it’s all in an attempt to differentiate himself from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been fighting Bush tooth and nail on the issue.

Neither side is exactly the ideal candidate of what’s been called the Christian right that helped loft Bush into power (evangelicals reportedly gave Bush nearly 40 percent of his vote in 2004), but that makes things all the more interesting.

Check out this analysis by Hotline On Call:

The clever back-and-forth came to halt Sunday, when Adam Nagourney, the NYT‘s chief political reporter, got Romney on the phone and on the record. “I am foursquare behind the president on this,” Romney, said referring to McCain’s dispute with Pres Bush over the torture issue. “I believe that we should do everything possible to support those people at the front line who are responsible for enforcing the war on terrorism.” But Romney wasn’t done. Asked if this was the “sharpest” area of disagreement with McCain, Romney said: ” No. There are a number of things. We have different views on McCain-Feingold, differing views on immigration policy, differing views on the interrogation of terrorists.” Perhaps looking to soften the blow, he then offered, “There are also many other areas where we see eye to eye.”

The big question for me involves how Mormons view the torture issue theologically. As far as I can tell, their leaders do not address the issue directly and it’s unclear that Romney would be willing to allow his religious beliefs to affect his politics. It is not a situation where Romney could be refused the church’s blessing, as was attempted with John Kerry and other Catholic Democrats for their position on abortion, but I could be wrong. Are there any Mormon readers out there who have more information?

Reporters looking to follow up on this should check out this great resource for reporting on all things Romney at religionlink.org.

It’s fair to say that big-name evangelicals who support Bush have not made noise over the torture issue, but the lack of noise does not necessarily indicate support for the policy. According to numbers compiled by The Economist, 60 percent of Bush’s voters in 2004 were among theological conservatives, which includes evangelicals, traditional Catholics and, yes, Mormons. Where do these voters fall on the torture issue?

Will Romney pick up Bush’s “theoconservative” supporters or will he end up alienating them? We know that McCain’s position on torture is not endearing him to high-level Bush supporters, but what about the people in the pews? Will this stymie his efforts to gain the support of evangelicals because he is opposing Bush, or opposing a policy they may or may not consider critical to their safety or harmful to the country’s moral foundation?

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