Sorry, no ghosts in Newsweek’s scoop

060731 COVER standardAlas, I am sad to report that there are no ghosts at all in Newsweek‘s much ballyhooed front-page exclusive look behind the secret curtain that hid the real President George W. Bush from the eyes of the secular world during his lengthy trip to Russia for the G8 summit. This is the feature story with the heavy subheadline “Behind the Scenes With President Bush As the Middle East Explodes.”

There were no prayer meetings on Air Force One and, apparently, the reporters and photographers had total access. There is no religion in this story at all, which feels rather strange, with the Bush image and all of that.

Did the Bible-thumping, power-praying president manage to go God-free for four days? Perhaps the Newsweek team was not familiar with the meaning of the words “Gog” and “Magog”? Also, I could find no evidence that Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye had a secret bedroom hidden just off the command center. How did Bush manage to hide him?

Let’s see, what else? There are no thinly veiled discussions between Bush and his disciples on the crucial question (thank you, CNN) of whether events on the Israel-Lebanon border will hasten the end of the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not shown speaking in tongues (not even Russian, while in Russia), in front of the Newsweek team or playing praise choruses on the piano (not even Rachmaninoff).

Maybe I need to read this piece again. That premillennial ghost has to be in there somewhere.

Stay tuned. Oh, and it does appear that Bush knows how to pronounce Shiite.

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Contact, we have contact!

TheWashingtonPostSeveral days of email have finally drawn the first hint of a response to GetReligion’s request for a correction on that Washington Post story about missionaries, modern Istanbul and the sacking of the city in 1204.

Stay tuned as the process rolls on.

Re: Still seeking a correction

Thank you for your recent e-mail to the Washington Post’s corrections dropbox.

Your message has been forwarded to the National desk for investigation.

We appreciate your feedback.

Washington Post Corrections Dropbox

True, this does not feel very fulfilling. This might be a computer, rather than a person. But, hey, it’s the first hint of a response. Maybe.

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Update on the Post and history

Phanar thumbI have been sending messages to The Washington Post each day, seeking a correction to that April 9 news feature about Islamists killing priests and missionaries in the city that once was known as Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine world.

You may recall, that’s the story that said this concerning the tense state of affairs between Christians and Turks:

The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.

“Missionaries and the Crusades are related,” Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs declared in a pamphlet published last June.

Now, as the Divine Ms. M first noted, this rather messes up the history of this amazing but troubled city. For, you see, the Western crusaders slaughtered Greek Christians in 1204, not Muslims. Then the Muslims slaughtered the Greek Christians again in 1453, when they claimed the city for Islam. Click here to read an essay on that — on the website of the Post, of all places.

Over at Beliefnet, our friend Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher of The Dallas Morning News has joined us in this appeal for a correction, in a post with the nice headline “Dog bites man!” Rod connected two particular dots that I had not connected, arguing that the reporter did not simply make a mistake. The error came from a source with a motive.

The WaPo bought propaganda from the Turkish government hook, line and sinker. Incredible. Why do you suppose they did that? The Sack of Constantinople — Christian versus Christian — is a basic historical fact.

I believe that it is also important for journalists to remember that the city that is now Istanbul remained a troubled but still vital center for Greek faith and culture long after it was captured in 1453. Here is how I summed up a few basic facts about that reality, in a Scripps Howard column column I filed after visiting the walled compound — terrorist threats are common — that includes the home of Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

The compound has two gates, and there is a reason for that:

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish.

Yes, there are lots of religious news stories to cover in modern Istanbul. I still hope that the Post corrects its error and then asks its reporters in the region to do some more digging.

Should you feel inclined to join our, uh, journalistic crusade, the email address for the newspaper’s correction desk is

A personal note: I will be on the road for the next four days or so, headed to some place even hotter than Washington, D.C. That would be my home state of Texas. I will try to post when I can.

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Please explain the divide?

hezbollah fighterThe good news is that The Boston Globe corrected its mistake when it said that Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth. It took a few days, but the article has been updated and a correction posted at the end. But I doubt we’ll see posting a retraction anytime soon.

Let’s move on to more significant issues. Mainstream media reports continue to ignore the ideological factors that play into the raging violence between Israel and Islamic militants and what has become essentially a civil war in Iraq. We dwell on this so often because until American voters properly understand the issues, how can we expect our leaders to make informed decisions?

See Exhibit A, here in the July 24 edition of Newsweek magazine:

Iran’s clerics have deep ideological differences with the nettlesome Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Even so, Tehran supports him and his Mahdi Army militia, which has repeatedly been linked to ferocious death-squad killings. “I used to fight for free,” a former member of Sadr’s forces told Newsweek, “but today the Mahdi Army receives millions of dollars every month from Iran in exchange for carrying out the Iranian agenda.” Part of the program: assassinations of prominent Sunnis and former Iraqi military officers who fought against Iran in the 1980-88 war. The United States would not like to confront, again, the kind of simultaneous Sunni and Shiite insurrections it faced in 2004, but tensions are fierce. “The government is unable to do anything to control the Mahdi Army,” says Sheik Abu Muhammad al-Baghdadi, a well-connected figure in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. “This Army is a bomb set to go off in the near future.”

I guess we should give Newsweek credit for mentioning that there are “deep ideological differences” between Iranian clerics and al-Sadr. I kept flipping around the print version trying to find that elusive sidebar that would outline the differences, but I’m still looking.

Early this week, Comedy Central’s Daily Show did one of its fake news reports, and while I haven’t been able find the link, I remember it clearly because it was such an effective demonstration of the pathetic nature of American’s broadcast news, both cable and network. The fake correspondent took out a notepad and began reading from a script that was clearly out of date. Host Jon Stewart quickly mentioned this fact, and the correspondent lamely stated that she was reading from a form, which he had failed to update from a previous Middle East conflict. In other words, reporters are stuck in a rut when it comes to covering Middle East conflicts.

israeli fighterTake, for instance, this New York Sun article pointing out that a silent Arab majority does not believe that “Neanderthal Muslim imams who have never read a book in their dim, miserable lives” should rule the roost in the Middle East. Does this fit the mainstream media reports’ typical characterization of Muslim and Israeli conflicts? I don’t think so:

The Arab League put it succinctly in its final communique in Cairo, declaring that “behavior undertaken by some groups [read: Hezbollah and Hamas] in apparent safeguarding of Arab interests does in fact harm those interests, allowing Israel and other parties from outside the Arab world [read: Iran] to wreck havoc with the security and safety of all Arab countries.”

As for Hezbollah and its few supporters, who have pushed for an emergency Arab summit meeting, the response could not have been a bigger slap in the face. …

All in all, it seems that when Israel decided to go to war against the priestly mafia of Hamas and Hezbollah, it opened a whole new chapter in the Greater Middle East discourse. And Israel is finding, to its surprise, that a vast, not-so-silent majority of Arabs agrees that enough is enough. To be sure, beneath the hostility toward Sheik Nasrallah in Sunni Muslim states lies the deep and bitter heritage of a 14-century Sunni-Shiite divide, propelled to greater heights now by fears of an ascendant Shiite “arc of menace” rising out of Iran and peddled in the Sunni world by Syria.

Back to Iraq for a moment. As civil war breaks out, it will be interesting to see if the media cover the divide between Sunnis and Shiites in a serious way. I would think they would be forced to do it. But if this New York Times article is any indication, I am not getting my hopes up:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 19 — Gunmen kidnapped as many as 20 employees of a government agency that oversees Sunni mosques on Tuesday and Wednesday, grabbing them on their way home from work at ad-hoc checkpoints north of Baghdad, an official said.

Throughout the country, at least 49 people were killed or found dead on Wednesday, including an Interior Ministry official who was shot in his car at 8 a.m.

Most of the attacks appeared to be sectarian-related, and they came a day after a suicide car bomber killed at least 53 people and wounded more than 100 in the Shiite holy city of Kufa. On Wednesday, the Mujahedeen Shura, an insurgent umbrella group that has often directed attacks against Shiite civilians, posted Internet messages claiming responsibility for that bombing.

We have Sunni mosques, 49 people dead and a Shiite holy city in the first three paragraphs, but little explanation of the group’s differences, similarities or histories.

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Jesus Christ was born where?

Jesus born in, one of the most heavily visited news sites on the Internet, posted these headlines this morning in an attempt to cover the rapidly developing cycle of violence in the Middle East:

  • Israeli soldiers battle Hezbollah inside Lebanon

  • A Hezbollah rocket attack on Nazareth, revered as birthplace of Jesus, kills two people, Israeli army says
  • Israeli soldiers battle Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon near Avivim, Israel
  • Orient Queen leaves Beirut carrying about 800 U.S. and British citizens to Cyprus

Note to editors and producers at Jesus Christ was not born in Nazareth. Nazareth was his hometown. He is often referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth.” But he was born in Bethlehem. Like in the Christmas carols. It may sound like a minor error, but it is actually quite significant theologically. A Nazarene being born in Bethlehem was a bit unusual at the time, as people did not travel much, and it fulfilled key biblical prophecies.

What does this say about CNN editors’ knowledge of religion and their ability to present the news of a conflict that has ancient roots in religion?

The good folks over at Christianity Today noticed this error and one of their interns, Jason Bailey, a Wheaton College senior, was smart enough to take a screen shot. The error was quickly fixed, but not corrected. A correction requires admission of a past wrong. We in the print media know that an error requires a retraction. This makes us quite careful in what we publish. Apparently those standards do not apply to cable news websites.

Jason would like to refer CNN editors to this map for future reference, and maybe they could search their own archives to fact-check their headlines in the future.

Update: One of our readers, Michael M., noted that The Boston Globe did the exact same thing in an article on Monday:

Last night, Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon penetrated farther than ever into Israel, hitting Afula, 33 miles south of border, and landing on the outskirts of Nazareth, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. Israeli officials said Hezbollah possessed rockets that could fly more than 40 miles and warned residents of Tel Aviv, the country’s metropolitan hub about 70 miles from the border, to be alert.

The blast in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, brought the Israeli death toll to at least 24, half of them civilians. Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 148 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians.

So not only did CNN get it wrong — CNN got it wrong in what looks a lot like a cut-and-paste job from the Globe. The wording is nearly identical.

I should also note that others have heard the same mistake over the radio.

It’s time to call for a correction, folks. I’ll let you know when we get it.

Second Update: If you want to help us out in getting the Boston Globe article corrected, go here. It’s a basic error. Let’s see how long it takes the Globe to fix it.

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Vague, undefined “sects” in Iraq

pic02I know, I know.

I know that I could write this exact same post almost every day. I’m getting tired of writing it and, based on the lack of reader comments, you are getting tired of reading it.

But, honest, I clicked on this Los Angeles Times report by Borzou Daragahi, the one with the headline “In Iraq, Civil War All but Declared,” and I really thought that this was going to be the one, this was going to be the story that tried to describe the actual differences between the Shiite and Sunni believers who are slaughtering each other and pulling Iraq into a state of “sectarian” civil war.

But I was wrong.

This is, of course, the same doctrinal and political divide — that line in Islam is hard to draw — that lurks behind the divided Muslim reactions to the Lebanon-Gaza crisis. A gripping Los Angeles Times report by Kim Murphy demonstrated that reality the other day, but, once again, did not give us any background on the history and the doctrines involved.

But back to the original story from Iraq. Read the opening paragraphs and then stop and ask this question: Why? Why is this happening? And why is this religious element of the story not a basic part of the journalistic formula for covering this war?

BAGHDAD — Retaliatory massacres by gunmen and bombers linked to rival Muslim sects have left more than 130 people dead across Iraq over the last two days, the latest casualties of what some politicians now are calling an undeclared civil war.

At least 57 Iraqis were killed Tuesday and scores more injured when a suicide bomber lured a group of day laborers to his minivan with the promise of work before setting off explosives. The bombing in Kufa rained blood, burnt debris and charred body parts on a small market across the street from the Muslim bin Aqil mosque, the main platform for radical Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada Sadr.

Since the beginning of May, attacks by Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslims have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians, according to a United Nations study and Iraqi police reports. The Kufa blast, coming on the heels of mass killings and bombings attributed to Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia and its Sunni Arab enemies, brought the battle to the Shiite cleric’s doorstep, igniting fears of a fresh wave of reprisal killings.

“The message is clear, and the message confirms the sectarian differences,” said Fadhil Sharih, a leader of the Sadr movement. “It seems clear that it’s been moving toward the direction of civil war.”

IraqMosque2There’s a new variation — “sectarian differences.”

Is that the same thing as saying that these “sects” have different beliefs, practices and histories? And if they are “sects” — which is an interesting and I would argue inaccurate term to use in this context — then what is the basic form of Islam, the normative form of Islam? What does that religion teach and how is it different from these two “sects” that are at war with one another?

I know, I know.

I know that this fighting is about power politics as much or more than it is about religion and doctrine (although, again, it is simplistic to try to draw that kind of line). Nevertheless, as Paul Marshall of Freedom House put it the other day during our Oxford Centre seminar: It is true that politicians can manipulate religious sentiments and convictions. But for this to happen, the religious sentiments and convictions have to be real and powerful in the first place.

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Post time for another Orthodox correction

1097250162 s1qdaq78jk7 sackconstHere we go again, only this time GetReligion is requesting a correction from The Washington Post. We recently discovered that the copy desk at The New York Times takes corrections very seriously, going so far as to dig back into history and correct past mistakes as well as the one that was bugging us.

The email address for Washington Post corrections is a logical one: So here goes:

Corrections desk, The Washington Post:

My name is Terry Mattingly and I am a journalism professor and religion columnist who works with the website that discusses religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. We would like to request a correction in your April 9 news feature with the headline “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries.”

We realize that this story by Karl Vick story is rather old, but it only recently came to the attention of our weblog.

Here is the passage that concerns us. The goal, at this point in the story, is to explain the roots of the current violence in Istanbul against Catholic priests and Christian missionaries in general.

The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.

“Missionaries and the Crusades are related,” Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs declared in a pamphlet published last June. The directorate, which exercises control over all Turkish mosques, distributed a sermon for Friday prayers nationwide a year ago. Imams warned worshipers that missionaries were involved in a plot to “steal the beliefs of our young people and children.”

The problem with this statement is rather obvious. At least, we think that it is obvious.

It is true that the sacking of the great Byzantine city of Constantinople in 1204 did create bitter wounds that affect the modern world — wounds that affect contact between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The late Pope John Paul II was especially concerned about this, as shown in this news event that received global news coverage (including this 2004 report in the Telegraph):

The Pope delivered an emotional apology to Orthodox Christians … for the Catholic plundering of Constantinople eight centuries ago, saying it caused him “pain and disgust.” He made his comments during a visit to the Vatican by Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.

“In particular, we cannot forget what happened in the month of April 1204,” the Pope said, in reference to the sacking of Constantinople by crusaders. “How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust.”

The incident, which was part of the Fourth Crusade, was one of the most violent events of the Middle Ages. It contributed to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire three centuries later.

hagiasophialastAfter centuries of fighting, Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders in 1453 and the great Hagia Sophia cathedral was turned into a mosque.

You can verify this by reading the following essay on the website of the — lo and behold — Washington Post. It begins:

On the afternoon of 29 May 1453 the Sultan entered the long-desired city. Riding a white horse, he advanced down an avenue of death. The city of Constantinople was being put to the sack by the triumphant Ottoman army. According to an observer from Venice, blood flowed through the streets like rainwater after a sudden storm; corpses floated out to sea like melons along a canal. An Ottoman official, Tursun Beg, wrote that the troops `took silver and gold vessels, precious stones, and all sorts of valuable goods and fabrics from the imperial palace and the houses of the rich. In this fashion many people were delivered from poverty and made rich. Every tent was filled with handsome boys and beautiful girls.’ On rode the Sultan, until he reached the mother church of Eastern Christendom and seat of the Oecumenical Patriarch, the cathedral of the Holy Wisdom built 900 years earlier by the Emperor Justinian with the largest dome in Europe. He dismounted and bent down to pick up a handful of earth, which he poured over his turban as an act of humility before God.

So the Post has reported that actions by Islamists in modern Turkey against Christians are somehow rooted in anger over the actions of Western Crusaders against Eastern Christians in 1204?

Please correct the error in the April 9 report and any earlier Post stories that repeated it.

Thank you.

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Missing the ghosts of Muslims in NYC

american muslimsSome ghosts are just too obvious to miss. But sadly, in an attempt to cram reams of issues into an eight-minute radio broadcast, National Public Radio did what so many media outlets do in attempt to write about Islam: give theological issues the short stick.

NPR’s Anne Garrels did a relatively interesting piece Thursday that made the network’s “story of the day” on a former New York City elementary school teacher who is a Muslim. Nearly five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this former teacher, Debbie Almontaser, is struggling to explain to people that not all faithful Muslims have terrorist sympathies.

I don’t have any text to paste into this post, so I’ll post a short summary.

The article talks about how these American Muslims, devout enough to wear head coverings, are generally decent people rather than terrorists bent on committing atrocities. People around Almontaser do not always understand this, and she has even been reported through the Justice Department’s tips program, which resulted in an investigation.

The story is striking. Almontaser’s eldest son was in the National Guard, and performed rescue and recovery at the World Trade Center. “He did his job as an American, as a soldier and as a Muslim,” his father says.

It’s also a story that needs to be told. But this attempt lacked a basic sense of the controversies raging in Islamic communities over the proper response to Islamic terrorism. The issue is not as simple as a few crazy terrorists doing despicable things in the name of Islam.

Here are some questions that I would have tried to answer:

  • What type of soul searching did Almontaser engage in when she decided to embrace Muslim-American culture (whatever that means)?
  • Why did she start wearing a Muslim head covering? What does that have to do with being a good Muslim-American?
  • Do the teachings in mosques reflect what Almontaser believes Islam teaches?
  • What did Almontaser do, if anything, that led somebody to launch a Justice Department investigation? (Nothing came of it, by the way.)
  • Are the terrorist attacks the only reasons Muslims struggle in connecting to the rest of American society?
  • Why would some Muslims object to secular music, and why does Almontaser believe it is OK?

Feel free, after listening to the story, to post your own questions.

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