How do you report on people who love martyrdom?

suicide bomberI was reading Seymour Hersh’s excellent New Yorker piece on the Bush administration’s interest in the Hezbollah-Israeli war when I stumbled across this paragraph:

A European intelligence officer told me, “The Israelis have been caught in a psychological trap. In earlier years, they had the belief that they could solve their problems with toughness. But now, with Islamic martyrdom, things have changed, and they need different answers. How do you scare people who love martyrdom?” The problem with trying to eliminate Hezbollah, the intelligence officer said, is the group’s ties to the Shiite population in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and Beirut’s southern suburbs, where it operates schools, hospitals, a radio station, and various charities.

The challenge of confronting people who are not scared to die — taking people with them in the process — is a long-standing military and political challenge. For journalists, the job is slightly easier, but nevertheless difficult. While journalists, particularly those in television, are talented at covering martyrdom videos, typically after the fact, I might add, they do less reporting on the development of these so-called martyrs, also known as suicide bombers.

A related question is how to report on an organization that uses terrorism to wrest control of political situations. Organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah are highly media savvy, as clearly documented by National Public Radio’s On the Media. So how does a reporter give “fair and balanced” treatment to terrorists, particularly to their deliberate decisions to kill people?

Check out this section of the Hersh piece:

One intercept was of a meeting in late May of the Hamas political and military leadership, with Meshal participating by telephone. “Hamas believed the call from Damascus was scrambled, but Israel had broken the code,” the consultant said. For almost a year before its victory in the Palestinian elections in January, Hamas had curtailed its terrorist activities. In the late May intercepted conversation, the consultant told me, the Hamas leadership said that “they got no benefit from it, and were losing standing among the Palestinian population.” The conclusion, he said, was “‘Let’s go back into the terror business and then try and wrestle concessions from the Israeli government.’”

I’ve raised this concern before, but what is it in Hamas’ philosophical makeup that allows it to resort to murder and destruction to accomplish political goals? Christian Palestinians have lived in the same area under similar conditions for the same time — have you ever heard of a Christian Palestinian terrorist bomber?

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Revenge of ordination by media

shawl2I keep meaning to highlight two stories from earlier this week that dealt with female ordination. The first was a very well-written and interesting profile of the Rev. Marsha Foster Boyd by David Crumm in the Detroit Free Press. She was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and will be taking over as the fourth president of Detroit’s Ecumenical Theological Seminary in October.

Many U.S. denominations still do not ordain women and, among those that do, women clergy often complain of a stained-glass ceiling that bars them from top leadership. Boyd has invited the Rev. Leah Gaskin Fitchue, the only other woman to achieve a similar milestone, to speak at her installation.

The word “still” is interesting and completely unnecessary. My denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn’t ordain women. No need to say we “still” don’t ordain women. as it adds an editorial nudge. It’s the annoying kid in the back seat asking, “Are we there yet?” It assumes that where we are now is not good.

Anyway, there was another interesting and well-written piece in The New York Times about an Orthodox Jewish woman who will be leading a synagogue. The piece, by Michael Luo, explains a bit about the inherent conflict of such a move.

[Dina Najman] will not be called rabbi; instead, she has been given the title of rosh kehillah, or head of congregation. It is the highest position in the community, and she will be performing many of the functions of a rabbi, within certain limitations that have been laid out by the congregation’s leaders in an effort to abide by Jewish law.

One thing to note about stories such as this is how much coverage they should receive. It’s always a challenge, and one best handled by accurately characterizing how big a deal the news hook is. I thought Luo tread the delicate balance well. For instance, here’s how he characterized the congregation:

The congregation is on the leftward fringe of the Orthodox movement. Kehilat Orach Eliezer, which is about 15 years old, has intentionally avoided affiliating with any movement so that Jews from a variety of theological backgrounds can feel comfortable attending, but most members identify themselves as Orthodox.

I asked a few Orthodox Jewish friends what they thought of the story. Most said they didn’t think it was that big of a deal. They said communities on the fringe of Orthodoxy sometimes act outside the tradition but that the episodes never seem to set trends.

Luo definitely made it seem as if this was more of a trend than an isolated incident:

Indeed, propelled by an explosion in Jewish learning for women, they are now teaching Talmud classes, acting as advocates in Israel’s rabbinic courts and functioning as primary authorities on questions of family purity law. In Israel recently, a woman was even ordained by an Orthodox rabbi, although she does not occupy a pulpit and many in the Orthodox world do not recognize her status. And, in New York several years ago, a handful of women were hired as congregational interns by Orthodox synagogues.

All in all, though, I think this story provides a nice counterpoint to the debacle that was the WomenPriests coverage. Unlike in Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism has no central governing body that has forbidden such roles for women. There is clearly room for debate.

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Does the L.A. Times get Judaism?

soldiers at wallFor some time now, the Los Angeles Times has been running a feature, Outside the Tent, in which the editorial page invites the newspaper’s critics to take their best shots at specific issues.

I think it’s one of the best examples that I have seen of a mainstream newsroom tapping into the flood of commentary and information that’s available in the blogosphere. Now all the editors have to do is figure out that they should give this feature its own dedicated URL or its own webpage, so that readers can see more than one of them at a time. You know, the same way that they treat other specialty topics and specific columnists. It would be easy to do. Did I miss the URL somewhere?

Anyway, on Sunday the Times featured a column by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who basically said that, when it comes to Israel, the newspaper just doesn’t get Judaism. This was a basic media-bias column that ended with a zinger:

On Sabbath morning, July 29, a Times front-page headline trumpeted: “Israel Rejects Peace Offer.” A subhead added, “Hezbollah Signs On …” Our household wasn’t a subscriber on Aug. 2, when the For the Record correction said that “no formal offer had been presented to the Israeli government so none had been rejected.” Because when the July 30 Times editorial declared that “Israel’s license to wage war is nearing its expiration date,” my wife called the paper and canceled our subscription.

But the heart of this column is an appeal to the newspaper to consider that Jewish life, even when connected to Israel, might have a layer that transcends politics and power.

The rabbi notes that the Times has focused on political rallies and arguments between Muslims and Jews — valid stories — but has missed another crucial development, which is that liberal and Orthodox Jews had started cooperating with each other on some key projects linked to the current crisis.

Or, there is this wave of story ideas and angles from the rabbi:

Nor have you read anything about local Jews’ humanitarian outreach to frontline Israeli communities in northern Israel and adjacent to Gaza. In 72 hours, using the bully pulpit, phones and the Internet, four rabbis (I among them) from Sinai Temple and the Simon Wiesenthal Center raised $1.7 million. Then they, along with supporters, flew to Israel to seek out charities struggling to ameliorate the devastating conditions in the communities of Safed, Kiryat Shemona, Haifa and Nahariya.

As remarkable are the stories of Jews with an L.A. connection living in Israel and working to help Israelis affected by the war. We met Sara Zeltzreman, who for 24 years has volunteered at the Tel Hashomer rehab center, which is financially supported by L.A. Jewry; Cheri Drori, a Beverly Hills-born grandmother who, along with her rabbi husband, ministers to their flock in the overcrowded bomb shelters in Kiryat Shemona; and Neal Duchin, a graduate of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles who helped coordinate the absorption of about 5,000 displaced Israelis in his town of Beit Shemesh without any prodding or funding from the Israeli government.

Now, a newspaper cannot cover everything — not even one as powerful as the Los Angeles Times. But some of those stories are interesting and have strong local hooks.

bigimg36875Still, I thought of the rabbi’s column when I read the Times’ feature story about the life and death of Michael Levin, an Israeli paratrooper from the Philadelphia suburbs who fought to enter the Israeli army as a way of expressing his faith in God, in Israel, in public service or in something higher than himself.

You see, that’s the question. It’s clear that Levin was quite devout. This young man had a strong motivation to fight in Israel. Would it be possible to cover the faith element of the story? Is there a chance that he was an actual believer in the faith called Judaism and that, somehow, his motives were — in his eyes and in the eyes of his family and friends — centered on faith? Is there more to this story than studying Hebrew and hearing bedtime stories about Israel? More to Levin’s death than public relations to put a human face on a war?

The story, by reporters Stephen Braun and Laura King, hints at this but never gives us details that truly answer the question.

Mortally wounded during a firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon this month, Levin, 22, was buried on an Israeli hillside. His death so moved Israel’s armed forces that IDF sound trucks drove the streets of Jerusalem before Levin’s military funeral, urging residents to honor “a holy man.” And his passion for Israel has stirred young Zionists and Jewish congregations across the U.S., personalizing a conflict that has at times seemed remote and politically muddied.

When Levin left home for the last time in July,

He said his good-byes to his parents at Kennedy International Airport in New York, in his usual wisecracking manner. But then he grew somber. “He said: ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m doing what I want to do,’ ” his father recalled. “He said, ‘If God should decide to call me home, I’m fine with that. If something happens to me, please bury me at Mt. Herzl.’”

That’s what his parents did.

Was that a statement of faith? In what, precisely? I think Rabbi Cooper would have an opinion on that.

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Failing to cover a journalistic crime

PhotoshopCSAltering photographs is nothing new, especially in this digital era. When applied to the news business, it is a Jason Blair-style crime along the lines of plagiarism and fabrication — maybe worse because altered images are sometimes difficult to detect and images are so powerful. The media watchdogs have largely failed in covering this issue of altered and staged photographs, and they are failing the public.

Here is Stephen A., commenting on an earlier post on the Reuters photographer:

Larry is right to point to LGF. The blogs have torn apart the pathetic and biased coverage of the conflict.

Not only the doctored (plural) pictures used by Reuters, but the use of misleading pictures, has been exposed. Such as the woman, dressed in the same outfit, mourning the destruction of her home, only the pictures were taken in front of two separate buildings two weeks apart, and passed off as two incidents. I won’t spell out the motives here.

Posted by Stephen A. at 12:07 pm on August 8, 2006

Why has this incident — and what appear to be other incidents — received so little coverage? Where is Howard Kurtz? Is he too busy interviewing Katie Couric? The usually on-the-ball media critics at National Public Radio’s On the Media have not yet mentioned the scandal.

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times wrote a powerful column on this subject Saturday. Here’s a snippet:

There are, however, two problems here, and they’re the reason this controversy shouldn’t be allowed to sputter to its inglorious conclusion just yet: One of these has to do with the scope of what strongly appears to be wider fabrication in the photojournalism Reuters and other news agencies are obtaining from their freelancers in Lebanon. The other is the U.S. news media’s grudging response to the revelation of Hajj’s misconduct and its utter lack of interest in exploring whether his is a unique or representative case.

Thus far, only a handful of relatively brief stories on this affair have appeared in major American papers. The Times picked up one from the Washington Post, which focused mainly on the politics of Johnson’s website. The New York Times, which ran one of Hajj’s photos on its front page Saturday, reported that it has published eight of his pictures since 2003, but none were altered. It then went on to quote other papers about steps they take to detect fraudulent images. No paper has taken up the challenge of determining whether there’s anything dodgy about the flow of freelance photos Reuters and other news agencies — including the Associated Press, which also transmitted images made by Hajj — are sending out of tormented Lebanon.

It’s too bad this is an opinion column listed under entertainment news, because this altering and staging of photographs is one of the biggest media scandals of the year. Rutten, who comments on issues relating to the media, even picks up on a religion ghost that is sure to draw some controversy:

It’s worth noting in this context that there is no similar flow of propagandistic images coming from the Israeli side of the border. That’s because one side — the democratically elected government of Israel — views death as a tragedy and the other — the Iranian financed terrorist organization Hezbollah — sees it as an opportunity. In this case, turning their own dead children into material creates an opportunity to cloud the fact that every Lebanese casualty, tragic as he or she is, was killed or injured as an unavoidable consequence of Israel’s pursuit of terrorists who use their own people as human shields. Every Israeli civilian killed or injured was the victim of a terrorist attack intended to harm civilians. That alone ought to wash away any blood-stained suggestion of moral equivalency.

So why is this issue not being explored more thoroughly? All The New York Times managed to come up with is an article looking at the complexities of altering photographs. The only thing that I learned here was that the Soviet Union had an entire department devoted to altering photos. Time‘s Arts section had a much more honest, if brief, look at the subject — but with little investigation and more pondering.

Perhaps this is because a blogger uncovered, and continues to uncover, altered and staged photographs. Are the big media outlets tired of being scooped by bloggers? Perhaps it is because people alter photographs more often than anyone is willing to admit, particularly at big media institutions. As a person who used to do a bit of sports photography in college, I know how often photos are edited and cut down to create the most dramatic effect. At one point does one cross the line into altering or staging an image that violates basic journalistic ethics?

Why have the media given the Reuters photographer, whom they say is freelance, what essentially amounts to a free pass? He was caught trying to make an image of war more dramatic, and clumsily at that. He says it was an oversight, but that does not explain why he was altering the photo. Does he sympathize with Hezbollah? What about his photographs that were picked up by the Associated Press? Does AP need to pull those photos?

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How not to handle a call from a reporter

526600146gQNMkA phAs a rule, GetReligion limits itself to dissecting the work of mainstream journalists when they wrestle with news stories about religion. But, every now and then, you see a story in which your heart really goes out to the journalists who are trying to do this difficult job.

Take, for example, reporter Jane Musgrave of The Palm Beach Post and her recent story on the troubled financial past of the Rev. Steven Flockhart, the charismatic new preacher at the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla. This church sits in the heart of a major metropolitan area, just across the bridge from the world-famous resort community of Palm Beach. This is a high-profile gig in a very complex city.

Musgrave had some of the most important building blocks a reporter can have on this kind of story — like court documents, an anonymous tip that checked out and, then, on-the-record interviews with members of a church that Flockhart left in debt eight years ago. She also did a good job of telling the positive side of the story, stressing that those touched by the preacher’s troubles retained a remarkable degree of affection for him as a person, as a leader and, most of all, as a spectacular orator.

However, there was a problem.

Musgrave — in the name of accuracy and fairness — also needed to hear Flockhart’s side of the story. That meant doing an interview. This is where the train came off the rails a bit.

Want to see how not to handle a journalist’s request to hear your side of an important story? Check this out.

The Rev. Kevin Mahoney, executive pastor of the imposing Baptist church along the Intracoastal Waterway just south of downtown West Palm Beach, said he and other church leaders learned of the lawsuit after they offered Flockhart the prestigious position of head pastor, which had been vacant for three years. Like The Palm Beach Post, the church received a copy of the lawsuit and other court documents from a person who signed a short note only as “A former Crosspointe (Baptist Church) Member.”

Flockhart, 40, who lives in a 4,500-square-foot house in Royal Palm Beach with his wife and six children, declined requests for interviews. It is church policy for Mahoney alone to respond to press inquiries, the executive pastor said.

Say what? It is the congregation’s policy that the man in the pulpit — its superstar voice to the community — cannot talk to the press? Does this include television news interviews about, oh, spectacular Christmas events? Radio work?

Thus, the church created a kind of information triangle in which the reporter is forced to bounce documents and questions through an indirect connection. Trust me, this does not help a reporter trust the results. It’s like waving a red flag with one hand while shooting up warning flares with the other.

2005bestHere is what this looks like in print. You can read the story and make up your own mind about the complicated financial details. What we are interested in is the awkward contacts between the church and the newspaper and how this affected the story that was printed. We start with an IRS lien against the preacher for not paying some taxes.

When asked about it, Mahoney said, Flockhart denied ever having any problems with the IRS and said he had not had an American Express card for 12 or 15 years. After The Palm Beach Post faxed the Georgia court documents to Mahoney, he talked to Flockhart again.

Roughly a half-hour later, Mahoney called to say Flockhart did remember a dispute over payroll taxes with the IRS. Further, he remembered the dispute with American Express.

Mahoney said he was not troubled that Flockhart’s story changed dramatically in less than two hours.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister’s background — educational, personal, whatever — and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious. I know all about that from my background covering the Rev. Jim Bakker, years ago.

Like I said, this is not how to handle a simple request for an interview, especially when the reporter is holding documents in her hand.

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Reuters fails

ReutersPicThe contrast couldn’t be greater.

An August 5 article in the Los Angeles Times brought to our attention that Jews and Muslims are not the only ones caught up in Middle East conflict. Christians live there too.

Hezbollah is a pervasive influence in the society and will readily accept Christians’ support for propaganda purposes, but its radical ideology puts Christians in a position that would be unworkable, to say the least.

Times staffers Kim Murphy and Laura King do a superb job of describing the conflict for the Christians:

However, the strikes also alienated a group that largely has been hostile to Hezbollah. Christians make up an estimated 39% of Lebanon’s population, the highest percentage of any country in the Middle East. Over the years, they have often sympathized with Israel, even briefly collaborating in battling Palestinians during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon in the midst of the country’s 15-year civil war.

Although some prominent Christian leaders have formed political alliances with Hezbollah in recent years, many ordinary Christians have been wary of the rise of radical Shiite Muslim power, and of Hezbollah’s alliances with Syria and Iran. In the early days of the current conflict, they tended to blame Hezbollah for starting it with a cross-border raid in which it captured two Israeli soldiers.

Much of that sentiment has waned as Israel’s attacks have widened, and Friday’s strikes in the Christian heartland prompted Christian political leaders to respond with anger.

“People don’t see eye to eye with Hezbollah on all things, but this is a question of an attack on Lebanon,” said Farid Khazen, a Christian member of parliament.

Earlier, The New York Times did an equally impressive job in profiling Christians who are exiting the country for their own safety:

TYRE, Lebanon, July 27 — The refugees from southern Lebanon spilled out of packed cars into the dark street here Thursday evening, gulping bottles of water and squinting in the glare of the headlights to find family members and friends. Many had not eaten in days. Most had not had clean drinking water for some time. There were wounded swathed in makeshift dressings, and a baby just 16 days old.

But for some of the Christians who had made it out in this convoy, it was not just privations they wanted to talk about, but their ordeal at the hands of Hezbollah — a contrast to the Shiites, who make up a vast majority of the population in southern Lebanon and broadly support the militia.

“Hezbollah came to Ain Ebel to shoot its rockets,” said Fayad Hanna Amar, a young Christian man, referring to his village. “They are shooting from between our houses.”

“Please,” he added, “write that in your newspaper.”

This is good solid reporting in a tough situation with thousands of years of history and many factions pushing their agendas.

Now take a look at this August 4 Reuters story by Khaled Yacoub Oweis on the Christians who comprise 10 percent of the population in Syria:

DAMASCUS (Reuters) — Seventy-seven-year-old Mona Muzaber lights a candle for Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at the Orthodox Church of the Cross in the centre of Damascus.

“I love him. I never felt Nasrallah was a religious zealot. He is a patriot who doesn’t seek personal gain,” she said. “I light a candle daily for him to remain under God’s protection.”

Israel’s offensive against Lebanon has brought Christians in neighbouring Syria closer to Nasrallah, a Shi’ite Muslim, reviving Arab nationalist feelings and blurring sectarian divisions.

Bishops and priests say Syria’s Christians, a devout community of around three million out of a population of 18 million, identify strongly with Nasrallah’s battle with Israel, which has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967.

“Pray for the resistance, pray for Hassan Nasrallah. He is defending justice,” Father Elias Zahlawi told the congregation at special mass held at the Lady of Damascus, a Catholic church.

Across Damascus Christians, like Muslims, sit glued to Nasrallah’s al-Manar television, receptive to his portrayal of the war as one in defence of all Arabs, as well as Muslims.

The article reads as a press release. It’s spewing out pure propaganda. And it’s not because I favor what the Israelis are doing, or dislike Syria. It’s because the article, in the words of a friend, is “absolutely devoid of any historical and religious context.” For starters, the article fails to acknowledge that Christians and Jews living under Islamic law are given a special protected status and are essentially second-class citizens.

The article also fails to mention that, while Syria has the appearance of a democracy, the Sunni-dominated country is essentially an authoritarian regime and it would be quite difficult for a Christian, or anyone for that matter, to speak freely on religion without risking the wrath of the majority. This type of conditioning has been going on for hundreds of years.

Contrast the statements of the Christians in Lebanon and the Christians in Syria. How could they be different? Perhaps it is because the Lebanese Christians have lived under the Hezbollah militias? To make things even more complicated for reporters, but not impossible, is recognizing that there are different Christian sects in the two countries, including everything from Maronite Catholics to Greek Orthodox to Armenian Orthodox to Roman Catholics, Coptics and Protestants.

Now, the level of embarrassment that this article brings to Reuters pales in comparison to the utter disaster caused by a freelance Lebanese photographer who altered two images to make the bombings of Lebanon seem worse than they really were.

Things like this don’t happen in a vacuum. Based on my experience covering goofs in large organizations, it is my guess that this is only the tip of the iceberg. What other distortions and poor journalism has Reuters put before its readers in covering the Middle East conflict? Or as Matt Drudge would say, what is real and what is altered?

There is a bigger story here about the coverage of this conflict and it will be interesting to see if The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz or National Public Radio’s On the Media will take it on during what is usually prime August vacation time.

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Covering the sins of Mel Gibson

10Anyone who paid close attention during the EWTN interviews with Mel Gibson, released during that Christian-media PR wave before The Passion of the Christ, could read between the lines.

The timeline was pretty clear.

Gibson (1) had been through some very rough times, describing in vague terms all the rumors about booze and a troubled private life. He was one messed-up sinner. Then (2) he had stepped back from the brink and there had been some events that he linked to God working in his life, including his interest in the writings of the mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich and the gift of a small pieces of one of the nun’s cloaks. This led to (3) the intensely personal work on The Passion, a time during which Gibson — always a wild man when it comes to language and work habits — put himself under very tight controls.

I was struck that Gibson, while filming that movie, said he was going to confession every day and was working as closely as possible with the priests involved in the movie. I heard some of these details repeated when I interviewed the Jesuit — Father William Fulco — who worked with Gibson on the Aramaic translations for The Passion.

It sounded, to me, like Gibson was on the wagon and that the very nature of the Passion project was helping him battle some of his demons. He was surrounded by Catholics and other Christians and he needed them for the project. The sinner was, whatever the mixed motives, getting some of the help that he needed. This led to the next question: What would happen next?

Even up here in the quiet mountains of North Carolina, it is impossible to escape the barrage of coverage of the sinner’s slide into the ditch. Sinners do this. We all do it in, in ways that are private and rarely public.

I have not, needless to say, been able to follow all the coverage in this cyber cafe.

There have been icy blasts of Hollywood cynicism, such as Patrick Goldstein’s Big Picture column in the Los Angeles Times. There was the tragic — whether it was spin or not — report about Gibson being suicidal. Actually, if a Catholic father was failing his wife and children in such a hellish and public manner (even before the arrest), despair and suicide might be a logical next temptation.

Then there was the second apology, with its open appeal for the help of major Jewish leaders. I was shocked that some mainstream reporters and leaders took it rather seriously, not that Gibson offered a serious apology after he sobered up. As Peter Carlson reported in The Washington Post:

Apology I was judged to be “insufficient” and “unremorseful” by Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman, who had criticized “Passion” as an incitement to anti-Semitism, posted a statement on the ADL’s Web site: “We would hope that Hollywood would now realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from the anti-Semite.”

But Foxman was more impressed with Apology II. “We are glad that Mel Gibson has finally owned up to the fact that he made anti-Semitic remarks and his apology sounds sincere,” Foxman said in a statement. “Once he completes his rehabilitation for alcohol abuse, we will be ready and willing to help him with his second rehabilitation to combat this disease of prejudice.” Gibson’s agent yesterday indicated his client was availing himself of help as an outpatient.

After wading through some of this, the reporter in me wants to ask this question: Is this a religion story or a Hollywood story?

The answer, of course, is that it is both.

The Hollywood story will get covered, one way or another. I am curious to know whether many mainstream reporters will take Gibson at his word and attempt to cover the religion story, the story of the sinner who either will, or will not, repent and take the radical actions required to get back on the wagon of faith and family. In his second apology, Gibson described his fall in terms of sin and faith. That could be spin. It could be real. That is a story, in and of itself.

I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena. As a result, I must assume personal responsibility for my words and apologise directly to those who have been hurt and offended by those words.

The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life. Every human being is God’s child, and if I wish to honour my God I have to honour his children. But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.

As Steve Lopez noted in the Los Angeles Times, traditional beievers — Jews and Christians — will be watching carefully, after the filth of some of Gibson’s drunken remarks.

… I imagine it’s hard to simply turn the other cheek.

Especially when you consider that Gibson was allegedly doing 80 mph on the Pacific Coast Highway at 2:30 in the morning with a bottle of tequila in his Lexus, and that he dropped F-bombs like a sailor when he got pulled over. It was F this and F that, an R-rated performance start to finish. When he got to the station, he reportedly tried to smash a phone and urinate in his cell.

Where does the penance begin? A hundred thousand rosaries and six months of Hail Marys?

passion christi mel gibson 360Indeed, where does the penance begin? It begins in a confession booth and at home. But how can the media cover those private locations? Gibson can repent before God and a priest and no one will know and that’s how it should be. It is, in a way, easier to repent before God than before the principalities and powers of Hollywood.

However, there are factual questions, public questions that can be asked.

What is the status of Gibson’s controversial Mayan movie, Apocalypto? He should be editing it right now, since it remains unfinished. Media reports indicate that he is in an outpatient program. OK, but what has happened to his Catholic support network? Has he appealed for help? I wonder if his friends at EWTN have heard from him.

There are public steps that Gibson can take, if his faith and his repentance are sincere. Where to begin? Julia Duin of The Washington Times offered some suggestions, thinking as a believer and as a reporter:

Sometimes a little Catholic guilt is a good thing.

But what’s key here is repentance, not just apologies. Without the former, you’re toast to God, never mind Hollywood. Now is the time for some radical steps.

Never drink again. Seriously. … Confess, confess, confess. You not only trashed Jews in your drunken rage, your remarks were obscene and sexist as well. Humility in public life is quite becoming, especially in your line of work. Admit to the world that Jesus was — and still is — Jewish, so your offense was against him as well.

A visit to Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka or all three Holocaust sites may not be a bad idea. The American Jewish Committee was right in saying that repentance is measured in actions, not words.

If Rabbi David Baron really wants you to speak at Temple of the Arts on Yom Kippur (Sunday, Oct. 1, if you didn’t already know), then go. Showing up there — or at the concentration camps — may come off as a PR stunt, but right now, you need a better photo op than that booking mug shot.

Beg — don’t ask — people of all faiths to pray for you. Jews will consider that a mitzvah and Christians are commanded to pray for their enemies.


This is a strange news story, and journalists will need to cover both sides of Gibson’s fall — the faith side as well as the celebrity side. Where is Gibson turning, in this time of need? Is the sinner getting the help that he needs?

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What did you want to know about Woody?

scoopWhen I was in college, about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled, there were two kinds of moviegoers at Baylor University, the world’s largest Southern Baptist institution of higher learning. There were the people who went to Woody Allen movies and the people who did not.

My strongest memories surround that silly, at times gleefully pretentious, comedy called Love and Death. It offered his early hit blend of nihilism with solid one-liners, and it was not afraid to go over the edge again and again and again. However, there were times when the theological absurdism seemed to have a hint of content. At times, it seemed like Allen was actually asking serious questions. Then it was time for another silly sight gag.

All of this built up to the sincere seeking in Manhattan and, finally, the intelligent darkness of Crimes and Misdemeanors, when Allen put God on trial and seemed to want a verdict. I was a reporter in Denver at the time and one Orthodox rabbi preached an entire sermon series on that movie. It deserved it.

However, the heart wants what it wants, says Woody, and there was a moral cliff dead ahead. But I still know traditional Christians — you’d be amazed at one or two of the names — who pray each day for Woody Allen’s conversion. There was a time when it seemed like he was a God-haunted man.

Is that still true? I am sorry to say that the recent Washington Post profile by David Segal does not give us many clues. The empty void is there, but it has no name or shape. The new comedy Scoop sounds just as empty. Here is the summary:

The 70-year-old writer and director has been musing about life, sex, work, death and his generally futile search for hope, and frankly, mere depression hardly seems like the right response. Flat-out terror is what is called for here.

Yes, the world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.

Now, there are scholars and even theologians who have studied this side of Allen for years. They are not hard to find. Type “Woody Allen” and “theodicy” into Google and you’ll find some interesting things.

But Segal leaves us at the surface, with a few hints of the demons that haunt this aging child of the sexual revolution.

Here is the sad ending (and this is about as deep as things get):

Thanks to Woody Allen, a couple of generations of nebbishy non-jocks were able to get dates. He created the archetype of the nerd who lands the babe. Can he look back on that achievement with some joy?

“No. Because I was always the guy struggling on the outside to get in. I remember being in Chicago and I was invited to the Playboy mansion. This was a long time ago. And this bevy of beautiful girls was there and I couldn’t get to first base with any of them. And this guy I was with said, ‘They only talk to me because I’m with you. I can go to bed with them because I’m with you.’ And I am me! And I’m not in bed with any of them.” …

“For me, being famous didn’t help me that much. It helped a little. Warren Beatty once said to me many years ago, being a star is like being in a whorehouse with a credit card, and I never found that. For me, it was like being in a whorehouse with a credit card that had expired.”

Yes, that is a funny line.

But it is also sad. Actually, it is more than that. That’s the point.

Would it be too much to ask Allen a few serious questions? In the past, he used to ask them on screen.

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