More notes on the Muslim cartoon issue

persianOne of the more interesting aspects of the controversy about Muslim cartoons is the decision of the vast majority of news outlets here in the States not to publish them.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of the few outlets to have published the images. It did so on Saturday. The paper was picketed today by a group of Muslims in response. In any case, the Inquirer defended its decision:

The Inquirer’s senior editors decided at Friday’s afternoon news meeting to publish the most controversial image. It is being published “discreetly” with a note explaining the rationale, said Amanda Bennett, The Inquirer’s editor.

“This is the kind of work that newspapers are in business to do,” Bennett said. “We’re running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy’s about, not to titillate, and we have done that with a whole wide range of images throughout our history,” she said.

Bennett compared it to decisions in the past to publish photographs of the bodies of burned Americans hung from a bridge in Iraq, as well as the 1989 photography of an artwork by Andres Serrano showing a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

“You run it because there’s a news reason to run it,” Bennett said. “The controversy does not appear to have died down. It’s still a news issue.”

It’s nice to see this debate taking place. And even nicer to see it taking place in relative calm. It also needs noting that many reporters (including me) have repeated the “fact” that Islam prevents any depiction of Muhammad. And a few other folks have noted that might not be the case, given the myriad depictions of Muhammad in art museums around the world, such as the Persian example above. A frieze on the north wall of the Supreme Court also shows Muhammad. He’s the one in the middle in the image below. Go here for more examples.

scotusnfriezeReporters really need to start explaining some basic information in this story. It’s getting incredibly frustrating. There are huge groups of Muslims responding to this story in widly divergent ways. Look at the restraint with which American Muslims have responded. Compare that, even, with the extremely violent language used in protests in London this weekend. And then compare those with the property damage, extreme violence, kidnapping and murder occurring in the Middle East and Asia. Is this not a story worth looking into? Charles Moore raises both of these points in the Daily Telegraph:

There is no reason to doubt that Muslims worry very much about depictions of Mohammed. Like many, chiefly Protestant, Christians, they fear idolatry. But, as I write, I have beside me a learned book about Islamic art and architecture which shows numerous Muslim paintings from Turkey, Persia, Arabia and so on. These depict the Prophet preaching, having visions, being fed by his wet nurse, going on his Night-Journey to heaven, etc. The truth is that in Islam, as in Christianity, not everyone agrees about what is permissible.

Some of these depictions are in Western museums. What will the authorities do if the puritan factions within Islam start calling for them to be removed from display (this call has been made, by the way, about a medieval Christian depiction of the Prophet in Bologna)? Will their feeling of “offence” outweigh the rights of everyone else?

Why are reporters and editors so reticent to discuss these differences in Islam? It seems like it would be so newsworthy. It seems like opinion pieces and blogs offer the best news and analysis, which doesn’t bode well for mainstream media.

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So a reporter walks into a church (rimshot)

microphone smlThank you, thank you, thank you, to all of the GetReligion readers out there who sent me comments and emails last night about a hilarious correction linked to a Newsweek story by reporter Susannah Meadows entitled “Cut, Thrust and Christ: Why evangelicals are mastering the art of college debate.”

We will get to that punch line in a minute, but first you need to know the context. The subject of the story is the high-quality debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Read closely and it isn’t very hard to figure out that the seed for this sometimes snippy story is — surprise, surprise — changes at the U.S. Supreme Court and a change in the atmosphere there on issues linked to the usual moral and cultural issues linked to the sexual revolution.

The Liberty team is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, above Harvard (14th) and all the other big names. But for the evangelicals, there’s a lot more at stake than a trophy. Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty’s debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society. “I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans’ godly heritage,” says freshman debater Cole Bender.

Debaters are the new missionaries, having realized they can save a lot more souls from a seat at the top — perhaps even on the highest court in the land.

Heavens above, there is even a Karl Rove sighting in the article.

But this article will, I imagine, be remembered for the previously mentioned correction. It seems that, during the interview with Falwell, Meadows did not grasp one of the good reverend’s evangelical metaphors. Perhaps it was a bad phone connection or a bad audiotape. Thus, the online version of the story has this ending:

Correction: In the original version of this report, Newsweek misquoted Falwell as referring to “assault ministry.” In fact, Falwell was referring to “a salt ministry” — a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says “Ye are the salt of the earth.” We regret the error.

This, in turn, provided a timely ending for my Scripps Howard News Service column this week, which offered what I hope was a calmer, newsier take on my GetReligion post last weekend about the First Things blog item in which Father Richard John Neuhaus complains that the mainstream journalists that he meets from time to time are “not always the sharpest knives in the drawer.”

I still think that Neuhaus needed to be more careful before he clicked “send” on such a sweeping attack on journalists in general and those who cover religion news in particular. Nevertheless, he does have some points to make and some witty anecdotes for inclusion in what I called “the journalistic genre of ‘laugh to keep from crying’ miscues about religion.”

Now, Newsweek has added a great kicker. Anyone else out there have some favorite rimshot lines? Remember, keep ’em clean (this is a family friendly religion-news critique blog) and it helps if you can give us a URL or two for future reference.

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Depicting Muhammad

kanyeYes, Kanye West posed as Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone. And, like he’s a Pat Robertson-in-training, the grandstanding worked. Media outlets splashed the news everywhere. So it was nice to see the way Rashod Ollison analyzed young Kanye for the Baltimore Sun:

Perhaps he meant it as a symbol of personal suffering. Maybe he wanted to present young hip-hop heads with an updated image of the Son of God. Whatever his motives, Kanye West again has accomplished what he set out to do: Get people to talk.

About him.

On the cover of February’s Rolling Stone, which hit news stands last week, the brash, egomaniacal rapper-producer poses as Jesus Christ. In the profile shot, he wears a crown of thorns. Blood runs down his face; his expression conveys anguish, vulnerability, a steely resilience.

It’s all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.

Exactly. And please note the scary Rolling Stone headline about God’s Senator while you’re at it. Remember when that magazine was actually cool? It hasn’t been since Hunter S. Thompson’s liver finally got larger than his cranium and they put P.J. O’Rourke out to pasture. Of course, for a long time now rock and roll culture has been less about subverting authority and more about moving units, so a minor controversy over disrespecting a tolerant religion is a valued as marketing ploy rather rather than a daring artistic decision. But as a few pundits noted, if Kanye wanted to be really rebellious, he would pose as Muhammad. Then we would see where the rubber meets the road when it comes to real artistic conviction.

Plays and movies mocking or blaspheming Islam, as opposed to Christianity, are almost unheard of. Movies praising Islam, even, are difficult to make. Syrian-born director Moustapha Akkad, who was killed a few months ago in the terrorist bombing in Jordan, faced extreme opposition for The Message, for instance. (Random political trivia: former mayor, then councilman, Marion Barry was shot in 1977 in a hostage situation where Muslim radicals made demands against the movie.)

Which brings us to the present and the huge story on other continents about the decision of a Danish newspaper to run political cartoons that made a humongous error in the eyes of Muslims. They contained images of Muhammad. All images of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam, but these cartoons were of the Ted Rall variety rather than the Marmaduke variety.

In response, masked gunmen stormed an EU office in Gaza. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark. Libya closed its embassy in the Danish capital. Palestinians burnt Danish flags while Hamas and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology. Former President Bill Clinton told Davos attendees that he worried anti-Islam sentiment would replace anti-Semitism and condemned “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.” The Danish newspaper received a bomb threat. Boycotts have cost Danish companies $55 million.

messageAs I said, big story. Deutsch Welle had a good update that also provided some perspective about EU concerns over freedom of the press and protection of fundamental religious values. It even mentioned media issues:

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, in Tunis for a meeting of Arab interior ministers, decried the “double standards” in the European media.

“We see double standards in the European media, which is fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism but which invokes freedom of expression for a caricature on Islam,” Mussa told reporters.

Most Arab governments have vocally condemned the series of 12 cartoons, which show the prophet as a wild-eyed knife-wielding Bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.

It’s fascinating to note how the Arab League leader notes the standards of European media in his attempt to sway political opinion. Fascinating because, of course, the standards for religious tolerance in Muslim news outlets likely would not merit Western sympathy. I also found this passage from the Khaleej Times to be illuminating:

Qatar-based scholar, Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi, has urged the United Nations to act to prevent the defamation of the prophets or religious figures from any religion, anywhere in the world. He was speaking in Arabic on Qatar Television. “We Muslims consider it as a major crime to abuse or denigrate any prophet, including Jesus and Moses. Any Muslim who is doing this will not continue as a Muslim,” Qaradawi is reported to have said.

It would be nice for reporters to ask other Muslim scholars if this is true. Do Muslims consider it a major crime to denigrate Jesus and other religious figures? Have they commented on the Rolling Stone cover, for instance? Are Muslims decrying anti-Semitic comments from Hamas leaders?

Reporters should also explain why Muslims are demanding that the Danish government apologize for the actions of a few of its citizens. A guided tutorial through the Koran would give reporters a lot of information about Muslim views on the separation of mosque and state.

And reporters and editors in this country should show a bit more interest in this story. It won’t just be Denmark where Western views of freedom of the press run up against Islam’s desire to protect its major prophet. And I’m not just saying that because I am afraid to put up a picture of Muhammad.

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Kudos for good communication

Birmingham UniversityI’ve been puzzling over a trend I’ve noticed recently among some Christian groups and their leaders: a hesitancy to speak to members of the media regarding their message and an inability to express that message succinctly and effectively. As a believer, I struggle with expressing my faith to others, so I don’t want to go off judging those in leadership positions. But as we’ve said before on this blog, religious leaders could use a bit of GetJournalism, just as us media folks could use a bit of GetReligion.

Across the pond in Great Britain, there is a great example of a Christian group getting journalism.

About a week ago, the University of Birmingham Guild of Students banned a Christian student union and froze its bank account, saying the group was exclusive toward those of other faiths. While this seems to be a story we’re seeing more often in the United States due to overuse of the separation of church and state doctrine, one would think it would be a bit of a stretch in Britain, where that tradition is largely absent.

Think again, and thanks to Phil, a reader over in the United Kingdom, for dropping us a note regarding this story. Phil pointed us to a Times article by religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill that focuses on the “row over gays.” It is scant on detail (Gledhill’s blog post on the matter, on the other hand, is filled with detail), while The Birmingham Post‘s Shahid Naqvi leads with the “students ban Christian group” angle and thoroughly details the debate from both sides’ perspective.

Both articles are as balanced as they can be when a reporter is dealing with differing doctrines on how religious campus student groups should be treated. Score one for members of the Christian Union for being so willing to communicate and not being ashamed to speak out for what they truly believe.

Here’s the Christian Union’s defense as reported in the Post:

Pod Bhogal, communications director for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship — an affiliation of Christian societies — said the issue was one of freedom of speech.

“In all our years of working with hundreds of higher education establishments, this action by Birmingham’s guild is unique.

“It is over-the-top and looks like political correctness gone mad. We would not dream of telling a Muslim group or a political society how to elect their leaders or who could or could not become a member.

“That’s entirely a matter to them, based on their own faith principles. The same applies to a Christian Union.”

Contrast that with the Student Guild’s defense:

Birmingham University’s Student Guild said it was merely enforcing the 1994 Education Act which states student societies have to be open to all.

It said 15 faith groups on campus — including the Islamic Society, the Sikh Society and a non-evangelical Christian body — had already complied with the regulations.

Guild president Richard Angell said: “It is not about faith, it is about complying with the law.

“Our members have the right to stand for the executive committee of any society they join. Our societies must be democratic and must not discriminate based on religion.”

Both groups opened up and aired their opinions on the situation, and all accounts point toward a fair hearing on both sides. According to Phil, the Christian union and its affiliate, Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, were quick to issue a quality press release, resulting in their points being accurately portrayed in all reports, including this BBC account and this article on the Guardian website. On the flip side, the University of Birmingham Guild of Students was slow to mention to affair, and early reports relied on the weak remarks from Richard Angell.

As a reporter, I appreciate any organization that succinctly presents its side on a controversial issue. Reporters are not always as familiar with an issue as would be desirable, nor do they have the time to become experts in every controversy, but nearly all are willing to learn and desire to present a situation in all fairness and accuracy.

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Oh those God is Love headlines!

00086popebenedictWe must offer another mitre tip to the Catholic uberblogger Amy Welborn: The Ratzinger Fan Club website has posted a vast (friends and neighbors, I do mean vast) collection of links related to commentary on and information about the new Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI. The new Christianity Today weblog has a nice collection, too.

Welborn also passed along one of the best snort your coffee (or hot tea) paragraphs that I have seen in quite some time. It’s from a Globe & Mail reaction piece that went out on the wires:

Few Catholic scholars contacted this week had read the encyclical or planned to do so. Two professed amusement at the notion that the pope had written about love. And what puzzled some scholars is why Benedict had chosen the subject.

In other post-encyclical coverage of the news coverage, it is interesting to note that the veteran New York Times scribe Peter Steinfels did a bit of damage control in a weekend analysis piece entitled “Combing Through the Pope’s First Encyclical.” The heart of the piece is his admission that most reporters read this papal text — well duh — looking for traditional New York Times material about the Roman Catholic Church. Other papers, as always, then look to the Times for leadership.

Well, he didn’t say precisely that. But he did say this:

Was it true, as two headlines claimed last Thursday, that “Pope Chooses an Uncontroversial Topic for First Encyclical: Love” and “Pope’s Encyclical on Love Avoids Controversy”?

Controversy, it seems, means the intersection of religion with sex, science, politics and violence — in short, the raw material of the culture wars. It was understandable, therefore, that reporters combed “God Is Love,” the long-awaited first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, for declarations on homosexuality, monogamy, terrorism, and church and state. Other headlines capturing that effort were these: “Pope Warns About Loveless Sex.” “Pope Defends Marriage While Eschewing Politics.” “Church Cannot Stay on Sidelines in Fight for Justice.” “Pope: Church Duty Is to Influence Leaders.”

Yes, Steinfels could have mentioned the wackiest headline of all, but that would have been in bad form: “Benedict’s First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy.”

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Reader comments on “stupid reporters”

scribeatcomputerFor quite some time now, young master Daniel Pulliam has been suggesting that each of us should select a “comment of the week” to pull out here on page one. I agree, in part because I fear that many of our readers miss some of the excellent questions, opinions and pot shots that are hidden deep inside this massive site.

Thus, here is a comment from the Rev. Andy Chamberlain, diving into the sometimes emotional whirlpool that I stirred up with my post titled “Are reporters too stupid to get religion?” It begins with Chamberlain quoting an earlier comment by another reader:

“Since when is religion anything like rocket science? I thought religion was supposed to be a part of people’s everyday lives.”

And you are right, what we believe is part of everyday life; but whilst faith can be a simple thing (thank God) religion is fiendishly complicated; and this matters with news coverage because no one wants to read a story where the reporter doesn’t know their stuff. It is distracting and stops the reader from engaging with the material.

For good or ill, religion is complicated; for example, you could look at the differences in Trinitarian theology between the Catholic and Orthodox church. These things don’t matter at all to many people, but for others they are critical; and importantly, if you were going to write about them, you would need to know your stuff.

Or if you don’t want to stray from the Get Religion website, I suggest you look at the discussion on the ‘American Pastor’ post about Rick Warren; there are a number of complex and subtle issues being discussed there by the different contributors. I think most reporters would be hard pressed to give a very informed contribution to those debates.

I think my rocket science observation stands, maybe that is a shame, but there you go. …

Posted by andy chamberlain at 3:46 pm on January 29, 2006

I am passing along this comment for two reasons.

First, anyone who has ever tried to walk the Godbeat knows that it is stunningly complicated. When I left full-time work on the religion beat in Denver, after six-plus years at the Rocky Mountain News, my files packed two or three giant file drawers and included materials on — I estimate — at least 300 different religious organizations, movements, denominations or sects in that region. Try briefing a general-assignment reporter on that.

I know it is an unfair comparison, but the political beat includes two major parties and a few closely related major movements. In religion, there are at least 30 or more major “parties” in any major city, each with its own unique form of doctrine, language, culture and government (local, regional, national and often global).

One church’s bishop is not the same as another’s — whether you are talking Anglican, Pentecostal, African Methodist Episcopal, Lutheran, United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or whatever. An Eastern Rite Catholic is not the same as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, even if their vestments look alike. A Western Rite Orthodox priest is not the same thing as an Anglican Rite Catholic priest, even if they both went to the same Episcopal seminary a decade or two ago.

When a Mormon talks about “heaven,” the meaning is not the same as when a Baptist does. When a Catholic says she is a “charismatic,” it probably does not mean precisely the same thing as when a Pentecostal believer uses the same term. Then again, it might, depending on the zip code. Don’t get me started on all the differences — legal and doctrinal — between, let’s say, a meeting of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.

The list goes on and on. And the emerging world of the neopagans makes the Baptist world (with thousands of different conventions and networks) look downright simple, plain and ordinary.

This leads me to my second comment. I still find it amazing that one trend you see in American newspapers today is editors assigning the religion beat to people with zero training or experience or commitment to staying on the beat for a significant period of time. It is supposed to give the newspaper a fresh and open view of the topic.

Forget rocket science for a minute. Try to imagine newsroom executives in major newsrooms taking the same approach with sports, law, science or the arts. Yes, I know that journalists can study and get up to speed on a complicated beat. But are we supposed to say that, once they have learned what they need to learn, they are now less qualified to handle the same beat at a larger news organization? I think not.

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A Catholic Supreme Court?

catholic supreme courtSupreme Court nominee Samuel Alito will most likely be confirmed this week or the next by the Senate and for the first time in United States history, the nation’s highest court will have a majority of Catholics serving on the bench. The Economist, with its European perspective, unsurprisingly sees this event as more significant than do its American counterparts:

This is a remarkable historical turnaround. Arthur Schlesinger senior once remarked that prejudice against the Catholic church was “the deepest bias in the history of the American people”. The Protestant majority denounced Catholics as minions of the anti-Christ and servants of a foreign power, marginalised Catholic schools, demonised Catholic pastimes, particularly drinking, and tried to keep them out of high political offices. It is not so long since presidents observed an unwritten convention against having more than one papist on the court.

The turnaround is all the more surprising for two reasons — who was responsible and when it happened. The Catholic takeover of the court has been engineered by the Republicans — the erstwhile party of the Protestant hegemony. And the takeover has coincided with the worst scandal in the Catholic church’s history in America: a paedophilia crisis involving dozens of abusive priests and cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy.

So why have the Republicans been so keen to tap Catholics? The most obvious reason is political: the Catholic vote is up for grabs. Catholics were once a solid Democratic constituency, up there with blacks and Jews. They began to turn against the Democrats in the 1970s when the latter moved to the left on issues such as abortion. Ronald Reagan won the Catholic vote easily in 1984 (Catholics were the archetypal Reagan Democrats). But they are not reliable Republicans. Bill Clinton won a plurality of the Catholic vote in 1992 (41%) and a majority in 1996 (53%). Catholics voted for Al Gore in 2000 (50% to 47%) but then George Bush in 2004 (52% to 47%).

Americans like to forget their country’s darker histories — largely to their benefit, I believe — but in this case I believe it’s important to remember and appreciate the significance of this event. … OK, now let’s move on and figure out how this happened:

Above all, Catholics are becoming ever more mainstream. The Catholic electorate is probably not that different from the population as a whole, even on issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Millions of traditional Catholics manage to ignore the “crazy aunt of Catholic dogma” on matters such as birth control. The court’s Catholic majority is unlikely to vote as a block, even though they were all appointed by Republican presidents. Antonin Scalia (Reagan 1986) opposes the legalisation of sodomy, but Anthony Kennedy (Reagan 1988) supports it. As for following Rome, Mr Kennedy has upheld Roe and Mr Scalia has blasted the papal line on the death penalty. Clarence Thomas, who has returned to Rome since being appointed to the court, has generally stuck to the Scalia line on matters Catholic.

Mr Alito’s arrival on the court may be more of a swansong for Catholic America than the beginning of sustained popish hegemony. The America that produced so many Catholic intellectuals — the parallel America of Catholic schools and Catholic youth organisations — has dissolved as Catholics have moved out of their urban ghettos and into the anonymous suburbs. The Catholic faith is becoming ever less distinctive as conservative Catholics slide into the pews with conservative evangelicals, and liberal Catholics swap ideas with liberal Protestants. Three of Mr Alito’s most bitter critics in the Senate were fellow Catholics — Edward Kennedy, Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin. Which is surely a triumph for the American way.

This concept of the Pew Gap is of course not new, as we see here in a tmatt post on the thesis presented by James Davison Hunter. What is fascinating, and new to me, is the magazine’s prediction that the “popish hegemony” among American Catholics might be on the way out due to moving to the anonymous suburbs, among other reasons.

The final sentence in the article referencing the American way also grabbed me. Is America great because religious ideologies don’t divide us the way they have in Europe? And are we headed toward old European-style politics where religion matters in politics and government?

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Are reporters too stupid to get religion?

IDDONchurchteresamikeWhen Mother Teresa comes to town for an ecumenical prayer service, all kinds of people are going to show up. That’s what happened in Denver back in 1989, when the tiny nun came to town to pray for peace and for the poor in that city.

The list of local clergy taking part was very long, drawing a Judeo-Christian all-star team that included rabbis, Eastern Orthodox priests, Anglicans and Protestant clergy of every kind, from nationally known evangelicals to the mainline left. Of course, Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford — now a cardinal at the Vatican — was at her side to preside.

Before the event, Mother Teresa and some of the top clergy held a press conference. It was, for me, a memorable event because I asked her if she was considering opening a Missionaries of Charity convent in Denver. When I talked with her again an hour later she reminded me of that question and, in the prayer service itself, she stunned the archbishop and the crowd by announcing that she would do precisely that — creating an AIDS hospice in urban Denver.

However, there is another reason I remember that press conference. The throng of reporters who attended included a number of local television reporters, several of whom seemed to have been assigned to the story at the last minute. One asked a simple question: Would this prayer rite include a Mass?

Mother Teresa was confused for a minute. How could they celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass with an ecumenical flock, one that included Protestants, Jews and others who were, obviously, not in communion with Rome? For starters, I thought, had the reporter not heard of the Protestant Reformation?

I thought of this story this week when several GetReligion readers posted comments about Father Richard John Neuhaus’ bitting remarks at the First Things blog about the stupidity of journalists. He was inspired to write by early coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “God Is Love.”

Here is how his post opens:

As you might imagine, I spend a good deal of time talking with reporters. I usually don’t mind it. It comes with the territory. With notable exceptions, reporters are people of good will working hard to write a story that will please their editors. It is true that they are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. These days most of them have gone to journalism school, or j-school, as it is called. In intellectual rankings at universities, journalism is just a notch above education, which is, unfortunately, at the bottom.

An eager young thing with a national paper was interviewing me about yet another instance of political corruption. “Is this something new?” she asked. “No,” I said, “it’s been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.” There was a long pause and then she asked, “What garden was that?” It was touching.

And so it goes. I will pass by his undocumented claim that student journalists are, as a rule, stupid. I have found, in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, that my journalism students are almost always drawn from the honor rolls. Frankly, I have no idea what Father Neuhaus is talking about and I wish he had added a hyperlink to the source of his opinion. But I will move on.

Father Neuhaus is a very witty man and you can read his remarks for yourself, if you have not already. It is interesting that he ends up, in a strange way, affirming the stance of thinkers — most in the news industry or on the left — who argue that bias is not at the root of the news media’s struggles to “get religion.” Instead of bias, he argues that journalists are simply ignorant. (I argue that clashing “worldviews” are the key.)

Neuhaus concludes:

… (Over) the years of dealing with reporters — and, again, there are notable exceptions — I have been led to embrace something like an Occam’s razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice.

It is hard to tell if his “notable exceptions” are reporters who are biased or reporters who are not stupid.

Anyway, my story about the Mother Teresa press conference would slip nicely into the First Things commentary. Believe me, I have heard waves of similar stories through the years, and some of them will make you laugh to keep from crying. Click here to read some classics.

042803neuhausrichardjohnIf Father Neuhaus had been at the 1989 press conference, I am sure he would have rolled his eyes at the ecumenical Mass question and tucked it away in his mental humor files for future use (as I did).

However, there is a problem. That press conference included a number of reporters who were rolling their eyes, reporters who had years and years of experience on the beat and had, in a few cases, even done graduate degrees in various types of religious studies to be able to do a professional job covering complicated religion-news stories. Where do these reporters fit into Father Neuhaus’ rather snarky scenario?

You see, I have met some brilliant journalists in my day. I have also met some journalists who are so dedicated that they can keep working and working on a topic until they get most of the questions answered and they get the key facts right. I have also met plenty of journalists who fit all of the good father’s stereotypes. But what is his solution to this problem? Ignore reporters? Just write off the press?

I think it would help if the people who run newsrooms had the option — as they seek intellectual diversity — of hiring more reporters from excellent reporting and writing programs in religious colleges and universities.

Might Father Neuhaus lobby for at least a few Catholic schools in this nation to stress journalism? He could offer his praise and support for postgraduate projects — such as those at the Poynter Instituteand the Pew Forum — that help journalists learn more about religion and improve their reporting skills.

Does Father Neuhaus think this line of work is too shallow or too gritty for serious study and even theological reflection? And speaking of that “garden,” is this conservative Catholic theologian arguing that some parts of God’s creation are simply too fallen to be taken seriously? Is his theology putting a newsy twist on Orwell? All of God’s creation is both glorious and fallen, but some parts of it — newsrooms — are more fallen than others? I assume not, since that would be, well, heresy.

But it is so, so easy to blast away at the press — especially in a week in which the Western world’s newspaper of record serves up headlines such as this one: “Benedict’s First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy.”

Say what? Wait, there was more. Here is the opening of reporter Ian Fisher’s New York Times story on the new papal encyclical:

Pope Benedict XVI issued an erudite meditation on love and charity on Wednesday in a long-awaited first encyclical that presented Roman Catholicism’s potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive rules for orthodoxy.

The encyclical, titled “God Is Love,” did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics. But in gentle, often poetic language, Benedict nonetheless portrayed a tough-minded church that is “duty bound,” he wrote, to intervene at times in secular politics for “the attainment for what is just.”

You could spend a week in the Catholic blogosphere reading about reactions to “God Is Love” and the news coverage of its contents. I will not linger on this, since this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say, many of the reports would have put a smile on the face of Father Neuhaus, for all of the usual reasons. I will end with one comment from an email by my friend, the Catholic pop-culture scribe Roberto Rivera y Carlo:

Talk about your ideological slip showing! The lede draws not one, but, two, idiotic juxtapositions: “erudite” versus “firm” and “love and charity” versus “orthodoxy.” These people really don’t and can’t get it, can they?

Actually, I believe that most reporters are smart enough to get it and it would be good if they tried to do so. I also think if would help if more religious leaders — especially brilliant people like Father Neuhaus — helped promote education and diversity in journalism, rather than merely firing shots from the sidelines.

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