Pod people: Grading the grades on Supreme Court coverage

After two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, I tried a different approach to analyzing some of the major news coverage.

I did what I dubbed “big news report cards” on coverage of the high court striking down a Massachusetts abortion buffer zone law — and on coverage of the court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties.

In the Hobby Lobby post, I focused on how various media handled one of the big misconceptions about the case — the idea that the Oklahoma City-based arts and crafts retailer refuses to pay for employees’ contraceptive coverage.

I’d welcome your feedback on whether you liked the report card approach and, if so, how you might improve it.

Meanwhile, host Todd Wilken and I discuss the grades given in this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. I recorded the podcast during a quick break at a conference this week in Florida, and I’m afraid I’m even more scatterbrained than usual in this version.

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A touching Father’s Day profile from down in Georgia

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It’s Father’s Day (and I need a nap after the special lunch my wife made), so I’m going to forgo a normal GetReligion critique.

Instead, I’m going to point you toward a touching feature about a father of 10, via the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia:

Psalm 127 says a man with many children is like having a quiver full of arrows.

The Rev. Andy Merritt and his wife, Kathy, have taken that passage seriously — producing 10 children in their 40 years of marriage.

“The reason we wanted to have a large family is that we believe each of those arrows has a destiny and a target to hit,” said Merritt, reflecting on his life as a father. “We felt that probably the greatest way to impact the world we live in would be to raise children that would come to know Christ. We really viewed it as an opportunity to express our Christian faith and even advance it through the lives of our children.”

Merritt, 62, is senior pastor of Edgewood Baptist Church on Forrest Road, where he’s served for 37 years. He and his wife have three sons and seven daughters, from ages 39 to 19. All but the two youngest are now living on their own, and many have started their own families. Two of their sons are pastors, and most of the other children are in some form of ministry.

So far, the children have blessed the Merritts with 18 grandchildren.

Merritt said he’s not the perfect father, but he has relied on God for guidance.

“I came out of a broken home and always believed I came into marriage and family with a great deficiency,” he said. “I think I learned more from my errors than anything I’ve done right. It’s only been by God’s grace.”

Keep reading, and the reporter describes the parents’ faith journey and the inspiration behind their children’s names.

Then readers learn about Charissa, the Merritts’ youngest child:

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Ann B. Davis: True heroine of alternative families?

My recent GetReligion piece on the life and ministry of actress Ann B. Davis, a friend from Denver days, rang up some pretty good social media numbers (thank you readers and Twitter fanatics). As a result, I heard from quite a few folks reacting to the mainstream media coverage of her death.

I think this is a commentary on her fame via The Brady Bunch. No doubt about that. However, I also think that — because of decades of activity in events nationwide linked to the Charismatic Renewal Movement (a very ecumenical and far-flung body of believers) — Ann B. had also actually met thousands of people face to face who in some truly personal way felt a human connection there.

I think it’s safe to lump these reader comments into two camps. Those dealing with print sources felt that these reports minimized the role that faith played in Davis’ life and didn’t seem to understand the fine details. But at least the faith was there. Meanwhile, the mainstream television reports were — people said over and over — all but completely faith free.

Then there was this strange piece in Time.

I mention it for a very simple reason: It is a perfect example of the kind of material that is being published today in publications that consumers think of as news products, yet most of their contents have little or nothing to do with news. Instead, they are works of basic commentary.

Thus, consider this piece with the headline epic double-decker headline:

Somehow Forming a Family: Why We Loved The Brady Bunch‘s Alice

Played by Ann B. Davis, who died over the weekend, Alice represented something that was becoming familiar in people’s complicated lives if not on TV: the non-parent parent.

While this is billed as an “appreciation” of Davis, the piece actually is not about Davis at all (the Time video is, in fact, a mini-profile). Instead, it is about a writer’s personal opinions about the importance of Davis and her “Alice” persona. Honestly, search the piece for actual information about the facts of her life. Here is a sample passage:

… (Alice) connected with a change that, in the early ’70s, was emerging in American families, in which figures other than two parents were central in kids’ lives.

Like a lot of childhood TV memories, The Brady Bunch is loved not so much for its artistry as for its emotional connections. The Brady family was big, it was blended, and it felt like there was room for everyone. Putting two families together on TV was unusual at the time, and it spoke to the number of kids who recognized divorce and remarriage from their own lives. Yes, Mike was a widower, and Carol’s status was never clarified — a compromise after Sherwood Schwartz wanted her to be a divorcée — but anyone watching knew what the show was really depicting. It turned something commonly depicted as tragedy into a triumph — a family coming together by choice.

And also, at the end:

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Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’

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One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news.

During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

Why bring this up?

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

Members of this household community — think small commune — shared most finances, cleaning duties, cooking, etc., etc. This kind of idealistic arrangement was actually not that unusual in the era in which charismatic renewal swept through many mainline Protestant bodies, and Catholicism as well. There were many wonderful households of this kind and a few with dark sides (See the amazing Julia Duin book — “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” — about one terrible fall in Houston).

One member of the Denver community kept her Emmy Awards in the household’s television room, where they served as bookends high up on some shelves. She wasn’t very good at cooking (tacos were her norm) and she admitted that she struggled a bit with childcare. Her name, of course, was Ann B. Davis and over the years she became a friend, too.

The woman millions thought of as “Alice” was far more than her character on The Brady Bunch, or her trailblazing “Schultzy” character on “The Bob Cummings Show.” She was the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.

Now Ann B. is gone at age 88. Needless to say, I have found it interesting to read the short passages in the major media obituaries that have tried to deal with the Christian content in her life story.

I think the best overall piece I have seen, so far, was in The Los Angeles Times. For example, readers were first given this short bit of information:

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Hey Bible Belt believer: Why do YOU persecute atheists?

Confession: I live in the Bible Belt. Even worse, I’m a — gulp — conservative Christian.

But here’s the good news: I haven’t persecuted any atheists today!

Of course, it’s still early, and I haven’t left my house yet. There’s still time for me to track down a nonbeliever, give ‘em hell and chase ‘em into the baptistery.

That’s what we do in (how dare they believe in) God’s country, right?

In case you’re wondering the reason for my sarcasm, CNN’s Belief Blog (which I generally love and praise often … but not this time) just published a piece with this provocative headline:

Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

I guess this possible headline was too long:

Atheists gather to make fun of religion, lament constant mistreatment by everyone in the Bible Belt

Let’s start at the top:

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.

But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.

The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.

They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.

“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.

The Godbeat pro who produced this feature is one of the best at his craft and does an excellent job of presenting the atheists’ side of the story.

I just wish CNN had considered that there might be another perspective. This “survival guide” assumes that the atheists’ assumptions are based in fact. Maybe they are. Maybe not. Or maybe, like a lot of things in life, the truth is complicated.

What’s missing from this story? Any real context or feedback from believers in the Bible Belt on how they actually view atheists.

Instead, we get broad generalizations like this:

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How much religion news can fit in 300-500 words?

Given your short attention span, I’ll make this brief.

And I’ll get right to the point: For once, The Associated Press is making news instead of reporting it.

Here’s the story as reported by The Washington Post:

Citing a “sea of bloated mid-level copy,” Associated Press Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano last week instructed fellow editors at the wire service to limit most “daily, bylined digest stories” to a length of between 300 and 500 words. Top stories from each state, Carovillano directed, should hit the 500 to 700-word range, and the “top global stories” may exceed 700 words but must still be “tightly written and edited.”

Carovillano’s memo itself references the driving force behind the limits: “Our members do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes,” notes the editor.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for AP, notes that a “common concern” among AP members and subscribers is that stories are too long. In recent months, says Colford, the wire service has been trimming stories in Europe and the outcome has been “successful.”

Noting that the memo encouraged AP reporters to “consider using alternative story forms either to break out details from longer stories, or in lieu of a traditional text story,” a Poynter Institute blogger quipped:

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Getting a feel for the whole elephant in that Mississippi law

You know that ancient story about the blind men groping their way around an elephant? Well, sometimes the men are also unaware of each other — even here at GetReligion.

Last weekend I saw an AP story about the reaction to Mississippi’s new religious freedom law. Gay businessmen and their friends took such offense, they started putting up blue window stickers in protest — even though the law said nothing about homosexuality.

“Wow, this’ll be fun to carve apart,” I thought, not realizing that Bobby Ross Jr. had already done so. The article I read was a repost of the one he saw.

Yet our reviews offer different views on the partial blindness in Mississippi — and how the AP didn’t help clear things up before quoting the protesters.

First off, a favorite complaint of mine: balance. The AP cites three sources on the gay side, one from the opposition. And that one is an out-of-stater: Tony Perkins of the Washington, D.C.-based American Family Association. Nor, as Bobby and I both note, does the reporting (or editing) explain why gays fear a law that doesn’t mention them.

As the article says, it’s a close mirror of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Clinton in 1993. Gays and their straight friends are simply taking pre-emptive action:

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In conservative Mississippi, some business owners who support equal treatment for gays and lesbians are pushing back against a new law that bans government from limiting the free practice of religion.

Critics fear the vaguely written law, which takes effect July 1, will prompt authorities to look away from anti-gay actions that are carried out in the name of religious beliefs — for example, photographers refusing to take pictures for same-sex couples because they believe homosexuality is a sin.

Hundreds of businesses, from hair salons to bakeries and art galleries, have started displaying round blue window stickers that declare: “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.”

The sticker campaign started this month in response to Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s signing the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The law says government cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices, without a compelling reason.

Granted, the lede tries to limit the article to the blue-sticker campaign. I wonder if that was to avoid having to cite all sides for the sake of a simpler story? Well, it doesn’t give us a complete view of public reaction to the law. It’s a better gauge of the AP’s reaction.

And the reaction, of course, of gay merchants in Mississippi:

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Journalism, religion and a botched execution in Oklahoma

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What was it like?

How do you feel?

Years ago, when I covered the state prison system for The Oklahoman and began serving as an official media witness for executions, those were the kinds of questions friends asked.

Truth be told, I felt numb.

I mean, I knew I had watched someone die. But I did so in a controlled, sanitized environment. A needle was inserted into a convicted killer’s arm — like someone receiving anesthesia for surgery — and the person lost consciousness. Within a few minutes, a time of death was declared.

The process was so routine, in most cases, that I wrote a behind-the-scenes account in 2000 of a “typical” execution day in Oklahoma:

McALESTER — At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.

Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.

Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.

The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes — a prison shirt and jeans — in which to die.

After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.

Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him — or in him — that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.

Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.

After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.

Fast-forward 14 years, and my home state of Oklahoma is all over the news, and rightly so, after a botched execution involving the state’s first time using a new lethal drug combination.

The anything-but-routine lede from the Tulsa World:

McALESTER — The execution of convicted killer Clayton Lockett was botched Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary before he died of a massive heart attack. The event prompted officials to postpone a second execution that had been scheduled for two hours later.

Lockett was given execution drugs and reacted violently, kicking and grimacing while lifting his head off the gurney to which he was strapped. He was pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. inside the execution chamber — 43 minutes after the process began — Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said.

In a media conference, Patton said Lockett’s veins “exploded” during the execution, which began at 6:23 p.m. The inmate died from what Patton called a “massive heart attack.” The death occurred after the execution process had been halted.

In its daily religion headlines email today, the Pew Research Center included the Oklahoma execution as the top item, despite no overtly religious content in The Associated Press story to which Pew linked, and I find no fault with that. This is obviously a story with strong moral — and religious — overtones.

In perusing the major media coverage, CNN, in particular, seems to nail the moral angle:

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