Finding Port Arthur (turn right at Houston)

house7aJust a personal note here tonight, after a day of watching Hurricane Rita coverage on various cable channels.

When I was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, we had an old saying that went something like this. If you wake up in the morning and your bed is surrounded by water, roll over and dip your finger in the water. If it’s fresh water, go back to sleep. It’s no big deal. The pumps will take care of it sooner or later.

However, if you roll over and taste salt in the water, get out of town because the seawall (pictured) is down and that means the Gulf of Mexico is coming back to claim everything.

Actually, it is never a very good idea to taste the water in that part of the world, because of all the oil and chemical processing plants. Some of this colorful atmosphere ended up in the music of local artists, people like the Winter brothers and that renegade named Janis Joplin.

Anyway, the sea wall held once again and the pumps will eventually get rid of the rainwater. But today also left me thinking about another reality linked to journalism and its, well, struggles to pin a news value on life and destruction.

I have to admit that I did rather enjoy watching Geraldo Rivera grandstand in the wasted downtown city streets of my old hometown. I kept waiting for him to wrap himself around the Janis Joplin statue during a big gust of wind.

It was also fun listening to the visiting newscasters find new and unique ways of saying things like Sabine Pass (it’s suh-bean, not SAY-bine). It was also clear that the MSM, for obvious reasons, was set up for Houston and Galveston, not for all of those strange out-of-the-way places in Southeast Texas. I loved the moment on CNN when someone said, “Jasper? I guess we’re going to have to find out where Jasper is.”

Maybe so. People live there, after all. But for most of today, the MSM reports were still dominated by visuals and information from New Orleans and from Houston-Galveston. I know why this is and it is, of course, all about numbers. This is understandable.

It made me think about that old myth about The Associated Press having a chart that shows the value of a human life, in news terms. If you are a journalist, you have heard about this.

In terms of people being killed in catastrophic events, one American dying is equal to 10 Brits or 50 people in France, which is equal to 100 people in Mexico and maybe 1,000 people in Afghanistan (unless those Afghan deaths would somehow hurt President Bush politically and make it harder to nominate a cultural conservative to that other open chair at the U.S. Supreme Court).

It’s a nasty, cynical concept, but precisely the sort of things journalists laugh about during long days in tired newsrooms. And that’s what I have been thinking about today. How many people in worn-out Texas and Louisiana refinery towns does it take to equal how many hip, NPR-feature-worthy folks in a colorful city such as New Orleans? I mean, try to imagine someone writing something crazy like this about flooded small towns along the Texas-Louisiana border:

New Orleans, our old flame, how bitterly we hate it that this has befallen you. Fate is crueler than we feared, to strip away the illusions that made us love you even better in your rich, ripe age than in the headlong passion of youth — which we secretly rekindled, if only in memory, each time we sank again into your warm embrace.

And, yes, of course, we’ll come to you again. Only perhaps not just yet, not in the merciless glare of the emergency ward, with the tubes encircling you like water snakes and the inescapable whiff of the bedpan.

Believe it or not, that is from The Dallas Morning News and it is not satire.

I understand. Honest, I do. I’m a veteran in the news business. But still, thinking about all of this created an interesting emotional undercurrent during a long day. Not all towns and not all people are created equal, in the headlines.

The seawall held. That’s the news.

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Angels & demons in a city of sin

Bourbon NitePardon me while I veer into a bit of biography for a second. I have a news-oriented reason for doing so.

I spent my teen years in Port Arthur, Texas, which is right where the state of Texas starts morphing into the alternative state of mind called Louisiana. The horizon was lined with smoking oil refineries, and let’s just say that, back in the ’60s and ’70s, people didn’t care much about what you put in the air and the water. Throw in heat, humidity and mosquitoes that resembled fighter jets and it is easy to understand why the region’s best known cultural leaders were Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter.

Every weekend, there were many young people who would jump into their cars and head over the border to the bars, where they could pretty much get away with murder. As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I was not one of them. Some people would head all the way to New Orleans, which was about as far into sin and depravity as one could go when you lived where I lived. It was not uncommon to walk the halls of our high school and hear people talking about who had wrecks getting home on those dark highways in the swamps. It was not uncommon for someone to get killed.

What’s the point? Let’s just say that there are some people in the Bible Belt who may be watching the hellish scenes we are seeing on TV right now with very mixed feelings. New Orleans is a strange and glorious and corrupt and soulful city, a place where the demons dance right out there in the open and the angels tend to hide in the shadows. It’s where the saints come marching in and lots of them are staggering because they are drunk. Right now, lots of them have guns.

There are people who love New Orleans for highly personal reasons and there are plenty of other people who have always thought that this great city might someday reap what they believe it has sowed. Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard people in Middle America make jokes about Los Angeles and earthquakes? It is kind of like that.

Is there a story in all of this? Will this conflict in the wider region affect the rebuilding effort? Is this a chance for New Orleans to shine and, perhaps, even bond with the rest of America, much in the way that New York City did in the days after Sept. 11?

Perhaps it would help to hear from someone on the other side of the church aisle. Howell Raines, the former (some would say “fallen”) executive editor of The New York Times, wore his heart on his sleeve in a memorial column that appeared — interestingly enough — in the Los Angeles Times. Note the undertow of cultural and religious themes in this chunk of it:

For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy has always been the place to dance — the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America’s best place for the world’s oldest profession and the birthplace of America’s best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism. . . .

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House — will we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalyzed?

Read that passage out loud in a room full of folks down South and more than a few of them are going to roll their eyes and say, “Now that’s the kind of Southern guy who is going to move north and become an editor at The New York Times.”

Then again, behind the scenes, it appears that churches across the Bible Belt — left, right and center (including those Southern Baptists) — are already working overtime to get aid to the region.

This is as it should be. Right now, there are angels and demons on display in New Orleans and that is not going to end soon.

Please let us know when you see them show up in newspapers and on the networks.

UPDATED: A group called Repent America says openly what some people are probably thinking. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.) If the Rev. Pat Robertson chimes in, hang on. Nice touch — adding the link to the classic “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God” sermon by Jonathan Edwards. However, I am pretty sure this great early American evangelist did not claim that God’s wrath was zip-code-specific. And if you say it is behavior-specific, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

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About the “lifestyle left”

010827allergies insideWhat exactly is your snotty little phrase “lifestyle liberal” supposed to mean?

Posted by Frank at 10:03 am on August 26, 2005

Well, Frank, we live in an age in which the major political divisions are not over the classic left-right issues of economics, labor, environment, peace, education, etc. The dividing lines are all about social and moral issues — lifestyle issues. It’s the age we live in.

Thus, I often refer to “cultural conservatives” in GetReligion posts, even though that number would include some old-line Democrats and populists, when it comes to the old-fashioned issues of liberalism. I also use the term “lifestyle left” to talk about those who are lifestyle Libertarians, even if they are in the GOP.

When the U.S. Supreme Court hearings get rolling, watch carefully and you’ll see this dynamic at work. Then watch how people vote.

For a previous discussion on this topic, click here. Or you might even take a look at my Scripps Howard News Service column this week, which focuses on how this is affecting Democrats and even James “It’s the economy, stupid” Carville.

Does this answer your question?

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tmatt, the Kurds and secularism

kurdflag2I guess anything can happen in the age of the WWW. Take a look at this Kurdish essay and tell me: Am I on the side of a more secular approach to Islam or not? Or am I being quoted to back the Islamists?

The decline of secularism can be seen as a global phenomenon, more than an Arab one, because the Arab world has refused all secular aspects, whether in religion or customs. When Samuel Huntington talked about the “clash of civilizations”, he gave priority to factors of culture and religion over secularist ones in reshaping relations among different nations. Today, secularism doesn’t sell in the marketplace. As American religious affairs columnist Terry Mattingly noted, “people hunger for spirituality, miracles and a sense of mystery . . . but the core question remains: should believers defend eternal truths or follow their hearts?”

At least the Kurdistan Regional Government quoted one of my more symbolic columns. Click here to see the context for the quote in my 10th anniversary column.

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Does GetReligion want to “go there”?

dieties. . . (The) Christian worldview’s truth claims include an admonition for Christians to be “salt, light, and leaven,” individually and collectively, on their spheres of influence. That truth claim presupposes that their spheres of influence would benefit from a collective and intentional Christian influence, and also presupposes such intentional and collective influence is possible.

My perception is that the “Get Religion” blog does not want “to go there” — whether/to what degree Christian journalists should collectively and intentionally influence their profession. I suggest Jay Rosen’s most thoughtful insights, linked to the blog item, on the “religion of journalism,” allude to this — they do not mention how, if at all, Christian journalists (or journalists of other faiths) should collectively and intentionally influence their profession, as an appropriate outworking of that faith and its truth claims.

Posted by Joe at 9:56 am on August 17, 2005

This topic is linked to questions that we hear, from time to time, about the role of religious faith in journalism and, thus, in the work at this blog. This is natural, since faith tends to give journalists sweaty palms and journalism has the same effect on far too many religious leaders. I’ve been working in this particular minefield for decades.

So let me very briefly respond to Joe’s comment that GetReligion does not “want to go there” on the God and journalism issue.

If Christians in the field of journalism influence our field, I hope it is in the same way that religious believers influence the fields of law, art, sports, academia, etc. In other words, that influence is expressed through the quality of their work and in open debates about ethical issues that affect everyone on the job.

In other words, GetReligion is not a site about “Christian journalism.” We are pretty open about our faith around here, but the purpose of the blog is to talk about how to improve MSM coverage of religion news. The goal is diversity. We are pro-journalism. Click here and here for some of foundational essays about that.

Now, I freely admit that any study of media-bias literature tends to point toward conflicts between the press and traditional forms of religion. There’s no way to avoid that. But I am convinced there is more to that topic than some simplistic left vs. right divide. Religious conservatives who claim the MSM is “liberal,” in some traditional meaning of that word, and is out to nail them are not seeing the whole picture. That’s another topic that keeps coming up in this space, from time to time.

The Christians I know who thrive in mainstream journalism (I am active in Gegrapha, for example) are those who want to work in journalism — period. To get theological about it, they see journalism as a part of God’s (glorious and fallen) creation. No more, no less.

To paraphrase that noted theologian James Carville: It’s journalism, stupid.

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Back to my Anglican hobbyhorse

SeoulNaveAs Terry hinted at the beginning of this month, I have taken a new job with the Anglican Communion Network. Since the early 1990s, my greatest passion as a writer has involved the moral and theological debates within the Episcopal Church.

I was born an Episcopalian because my Roman Catholic father and Southern Baptist mother both knew they wanted a church for themselves and their two boys, but also knew they needed a liturgical via media. During the 1990s I sometimes experienced a love-hate relationship with the Episcopal Church, and I wondered if I ever would have joined it had I grown up in, say, an evangelical Lutheran church. Today that relationship is more of a lover’s quarrel.

Because I will be engaged in an activist’s role with the ACN, I will cut back radically on how often I write about Anglican and Episcopal matters for GetReligion. Indeed, I expect to write on such matters only if I can do so without setting off my Conflict of Interest Meter (which I try to keep fine-tuned).

I will, however, write about magazine articles on many other topics that touch on the concerns of this blog.

I’ll always be grateful to Terry for making me part of this project when I was leaving the full-time staff of Christianity Today, but I’m also eager to rejoin the Anglican discussions I’ve been less involved in for the past several years. I’ll still appear here, albeit it with less frequency.

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Strange case of the missing Orthodox story

One of the strangest things about writing a weekly column is that funny factor called “lead time.” That’s the time that elapses between when you write the column and when it appears in print. This is an even bigger hurdle in magazine work, of course. In some journals your lead time might be six months.

Anyway, I write my “On Religion” columns on Tuesday nights and edit on Wednesday mornings for a noon deadline at the Scripps Howard News Service here in Washington. In most newspapers, the column appears on Saturday. By definition, this means that I rarely get to cover breaking news and I often end up having to frame columns in interesting ways in order to write about events in which there could be major developments during that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday “lead time” between when the column is finished and when dead-tree-pulp readers see it.

Here is why I bring this up. There was a news event last week involving the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and its decision to quit the National Council of Churches. This presented several challenges, not the least of which was that Antioch is my church. I decided to go ahead and write the story in as straightforward a manner as I could, with as little commentary as possible, because I strive to avoid first person if at all possible. I just quoted the key people and let them speak for themselves. With WWW help, I was able to work in a crucial quote from the key figure on the left who was not available — with an attribution to Presbyterian News Service.

But I was worried crazy about “lead time.” What were the odds of no one writing the hard news version of this story during the entire week that transpired between the event and my column appearing?

Thus, I wrote a soft lead that focused on the annual rites of summer conventions, when religious groups talk about all kinds of things and rarely act on them. In this case, the Antiochian Orthodox had — like it or not — done more than talk. If you want to read the column, click here.

Then I sat back and waited for the Associated Press or someone to write the news story. The convention took place near Detroit. Surely the local media would have it. Nope. ’Tis a puzzlement.

I kept Googling the word “Antiochian” in but nobody in the MSM wrote the story until (logically enough) Kevin Eckstrom at Religion News Service covered the hard-news element.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church has decided to pull its membership from the National Council of Churches, a move that some conservatives hope will prompt other churches to leave the liberal-leaning ecumenical body.

The 339,000-member Orthodox church voted to leave the NCC on July 28 during its General Convention in Troy, Mich. The decision to leave the New York-based NCC was supported by its leader, Metropolitan Philip.

Topping a list of grievances, apparently, was the NCC’s liberal drift and actions by its outspoken general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar. “It got to be too much,” church spokesman the Rev. Thomas Zain told Ecumenical News International. “There was no reason to be part of it.”

By the way, the Arab-Americans in this flock would bristle at one mistake in this article, the part that said: “The Antiochian Orthodox Church traces its roots to Arab-speaking immigrants who previously belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Well now. The birth of the Church of Antioch is detailed in the Book of Acts and its first leaders were those saints called Peter and Paul. We love our sisters and brothers in Russian Orthodoxy, but Antioch is the older body. I think what RNS meant to say is that in the 19th century, Russian Orthodox missionaries reached America and there was a time — before that Russian Revolution — when all Orthodox Christians in North America, including the Arabs, were all in one body linked to Russia. Then this united body tragically broke apart as the great Russian era of Communist persecution caused lines of pain and division and then the formation of multiple Orthodox bodies in this new land.

Thus, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church of North America shares some ties in the United States with the Russians and what is today called the Orthodox Church in America. One of the stories linked to the NCC exit is the growing momentum toward a renewal of Orthodox unity in this land.

Isn’t the religion beat complicated?

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Ch-ch-ch-changes at GetReligion

printingpressI have been missing in action today, but for a reason. It was my first day working at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities on the project now called the Washington Journalism Center. It’s a full-semester journalism education program growing out of the decade-long Summer Institute of Journalism (some info here).This is the teaching post that recently brought me and my family back to Beltway land.

But, as Jeremy noted yesterday, August 1 is a day for some other changes here at GetReligion. Young master Lott is taking a solid three months away from Washington media life to write his book, which is currently titled In Defense of Hypocrisy. Before he vanishes, I do hope he will offer us an epistle giving us a hint what this book will be about. The young man does have some edge.

The Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc is also poised to move into a new media post in the Anglican world and I will let him explain that himself. Suffice it to say that he will be spending much of his time on the other side of a reporter’s notebook, working with reporters rather than merely as a report. Let me go on the record that I do hope he gets to keep his column at Episcopal Life. Diversity is a good thing.

As a result, Doug is moving into a managing editor role here at GR. He will still be our go-to tech guy, continuing the work he has done since day one. He will focus his writing on religion coverage in mainstream news magazines, which will give him more flexibility with when and what he writes. Any ideas on what magazines he should stress, other than the obvious newsweeklies?

We will also be gaining the talents of a young writer named Daniel Pulliam who works at Government Executive, which is linked to the National Journal family. Daniel will stress foreign news and Internet publications. I will let him offer some biographical information. However, I will note that there are apples that do not fall far from journalistic trees.

As for me, there is much to do before the Washington Journalism Center opens its doors in the fall of 2006. Meanwhile, I will continue to be senior editor here at GetReligion, with an emphasis on domestic issues and rock music (same as always). I certainly expect to be more involved in media life in Washington, as the religion columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service and in projects linked to the world of blogging.

As always, please let us know about those MSM ghosts that you see and about publications and networks that you think we need to cover. We welcome your help.

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