And the Godbeat goes on: Yet another veteran is forced out

Insult + injury? It could look that way, but it was probably just a blunder by the Tampa Tribune. The newspaper set out a tradeshow table at a community event May 15, prominently showing a poster of Faith and Values writer Michelle Bearden — six days after she was laid off.

“Perhaps this means I got my job back and no one told me,” Michelle commented dryly on her Facebook page.

Her layoff, one of six from the newsroom that week, ends a much-honored specialty career of 20 years just in Tampa. By my estimate, Michelle was also the last fulltime veteran newspaper religion reporter in Florida.

Michelle will be hard to replace with her several hats. Besides the print edition, she did a weekly segment, Keeping the Faith, for WFLA-TV. She also did video presentations and interactive items for TBO.com, the newspaper’s online version.

Even before the Tribune, she wrote about religion across Tampa Bay for the St. Petersburg Times, as well as The Florida Catholic and the National Catholic Register. During the 1980s, she also covered religion and general assignment stories for the Phoenix Gazette in Arizona.

The trend of laying off religion writers reaches across the nation, as Julia Duin showed in a guest column on Feb. 18. Last September, GR’s Bobby Ross reported the layoff of Nancy Haught from the Oregonian and the exit of Cathy Lynn Grossman from USA Today via buyout.

And the beat goes on: In January, longtime Godbeat writer Cathleen Falsani was laid off from the Orange County Register. And even across the Atlantic, The Times in London has laid off Ruthie Gledhill after 27 years as its religious affairs correspondent.

Gledhill’s departure got an acid reaction by Clifford Longley, her predecessor at The Times. He accused the press of being prepared to risk “making a mess of the coverage of religion … In a subject of considerable misunderstanding, expertise is no longer, by and large, thought necessary.”

Here’s what Michelle told us about her experiences, and her career.

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NPR asks Vatican experts to discuss hopes of the Orthodox

Try to imagine a story about crucial, tense talks between Democrats and Republicans that only offered material drawn from interviews with Republicans, even when talking about the beliefs and aspirations of the Democrats.

Try to imagine a report about, oh, talks between liberal Episcopalians and conservative Anglicans that only featured commentary from one side or the other (actually, in some mainline publications that’s pretty easy to imagine). Or how about a pre-Super Bowl story that tried to cover the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams in the big game, but only talked to experts skilled in covering one of the teams or only talked to the coaches on one team. Can you imagine veteran journalists doing that?

This brings me to a report by NPR superstar Sylvia Poggioli that ran, online, under this headline: “The 1,000-Year-Old Schism That Pope Francis Seeks To Heal.”

Hear me now: This is not a fatally flawed news story, although some of the information is rather shallow. For example, any discussion of attempts to heal the painful schism between the ancient churches of East and West simply has to begin with, or at least mention, the efforts of St. John Paul II and this issue was a high priority for Pope Benedict XVI as well. NPR didn’t need to get these two popes into the headline, but one sentence in the story itself? That’s a must.

Also, let me note that the sources quoted in the piece are very qualified, especially when it comes to all things Rome. However, let’s see if we can spot a pattern in this report:

Meeting in Jerusalem in 1964, Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras set a milestone: They started the process of healing the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity of the year 1054. Moves toward closer understanding followed, but differences remain on issues such as married clergy and the centralized power of the Vatican.

OK, pause. It’s crucial to know that the smaller Eastern Rite Catholic bodies, like the large churches of Eastern Orthodoxy, already follow the ancient tradition of having married priests and celibate, usually monastic, bishops. While the celibate priesthood is the norm in the West, I have never heard anyone say that this is a big issue affecting healing between Catholics and Orthodox. What’s up with that strange unattributed claim?

Back to the story:

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WPost probes hot debate on the banks of River Jordan

I have crossed the Jordan River twice in my life and both times the experience was quite memorable. The river itself isn’t much to look at, but the social dynamics surrounding the location are fascinating.

The first trip was a singer in a choral music tour, done with the cooperation of the U.S. government, to perform “The Messiah” for cultural and political leaders in both Israel and Jordan. No big deal, right? However, this effort took place in late December, 1972. Look that up in the history of the Middle East. The second trip was linked to the 2000 pilgrimage that St. John Paul II made to the region. Look that one up, too.

Do the math and I am automatically going to be interested in the Washington Post news feature that ran under the following headline: “Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land.”

This is a solid story and, first things first, I want to praise the wide variety of images and information contained in it. However, at the same time, I want to challenge the Post assumption that most readers would be most interested in the financial and political angles of this story, as opposed to the religions questions that it raises. You can get to both of those subjects from the material at the top of the report:

WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER – Christians believe that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived on locusts and honey in the desert wilderness.

But the Gospels are not precise about which side of the river the baptism took place on — the east bank or the west.

Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary.

Since many of those “visitors” can also be called “pilgrims,” as in believers making pilgrimages, it matters that Pope Francis is poised to become the latest major religious leader — more on that in a minute — to symbolically visit the Bethany Beyond the Jordan site on the Jordanian, or the east, side of the river.

Thinking hard news, it’s logical that the Post team jumped from the Pope Francis news hook straight into dollars, cents, tourism and politics. Viewed from this perspective, what we have here is Israeli tourism officials fighting to protect their market share in a tussle with Jordanian tourism officials.

I get that. I’ve seen that first hand, because the tourism battle is decades old. For starters, it’s easier — some say safer — to visit the Israeli side.

But is that the most important, the most interesting angle to take on this matter, from the viewpoint of the typical reader? I’m not convinced. I would ask: Why are most people going there? Trust me, this dispute is not about the scenery.

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Generic person of God (or gods) busted for selling fake art

So, if you read a news report about a politician who did something really stupid or really bad — illegal even — what is the first question that would leap into your mind?

Right. You’d want to know what kind of politician, what brand of politician, the story was talking about. Ditto for all kinds of other cultural figures, from scholars, to musicians, to business people or to any other kind of work frequented by a wide variety of people who believe a wide variety of different things.

Thus, a former GetReligionista emailed us the URL for an interesting New York Times piece, but it’s a piece with a rather strange hole in the middle of its facts. The headline:

Pastor Who Tried to Sell Fake Damien Hirst Paintings Is Sentenced to 6 Months

Nothing all that unusual there, methinks. But let’s move on to take a look at the top of the story:

A Florida pastor who was convicted of trying to sell fake Damien Hirst paintings to an undercover police officer was sentenced on Monday to six months in jail and five years of probation.

Justice Bonnie G. Wittner of State Supreme Court in Manhattan said a jail sentence was warranted because the pastor, Kevin Sutherland, had chosen to sell the works to a person he believed was a New York collector shortly after the Sotheby’s auction house said one of the paintings could not be authenticated.

Nothing usual so far, right?

But before we proceed, let’s pause and ask — for unenlightened folks who live far from New York City — a relevant question: Who is Damien Hirst and why is the term “enfant terrible” so frequently attached to his name in modern-art circles? And, oh, what is the postmodern theological statement attached to that dead Tiger Shark at the top of this post?

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How much religion news can fit in 300-500 words?

Given your short attention span, I’ll make this brief.

And I’ll get right to the point: For once, The Associated Press is making news instead of reporting it.

Here’s the story as reported by The Washington Post:

Citing a “sea of bloated mid-level copy,” Associated Press Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano last week instructed fellow editors at the wire service to limit most “daily, bylined digest stories” to a length of between 300 and 500 words. Top stories from each state, Carovillano directed, should hit the 500 to 700-word range, and the “top global stories” may exceed 700 words but must still be “tightly written and edited.”

Carovillano’s memo itself references the driving force behind the limits: “Our members do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes,” notes the editor.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for AP, notes that a “common concern” among AP members and subscribers is that stories are too long. In recent months, says Colford, the wire service has been trimming stories in Europe and the outcome has been “successful.”

Noting that the memo encouraged AP reporters to “consider using alternative story forms either to break out details from longer stories, or in lieu of a traditional text story,” a Poynter Institute blogger quipped:

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Pope Francis on economics: How innovative? How savvy?

JIM ASKS:

Conservative commentators ridiculed [Pope Francis's decree Evangelii Gaudium] for its criticism of the free market system. But how different, really, is Francis’s thinking from his predecessors?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The Catholic Church is experiencing Hurricane Francis, the early phase of what may become the most liberal pontificate in a half-century. The new pope’s eyebrow-raisers including his words on economics. An April 28 Twitter feed from Francis (or his handlers) said “iniquitas radix malorum,” (“inequality is the root of evil” — or should that first word be translated “injustice”?). David Gibson of Religion News Service says some wonder whether the Vicar of Christ is “playing into the hands of President Obama and the Democrats, who have also made the wealth gap a major talking point” in the 2014 campaign.

The papal tweet followed the November text Jim asks about. Francis declared, among other things: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

There’s broad continuity between Francis and the prior popes in warning against greed and materialism, insisting that moral concerns must control money-making, and mandating concern for ordinary workers, their families, and those mired in poverty. But what economic setup best helps the dispossessed? On that, various Catholic conservatives have fretted that the Argentine pontiff’s views are “highly partisan and biased,” or “inaccurate and even irresponsible.”


It’s important that Evangelii is a preaching document or “apostolic exhortation,” as opposed to an “encyclical,” the highest-level papal pronouncement to carefully define official teaching on a single theme. Francis’s headline-grabbing economic comments were a minor aspect of a verbose text (47,600 words in English translation) that bounced among numerous topics.

Modern popes have issued a series of “social encyclicals” beginning with Leo XIII’s groundbreaking Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”) in 1891. Leo applied perennial Christian concern for low-income families in a new era of industrial development. He fervently supported private property rights over against socialism, championed workers’ moral claim to a living wage, and endorsed trade unions to negotiate fair labor conditions.

Subsequent social encyclicals that focused on economics have been Quadregesimo Anno (by Pius XI, 1931), Populorum Progressio (Paul VI, 1967), Laborem Exercens (John Paul II, 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (John Paul II, 1987), Centesimus Annus (John Paul II, 1991), and Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVI, 2009). The third encyclical from John Paul (who was canonized a saint the day before Francis’s “iniquitas” tweet) merits special attention since it marked both the centennial of Leo’s first social encyclical and the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Francis’s Evangelii had only one citation from Centesimus and that had nothing to do with economics.

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Newspaper reporter critiqued by GetReligion fires back

First off, my apologies for that click bait.

Megan Finnerty, a Page 1 reporter for the Arizona Republic, didn’t really fire back at my recent negative review of her pre-Easter story on “Tips for Jesus.”

In fact, the thoughtful email that she sent me with the subject line “Read your critique of my story” was kinder than my snarky critique, titled “What would Jesus tip? Be sure to ask … secular ethicists!?”

With Megan’s permission, I thought I’d share a bit of what she had to say, in hopes of providing a behind-the-scenes perspective on GetReligion’s focus, which is the mass media’s coverage of religion news. Before reading her comments, though, be sure to peruse the original post, if you haven’t already. If you don’t, the rest of this won’t make sense.

OK, everybody back?

Here is Megan’s response (edited slightly for publication, with her approval):

I read your thoughts on my TipsForJesus story.

I’m totally not emailing you to defend my work. I’m emailing you because I want to be better and do smarter, more thorough, sensitive work. So I send this note to you in the spirit of learning from someone who does this kind of work — writes about Christianity — all the time. So below, I’m going to walk you through my logic and processes so you can see how I got where I was going. And if you see some big glaring gap in logic or mistake in processes, or just room for improvement, I am open to your ideas.

I LOVED your idea of including how Jesus responded to extravagance. When I read it in your critique, I remembered it, but sadly, none of the religious I interviewed for the story mentioned that piece of scripture.

I interviewed a religion writer (who didn’t make the quote cut because he didn’t say anything super-vital…), a pastor (who I quoted) and a deacon (who I did not quote because he didn’t say anything that hadn’t been better said by others…)

I agree with you, my story would’ve been more complete, and more interesting had I included that Scripture passage.

But I felt like the rest of your critique of my story is that A. I put the pastor at the end and B. I didn’t only interview Christians or biblical scholars. I mean, story organization is always a matter of taste, but I put the pastor at the end so as to make his ending quote land with more force. He was a wonderful interview.

As for not interviewing more Christians, or not asking if TipsForJesus is “Christian” as opposed to just “moral,” those are interesting ideas. To be honest, it NEVER occurred to me to ask if it was “Christian” behavior.

I just thought about how every faith tradition celebrates charity, so I sort of saw this behavior as Christian, sure, but also, if he had named the Instagram account TipsForAllah, or TipsForGod, it wouldn’t really impact the answer to that question — the answer would be yes, charity is positively viewed by all major world religions. So, I just didn’t think it was a compelling question because I felt like my readers would say they knew the answer is yes…

But, are you saying it was naive or wrong or not smart to take for granted that the tipping was, indeed, “Christian?”

And as for not focusing my interviews on explicitly self-identified Christians more or exclusively, I wanted to open the gist of the story up to as many people as possible — Christians and non, because I think we all have a stake in charity, in questions of morality and in how the rich practice charity. And, my readers are not all Christians, you know? I wanted to draw in as many people as possible to being thoughtful and to contending with these really hard questions — most good for most people per dollar vs. good for people I care about or who I’m connected to.

I write every once in a while about the intersection of religion and various aspects of daily life and I am open to feedback and criticism because I know that I am not an expert. So I appreciate the thought you put into analyzing my story. I don’t really think my story qualifies as a holy ghost story, though. Other than leaving out the piece of Scripture, I don’t see what key idea or deeper Christian point I left out …

I replied to Megan and thanked her for being so nice in her response. I pointed out that I wrote not long ago about the inherent difficulty that we at GetReligion face in critiquing journalism without knowing the full, behind-the-scenes story of the reporting, writing and editing involved.

And I said:

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African simony assertions from Religion News Service

As a good Protestant (in an Anglican context, of course), I reject the doctrine of purgatory — that intermediate state after death where those destined for paradise “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

I am not as courageous, however, as the author of a recent piece in The Federalist. Denoucing the cult of saints as un-Scriptural and un-Christian on the day before Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII were celebrated as saints by the Vatican was a turn worthy of Ian Paisley in his prime. But I digress.

I am, nevertheless, tempted by the doctrine of purgatory for I have just spent 24 hours at the Atlanta airport — the intermediate state for all travelers destined for the paradise of Florida.

Sanity was preserved, however, through application to my writing coupled with meditations on the devotional book I had packed for the journey: P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith (1924). Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby joined the Earl of Emsworth, Psmith and the dastardly Rupert Baxter as companions on my journey.

The close of Leave it to Psmith — a summary of its plot can be found here, but plots matter little in a Wodehouse piece — finds Psmith unmasked as an impostor by the efficient Baxter. He is not the modern poet Ralston McTodd whom Lord Emsworth was sent to fetch from London. Yet Psmith can explain. When the peer mistook him for the poet at the Senior Conservative Club in London, Psmith decided to step into the breach and save him from the “inconvenience of having to return here without a McTodd of any description.”

His lordship digested this explanation in silence. Then he seized on a magnificent point. “Are you a member of the Senior Conservative Club?”

“Most certainly.”

“Why, then, dash it,” cried his lordship, paying to that august stronghold of respectability as striking a tribute as it had ever received, “if you’re a member of the Senior Conservative, you can’t be a criminal. Baxter’s an ass!”

“Exactly.”

We may laugh with Wodehouse and applaud his verbal dexterity — but we should not laugh at the logic of the Earl of Emsworth. Whether it is called class, tribe or our crowd, most reporters face the temptation to write for a particular audience with whom they have shared assumptions, experiences and prejudices.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Modern newspaper readers — and it is worse on the Internet — are unlikely to stay with a story after the first few sentences unless it strikes their fancy. (I expect I have lost a good chunk of those who have clicked through to this article already.) To keep the reader’s interest a good reporter needs to find a hook that keeps them coming for more.

The trick for a reporter is not to let the hook overcome the story. A recent story released by the Religion News Service makes this error — basing its reporting on assumptions rather than taking on the journalistic task of accurately reporting voices on both sides of a very hot topic.

The article entitled “Conservative Anglican leaders back Uganda anti-gay law” recounts a meeting last week in London of leaders of the conservative or traditional wing of the Anglican Communion. Eleven archbishops whose churches account for roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of the active members of the worldwide Anglican Communion released a statement at the close of their gathering.

The London-based Daily Mail interpreted the statement as a challenge to the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Church of England to clarify its stance on gay marriage. The lede of its article “Church of England split fear as African bishops speak out over clergy flouting a ban on same-sex weddings” stated:

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was last night facing mounting pressure to crack down on clergy who marry their gay partners — as the threat of a split in the Anglican Church grew.

A powerful group of conservative African Archbishops said they were ‘deeply troubled’ by liberal Western attitudes towards homosexuality and that Church of England clerics were flouting a ban on same-sex weddings.

From the statement, which enumerated local concerns held by the various archbishops, the Daily Mail highlighted the closing two paragraphs, which focused on the traditionalists’ displeasure with Archbishop Welby for waffling on gay marriage.  The church press in England and the United States also read the statement in this way. (That is how these Anglican documents are written, by the way, their hook comes just before the close.)

This RNS piece took a radically different approach to the story. It said nothing about the threat to the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but opened as follows:

WASHINGTON (RNS) Leaders of the conservative wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion equate the experiences of Ugandans who support a new anti-gay law with those of victims of an earthquake or a terror attack.

The Global Anglican Future Conference — made up chiefly of Anglican archbishops in Africa, Asia and Latin America — concluded a two-day meeting in London on Saturday (April 26) with a statement that expressed concern for violence in South Sudan and Northern Nigeria. It then said:

“We are equally concerned for the affected communities in Chile from the recent earthquake, terrorist attacks in Kenya, and the backlash from the international community in Uganda from their new legislation.”

In an odd interpretation of the document, RNS then moved to the recent contretemps over Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws, even bringing on board President Barack Obama’s views on that legislation. The RNS piece then took a giant editorial leap.

But despite the GAFCON statement’s equation with catastrophes, the archbishops’ response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Ugandan law. The “backlash” line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million in financial aid and project support from the World Bank, the U.S. and other countries. According to IRIN, which covers humanitarian issues, this included $6.4 million intended for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, which backed the legislation.

Yes, you read that right. The key word was “seems.”

This is a curious interpretation of the document at best. The phrase the “response seems more concerned with finances than outright support for the Uganda law” is speculation — period. The two may seem to be connected in the mind of RNS and if this was a news analysis piece or an opinion article there is nothing untoward about RNS proffering this argument. Yet this article is billed as a news story.

Let me digress (again). I have a degree of knowledge about the individuals and institutions under discussion after covering the overseas Anglican world since 1998. I have interviewed the last three archbishops of Uganda and discussed the issues facing the church in private chats as well as in formal interviews. In my opinion the opinion expressed by RNS about the connection is specious nonsense.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, as George and Jerry tell us. But to make their argument RNS should have done some reporting with real Ugandans.

Rather than ask the Church of Uganda, whose press office is quick to respond to queries from overseas reporters, RNS makes a further assumption that is not supported by facts linked to sources. The key statement — the “ ‘backlash’ line could be a reference to the loss of $140 million” — could easily have been checked. Or RNS could have read the myriad reports in the church press as well as in the Ugandan press about the anger felt by Ugandans over what they see as the racist and patronizing attitude of the West.

In other words, there are multiple points of view on these complex issues. Find them. Quote them.

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