Pod people: About those photo ops in Brazil’s slums

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Here a photo op, there a photo op, everywhere a papal photo op.

The question explored in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast is not whether all of those media-friendly events during World Youth Day are, in fact, “photo ops” — chances for Pope Francis to be photographed making the kinds of symbolic gestures for which he (and the soon to be John Paul the Great) is already famous.

Of course, these are photo ops. Michelle Obama visiting an inner-city vegetable garden is a photo op, too. This is a part of leadership in a visual, 24/7 cable age.

The question Todd Wilken and I explored this past week (click here to listen to that) is whether or not these events — which are almost always directly linked to formal or informal papal remarks/texts — are MERELY photo ops or events that often contain a doctrinal level of content that is linked to newsworthy subjects.

What are we talking about?

A reader cited a perfect example of this syndrome the other day, drawn from coverage in The Los Angeles Times:

“Thousands of young pilgrims filled a rainy Copacabana beach to attend a series of religious-themed concerts that were part of World Youth Day, which, despite the name, is a five-day event that began Tuesday and is ostensibly the reason for the pope’s visit to Brazil.”

Commenting on an earlier World Youth Day post, reader Martha O’Keefe remarked:

I love that “ostensibly”; sure, ‘the Vatican’ says he’s there because of this event, but that’s only a coincidence! Why is he really in Brazil? Who can say, maybe he felt like a holiday?

Yes, that is the key word. And what, pray tell, does “ostensible” mean?

os·ten·si·ble — adjective …

(1) intended for display: open to view

(2) being such in appearance: plausible rather than demonstrably true or real — the ostensible purpose for the trip

Really?

When John Paul — wrestling against the doubting Vatican powers that be — first created World Youth Day, he wasn’t actually (from his point of view) trying to make a case for faith and social action in the confused spiritual ocean that is the postmodern age?

He wasn’t trying to recruit young men and women for worship and service in the church, especially young men for the priesthood and women and men into religious life?

He wasn’t, knowing that he lives in a visual age, trying to create living symbols that would speak — even heroically — to the young?

The pope is “ostensibly” at World Youth Day to, well, talk to young people and, on a second level, to the complex world of Latin American Catholicism?

Of course, there are political implications. That is part of the story. Part. Of.

Of course, these are symbolic photo ops. But is that all that they are?

And the arguments that he is making to the faithful: Is it possible to cover the actual content of his remarks without including any of the explicitly Christian material that is at the heart of his sermons, at the heart of his visit?

Then there is the issue of this particular pope’s past history.

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Pod people: Indulgences & WYD in The Guardian

Coverage in The Guardian, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory and the editorial board of The New York Times were the targets of my wit on last week’s GetReligion podcast. Crossroads host Todd Wilkens and I discussed the media coverage of the Vatican’s announcement that those who followed Pope Francis’ tweets from the World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil would be granted an indulgence.

My colleague M.Z. Hemingway looked at this topic last week in a post entitled “Media: Pope says retweets spring the soul!” that focused on the Telegraph. Mollie seemed to be having so much fun with the topic that Todd and I decided to join the party and focus on the Guardian story “Vatican offers ‘time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets”. The subtitle was even better: “Papal court handling pardons for sins says contrite Catholics may win ‘indulgences’ by following World Youth Day on Twitter.”

Wilkins opened the program by asking my expectations and reactions to the story. I responded that the Guardian story was “wonderfully awful.” It  played into the anti-Catholic animus that resides just below the surface of English life and would elicit a visceral response from some readers — the liberal secularist left would find comfort in reading about the latest foolishness from those enamored with sky pixies. The Little Englanders (who don’t normally take the Guardian as they place their full faith and credit in The Daily Mail) would respond with two words — “bloody papists.”

While the tone of the article was problematic, it was not in error. The Guardian did not make the mistake of conflating absolution and indulgences: forgiveness for sin over against the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. But the article could have provided context, offering examples of indulgences granted for Bible reading, praying the rosary or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

And, good Protestant that I am, I offered my view that indulgences were nonsense. And admitted to a liking for ridicule — stating this was part of my repertoire in reporting on Anglican affairs.

But in this instance, if you did not believe in purgatory, indulgences could have no theological meaning. The disdain that was so close to the surface of the Guardian article, and animated my off the cuff remarks, had its roots in one of the significant divisions between Protestants and Catholics, Todd (a Lutheran) and I (an Episcopalian) observed.

Yet the misreporting of this story chronicled by Hemingway also had its roots in the lack of knowledge or interest in religion found in news rooms. I told Todd:

I would not be quick to say there is a vast left-wing conspiracy out there to smack down the Catholic Church. Where I think it comes from is an inveterate hostility found in 99 percent of news rooms against the Christian religion, against organized Christianity. You are going to find the greatest concentration atheists not in the Soviet Politburo but in the editorial offices of the New York Times. Their coverage is filtered through that worldview. So they don’t understand what is going on. They don’t understand the attraction of faith. They don’t understand the mystery of faith and frankly ridicule is the easy way out.

While the Politburo reference dates me — I believe this quip holds true.

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Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

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Pod people: Vatican gay lobby or a gay Lobby?

Where should the stress be placed in Pope Francis’ phrase the “gay lobby”? Upon the first word “gay” or the second, “lobby”?

This semantic game animated my discussion this week with Todd Wilken, the host of Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues, Etc program, as we did this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen). In our conversation we contrasted The New York Times coverage of Pope Francis’s comments that a gay lobby existed at the Vatican to the coverage in the European and religion press.

Wilken started off by asking if this whole topic was really new news? I was polite and responded that this issue is only 100 years or so old, which I admit was a misstatement on my part. But it would’ve been bad form to quote Pope Pius V on a Lutheran program.

In his Constitution Horrendum illud scelus of 30  August 1568, Pius stated:

In his That horrible crime, on account of which corrupt and obscene cities were destroyed by fire through divine condemnation, causes us most bitter sorrow and shocks our mind, impelling us to repress such a crime with the greatest possible zeal.

Quite opportunely the Fifth Lateran Council [1512-1517] issued this decree: “Let any member of the clergy caught in that vice against nature, given that the wrath of God falls over the sons of perfidy, be removed from the clerical order or forced to do penance in a monastery” (chap. 4, X, V, 31).

So that the contagion of such a grave offense may not advance with greater audacity by taking advantage of impunity, which is the greatest incitement to sin, and so as to more severely punish the clerics who are guilty of this nefarious crime and who are not frightened by the death of their souls, we determine that they should be handed over to the severity of the secular authority, which enforces civil law.

Therefore, wishing to pursue with greater rigor than we have exerted since the beginning of our pontificate, we establish that any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit, and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, let him be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be put to death, as mandated by law as the fitting punishment for laymen who have sunk into this abyss.

Pius did not mince words. Obviously.

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Pod people: media struggles mightily with abortion coverage

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I discussed that embarrassing BuzzFeed confusion — or defiant ignorance, really — about basic and widespread traditional Christian teaching on evil. We also discussed the curious way in which the Washington Post is downplaying even local abortion “crime” stories.

Three abortion doctors had their licenses suspended after the death of a woman who had an abortion but The Washington Post just doesn’t find that newsworthy at all.

Honest. I mean, they ran a brief Associated Press story on the matter online and the only follow-up I’ve found is — no joke — a three paragraph update that one of the doctors had their license reinstated. Also by the Associated Press. Wouldn’t want to put any local reporter resources into this story, I guess.

Abortion coverage continues to be such a grievous weak point across the media. We’re all familiar by now with the approach taken where reporters ask something close to 100% of pro-life politicians about rape, even though it’s not a major policy point. And while the majority of Americans support some or all abortion restrictions, it somehow never occurs to reporters to ask the most radical pro-choice politicians (those who support no restrictions on abortions) about their extremism.

So when a reporter for the conservative Weekly Standard did the job that no mainstream reporter will do — asking Rep. Nancy Pelosi about her opposition to legislation that protects unborn children targeted by late-term abortions such as ones that end the lives of children the same age (but other side of the birth canal) as the ones convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell killed — you will never guess how the Washington Post wrote up her response …

Actually, you probably could guess, so want to try?

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Pod people: ‘Mass exodus’ from the Boy Scouts?

One of the wonderful things about writing is the ability to type something, decide it’s not precisely exactly what you wanted to say, delete it and start over.

Alas, when you’re recording a podcast — let’s say, with Todd Wilken of “Crossroads” — you don’t have that luxury.

Instead, you’re responding to questions off the cuff and thinking out loud.

So, please enjoy a trip inside my (scatter)brain in the latest GetReligion podcast.

Wilken and I discuss media coverage of the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay members — the subject of my recent posts on “Seven questions about Boy Scout gay policy coverage” and “Churches dumping Boy Scouts over gay policy … or not?”

My most recent post drew some interesting comments, including this insight from GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly:

The key to the whole question is that no one knows what the word “open” means in the phrase “openly gay youths.” At this point, Catholics are the key. Keep waiting for the hierarchy to speak.

And this insight from Tennessean religion writer Bob Smietana:

So far there hasn’t been a mass exodus of Baptists from Boy Scouts in Nashville. And the local Royal Ambassador leaders don’t want to fill their ranks with disgruntled scouts. This could be a case for Baptist where the national leader want one thing and the local churches something else.

The notion that the policy change hasn’t sparked a “mass exodus” also was referenced in an Associated Press story published after my last post:

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Pod people: Concerning the IRS and the God squads

It’s a basic fact of life in American politics that nothing fires up the non-profit sector on the political right like the election of a strong president whose voter base is on the religious, cultural and political left.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the election of President Barack Obama, an articulate believer from the heart of liberal mainline Protestantism, created a boom in activism on the religious, cultural and political right. That’s the way the world works.

Of course, the folks that got most of the mainstream media ink, after Obama rose to power, were the Tea Party activists. The journalistic template was established early on that we were talking about the Libertarian barbarian hordes marching into the public square to sack civilization (but, hey, at least they aren’t the religious right folks).

Thus, most of our recent media firestorm about the public confession that the IRS focused extra scrutiny on White House enemies has focused on — what are those magic words again — non-profit applications by groups that had “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names, or were dedicated to scary activities such as distributing educational materials about the U.S. Constitution.

However, there has been some mainstream coverage of the fact that the IRS also targeted some conservative religious groups that were dedicated to activism on key moral issues dear to the heart of White House folks — such as abortion, health-care reform and same-sex marriage. If you want to create a few (repeat, a few) headlines, then you go after the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, right to life networks and similar groups.

I’ve been writing about the IRS affairs the past two weeks for the Scripps Howard News Service and, no surprise, the subject continues to come up here at GetReligion. Thus, Todd Wilken and I dug into the subject in the latest GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast.

Did you actually hear about the question that the IRS asked when considering one right-to-life group’s request for non-profit status? Here’s how one of my columns opened:

IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was already having a rough day at the House Ways and Means Committee when one particularly hot question shoved him into the lower depths of a church-state Inferno.

The question concerned a letter sent by IRS officials in Cincinnati to the Coalition for Life of Iowa, linked to its application for tax-exempt status.

“Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational,” said the letter, which was released by the Thomas More Society, which often defends traditional religious groups. “Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.”

Welcome back to the religious liberty wars of 2013, in a scene captured by the omnipresent eye of C-SPAN.

Now, the key to the podcast discussion was this: If this whole IRS thing is going to have legs, what is the next legitimate angle for journalists to investigate?

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Pod people: Presby-speak again

The meaningless drivel that passes for public language these days was the major theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 24 May 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Scotland the confused: Did Presbyterians back gay clergy?”, posted at GetReligion and talked about all that double-talk.

I led off my GetReligion post with the observation:

Something happened on Monday at the General Assembly the Church of Scotland — they appear to have become Anglicans. No — they didn’t change from a Presbyterian to Episcopal form of church government. They did something more Anglican than combining bishops with Calvinism.  They’ve accepted the sacred “yes/but”  Anglican doctrine of deliberate confusion,  and have adopted a policy on gay clergy that no one quite seems to understand.

What lay behind my observation was the news the General Assembly had adopted a new policy on gay clergy.  Same-sex relations continue to be placed in the sin column for the Church of Scotland — but individual congregations can opt out of this view and hire non-celibate gay clergy. The gay clergy bill must be backed by majority of the presbyteries and at this point only 35% are in favor. The issue becomes further confused as the Guardian announced this was a victory for supporters of gay clergy, running the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers.”

Two years earlier the Guardian ran a story about the 2011 General Assembly with the headline “Church of Scotland votes to allow gay ministers”, reporting the news the church of Scotland had voted to allow gay clergy. Problem with the headlines was that they reported what the Guardian wanted to have happened, not what did happen.

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