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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How To Be A Lousy Journalist

Over at Intercollegiate Review, I have a piece with some helpful journalism tips. Here’s how “How to Be a Really Lousy Journalist for Fun and Profit” begins:

There has never been a better time to consider a career in journalism. Newspapers are thriving, magazines are innovating, online journalism listicles are becoming more substantive, and cable-news talking heads are shouting at holograms.

Journalists are living up to our reputation as the country’s most trusted profession (at least compared to IRS agents and American Airlines customer-service representatives). Whether it’s our nuanced and thoughtful analysis of hot-button topics such as gay marriage or our tenacious coverage of the terrorist attack in Benghazi and Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in Philadelphia, people know you can count on us to get the story right.

Would you like to succeed in this environment? As a long-time reporter and media critic, I’m happy to share tips on what to do if you want to make it in modern journalism.

Don’t Sweat the Details

Is there a difference between an Evangelical and an evangelist? Who cares? Don’t know the technical reason why Christians celebrate Easter? Will anyone really notice? Do you confuse the author of Hebrews with Paris booksellers? We all do! Whether you’re reporting on important U.S. Supreme Court decisions or how many people died in a terrorist bombing, what’s most important is getting the story first, not getting the story right, particularly under the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle.

Don’t Question Authority

If the powers-that-be suggest that a terrorist attack on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 was the spontaneous and direct result of an unseen YouTube video with junior high school production values, who are you to be skeptical?

If these same authority figures suggest that therefore it’s dangerous for Americans to speak freely, share their religious views, and express their artistic sensibilities however they want, you should probably just join them in calling for restrictions on these First Amendment freedoms.

It’s advice you’ve seen me sarcastically give for years, if you’re a GetReligion reader. But the folks here at GetReligion gave me excellent additional tips to include, and they’re sprinkled throughout.

There were dozens more I could have included. What are your tips for how to be a lousy journalist?

 Image of journalist via Shutterstock.

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Pod people: Define ‘fetus’ and give three examples

The first question I faced, in this week’s “Crossroads” interview, sounded relatively simple: Why did journalists struggle to use the word “fetus” accurately when covering the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell?

Like or not, I have had to pay a lot of attention to this issue in recent weeks. For those who have been off the planet during that time, click here for a recent look at The New York Times and its evolution on this topic.

But in this podcast, we went back to the beginning and tried to follow the logic of these arguments all the way through to the end.

You see, back in the days just before and just after Roe vs. Wade, journalists found themselves caught between two forms of language. On one side, on the moral left, there were people who wanted to use the term “fetus” whenever possible, in order to avoid talking about the selective termination of “babies,” “unborn children,” etc. Since surveys show that most journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, are pro-abortion rights, this can affect coverage.

Meanwhile, real people in the real world tend — when dealing with pregnancies — to use baby language. I mean, surely it is rare for someone to come home from the doctor waving an early ultrasound image and say, “Hey! Look at the first picture of our fetus (or perhaps grandfetus)!”

So what happens when you have a story in which two different groups of people — in direct and paraphrased quotations — using these two radically different forms of language? There is tension, to say the least.

I have seen stories in which it was clear that reporters, or editors, went out of their way to avoid direct quotes that included “baby” and “unborn child” language. The result? Paraphrased quotes that literally put fetus language into the mouths of people who didn’t use it.

And what is happening now?

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Pod people: Proselytization, blasphemy and Gosnell

On this week’s Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken, we talked media coverage of the Pentagon and proselytization, religious freedom and the Benghazi whistleblowers and the trial of Kermit Gosnell. So yeah, we packed a lot in there.

Partly we discussed the Pentagon because of recent GetReligion posts such as “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize” and “Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny.” I also wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s Houses of Worship column on the matter, which you can read here. For this piece, I had a fairly nuanced point. While many of the claims that generated alarm were exaggerated, taken out of context or wrong, that doesn’t mean that things are totally calm on the religious liberty front. While I think that partisans on either side of the issue may take issue with my middle-of-the-road approach, I received excellent feedback both from folks in the military and traditional religious liberty advocates. So that’s always nice. Also, Joe Carter should like it since not only did he complain about the lack of media coverage given Southern Baptists who expressed concern about the Pentagon’s approach but also because I quoted him in the piece. And, again, major props to The Tennessean for covering this story thoroughly and with exactly the kind of balance that is ideal. One thing I loved about that paper’s approach was that it quoted people without buying into their arguments — on either side. Whereas some conservative outlets just ran with the more alarmist claims, some mainstream outlets responded by just uncritically accepting the view of the military. If this week has taught us anything, perhaps it’s that skepticism of the official line is in good order.

Speaking of, we also talked a little bit about the religion angle to the Benghazi situation. Or angles, I should say. Obviously the religious motivations of the attackers should receive coverage. Some papers have handled that brilliantly in recent months, it’s worth saying. Another religion angle I was thinking of was how the initial false reports that placed blame on a YouTube video may have contributed to a perception that Muslims are irrational and easily led. But an angle I really wish we’d see more coverage of is how the false reports about the YouTube video led some prominent politicians and media types to call for limits on religious expression. It even led to statements from high U.S. officials that we’d get the YouTube video and punish him. Which we did (ostensibly not for the Benghazi killings but you’d be forgiven for thinking so).

Finally, we discussed a bit more about the continued downplaying of the Gosnell trial. If you were a reader of some papers or a watcher of some newscasts, you could very easily know nothing about this trial. I’m not surprised but, as a fan of the mainstream media model, I’m disappointed.

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Pod people: Ghosts and crickets in Jason Collins coverage

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I spent much of last week in Malibu, Calif., hanging out with the stars.

Actually, I was speaking at an event at Pepperdine University, but I wore dark sunglasses and did my best to avoid the paparazzi — just in case the tabloid press ever takes a sudden interest in GetReligionistas.

While buying deodorant at a local store (trust me, I needed it), I chatted with Mel Gibson (not really) and checked out the front page of the Los Angeles Times (really). Friday’s Page 1 featured a “tale of two high schools” reaction piece on basketball player Jason Collins coming out as gay.

I’ll copy and paste relevant chunks of the story, but here’s the basic storyline: At the enlightened private high school that Collins attended, the basketball team couldn’t be more giddy over his newly publicized homosexuality. But at a backward inner-city public school across town, black players raised in conservative religious households still get creeped out by “boys liking each other.”

The story doesn’t suffer from a holy ghost so much as a condescending refusal to take “religion” seriously and provide relevant dialogue that goes beyond easy stereotypes. Think crickets instead of ghosts.

Up high, we learn that smart rich people support gays, but ignorant black people do not:

At Harvard-Westlake — where tuition starts at $31,000 a year — gay rights are discussed passionately both on campus and at home. Collins learned how to be open-minded and have his own opinion, said the school’s president, Tom Hudnut.

“He was taught to speak up when things were not right,” Hudnut said. “His education here played a big part in that.”

At Dorsey — where about 70% of students qualify for free lunches — gay rights aren’t a focal point.

Sure, some of the players said, Collins is African American, just as they are, but he grew up in an affluent, mostly white culture that is more likely to accept homosexuality. It’s hard for them to imagine a day when a young male athlete in the inner city would be able to acknowledge he’s gay and be called a hero.

At the enlightened private school:

Religion isn’t discussed much. If anyone were to come to campus expressing the view that homosexuals are sinners, they’d be met by outrage, said the school’s longtime basketball coach, Greg Hilliard.

At the ignorant black school:

Part of the complication, the players said, springs from the conservative religious views held by many of the students and parents.

“I’m a Christian,” said Dontrel Slack, 18. “So all we were taught was boy and girl together, that is the way to go. You don’t really hear about boys and boys liking each other. Being a Christian, that is what we believe in, boys and girls.”

All but one player agreed.

What might have helped the Times story? At the least, I would love to have seen a black minister with traditional Christian views on sexuality quoted.

Before I read the L.A. piece, I took a break from gazing at the beautiful Pacific Ocean and recorded the latest “Crossroads” podcast. Host Todd Wilken and I discussed my recent posts (here and here) on media coverage of the NBA’s first openly gay player and highlighted a few reader reactions.

Enjoy the podcast.

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Does journalism matter?

Does journalism matter? Not as much as it once did – if audience numbers or circulation rates are any guide.

The influence and authority of the nightly network news and the morning metropolitan daily is on the ebb. They like the sea of faith were once, too, at the full, round earth’s shore and lay like the folds of the bright girdle furled. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world — sorry, can’t help myself when I get that Arnoldian urge.

Perhaps journalism is going the way of poetry?  In 1992, Dana Gioia, (who would later become the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts), wrote an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?”.   Unlike fiction­, poetry no longer mattered, and had become the specialized calling of a small and isolated group, he argued. Five years later, the novelist Jonathan Franzen made the same complaint about fiction, deploring the neglect of novels in favor of movies and the web. Journalism — as practiced by the New York Times, Guardian, Washington Post, the BBC and the American networks — suffers from the ills of poetry and fiction — domination by a priestly caste whose views are formed by a closed world shaped by secularist materialist political-left pieties and an increasingly outmoded publishing platform.

Host Todd Wilkin of the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio and I discussed these questions on 25 April 2013 in the context of my GetReligion articles “Gosnell fog blankets Britain” and “Master of my domain”. We began the show with an overview of the British press coverage (none to speak of save in the op-ed columns of the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, which has written more about this story than any non-Philadelphia paper.) I did give Todd an update on the Guardian, noting that on 19 April one of its loonier left Comment is Free contributors explained to the comrades of Islington:

Now the [Gosnell] trial is underway, and anti-abortion activists are insisting there’s been a cover-up by ideologues intent on averting honest discussion about the case in order to suit a cynical political agenda.

They’re right. But the ideologues doing the cover-up are on the “pro-life” side.

Yes, its those nasty pro-lifers who are responsible for the news blackout. Go figure.

Todd then moved to a discussion of Diane Winston’s Religion Dispatches article “The Myth of News Media as Secularist Conspiracy”. I observed her arguments were rather thin — blaming the reader for being stupid is never a convincing argument before we turned to the assertion that this was not a religion story.

The Gosnell story is not a religion story, it’s a crime story. People with religious convictions may read their passions into it, but Gosnell did not seem to be motivated one way or the other by a faith commitment. Yet cultural religionists imply that the absence of religious commitment in the nation’s newsrooms—and consequent acceptance of baby-killing, oops abortion, is among the reasons that the Gosnell story was overlooked.

The notion that the news media is a secularist cabal ignoring stories that challenge its shibboleths is wrongheaded.

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Pod people: Talking personal history on the religion beat

Granted, 25 years is a rather long time, especially in the Internet age.

Nevertheless, I was taken a bit off guard this week when Issues, Etc. host Todd Wilkin asked me for whatever “historical perspective” I had gained on religion and the news during my 25 years writing the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard Newspaper. We had planned to do a “Crossroads” podcast about the column’s anniversary a bit earlier, but then the Divine Ms. M.Z. Hemingway and the whole Dr. Kermit Gosnell affair took control of cyberspace. What can you do?

So we got around to talking about that 25th anniversary column — click here to read it — a bit late.

Still, a “historical perspective”? Well, yes, I am starting to take on a bit of a Grampa Walton look these days, which cannot be helped. I mean, time passes. But the wording of Todd’s question had me cracking up right from the get-go.

I won’t bore readers with a long summary of the podcast (listen to it, please), but I will make note that the key to our discussion is that a quarter of a century is a long enough time that the column (a) predates the World Wide Web and (b) began during the era before the real crash in advertising revenue at the nation’s top 25 or so newspaper markets.

Why does that matter? That means the column was founded back in the days when there were quite a few more healthy, regional and big-city newspapers that had full-time professionals working on beats such as fine arts, science, movies, television and even religion. In fact, back in the ’90s, it was quite easy to see that religion-writing was on an upswing.

The number of professionals on the beat was higher, there for a few short years. NPR put a quality professional on the beat. And, in the world of network television, the late Peter Jennings was even starting to talk sense. Consider this material near the top of a 1996 Scripps column:

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