Sexing up Pope Francis

My corner of Florida has been over run by college students on Spring break. While Daytona Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale have lost market share over the past 40-years to Texas, Mexico and points South, there are still enough kids in town this week to make the merchants smile and locals complain about “those kids” and their sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Sounds like a story pitch for a 60′s beach film — Frankie and Annette, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue — maybe Ann-Margret and Elvis? The stories wrote themselves back then.  Sex continues to sell. Where would the tabloids or MTV be with out the Page 3 girls, the Kardashians and the denizens of the Jersey Shore?  And where would the New York Times be without homosexuality? While it is harder and harder to sell religion news stories to the trade — a “naughty vicar” story will always find a buyer.

But sex isn’t what it once was. Its omnipresence has robbed it of its marketing value, mystique (and romance). “Sexed-up” no longer refers solely to hormone drenched teens or blue movies, but in journalism it refers to improving a story to make it more palatable (more salable) to editors who in turn want to attract more readers with stronger stories.

The phrase settled into the media psyche during the second Gulf War. It is commonly believed that a 29 May 2003 report by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan broadcast on Radio 4′s Today program originated the phrase. Gilligan reported that a senior British official told him a dossier prepared by the Blair government to support the war against Saddam Hussein had been “sexed up”. Specifically the government’s “September Dossier” had made the exaggerated claim that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed by the Iraqis within 45 minutes of Saddam Hussein’s order. [Read more...]

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Pod people: Did you hear? There is a new pope!

You will be shocked, shocked, need I say SHOCKED to know that this week’s “Crossroads” podcast focuses on mainstream press coverage of the events before and after the election of Pope Francis as the new leader of of the world’s 1.2 billion (depending on how one does the counting) Catholics.

So what are you waiting for? Click here to cue that up and listen in.

If you followed our many posts on this topic over the past week or so, there is no way to pick one story or televised moment that sums up all of the good and the bad in the before, during and after coverage. No, no, let’s not talk about the on-air remark about Catholics in Latin American waiting for more than 20 centuries to have a pope they could call their own. Christopher Columbus, call your answering service.

The new pope gave the talking heads lots to talk about, with a series of simple, man-on-the-sidewalk level symbolic acts that were easy to describe and, in the age of cellphone cameras, show to viewers after the fact.

My favorite?

The “who’s that man in the white hat” photo of Pope Francis riding the bus to dinner with the other cardinals, rather than jumping in his own security-laden limo. There was another photo that looked like the pope may be walking around in black leather cross-training shoes, instead of liturgical red, which makes sense to me (with tendonitis in both knees) in light of the amount of time he’s spending on his feet right now. He keeps wearing white papal street clothes, instead of the formal options available to him. He stopped by this hostel to pay his own bill. He cold-called the local Jesuit leader. And so forth and so on.

But enough about that pope guy.

Much of the coverage, if you listened closely, centered on the journalists talking about their own impressions of the pope and their own impressions of the public’s first impressions of the pope and the public’s first reactions to the media’s first impressions of the public’s reaction to the media images of the pope. You get the idea.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I spent quite a bit of time watching CNN this past week, which is something I rarely do — even though I am old and have gray hair.

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Pod people: Can journalism be a civilizing influence?

On this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I talked about recent admissions from the mainstream media about the difficulty they’ve had treating traditional marriage proponents with any justice or decency.

Some of the best content we had on the blog this week came from a correspondent, who is a journalist, who weighed in on the matter. I’m not alone in thinking that content was most helpful for the discussion. Reader John M. wrote:

That quote from the “correspondent” above is one of the most intelligent things I’ve read in the context of this national discussion.

Reader Mark B. wrote:

I *really* like the correspondent’s contribution – I wish more stuff like this saw the light of day in mainstream journalistic endeavours (obviously not straight news, but certainly that next, ‘op ed’, circle out from straight news). It is a clear, reasonable, and rational statement that is not dumbed down and does not reflect the groupthink that seems to be often given sway in journalism.

And reader Thinkling weighed in:

There is more intelligence in this piece and the discussion here than in whole newsrooms. Thank you GR for this.

I highly encourage you to read through the thoughts the reader shared here and here. In the second piece, the correspondent agreed with criticism of some marriage traditionalists — that they seem fine with the new, impermanent model of marriage. Described by Conor Friedersdorf as the “modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation,” the correspondent said such approval was rooted in “a kind of soft hypocrisy rooted in not thinking deeply.” He went on:

However, that thoughtlessness is hardly unique to the traditional side. I would argue the overwhelming majority of people in favor of same-sex marriage have not thought their arguments fully through, either, which I consider largely to their credit. They have not thought through what it means for children to say that either a mother or a father is optional not just de facto but de iure, not just in fact, as something that happens sometimes, but in principle. They have not thought through what it means to have three parent birth certificates, and to treat school materials that talk about “mother and father” without equal time given to alternative situations as “heteronormative” — as something practically stigmatized and bigoted. Most of these people are motivated by what they see as fairness — again, to their credit — to people with same-sex attraction. I laud their sympathy. But they have not thought through what fairness means for a wedding photographer who is not an exempted “church” but whose moral convictions do not permit her to pretend she thinks this event people are asking her to shoot is a marriage. They have not thought about fairness as it applies to a father who wishes to opt his children out of being indoctrinated in the state’s newfound moral orthodoxy that conflicts with his own in his neighborhood elementary school to which he pays taxes. The overwhelming majority of these people have no idea at all of advancing the ideology one finds in statement such as http://www.beyondmarriage.org/ — the total undefining of marriage. Even many of the more knowledgeable advocates on the other side would probably reject some of statement. Yet many are blissfully unaware that such goals exist or motivate anyone, and those who do not lack this knowledge have been spared the difficult and important work of explaining to themselves and to society how their ideas don’t lead to the more radical ones. Why do that when the secular media frame for the story casts you as Dudley Doright and those who disagree as Snidely Whiplash? (Boo! Hiss! Hooray!)

A journalism that was less interested in bullying people than learning actual arguments in play and considering actual consequences would contribute heavily to a more civilized society. How society comes to decisions is frequently as important as what those decisions are and the media have done a horrific job providing a forum for a healthy discussion on at least this topic. But just a bit of critical thinking and humility — just a bit — would go a long way to improving things.

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Pod people: Pope steps down; many journalists fall down

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Gentle readers, one cannot make some of this stuff up.

So, everyone knows that Pope Benedict XVI is elderly and has physical ailments.

So how tired and elderly is this man? Read the following passage from The Washington Post carefully. The story offers details from his dramatic final dramatic Mass, as pope, at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Wait for it.

The pope has cited his failing body and mind to explain his decision, and … he appeared fragile, if determined, while presiding over the solemn pageantry of the Catholic Mass. He was shepherded down the long aisles of the basilica on a wheeled platform, although he at times walked unaided. In the pews, young seminarians took notes and grew teary-eyed as the pope hobbled down the marble stairs of the altar for the last time. Asian, European and American tour groups fortunate enough to be in Rome for the occasion strained their necks to catch a glimpse from the rear of the church.

At the conclusion of the Mass, as cardinals and bishops watched, a short nun stood on her chair to wave at the pope as he began his last procession out of the basilica. He walked with a gilded cane in the shape of a cross. Cheers erupted from the benches as he passed, along with shouts in Italian of “long live the pope!”

What? He walked with the help of a “gilded cane” topped with a cross?

Might that have been his papal crosier (sometimes spelled “crozier”), the formal pastoral staff — a symbol of this role as shepherd of his flock — that is carried by a bishop? Might this be the golden staff, topped with a cross, that Benedict has always used, the one that would be seen in many, many photos (click here for sample) of this particular pope that originate in liturgical settings?

In other words, it would have been genuinely strange if Benedict had NOT been using his pastoral staff, as he always has.

Oh well. This is not the strangest thing that has every happened in mainstream news media reporting about this particular piece of liturgical equipment. Who can forget this classic, from the funeral of the Blessed John Paul II?

“The 84-year-old John Paul was laid out in Clementine Hall, dressed in white and red vestments, his head covered with a white bishop’s miter and propped up on three dark gold pillows,” wrote Ian Fisher of the New York Times. “Tucked under his left arm was the silver staff, called the crow’s ear, that he had carried in public.”

Right. His “crow’s ear.”

Obviously, the sudden decision by Benedict XVI to step down as pope has dominated the religion-news beat all week. Readers will not be surprised to know that it was the topic of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, as well. Click here to listen to that.

There was much to discuss. Still, it says a lot about the state of the news world in which we live that one of the best commentaries on the press coverage of this week could be found over at The Onion. Here’s how it opens. Read The Onion and weep:

VATICAN CITY – Citing his advancing age and deteriorating health, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy Monday, saying he no longer possessed the strength and energy required to lead the Catholic Church backward.

According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.

This was not the only commentary about the mainstream coverage of this stunner. Needless to say, many readers noted this headline in an analysis piece at The Telegraph:

Pope Benedict XVI resigns: the mainstream media just doesn’t get God or Catholicism


Here’s the start of that essay by historian Tim Stanley:

For Lent, I’m giving up. How can anyone of faith not feel like surrendering after this week’s largely bad media coverage of the papal abdication? The identikit headline seems to be, “Elderly Homophobe Quits Misogynistic Institution Because He Can’t Hack It”. And my favourite piece of instant analysis has to be The Guardian’s “Five Key Issues for the Catholic Church”, which details the things the next Pope must do to rescue the Church from oblivion. They include ordain women priests, conduct gay weddings and hand out condoms. So The Guardian’s ideal Pope is someone who isn’t a Catholic. The paper reports that Sinead O’Connor is available.

Some parts of the mainstream media don’t do God and don’t understand people who do. They see everything through the prism of politics – presuming that Christians fall into camps of Left and Right, that Bible-talk is ideological slang or that the tenets of faith are up for negotiation in the same way that party platforms are easily forgotten by the hucksters who ran on them. Some journalists need a crash course in Christianity.

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Pod people: Boy Scout leak and grassroots sourcing

I’ve done a couple of posts (here and here) on the Boy Scouts of America’s consideration of lifting its ban on openly gay members and adult leaders.

The New York Times reported today on a new development:

A leak from inside the Boy Scouts of America last month about discussions on possibly ending the group’s national ban on gay members changed the debate itself by creating an impression that change was imminent, according to scouting officials and taped comments from a meeting of scouting’s executive board obtained by The New York Times.

Those apparently false expectations were dashed days later when the board, under intense scrutiny it had never intended, deferred action.

The proposed shift in policy has been portrayed in news accounts mostly as a kind of trial balloon, floated to gauge sentiment about where scouting might go on a hugely divisive question. But the proposal, though seriously in consideration, was not supposed to become public at this moment, Scouts officials confirmed. The plan for the meeting this week was a quiet discussion behind closed doors, they said, free from the outside pressures that have buffeted scouting, especially since summer, when the organization reaffirmed its ban on gay scouts and leaders after a two-year review.

On this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss media coverage of the Boy Scout story. The podcast was recorded before news of the leak broke, so we do not cover that angle. We focus on my concerns about the sensationalistic nature of a CNN report attempting to tie Mormons to the Boy Scouts’ vote delay.

We also explore the media’s treatment of grassroots sources on this story. While most of the coverage has involved predictable reactions from organized talking heads — pro and con — I note that The Associated Press took a different approach in one story, giving a family on each side of the debate an opportunity to share its perspective. That story was published before the vote was postponed:

[Read more...]

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Pod people: Making progress on abortion coverage

In this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the good and bad of March for Life coverage. You can listen to it here. We revisited some of the themes we first looked at in these posts: “How to write a bland story about the March For Life,” “Foot-long subs vs. March For Life,” and “Savvy PR firm scores NYTimes coup against March For Life.”

One of the problems with the annual discontent over how the signal event of the pro-life movement is covered is that the two sides in the dispute (that is, the pro-lifers and the media) have a very difficult time getting the other side to understand each other.

So I wanted to highlight an interesting conversation on another thread from this week, headlined “We don’t have a free press. Discuss.” I don’t think we all came to agreement on anything, but there were some interesting comments. The occasion of the comments was Professor Anthony Esolen’s jeremiad against the media’s coverage of the abortion debate in general.

Journalist Jeffrey Weiss got the ball rolling with his suggestion that the March for Life isn’t big news, particularly after 40 years, and that the crowds aren’t that big of a deal when compared to a weekend of sporting events. Reader Martha wondered whether the 40 years’ commemoration itself doesn’t make it more newsworthy. She made a comment about how the media find it possible to cover annual sporting events. Jeffrey responded that it’s a “pep rally for the faithful. A large preaching-to-the-choir.”  Reader Patrick pointed out that it’s a massive pep rally, if that’s the case, and one that even 40 years after the initial court decision represents a movement as large as the movement for same-sex marriage. And there were many more interesting comments, too, including Jeffrey’s latest, with wise words for all.

But I wanted to highlight this comment from reader Michael, who is always worth reading:

All the usual comments about media bias and the tired discussion of whether or not the March is news miss what I think is the most provocative part of Esolen’s essay: the suggestion that journalism on the whole makes us stupid (which in turn makes the abundance of stupid journalism rather unsurprising) and that a people who think in journalism (newspeak) will be a people who are ultimately incapable–and worse, uninterested–in thinking. I have my own theories about this, not to mention a few qualifiers, which I’ve trotted out here from time to time, and I wish he had done more to explain why this is so, but clearly he wanted to vent about coverage of the March. I can’t say that I blame him. Yet to me this essay is as much an indictment of the culture dominated by its superficial media as it is an indictment of the superficiality of the reportage. And this seems to me to be much the point of the article: that the two are made for (and by) each other.

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Pod people: Finding gold in the religion reporting dross

The newspaperman’s art of rubbishing someone, while appearing professional and even-handed was the principal object of my harrumphing in this week’s Issues Etc. podcast.  Host Todd Wilkin and I discussed two of my recent GetReligion posts concerning the BBC’s coverage of the anti-gay marriage march in Paris and the Sydney Morning Herald‘s coverage of the Australian government’s commitment to preserve religious freedoms for religious entities under a future Bill of Rights.

Todd opened the show with a question about media bias, asking how news organizations could spin stories to show their approval or disapprobation of a topic, while maintaining the appearance of fairness. I responded with an outline of my story about the game’s played by the BBC’s man in Paris, before turning to the hard left politics of the SMH.

To the casual listener the BBC’s report would appear measured, while the SMH’s story was over the top. But if one knew how the game was played — how to rubbish an issue, person or movement with selective polling, ridicule, framing the story against interests, omission of pertinent facts and context, unbalanced quotes and comments and misdirection of issues (asking questions not germane to a story) — it was quite clear the BBC took a hatchet to French anti-gay marriage marchers and sought to chop them down to size.

Twenty minutes later I came up for air, took a deep breath and my segment concluded. Radio appearances are a challenge. Television is easy. I am quick to pick up visual cues while I miss verbal ones. If I am going long or off topic on video I can usually tell by the expression on the host’s face or the frantic hand gestures of his producer (usually a hand passing rapidly across the throat then followed by outstretch hands with fingers splayed). This means five seconds or for God’s sake stop!

I don’t get that sort of feedback with radio. This leaves me worrying that my critique of the shortcomings of others comes off as  the Two-minute Daily Hate or priggishness.

[Read more...]

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Pod people: Looking back at 2012, one more time

I don’t know about you folks, but to me is seems like the 2012 news cycle has been ending for the past three or four weeks. Everyone was already publishing their top stories of the year lists and then the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre turned everything upside down.

Nevertheless, the year’s first Crossroads podcast here at GetReligion (click here to cue that up) takes another look at the recent Religion Newswriters Association list of the Top 10 stories on the religion-news beat. GetReligion readers already know what I think of that list — click here for a refresher on the list — but host Todd Wilkin walked me all the way through the list and posed some interesting questions along the way.

Take this one for example: Is anyone surprised that the Episcopal Church approved trial rites to bless same-sex relationships? Really? And is the “nones” trend really all that new (hello, Sheila) or is the clever, and somewhat inaccurate, label the real news hook?

Religion-beat pros, help me out here. Hasn’t there been a liberal mainline Protestant story linked to the gay-rights era — almost always involving Episcopalians — in the RNA Top 10 lists about 15 of the past 20 years or thereabouts? It sure seems that way, sometimes.

Meanwhile, in the podcast I took another shot at explaining why I thought — looking ahead to 2013, with health care and gay marriage cases looming — that the U.S. Supreme Court’s stunning 9-0 decision on the Hosanna-Tabor “ministerial exception” case was one of the most important stories of 2012, even though it wasn’t voted into the RNA Top 10 (it was, however, included on the longer RNA ballot).

I thought that case, when combined with the fine print in the high court’s first decision linked to Obamacare, offered a hint what some members of the court might — repeat MIGHT — be thinking on matters of religious liberty. It’s clear that the court’s left wing tried to send the U.S. Justice Department a signal with that 9-0 verdict.

Then there is the quote that I keep mentioning from Justice Ruth Ginsburg, which made it into an online Washington Post essay, but was MIA in the overwhelming majority of mainstream news reports.

OK, one more time:

Mark Rienzi, another Becket [Fund] attorney, said in a phone conference call that the ruling today only spoke to whether Congress had the right to pass the act – not on the details of how it’s implemented.

“It seems to me the administration has won one legal challenge and there are 23 others waiting in the wings,” he said.

The attorneys honed in on two parts of Thursday’s ruling. One, from the majority opinion, said: “Even if the taxing power enables Congress to impose a tax on not obtaining health insurance, any tax must still comply with other requirements in the Constitution.”

The second, from Justice Ruth Ginsburg, said “A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, interfered with the free exercise of religion, or infringed on a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.”

I have always thought that one way reporters can spot hot stories is to pay attention to interviews or speeches in which liberals say things that please conservatives or conservatives say things that please liberals. In this case, the Ginsburg quote is an example of a liberal saying something that pleases old-fashioned First Amendment liberals, but today this point of view is losing support on what, for lack of a better term, could be called the postmodern left.

So enjoy the podcast, then let me know why you think the Ginsburg’s quote received so little mainstream press attention, even in this time of intense strife about religious liberty. Also, do you think the Hosanna-Tabor case should have been in the RNA Top 10? What 2012 story made the list, but probably didn’t deserve to?

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