Pod people: Media campaigns and civility

Ben Smith reports that Democratic Senators were furious at MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” over how it covered the Obama Administration’s mandate affecting religious people and their organizations:

The Senate’s Democratic women are furious at “Morning Joe” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski for their opposition to the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate, two sources told BuzzFeed.

California Senator Barbara Boxer and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen both got in touch with MSNBC after the two hosts of the show that starts many politicos’ days were unanimous Monday in their criticism of the rule, which would require Catholic hospitals and other institutions to offer health care plans providing contraception to their employees.

“If the federal government can do this to the Catholic church, can they not do this to any church?” host Joe Scarborough asked. Brzezinski called the move an “overstep” and “wrong.” Guests, including conservative Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, agreed with them.

I recently highlighted NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell’s passionate advocacy on behalf of Planned Parenthood that occurred on an MSNBC “news” program. Later, we discussed how Sen. Boxer and Mitchell thanked each other — literally – for that work on behalf of Planned Parenthood and against the Komen foundation. This all took place on MSNBC, although a different program.

But the point stands, even if I’m not sure if Morning Joe is commentary or news: when everyone on the show agrees with one side in a hotly-contested dispute, redouble your efforts to find someone to advocate for alternate views. It’s really not that difficult.

An even more egregious example of this was sent in by many GetReligion readers. NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast a report so one-sided that it included not a single voice from someone opposed to the HHS mandate. Instead, listeners were treated to quotes and advocacy from Peggy Mastroianni, general counsel at the EEOC, known in recent months mostly for losing a Supreme Court case on religious freedom, and Sarah Lipton-Lubet, whose recent work includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The report, by Julie Rovner, sounds much more like commentary than news.

We all know that people get worked up on issues of religious liberty and abortifacients, sterilization and birth control. It can be difficult to remain civil (I wrote a little bit about incivility this week here.). But journalism works best in a climate of civility and one where we aim to give the views of everyone a fair shake, particularly those with whom we disagree. It’s a testament to the GetReligion commenters how well you have remained civil and thoughtful even in the midst of strenuous disagreement with each other. I thank you for that.

All this to say that on this week’s Crossroads podcast, I spoke with host Todd Wilken about the media coverage of the Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy. If you’ve read my posts here, here, here, here, here and here, you’re familiar with what we talk about but it was fun to discuss in an audio environment, too.

As the above indicates, we’re seeing some struggles with good reportage on the HHS mandate and we’ll continue to look at those struggles in the week to come. Let’s redouble our efforts to find good stories in the midst of the problems. Please help us with that effort, too.

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Pod people: Birth control or religious liberty?

Finally.

I think someone may have had a journalistic epiphany on the whole Health and Human Services thing.

But before we go there, stop and, for a moment, join me in contemplating the following journalism puzzle.

The Obama administration’s new HHS regulations — click here for a sample of GetReligion coverage — continue to cause an electric buzz here inside the Beltway. At the moment, people continue to focus on the Catholic angle of this story.

That’s logical. I get that. I mean, why would a Democratic candidate want to tick off Pope Benedict XVI in what will almost certainly be a tense election year?

Keep thinking. If this battle over the HHS rules is merely a “Catholic” story, it’s logical to think that it is essentially a story about birth control. This logic has been leading reporters to another semi-logical conclusion. They’re thinking: Most Catholics use birth control. Thus, most Catholics are not going to care about the HHS rules. The pope and the bishops are all just blowing smoke and this story is no big deal — other than to a few crazy Catholics (none in the typical newsroom, naturally) who actually care about church doctrines about sexuality.

However, if this is simply a story about birth control, logical journalists will need to figure out why so many liberal Catholics are currently so upset with the White House for picking this fight at this moment in time.

This leads us to the fact that U.S. bishops and the pope see this as a battle over issues much bigger than birth control. They see these rules as a direct attack on the religious liberty of Catholics and other believers. They see this as a First Amendment story in which the government is forcing religious groups — the institutions, not individual believers — to commit or fund acts that are sinful and evil, according to the doctrines proclaimed by these religious groups.

Seen from this angle, the ruling on birth control is simply the point on a much larger spear. The next thing you know, the U.S. Justice Department will be trying to get involved in decisions about who is hired and fired by religious groups. Wait a minute. That sounds familiar.

Please hear me say that there is no way to cover this story without hitting the birth-control angle and hitting it hard. However, there is no accurate, balanced way to handle this story without covering the larger religious-liberty angle, as well.

I also know that the potential impact of the HHS rules IS HUGE when you look at the Catholic numbers. What percentage of the nation’s health care (especially for the poor) is provided by institutions with Catholic roots or ties? Then there is the fact that the nation contains nearly 250 allegedly Catholic colleges and universities. This is big stuff, folks.

The big question for journalists is this: Which angle frames the story? Which drives the coverage?

So stop and think. If this is primarily a story about birth control, then it’s safe to say that only pro-Vatican Catholics will be screaming bloody murder these days. But that isn’t the case, is it? Instead, leaders in a wide variety of religious groups are mad as hades, because they see the larger legal picture. They are asking: Is America a place in which people have freedom of worship or freedom of religion?

Finally, I think that we have a national-level story that has found a way to frame this story accurately.

Here is the top of religion-beat veteran Rachel Zoll’s report for the Associated Press:

The Obama administration’s decision requiring church-affiliated employers to cover birth control was bound to cause an uproar among Roman Catholics and members of other faiths, no matter their beliefs on contraception.

The regulation, finalized a week ago, raises a complex and sensitive legal question: Which institutions qualify as religious and can be exempt from the mandate?

For a church, mosque or synagogue, the answer is mostly straightforward. But for the massive network of religious-run social service agencies there is no simple solution. Federal law lays out several criteria for the government to determine which are religious. But in the case of the contraception mandate, critics say Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius chose the narrowest ones. Religious groups that oppose the regulation say it forces people of faith to choose between upholding church doctrine and serving the broader society.

“It’s not about preventing women from buying anything themselves, but telling the church what it has to buy, and the potential for that to go further,” said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, representing some 600 hospitals.

Keehan’s support for the passage of the Obama health care overhaul was critical in the face of intense opposition by the U.S. bishops. She now says the narrowness of the religious exemption in the birth control mandate “has jolted us.” She pledged to use a one-year grace period the administration has provided to “pursue a correction.”

I am bringing all of this up, again, for a logical reason (or two).

For starters, it will not surprise regular listeners of our “Crossroads” podcast that this issue was the subject of this week’s discussion. You can find it at iTunes or simply click here to listen online. However, the main reason we talked this through — again — is that this story is not going away. Instead, it’s taking on a life of its own on op-ed pages and in news reports (and not just because GOP types think it’s a nice reason to wound the White House).

Oh, we also spent a few minutes discussing that whole GetReligion turns eight thing.

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: More on Romney’s tithing

Last week, I critiqued a Sacramento Bee story tied to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon tithing.

The top of the Bee’s report:

Mitt Romney’s tax returns reveal that the Republican presidential candidate does something fewer Americans do these days: He tithes.

Romney’s 2009 and 2010 tax returns, released Tuesday, show that he and his wife, Ann, gave 10 percent of their income, about $4.1 million, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The couple reported income of about $43 million for the two years.

While generally positive about the California newspaper’s approach, I played editor and proposed a few questions that my markup of the reporter’s draft would have included.

My first question concerned the specific amount that Romney gave:

Can you explain the figures in the second graf? By my calculation, $4.1 million of $43 million is 9.5 percent, not 10 percent. Has there been any explanation of the apparent discrepancy?

In the comments section, Frank Lockwood of Bible Belt Blogger fame chimed in with some helpful clarification.

Meanwhile, as I had time to read other news coverage of Romney’s tithing more closely, I discovered that Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll had offered helpful explanation:

A campaign official said the governor bases his tithes on estimated income, since he donates to the church at the end of the calendar year before his taxes are finalized. He plans to pay above the 10 percent in 2011, to make up for the underestimate the year before, the campaign official said.

For many Mormons, the percentage of tithing varies from year to year.

“In one given calendar year, I might actually `pre-pay’ some tithing and then the next year, I’ll kind of work that into my calculation,” said Paul Edwards, editor of the Deseret News, which is owned by the LDS church. “I think that most Latter-day Saints can recognize it looks like he’s giving roughly a 10th, whether it’s one calendar year or over an extended period of time.”

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about the media coverage of Romney’s tithing.

We also spent a few minutes discussing my recent post on a Denver Post story on cowboy churches.

By all means, check out the podcast.

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Pod people: Endorsing the chosen one

My father — a newspaper professional adapting to the digital age — considers his kids his personal information technology help desk, so we’re regularly helping him update his iPhone apps or showing him a new trick.

So my parents laughed when I asked them if I could use their land line for our weekly “Crossroads” podcast interview. It felt like asking if I could use a typewriter, but I suppose many people still use telephones that are attached to the wall, every now and then.

In this week’s podcast discussion, we talk about evangelical endorsements ahead of the GOP primaries. Todd asked me whether a reporter might stand outside of a church in South Carolina after a Sunday morning service and do some interviews to gauge reactions of how evangelicals might vote. That’s fine, I suggested, if the reporter has never been to a church, and it might provide a little color.

Still, going to one church in South Carolina will certainly not be representative. It’s probably better to look to a leaders of a larger organization that represents many different denominations, rather than one specific church on a random Sunday. You need to look at a forest, not just one tree.

As the results from Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina show, at least 40 percent of evangelical voters backed the former Speaker of the House. In a state where 60 percent of voters identify themselves as evangelicals, that’s a nice slice of the state for Gingrich.

We also saw that, despite endorsements for Rick Santorum by 150 conservative religious leaders in Texas last week, he received about the same amount of support as Mitt Romney received.

So what’s going on? Did this major endorsement come too late? Do evangelicals and other conservative religious folks fail to follow so-called leaders? Should reporters even bother looking to endorsements from religious leaders as indicators of how those within their movement might vote?

By its very nature, the Protestant movement called “evangelicalism” is pretty diverse with no official hierarchy, so it’s difficult to pinpoint who leads whom. In some of the stories that covered endorsements leading up to the primary, few reporters acknowledged in the piece that endorsements are only one part of the puzzle in politics.

Using data from polls and talking with researchers who have studied the area can help bolster a reporter’s thesis for why something is significant. In other words, reporters need to build a case for why someone is significant, showing who they represent and why their endorsement could matter. A story that focuses only on endorsements is too simplistic.

As you listen to the podcast, give us some feedback on what kind of coverage you’re seeing coming out of the primaries. Are reporters fleshing out the complexities, or do you feel more confused than ever before?

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Pod people: Focus on the Tebow

Last night’s Patriots-Broncos game set viewing records, which is amazing since the Broncos were completely out of it by half time. Even I, a die hard fan, couldn’t stand watching our defense give up touchdown after touchdown and asked my husband to please turn the channel. And so Tebow Fever may take a rest for a few months until the 2012 preseason.

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I discussed media coverage of Tim Tebow — what the media gets and doesn’t get about the phenomenon. And books could probably be written about that question. Even with the Broncos complete implosion last night, there was another development that may lead to more coverage. Focus on the Family, which is a Christian organization based out of Colorado Springs, ran an advertisement where a group of young children read John 3:16.

In a previous Tebow coverage thread, I’d criticized a CBS station’s report that Tebow had made an “anti-abortion” ad during the Superbowl last year. The ad didn’t mention abortion, although it did have Tebow’s mother talking about how thankful she was for her son. The first comment on that post came from USA Today‘s Cathy Grossman, who wrote:

Correct. The Focus ad never mentions abortion. However, is sole (soul?) purpose is to steer people to a very serious web site packed with anti-abortion testimony of women who risked their lives against doctors orders to continue their pregnancy.
I’d say the best way to describe the super bowl ad is that it was a teaser to an anti-abortion web site. That’s why Tebow did it, not because it would just be fun to be on TV with mom.

After last night’s ad, I just rewatched the Superbowl ad, and the only web site mentioned is FocusOnTheFamily.com. Tag line: “For the full Tebow story go to FocusOnTheFamily.com Celebrate family. Celebrate life.”

Focus on the Family is, of course, a pro-life organization but do you think it’s fair to describe the organization — which also, well, focuses on “marriage, parenting, life challenges, faith and social issues” as having a sole purpose related to abortion?

Last night our own Sarah Pulliam Bailey had the funniest tweet of the evening, in my opinion, when — after the John 3:16 ad ran — she wrote:

Focus on the Family airs John 3:16 ad during the Broncos game. Wondering how many reporters will remember it as an anti-abortion commercial

Well, it did end with the tag line “A message from: Focus on the Family FocusOnTheFamily.com” so is it best to describe the John 3:16 ad as a teaser to an anti-abortion web site, right? Just kidding. Or am I? We’ll see as we begin to see reports on the commercial in the mainstream media this week.

Turns out, by the way, that Grossman is somewhat responsible for the ad. Over at her Faith & Reason blog, she delivers the scoop:

The idea played on the excitement last week after Tebow threw 316 yards to beat the Steelers and John 3:16 became the most searched term on the Internet.

Focus President Jim Daly said Saturday night, “Our chief development officer had just read the USA TODAY Tuesday cover story, and sort of tossed out, ‘What if we did an ad in Saturday’s game focused on John 3:16?’ It was a tight deadline — we conceived, cast, shot and delivered the ad in just over three days — but then we were working with an excellent, inspired script.”

Tebow made his off-gridiron ad debut two years ago with his mom, Pam, in a Super Bowl ad, also sponsored by Focus on the Family, to point viewers to their website.

Ah, the power of religion reporting.

Speaking of USA Today coverage of Tebowmania, I also rather liked this sports section piece on Tebow the man. The guy who visits with sick people before and after games. This story began with a look at the man Tebow met with this week before the loss to the Patriots. Also, many readers — many, many, many readers — sent along this Rick Reilly piece on the same topic. Even some cynical journalists sent it our way. It was a well written column, with passages such as this:

And it’s not always kids. Tom Driscoll, a 55-year-old who is dying of brain cancer at a hospice in Denver, was Tebow’s guest for the Cincinnati game. “The doctors took some of my brain,” Driscoll says, “so my short-term memory is kind of shot. But that day I’ll never forget. Tim is such a good man.”

This whole thing makes no football sense, of course. Most NFL players hardly talk to teammates before a game, much less visit with the sick and dying.

Isn’t that a huge distraction?

“Just the opposite,” Tebow says. “It’s by far the best thing I do to get myself ready. Here you are, about to play a game that the world says is the most important thing in the world. Win and they praise you. Lose and they crush you. And here I have a chance to talk to the coolest, most courageous people. It puts it all into perspective. The game doesn’t really matter. I mean, I’ll give 100 percent of my heart to win it, but in the end, the thing I most want to do is not win championships or make a lot of money, it’s to invest in people’s lives, to make a difference.”

Back to Crossroads, we also discussed some of the coverage regarding same-sex marriage, both the sloppy way in which presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s dialogue on same-sex marriage was handled by one media outlet and Reuters’ botching of Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the diplomatic corps.

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Pod people: Not all ‘big’ stories are created equal

I think that I have made the following point in previous GetReligion posts, but it must be made again. One of the hardest concepts for journalists to explain to non-journalists is the concept of “what a story is.”

Some events are stories and some are not. Some events and trends are stories for specific audiences and not for others. Some events are stories on some days and not on others.

Then there is this fact: Some events and trends are stories, but they are not “big” stories.

So what turns a “story” into a “big” story?

I’m glad you asked. Like it or not, a “big” story is a story that lots of journalism editors think is a “big story.” They know one when they see one, you see. It’s a kind of instinct that comes from working in newsrooms and reading newspapers for years and years. Does this mean that the logic is somewhat circular? You betcha.

Is this fair? Not really.

For one thing, when asked about these journalistic mysteries, most editors will say that these “big story” decisions are rooted in (a) a sense of what the public wants to know and (b) what the public needs to know. Of course, it’s hard for the public to respond to certain kinds of stories — religion stories leap to mind — if these stories are either ignored or buried several clicks inside the publication. Am I the only person who cannot find the “On Faith” section in the iPad version of The Washington Post?

Moving on. Is it harder for a story to become a “big story” if editors are not interested in it? You betcha.

Is it harder for a story to become a “big story” if editors do not know anything about the groups and people that are involved? You betcha.

Some GetReligion readers may recall this anecdote from my days at the late, beloved Rocky Mountain News:

There was a stretch in the 1980s when Colorado Springs — really quick — turned into “Wheaton of the West,” a phrase I used in a column early on that I really wish I had copyrighted. Every month or so, some new group arrived at the base of Pikes Peak. …

Anyway, I’m sitting at my desk one day and a member of the business-page staff walked up and asked: “Hey, there’s some organization moving to Colorado Springs called Focus on the Family. Is that worth a brief?”

I almost fell out of my chair. I told her that this might be one of the biggest Colorado news stories of the late 20th century.

The response: No way. You see, none of the editors had ever heard of Focus on the Family. That was a niche radio show and publishing empire that was not on their radar screen.

Truth be told, the Focus on the Family move to Colorado Springs was not a “big” story. It was a “huge” story. The problem was that the people sitting in the daily news-budget meeting, the meeting in which they decided what stories went where, didn’t know that they were dealing with a national story that would send tremors through Colorado politics, culture and religion for decades to come.

I was able to convince the editors this story was bigger than a news brief, but barely. In a matter of months, they all knew who Dr. James Dobson was and they knew that Focus on the Family mattered.

I bring this up because of some interesting reactions in the comment boxes about my post the other day on the 10 biggest religion-beat stories of 2011, according to the pros at the Religion Newswriters Association. In turn, this discussion became the hook for this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to it).

The key came at this point in the RNA results list:

6. Pope John Paul II is beatified — the last step before sainthood — in a May ceremony attended by more than million people in Rome.

7. California evangelist Harold Camping attracts attention with his predictions that the world would end in May and again in October.

Say what? The Camping story was almost as “big” as the Pope John Paul II story? And it was more important than, let’s say, the following (just to pick a few choice numbers)?

12. Majority-Christian Southern Sudan achieves its independence from Northern Sudan after years of trying. Worldwide church leaders, especially in Africa, receive some credit for the outcome and they pledge continued support to the new nation. …

14. The irreverent satire “The Book of Mormon,” about a pair of non-traditional missionaries to Uganda, wins nine Tony awards on Broadway, including best musical. …

16. Hopes for an end to Pakistan’s blasphemy law are dashed when two leading advocates of religious conciliation, Salman Taseer and Shahbazz Bhatti, are assassinated two months apart.

That’s right. “The Book of Mormon” was a “bigger” story than the publicly popular assassinations of one of Pakistan’s most important Muslim progressives and the nation’s only Christian member of the cabinet.

But back to the Harold “End of the World” Camping story. In the comments pages, there was this interesting dialogue:

carl jacobs says:
January 4, 2012, at 12:24 am

Harold Camping wasn’t a big story. He was never big enough or representative enough or important enough to warrant the coverage he received. He was just a vehicle that allowed institutional mockery of the Christian faith to be passed off as a story. The collective laughter was the whole point from beginning to end. … I’m not surprised to see it on the list. A good time was had by all.

Mike O. says:
January 4, 2012, at 12:57 am

Carl, Harold Camping wasn’t just a big story, it was a huge story. Both religious and non-religious were absolutley fascinated by it. The story had legs despite your personal feelings about Family Radio’s religious interpetations. A story can’t get that much extended attention and not be called a big story — unless the adjective “big” has suddenly lost all meaning. …

carl jacobs says:
January 4, 2012, at 8:28 am

… I didn’t say it wasn’t Big and Huge. I said it wasn’t a story. There was no ‘there’ there. Or perhaps I should put it this way. The reason for the Hugeness of the Media event had nothing to do with the story as told. It wasn’t “Harold Camping has declared a date. Let’s wait for his prophesy to fail.” If it was only Harold Camping, no one would have cared. “Unknown radio personality predicts end of world” isn’t a story. How many reporters had even heard of Harold Camping before last Spring? …

Midst all the laughter, do you think there was any real concern for the people who believed Camping, and suffered genuine harm as a result? They were straight men in a comedy sketch. They were the people who made the mocking crowd think well of themselves. “Look at those fools! We aren’t fools like them!” isn’t much of a story. But it was the sum total of that event in May. When it was over, the crowd went home to seek for a different source of amusement.

The whole thing was despicable.

Now, on one level this argument was another round in the debates about whether mainstream journalists deliberately — key word there is “deliberately” — promote stories that make traditional religious believers look stupid. On another level, however, this offered a window into the mystery of why some “stories” become “big stories.”

Yes, yes, yes, I am well aware that Camping is not exactly a traditional believer and it’s insulting that many editors seemed to think that he was a crucial, representative mainstream Christian voice. On the positive side, I also know that some journalists turned this oddball story hook into a chance to explore the actual “end times” teachings of various Christian traditions. You can look at this from two different directions.

At the same time, as you’ll hear in the podcast, I freely admit that before this story broke I had never heard of Camping. Yes, he was that obscure. Please remember that I was on the religion beat in Charlotte, N.C., during the start of the whole “Pearlygate” scandal era in which just about every major religious broadcaster on Planet Earth was dissected, to varying degrees, in the mainstream press.

Thus, we must conclude that it was the subject — Flash! Another stupid end of the world prophecy! — that hooked editors. Something had to yank this obscure story out to page one, where it became a juggernaut. That’s what made this strange little story more important than (insert a truly important issue or event here).

So, I’ll conclude with a question and a lesson:

(1) GetReligion readers, come clean. How many of you had heard of Camping before this story broke?

(2) Clearly, religious leaders can learn an important lesson from this poll. If you want mainstream press coverage, buy space on billboards and ask yourself this question: “What shocking statement can I print here that will make people laugh in newsrooms?”

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: Christmas vs. Christmas in the news

GetReligion readers who have been paying close attention during the last week or so are probably just shocked, shocked to know that the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast is related to Christmas.

Actually, it’s about the reality that there are two different Christmas celebrations going on in this land of ours. Journalists face more than a few challenges these days trying to keep these two celebrations separate, to some degree, while covering the valid news stories that are related to each.

One Christmas is essentially economic, cultural and, alas, legal, while the other is defined by centuries of Christian traditions in both the East and West. (There are now two Hanukkahs, of course, but that’s another story.)

To explore these themes a bit, I called up two very different, but very sharp, individuals to discuss what seems like a simple question: When is Christmas?

This, of course, immediately raises another question: When does Christmas begin?

Ah, you say, but WHICH Christmas are we talking about? The cultural one or the religious one?

Thus, I began this week’s Scripps Howard column (the main hook for the podcast) like this:

For those who follow Christian traditions, Christmas begins when the darkness of Christmas Eve yields to bright midnight candles and the Mass of the Angels or the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Christmas season then lasts 12 days, ending with Epiphany on Jan. 6.

But things aren’t that simple in modern America, the land of the free and the home of the malls. For millions of us, today’s Christmas begins when “Feliz Navidad” beer ads start interrupting National Football League broadcasts and Holiday movies surge into cable-TV schedules previously crowded with Halloween zombie marathons.

I picked that Corona beer ad because of my own personal prejudices. I am a football fan (Go Ravens, go Broncos) and that means putting up with a lot the same beer ads over and over.

Several years ago, I decided that, for me at least, the secular Christmas begins the first time that I see that old Corona ad on television. Yes, I know that it could have aired earlier and I didn’t see it. I get that. This is a personal thing, just cut me some slack.

This year I swear that I saw that twinkling palm tree two weeks before Thanksgiving.

So I ask GetReligion readers this question, which seems rather non-journalistic at first: When does the secular steamroller called “The Holidays” officially arrive for you? When does the “starter’s gun” go off?

The “starter’s gun” image comes from Washington Post scribe Hank Stuever, author of that snarky but fine book called “Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present.” He told me that, while he was researching that book, he decided that big event is the day that the National Retail Federation releases it’s first official forecast of precisely how many billions of dollars Americans will be spend during any particular Holiday marketing season. Once that press release hits reporters’ email in-boxes, he said, “there’s no stopping it. Here comes Christmas, whether you’re ready or not.”

So what’s your “starter’s gun” moment?

And what about the other Christmas, the supposedly religious one?

The problem on the religion side of this equation these days is that the overwhelming majority of American churches — especially the so-called megachurches of evangelicalism — are essentially doing Christmas according to the shopping-mall calendar, not the calendar of the church year.

Stuever thinks that’s the truth, and so does the dean of the School of Theology at the very, very conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Pause and roll that duo over in your mind for a moment.

Moore told me:

Many evangelicals fear the “cold formalism” that they associate with churches that follow the liturgical calendar and the end result, he said, is “no sense of what happens when in the Christian year, at all.” Thus, instead of celebrating ancient feasts such as Epiphany, Pentecost and the Transfiguration, far too many American church calendars are limited to Christmas and Easter, along with cultural festivities such as Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl.

So here is my second question — with two parts — for GetReligion readers who happen to be churchgoers: When does the real Christian season of “Christmas” begin and when does it end?

These clashing realities, in my opinion, affect journalists in several ways.

First of all, nothing turns a reporter into a pillar of salt faster than having a tired, world-weary editor look over in your direction and growl: “&*%$, we need a Christmas story with some art for tomorrow’s paper. Go find one.”

My point is that reporters need to summon up the courage to ask that editor which Christmas he/she is talking about. Are we talking about a glowing-twinkle-lights story about shopping and eggnog? Or are we talking about a local congregation’s plans to reach out to divorced dads and their children on Christmas Eve? Are we talking about the hellish Dec. 24 duties of truck drivers wearing brown jumpsuits or are we talking about a Catholic parish trying to plan its first celebration of El Dia De Los Tres Magos with its rising number of Hispanic families?

So I’ll end this highly personal rant with my third question for our readers and listeners: What are some valid news stories that you would enjoy seeing covered that are related to Christmas No. 1 and Christmas No. 2? Care to share any URLs with us for the good and the bad that you have seen this year, as we count down the last few days until the start of the 12-day Christmas season?

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: Albert Pujols, Macy’s firing

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about one of my favorite subjects: baseball. Toss a strong religion theme in there and you’re in business.

More specifically, we discussed Albert Pujols and his 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The superstar first baseman’s decision to spurn the St. Louis Cardinals in favor of the mammoth contract with the Angels was the subject of a recent GetReligion post that I wrote:

An athlete leaving a city where he’s beloved and signing a gigantic contract elsewhere wouldn’t normally be fodder for GetReligion. But in Pujols’ case, he’s an outspoken evangelical Christian and frequently talks about the role that faith plays in his career, as Mollie has noted. We are in the midst of the Tim Tebow media tsunami, as well.

Since the original post, Pujols’ wife made a bit of news with comments bringing God into the discussion about her husband’s choice of teams:

Deidre Pujols, speaking with interviewer Sandi Brown, who is her friend, said the couple initially had no plans to ever leave St. Louis or the Cardinals, the only team the first baseman had ever played for.

“When it all came down, I was mad. I was mad at God because I felt like all the signs that had been played out through the baseball field, our foundation, our restaurant, the Down Syndrome Center, my relationships, my home, my family close,” Deidre Pujols told the station. “I mean, we had no reason, not one reason, to want to leave. People were deceived by the numbers.”

She indicated the key moment was the Cardinals’ initial offer of five years and $130 million.

In that same ESPN report, there’s also this nugget:

“It’s just like God,” she said at the end of the interview, “to put us on a team called the Angels.”

Also on the podcast, Wilken and I discussed my recent post on the San Antonio Express-News’ coverage of a Macy’s employee fired after she asked a transgender woman not to use a women’s changing room.

In the comments section of that post, the question of how to refer to the customer came up.

I noted that the journalist’s bible, the Associated Press Stylebook, has this entry:

transgender Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.

If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

Anyway, check out the podcast.

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