Not getting it

BibleInfluenceThis New York Times story does everything possible to fit the facts into the mold of a “Democrats try to get religion in order to appeal to religious people” story. I find this an an example of how many in the Democratic Party and many mainstream reporters do not get religion or religious people.

Fortunately the reporter, David Kirkpatrick, included a thorough accounting of the facts in the rest of the story. Here’s the lead, which is what I found a misinterpretation of what is described later in the story:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 — Democrats in Georgia and Alabama, borrowing an idea usually advanced by conservative Republicans, are promoting Bible classes in the public schools. Their Republican opponents are in turn denouncing them as “pharisees,” a favorite term of liberals for politicians who exploit religion.

Democrats in both states have introduced bills authorizing school districts to teach courses modeled after a new textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence.” It was produced by the nonpartisan, ecumenical Bible Literacy Project and provides an assessment of the Bible’s impact on history, literature and art that is academic and detached, if largely laudatory.

The Democrats who introduced the bills said they hoped to compete with Republicans for conservative Christian voters. “Rather than sitting back on our heels and then being knocked in our face, we are going to respond in a thoughtful way,” said Kasim Reed, a Georgia state senator from Atlanta and one of the sponsors of the bill. “We are not going to give away the South anymore because we are unwilling to talk about our faith.”

The premise of the article is that Democrats are attempting to out-religion Republicans. The roles have been reversed. Republicans are now opposing religious teaching in schools.

Alas, this is not the case. The class proposed by Democrats is nothing to get excited about politically (I think the course looks great educationally). How is a textbook titled The Bible and Its Influence at all controversial or beyond the status quo, especially in the South? It’s produced by an ecumenical religious group and does not come close to touching the separation-of-church-and-state clause, as I see it, because it is not focused on a particular translation or interpretation of the Bible.

I’m sure Kirkpatrick’s original idea for an article on Democrats getting religion was a good one, and he cites several examples nationwide, but I believe his attempt (or his editor’s or whoever wrote that lead) to spin the story at the top falls flat on its face. An article with that type of lead made me think there was an actual proposal that would reach the religious voter Democrats are so desperate to bring into their fold.

As long as politicians see religion as solely a political vehicle for attracting votes, they will not gain the support they seek, especially in the South. The same goes for journalists and their media outlets — not that the NYT or its reporters are marketing their product to religious types in the South anyway.

The rest of the article is a series of politically charged back-and-forths between Republicans and Democrats that does little to get to the bottom of the story. Nice reporting, but isn’t getting to the bottom of things a journalist’s goal? Gathering the back-and-forth is key for getting to that truth, but in the end, give the reader a more accurate idea of the situation being reported.

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PBS overloads on Christian programming?

The AppalachiansThe second item in the ombudsman column Monday by the Public Broadcasting System’s Michael Getler deals with complaints from viewers who believe the publicly funded PBS carries too many Christian-oriented programs.

This is not a new complaint to the nation’s two public media organizations. Back in August we commented on a similar column written by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. These complaints seem to be of the same vein.

According to Getler, most of the complaints dealt with specific programs. In thorough fashion, Getler dispatches with the complainers who were “very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS.” The horror!

I found most of the complaints cited by Getler ridiculous. As a journalist I receive my fair share of kooky comments, along with an equal number of solid questions and informed statements of opinion. I wonder, where are the informed, intelligent complaints about the coverage of religion on PBS?

And where are the complaints about separation of church and state? I guess/hope we’ve moved beyond that for public broadcasting. As long as the news or feature value of the shows’ content was valid — which they appear to be — how can one complain?

Here’s my favorite complaint:

It seems each show, whether it’s historical, scientific or documentary in nature[,] is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country.” This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as “Walking the Bible” and “Country Boys” and an earlier documentary on “The Appalachians.”

Where to start? Christianity is not exclusive to the right-wing evangelicals, ignoring a religion will not help subside conflicts and tensions and a relatively heavy load of religion programming does not implicate bias. Disclaimer: I have not seen any of these shows so I cannot judge their quality of slant.

Here is Getler’s explanation for the rise in Christian-related programming:

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary “Walking the Bible” is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the “vast majority” of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. “The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend,” wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, “The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as ‘Walking the Bible’?”

The “Walking the Bible” miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of “Country Boys,” a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS’s highly respected “Frontline” program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I’m the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But “Country Boys” also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that’s just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn’t see “The Appalachians,” which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Getler’s three questions are something of a copout, but not one I can be too hard on him for taking. They are tough questions and deserve some serious debate.

Q. Is religious content being elevated these days?

Q. Why is that happening?

Q. Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Tmatt believes that PBS could be attempting to attract viewers in a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.” Taxpayers are also the base of much of PBS’ funding, and taking on subjects that involve its viewers’ lives might be a smart move. If the country were 30 percent Islamic, I’m sure the network would air more shows on Islam.

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Robertson will skip NRB gig

robertsonFor those of you who are still maintaining the Pat Robertson watch, here is the latest from the omnipresent Julia Duin of the Washington Times (who, it seems, has been able to cover a dozen stories in the past week or so). It seems that the leaders of the National Religious Broadcasters have had second thoughts about Robertson’s upcoming address:

Although the evangelist was not told to step down, he did release a statement citing demands on his time. A spokeswoman for Mr. Robertson did not return a call requesting comment. An NRB statement said the speaker switch was a result of “scheduling complexities.”

By the way, let me offer a compliment with a kick.

Someone at the Washington Times online division needs to create a website that makes it easier to find all of the many, many stories linked to religion, morality and culture (even pop culture) produced by Duin and others. Yes, they need a site that is even broader than the “Culture, etc.” page. That would make it easier to contrast Times coverage with the Godbeat offerings over at the Washington Post. This would be good for people who care about religion news, in Washington and beyond.

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God and the AP top 10 list

20060120 164648 27434While I was out on the road, our friends at Poynter.org ran the latest of my columns in the “Journalism With a Difference” series on ethics and diversity. This one is entitled “Religion in (or Out) of the News” and focuses on the religion ghosts hidden — or dancing right out in the open — in the Associated Press list of the top 10 stories of 2005. The column flashes back to an interview with the late George Cornell, who, for many decades, was the AP’s only Godbeat specialist for planet earth.

Cornell saw religion all over the place (and so does Martin Marty).

“Look at every major flash point in the world. There’s almost always a religious element involved — and it’s almost always a powerful one,” Cornell told me. That was back in the early 1980s, when I was researching my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The same thing is going on in the human-rights struggles around the world,” he said. “People just don’t see where the hammer is falling — where the vital brew is brewing. Religion is usually mixed up in it.”

In fact, Cornell said he could not remember a year in which the Associated Press list did not have at least five stories that included a strong news hook linked to debates about religion, ethics or morality. Often, the number was higher than that.

This was certainly one of those years. I scored it as seven or eight out of 10. Check it out and let me know the GetReligion score you would have assigned this list.

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America’s pastor?

rickwarrenHas Rick Warren become a media darling or what? The man certainly knows how to communicate a message and apparently has no trouble using the mainstream media to do so. And reporters are eating up this guy and all the wonderful things he does, including his “reverse tithing,” in which he says he keeps 10 percent of his income and gives the rest away ($14 million in 2004).

In a glowing Washington Post story Saturday, reporter Paul Nussbaum gives us an update on what the sandal-wearing, goatee-sporting, Hawaiian shirt-clad Rick is up to these days:

“One of my goals is to take evangelicals back a century, to the 19th century,” said Warren, 51, shifting painfully in his chair because of a back sprain suffered during an all-terrain-vehicle romp with his 20-year-old son, Matthew. “That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life.”

Not just personal salvation, but social action. Abolishing slavery. Ending child labor. Winning the right for women to vote.

It’s time for modern evangelicals to trade words for deeds and get similarly involved, Warren contends.

Warren was tagged as the next Billy Graham a long time ago, but I think many reporters miss a critical distinction between the two. Graham was an evangelist unassociated with a church or a denomination. Warren is a fourth generation Baptist preacher and his church is Southern Baptist.

By all accounts, Warren is on the brink of becoming the most influential evangelical Christian in the United States. And this Washington Post story is dripping with The Message that Warren preaches.

At the end of his second sermon on that recent Sunday, he reminded his largely affluent Orange County audience: “Life is not about having more and getting more. It’s about serving God and serving others.”

That, simply put, is his message: Give your life to God, help others, spread the word. It is the same message that Christians have been preaching for 2,000 years. Warren has updated the language, added catchphrases and five-step guides, but he readily admits that “there is not a new idea in that book.”

Well is that the same message Christians have been spreading for 2,000 years? Did Warren say that, or is that the reporter helping us readers along? Cite the source, Mr. Nussbaum.

PurposeOther than that small beef, I am having difficulty finding something to pick at in this story, except that it may have been too positive. The muscular Christianity theme worked well — for Warren — and there was little a negative word to say about the guy.

Warren “is able to cast the Christian story so people can hear it in fresh ways,” said Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

“The Gen X-ers are sick and tired of flash and hype and marketing,” Miller said. “The soft sell of a Rick Warren is far more attractive to them than a highly stylized TV presentation of the Christian message.”

Among evangelicals, Warren is more influential than better-known and more divisive figures such as religious broadcasters Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell or radio psychologist James Dobson, and he is often seen as the heir to the Rev. Billy Graham as “America’s pastor.”

This could all easily backfire on Warren. He is human and he will make mistakes. And with the increasing public scrutiny, any mistake will be blown sky high. Just ask Peyton Manning.

Warren is riding high, but as I’m sure he is aware, many popular American preachers have been taken down tragically. And the media will not hold back in trashing him, even if all he does is trip up a bit. Perhaps Warren’s connection with a church structure will help keep him straight. He answers to other humans in a formal way, unlike most independent television evangelists.

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Altar of sport

footballSo Seahawks and Steelers, eh? Should be a good Superbowl, I think, after watching all of the Broncos-Steelers game and a bit of the lesser conference game. I am an expatriate of Broncos Nation, which means many of my Sundays after church have been spent in front of the television.

There were a few things this season that reminded me of the religious significance of football. One was that when 49ers linebacker Thomas Herrion died after a game, his casket was draped not with a baptismal pall but a 49ers blanket. The second was that when Hurricane Katrina hit, Mayor Nagin directed stranded people to find sanctuary in the Superdome.

But every football game (and the sport in general) has religious significance, as Denver Post religion reporter Eric Gorski deftly points out in his fun and yet smart and respectful piece in Sunday’s paper, “O Come, All Ye Faithful“:

If the Broncos are a religion, these are the High Holidays.

The cathedral is a glimmering oval of steel along the interstate. . . .

Services start at 1 p.m. sharp today. In the end, someone will probably kneel down.

Scholars and clergy will tell you there are legitimate parallels between sport and religion. Both are steeped in ritual, help forge identity and unite people from different walks of life in a common cause. . . .

These same scholars and clergy will tell you there are risks to blurring football and faith: of potential idolatry, or misplaced prayers and priorities.

It’s a great piece that covers a broad range of religions and treats them all respectfully — even a priest who wore orange vestments the first time the Broncos made it to the Superbowl.

The conceit behind the piece could have resulted in knee-jerk collection of quotes from various clergy, but the author really educates the reader about various religious views. Too bad my Broncos didn’t do as well as Gorski.

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An issue of integrity

reporterFrom my previous post “Race and the Catholic Church” commenter Andy Chamberlain raised an issue that I want to put to rest on this blog. I know tmatt has dealt with this issue throughout his long career as a religion reporter, and it is important because it is critical for those in religion to GetJournalism, just as it is important for those in media to GetReligion.

Here is what Chamberlain, who is a pastor in the United Kingdom, had to say in his first comment:

Maybe I’m being a cynic here, but media people are not there to be fair. The Post, like any other media outlet, doesn’t want to present the truth, it wants to sell a story; the two are different. Like most other media outlets the Post will skew a story to emphasize some things and ignore others, and to give it as much shock factor as possible. The fact that people are hurt, or the issues are misrepresented is not something that many parts of the media care about.

My perception (and this is a data set of one, and there is nothing implied personally at anyone in the media) is that journalists will deliberately misrepresent the truth to sell their output, and for me that amounts to lying. I am guessing that many other people will feel the same way. In fact, my ‘default setting’ for media stories about religion is that the journalist is lying, and will have no qualms about damaging the people, misrepresenting the facts, and using the dreaded “quote marks” to rubbish someone or something, if it suits them.

NotebookPenI obviously cannot speak for all journalists, especially journalists outside of the modern journalistic tradition established in the United States, but I do know from growing up in a journalism-oriented family, four years of studying journalism in college and nearly two years as a professional that the primary goal of a journalist is to be fair and accurate.

Skewing, misrepresenting and lying are forbidden in the minds of most American journalists. Non-journalists must remember that we are human and we do make mistakes and misinterpret things, but very rarely is that ever intentional (think Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass).

There is another view of journalism that people on both sides of the religious divide take part in, and that is the practice of “directed reporting” or journalism for a cause. It was practiced a great deal in the United States until the 1920s and is still practiced in Europe on a large scale. This type of journalism can involve leaving out key facts, or embellishing others to make a point. We here at GetReligion do not believe there is a place for that type of journalism in the United States and would hope that most Americans would agree.

The argument that journalists are out there deliberately distorting the truth or omitting facts from the story to “heighten the shock value and sell copy” fails because integrity and the reader’s trust are the only asset a news organization has. Without trust established by an honest effort for truth and fairness, a mainstream media organization will sink, fast.

A personal example involves an article about my home church here in Washington, Grace D.C., published by one of the local newspapers. The reporter, who knows the religion beat as well as anyone, described the congregation as “yuppie” and that was not appreciated by the pastor or many of the members. But the fact remains, and most attending the church would admit this, that the church does come off as “yuppie.” So is this a case of a reporter deliberately misinterpreting the facts on the ground, or more of a case a new church in a large city sensitive to media coverage that it never asked for?

It is true that the public’s trust in the media is down.That has more to do with ethical scandals at leading news organizations and the stupid mistakes reporters like myself unfortunately make from time to time, such as misspelling a name or getting a fact wrong, rather than intentional wrongdoing. And there’s always disappointment when the media says the “king has no clothes on.” People may not like it, but it’s often the truth, as it was in my church’s case.

The media can be a pastor’s greatest asset. While there should be more Christians in the American media, how much is that the fault of the media organizations more than the fault of Christian colleges and churches?

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Pray for Jill Carroll

214 jillcarrollWhat can anyone say right now?

Religion-beat writer Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times has openly said what many — even in MSM newsrooms — wish they could stand up and say right now. And what Falsani could not say herself, she has let an anonymous journalist at the Christian Science Monitor say for her.

This anonymous colleague of Jill Carroll has not, Falsani said, written precisely what she would have written.

But that is almost beside the point, as the clock ticks down.

… (The) heart of what the writer is saying is what I’d want to say were I in his or her shoes.

Do not lose hope. Do not despair. Believe that change can happen. Pray.

For Jill. For her family. For her colleagues. For her captors. For mercy.

For all of us.

Read it all. Then pray for a fellow journalist.

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