WSJ gets the tone right on Holocaust survivor story

There’s so much bad reporting about religion and religion-related stories these days — the continual surprise evidenced by The New York Times that the leaders of Roman Catholic institutions may choose to act, well, in a Catholic manner, for example — that it’s not a bad thing, I believe to highlight instances where a given reporter (and publication) get it right.

Such a refreshing, if deeply sobering, example comes from reporter Naftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal. A Congressional correspondent for the paper, he ventured somewhat far afield to extensively report on “A Race to Preserve the Voices of Holocaust’s Last Survivors.” The opening sets the tone, of course:

JEMEPPE-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium – Simon Gronowski, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor, mesmerized schoolchildren in this small town recently with a detailed account of jumping off a train to Auschwitz and hiding from the Nazis for three years.

The students lobbed close to 50 questions at him, ranging from the unsophisticated — “Did you meet Hitler?” — to the sensitive, like his feelings about losing the mother and sister who stayed on the train.

But the talk exhausted Mr. Gronowski. His knees bother him, he doesn’t hear that well, and it isn’t clear how much longer he can deliver such talks, though he has no plans to stop. “My children and my grandchildren will talk about it,” he said. “I can’t do any more than I’m doing.”

Although there are believed to be 160,000 survivors of the Shoah, or “destruction,” as Jews often refer to the Holocaust, still alive, their numbers are dwindling. As each one passes, a voice, a recollection and even the physical evidence of having survived — the numbered tattoo on a forearm — is lost:

A survivor who was 20 when Auschwitz was liberated would be 88 today, and already few are left who were adults during the war. “Nothing has as much impact as seeing the person in real life,” said Regina Sluszny, 74, who was hidden from the Nazis as a child. “But we have no choice. We can’t live forever.”

The need for living witness, ironically, grows as generations are more and more removed from the actual events of World War II.

I was born during Eisenhower’s second presidential term, and as a child and teen there were plenty of documentaries, interviews, films and mini-series focusing on the National Socialists and their reign of terror. Now, such documentaries are fewer and farther between, it seems, even if some notable ones are still appearing.

Examined in closer detail, the numbers are even more dire:

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The Methodist roots of Nelson Mandela

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Comrade. Leader. Prisoner. Negotiator. Statesman.

A giant banner outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — which I visited during a 2009 reporting trip to South Africa — uses those terms to describe Nelson Mandela, although many more certainly could be applied.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Mandela’s life and — from a news perspective — his death Thursday at age 95.

Or, to put the news in a more personal perspective, here’s a tweet from a friend.

Alas, it would be impossible for anyone — not even your brilliant GetReligionistas — to critique all the millions of words written about Mandela just since his passing less than 24 hours ago. But we can take an initial crack at exploring the coverage of the faith angle. First question: What was Mandela’s religious background?

From that United Methodist News Service report:

Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism.

A graduate of a Methodist boarding school where many future African leaders were educated, the anti-apartheid champion was mentored by Methodist preachers and educators and formed a bond with a Methodist chaplain while in prison.

As president of South Africa, he worked with church leaders in shaping a new nation and eventually married Graça Machel, a United Methodist, widow of the former president of Mozambique and an advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

The Gospel Herald suggests that Mandela’s “Christian faith was the bedrock of his extraordinary life legacy.”

Christian Today — not to be confused with Christianity Today, which is mentioned below — reports:

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Joe Jonas unplugged begs for good reporter and editor

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Purity rings, an Assembly of God church breakup, suit-wearing and pew-sitting. Mandatory attendance on Sunday mornings and fulfilling all expectations.

We’ve heard them before, the stories of famous teens-turned-young-adults who grew up as kids of clergy and felt choked by the existence to the point of rebellion: Tori Amos, Alice Cooper, Katy Perry, Jessica Simpson to name a few.

Still, the Jonas Brothers brand continues to command attention, with its mainstream fan base and overall wholesome image. And this was a new story and fresh perspective, right?

Not without reporting and good editing, I’m afraid.

Church kid turned Disney mega-star Joe Jonas lifted the lid on his brain and spilled its contents to New York Magazine in a lengthy first-person account of life as a Jonas brother and victim of Christian upbringing.

No format, no careful questions or guidance and definitely no editing. In other words, a tell-all.

In predictable form, the piece has been spliced into stories for news and entertainment outlets across the globe as a sensational peek into the counter-culture existence of a teenage boy who dabbled in sex and drugs along with the rock n’ roll. The version in the Music Times sports the racy headline, “Joe Jonas shares details about religion, sex and smoking weed with Miley Cyrus.”

To some extent, I was used to growing up in public. I was a pastor’s kid, so eyes were always on me, even then. I sat in the first pew of the church, and I had to wear a suit every Sunday, because my parents wanted me to be this role model that I didn’t always want to be. I preferred going to punk-rock shows in small venues in New Jersey, where we grew up, wearing my jean jacket and all my band pins. That’s how I fell in love with music, how I became obsessed with it. I’d stand there, watching the singer running around the stage, owning the crowd. I didn’t even notice whatever else was happening onstage. All I could see was the singer.

But I had certain obligations at that age. If I ever didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, or when I was trying to figure out what religion I wanted to be, or trying to understand spirituality, I would always have to deal with knowing that people were looking up to me. We eventually left our church, Assembly of God, when I was 14. A scandal had erupted involving stolen money, and it caused a big rift in the church. After that the concept of church really upset me for a long time. I mean, I believe in God, and that’s a personal relationship that I have, but I’m not religious in any way.

It’s clear from the content of the piece that Jonas is looking to continue on the path toward full self-disclosure.

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AP’s not-too-religious airport chaplain story

The entire long Thanksgiving weekend, it’s widely reported, is the busiest air-travel season in the United States. So, it’s not too difficult to imagine human interest stories about life in and around major airports, which The Associated Press rightly declares are “mini-cities” with a life and culture all their own, right down to a local church or, in most cases, an interfaith chapel.

Said chapels are staffed by either volunteer or paid chaplains, and that’s where the AP comes in with an interesting discovery: they may be called “Reverend,” but from the AP’s telling, these folks aren’t all that, well, religious.

Here’s the top of the report:

ATLANTA – The Rev. Frank Colladay Jr. stood at the end of the gate waiting. On the arriving plane was a passenger whose husband had just died of a heart attack on another flight. Her name was Linda Gilbert. The two had never met before.

Colladay’s parish happens to be the world’s busiest airport. His flock consists of people passing through who might need comfort, spiritual advice, or someone to pray with.

On this day, a traumatized Gilbert needed even more. Colladay guided her through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, drove her in his silver Ford Fusion to the medical examiner to see her husband’s body and arranged for a flight home for both of them.

“He didn’t say a whole lot. But just his presence being there, it just felt comforting and reassuring,” Gilbert says. “I didn’t know that airports have chaplains.”

Although some headlines on this widely published story almost hinted at an almost Kevorkian-esque tone — “Airport chaplains help fliers reach heaven,” the Redwood Times of Garberville, Calif., topped it — that’s about the only mention of heaven, or anything else religious here, albeit with some contradictions:

They aren’t at airports to proselytize and — surprisingly — very few passengers confess to a fear of flying. Often, they just roam terminals offering a friendly face and occasional directions. Some walk up to seven miles a day.

“When I came into the job, my predecessor said you have to buy good shoes,” says the Rev. Jean-Pierre Dassonville, a Protestant who just retired after 12 years at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Chaplains need outgoing personalities. They have to recognize the signs that something is wrong and know how to approach strangers.

The Rev. Wina Hordijk, a Protestant minister at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, recently saw a teenage girl sitting by herself, crying. The girl was supposed to travel throughout Europe with her boyfriend, but he dumped her at the start of the trip.

“I always have a lot of handkerchiefs in my bag,” Hordijk says.

A “Protestant.” That’s pretty vague. On the other hand:

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NYTimes: Mouseketeer-turned-Pagan-turned-Christian trip

One of the staples of evangelical Christianity — at least so far as I can remember — is the story of the spectacular sinner who found redemption, preferably on the “sawdust trail” of a tent revivalist’s “canvass cathedral.”

One of the more dramatic examples is the 1949 conversion of songwriter/actor Stuart Hamblen under the ministry of a then-very-young Billy Graham; Hamblen went on to write a gospel music staple, “It Is No Secret,” about that experience.

It is equally true — for those of us with a bit of experience in the evangelical realm — that sometimes these testimonies should be viewed with skepticism. Evangelicals, myself included, were entertained and impressed by “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke in the late 1970s and 1980, He regaled audiences with tales of his being a “high Satanist priest” and having later come to the light of faith in Jesus. Sadly, Warnke’s testimony was later challenged and shown to be suspect, at the very least, which is why we don’t see him much on TBN these days, although he still professes Christian belief, and has an independent ministry.

Both of these elements popped into my mind as The New York Times featured a former member of the “Mouseketeers of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which ran from 1989 to 1996 on the Disney Channel,” a cable outlet. Born and raised as Matt Morris, the onetime-Episcopalian embraced Paganism, with a capital “P,” and, “under a red moon” one night pledged fealty “to the unseen forces that guide my life.”

“Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer sets the ex-Mouseketeer tone here:

They’re an august alumni association. … Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake top the charts. Keri Russell was Felicity. Christina Aguilera stars with CeeLo Green on “The Voice.” Ryan Gosling starred with his own abs in “Crazy Stupid Love.”

But Teo Bishop, while keeping up a career in pop music, accomplished something less predictable and altogether curiouser. Beginning about three years ago, he began a rise to prominence in the Pagan community. Then, last month, he shocked the Pagan community by re-embracing Christianity.

“I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of Jesus,” Mr. Bishop wrote on Oct. 13, on his blog, Bishop in the Grove. “Jesus and God and Christianity and the Lord’s Prayer and compassion and forgiveness and hope. … I don’t know what to do with all of this.”

For American Pagans, Mr. Bishop’s defecting to a big, bad mainstream religion is bigger news than winning a Grammy, bigger than shooting a Vanity Fair cover. If you’re a Druid, a Wiccan or any of the nature-religion followers grouped under the label Pagan, you’re not talking about Britney, JT or Xtina. You’re talking Teo Bishop.

Bishop — he legally changed his name from Morris — found great success with the “Bishop in the Grove” blog, earning plaudits in the pagan (or is it still Pagan here?) community:

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Story envy, courtesy of the New York Times

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I’ll just come out and say it: I wish I had written this story.

Well done, New York Times, from the headline to the ending. Readers, pour yourself a glass of milk, grab a chocolate-chip cookie (trust me, it’s vital to the enjoyment and proper digestion of this piece) and prepare to be satisfied in a way few first-person stories on Christian adoption are able to please.

Back? OK, good. Let’s review good journalism, the craft of complete storytelling and the art of making a long story seem short.

Misty and her husband, Jon, arrived at a house near Denver one day several years ago to pick up the two boys who would become their sons. A dirt yard led to a screen door dangling from its hinges. Inside, grime coated the linoleum steps to the living room, where a kind, if overwhelmed, single foster mother introduced Misty and Jon to Shon, 2 ½ years old, and his 9-month-old brother, Cory. She gave the couple a tiny suitcase with a broken zipper, a few borrowed clothes — some too big, others too small — and a piece of advice: Don’t touch Shon’s head or lift your hands near him. He will cower. Then she handed Jon a huge bag of frozen fish sticks. The kids love them, she said.

In weaving together a story on adoption through foster care, practicality demands that children be the centerpiece. Sensitivity, however, insists on delicacy. The balance is struck in the details, which are so rich and varied that I feel as though I’m walking with the four benevolent parents featured through the peaks and valleys of their journey to fulfill a calling from God.

Yes, the Times says it: A calling from God. And they back it up:

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Close to home: Those Godbeat changes hit tmatt

What he said:

“I’m glad to hear that Scripps Howard still as a religion writer on its staff. Seriously, I mean it’s a nice thing that, you know, that still exists in the media.”

– Tom Hanks, at a press conference in 2009

For those who have not heard the news elsewhere, out in the Twitter-verse for example, there was a rather stunning announcement made yesterday that the Scripps Howard News Service is shutting down.

That was the first domino.

In my case, the second domino to fall was that the editors at the McClatchy-Tribune wire, which inherited the Scripps costumer list, did not pick up my “On Religion” column for syndication. This should lead to a third domino. If the weekly “On Religion” no longer exists, then it cannot be picked up by the 600 or so small- and medium-sized newspapers in the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Here’s a clip from the all-to-familiar news obit, care of Bloomberg:

Scripps Howard News Service, which fed syndicated stories to papers across the U.S. since World War I, plans to shut down, becoming the latest symbol of readers’ shift away from print media. …

The Scripps Howard News Service, founded in 1917, supplied newspaper clients with Washington coverage and news from around the world, as well as photos, commentary and editorial cartoons. The operation was a remnant of a once-thriving era of wire services and news agencies, when an insatiable newspaper industry had numerous publications in every city and multiple editions per day. In an age when Internet news is typically free, newspaper consolidation, declining advertising sales and shrinking circulation have crimped demand for wire copy.

Internet news is free, sort of. However, it still costs money to produce real, live news and information.

If you follow the advertising crisis and its side effects, you know that there is great irony in all of this.

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Yet another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story

Over the weekend, I did a post titled “Another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story.”

I complained, not for the first time, that The Associated Press seems to have decided that stories about same-sex marriage need to include only one side: the side excited about same-sex marriage.

My post prompted this comment from a gay-rights advocate who identified himself as Scott L:

Sounds like the AP is behaving like a responsible organization in 2013. Marriage equality is a reality in much of the country. Accept it.

I spiked that comment and a few others that railed against the gay-rights movement because they fell outside our policy for reader feedback:

Engage the contents of the post. This is a journalism weblog. Please strive to comment on journalism issues, not your opinions of the doctrinal or political beliefs of other people.

In a nutshell, as we’ve explained many times, GetReligion is a website that focuses on journalism and media coverage issues. We advocate for fair and accurate news reporting and identify ghosts in religion news coverage. But Scott L took to Twitter to accuse me of bias:

After I encouraged Scott to make his point with a clear journalistic focus, another reader (with whom I have had a few personal and professional ties over the years) chimed in:

I replied:

But as I explained, I couldn’t have a serious discussion in 140-character bits on Twitter. And also, I was on deadline with my real job yesterday.

So here we are … so I’ll attempt to answer the questions.

First, on the notion that pro-gay comments get moderated or deleted. Yes, that’s right. And so do anti-gay comments that have nothing do with journalism. This is not a site to advocate one side or the other. It’s a site to discuss journalism. If you want to suggest that journalism needs to tell only one side of the story, do that and explain why in terms that make it clear you’re not simply arguing the doctrinal or political issues.

Second, on Greg’s question of whether it’s disingenuous to require both sides of every story. There’s nothing disingenuous at all about my contention that fair, responsible journalism should include voices on both (or all) sides of big, important public debates.

Do we ask the KKK to comment on NAACP stories? Not necessarily. But if you’re writing about a KKK rally, yes, try to get a comment from the KKK. Sorry, folks, but that’s journalism. Sometimes, we quote people with whom we vehemently disagree.

I’ve written 450-plus posts for GetReligion since 2010. I’d invite Scott or Greg or anyone else to send me any links to my posts that were advocacy on either side of an important issue and not advocacy for quality journalism.

For Scott and Greg, the debate over same-sex marriage may be over, and they may have strong opinions on which side is correct, which is certainly their right in a free country. But from a journalistic perspective, a responsible reporter can’t make that determination.

The latest example that I’ll use comes from Tennessee, where AP again seems to have decided to tell only one side of the story:

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