NYTimes inside private GOP session on abortion strategy?

ShutDoorMeeting

Apparently, this past spring, the Republican National Committee held a closed-door meeting in which a circle of conservative women discussed a topic that they have been discussing for decades — how to talk about abortion when dealing with mainstream journalists, especially television reporters.

Apparently, someone taking part in this meeting decided to invite a reporter from The New York Times to step inside the closed doors. Bravo for whoever made the brave decision to do that.

Apparently, however, it took quite a while for editors at the Times to decide that this was a story worth printing, since it just ran in late July, under the headline, “Conservatives Hone Script to Light a Fire Over Abortion.”

On one level, this is pretty straightforward stuff. However, I have one rather basic journalistic question: If this was a closed-door session, was the Times reporter actually invited to attend or did someone slip into the meeting? Consider how this issue is framed at the top of the report.

It was not on the public schedule for the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting at the stately Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. But inside a conference room, a group of conservative women held a boot camp to strengthen an unlikely set of skills: how to talk about abortion.

They have conducted a half-dozen of these sessions around the country this year, from Richmond, Va., to Madison, Wis. Coaches point video cameras at the participants and ask them to talk about why they believe abortion is wrong.

Please hear me: The content is valid either way. However, shouldn’t this question about access to the meeting have been mentioned? If a reporter snuck in, that’s interesting, especially in terms of decades of tensions about abortion coverage and mainstream news-media bias. If a reporter was invited into the meeting, then that is even more interesting — for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, I thought it was rather strange that the Times team thought that this session focused on an “unlikely set of skills.”

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UCLA study literally tries to sell gay marriage in Texas

gay marriage 05Help gays marry and boost the economy: That’s one of the newest pitches in gay rights circles. A new story in Houston Chronicle says legalizing same-sex marriage could boost state income by $180 million over three years.

The thorny issues are explored in this reprint from the Texas Tribune, a non-profit journalistic think tank. The story is interesting, intelligent and mostly fair to conservative and liberal sources alike. But it does leave a few questions.

The news peg is a study by UCLA researchers. It “predicts that more than 23,000 same-sex couples in Texas would marry within three years if the state allowed them to,” the article says. According to the study, those 23,000 couples would add nearly $15 million in sales tax over three years. And if Texas beat neighboring Louisiana and Oklahoma, the state might reap even more.

It’s a clever tactic, especially for a state that has fought gay marriage at least since Texas passed a constitutional amendment against it in 2005. Here’s a pro-gay reaction from the story:

The report, which applies Texas population data to a model based on states where gay marriage has been legalized, provides a financial argument for same-sex marriage, said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Freedom to Marry, a gay rights group.

“There is a fiscal component, and there is also a families component,” he said. “Allowing gay people to marry is actually a conservative value. It’s about limited government and it’s about stronger families.”

And lookit that: two paragraphs from the opposition. I like The Texas Tribune already.

Gay marriage opponents have a different view. Jonathan Saenz, executive director of the socially conservative group Texas Values, said the study used a model that wouldn’t apply to Texas.

“For 10 straight years, Texas has been ranked as the top state for business. It’s no surprise that Texas has also defined marriage as between one man and one woman in its constitution during these same 10 years, since 2005,” Saenz said. “California, a state that performs homosexual marriages, is ranked as one of the five worst states for business in 2014. Case closed.”

We then get a reply from Christy Mallory, one of the authors of the UCLA study. (Yep, The Texas Tribune did more than read and parrot a press release.) Mallory says that business ratings use a “variety of factors,” not just marriage.

Much of the rest of the article recaps the struggle in Texas: Legislators have stopped every effort to legalize same-sex marriage, but a federal judge in San Antonio ruled against the constitutional ban (but stayed the effect of his ruling).

An insightful paragraph:

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Big news report card: Oklahoma same-sex marriage ruling

Give the New York Times an F for its sketchy coverage of an appeals court striking down Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The Times managed to report on Friday’s court decision affecting “conservative-leaning” Oklahoma — as the Times described my home state — without quoting a single source who supports the traditional view of marriage.

On the other hand, The Associated Press deserves an A for its solid news report that quoted sources on both sides of the issue — as fair, unbiased journalism is supposed to do:

OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Oklahoma must allow gay couples to wed, prompting a fast, angry response from leaders of a state that has vehemently fought policy changes brought on from outside its borders.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld a federal judge’s ruling striking down Oklahoma’s gay marriage ban, which had been approved by more than 75 percent of voters in 2004. Friday’s decision marks the second time the federal appeals court has found the U.S. Constitution protects same-sex marriage.

The court put its 2-1 ruling on hold pending an appeal, meaning same-sex couples won’t be allowed to marry in Oklahoma for now.

“Today’s ruling is another instance of federal courts ignoring the will of the people and trampling on the right of states to govern themselves,” Gov. Mary Fallin said. “In this case, two judges have acted to overturn a law supported by Oklahomans.”

Later, the AP story quoted Sharon Baldwin and Mary Bishop, a lesbian couple who challenged the state’s same-sex marriage ban, as well as a senior attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending the ban, and the leader of The Equality Network, which supports gave marriage:

“We are so grateful that the 10th Circuit understands what more and more people across this country are beginning to realize — that gay and lesbian people are citizens who should enjoy the same rights as straight people under the law,” Baldwin and Bishop said in a statement.

Other grades:

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LATimes shreds old-school language in religious liberty story

The following information cannot be examined too many times during the media storm that has followed the so-called Hobby Lobby decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Back in 1993, early in the right-wing reign of terror led by the Clinton White House, the U.S. Senate voted 97-3 to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The “nay” votes were cast by two Democrats and one Republican, each hailing from somewhere on the political right. Taking a stand in favor of a traditional, “liberal” approach to religious freedom — no scare quotes needed back then — was not controversial.

I urge journalists covering First Amendment issues today to study this graphic from that now-distant age.

This must be contrasted with the 56-43 vote the other day — a mere four votes shy of cloture — to bring a bill to the floor that would have, for all practical purposes, reversed the Hobby Lobby decision.

What has happened in the past two decades? What turned religious liberty into “religious liberty”?

This is one of the most compelling political questions of our day. This mystery is one reason that I have, in recent years, been asking the following question: What should journalists call a person who waffles on free speech, waffles on freedom of association and waffles on religious liberty?

The answer: I still don’t know, but the accurate term to describe this person — in the history of American political thought — is not “liberal.” Defense of basic First Amendment rights has long been the essence of American liberalism.

This brings me to the top of a new Los Angeles Times story that perfectly demonstrates the degree to which standard political labels are being mangled in our culture’s current meltdown on sex and religion. The lede:

The Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby decision has thrust a once-little-known boutique law firm into the center of a growing conservative movement to make faith-based exemptions as potent a legal tool as free speech has been for liberals.

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On Hobby Lobby, explain that ‘deeply held religious belief’

You got so close, Philadelphia Inquirer.

You got so close to a fair, enlightening news story on a Democratic senator who says he opposes abortion but rejects the religious concerns raised by Hobby Lobby in its recent U.S. Supreme Court win.

But here’s where you fell way short: in providing crucial details concerning the actual religious objections involved. Your story seems to get politics. Religion? Not so much.

The Inquirer report, of course, was published before a Democratic bill to reverse the high court’s Hobby Lobby ruling failed in the Senate Wednesday.

Let’s start at the top:

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Casey, an antiabortion Democrat, plans to vote Wednesday for a bill that would overturn the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision and force most businesses to offer employees the full range of contraceptive coverage, even if the owners raise religious objections.

The Pennsylvanian is siding with fellow Democrats – who argue that they are protecting women’s right to decide their own health care – and against many religious groups and Republicans, who say the court ruling protected religious liberties.

Casey, who is Catholic, said Tuesday in an Inquirer interview that he draws a distinction between abortion – which he still opposes – and contraception, which he has long supported and which he believes can reduce the number of abortions.

“The health-care service that’s at issue here is contraception, which means prior to conception,” Casey said.

But abortion has been a central part of the Hobby Lobby firestorm, which has also touched on health care, religious freedom, individual rights, and election-year politics.

OK, fair enough. Casey believes that the contraception involved here “means prior to conception.” But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Don’t expect an answer anytime soon in this story.

More from Casey:

Casey on Tuesday became the first antiabortion Democrat to cosponsor the bill, aimed at reversing the Supreme Court decision allowing business owners to exclude certain contraception options from their employee health packages. Some business owners said certain types of contraception could amount to abortion, an idea disputed by many doctors and scientists.

“I’m a pro-life Democrat, always have been, always will be,” Casey said. He later added: “I’ll go with the scientists on what contraception is, rather than a religious viewpoint of what science is.”

But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Oops. I already asked that. Still no answer.

Deep in the story, the Inquirer finally gets around to that question — but answers it only vaguely:

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In Catholic schools: Demographics is destiny, so is doctrine

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about religious faith and mathematics that turned into a “Crossroads” podcast. The post talked about a number of hot stories and trends on the religion-news beat — think thinning ranks in the Catholic priesthood, for example — and then boiled things down to this statement: “Demographics is destiny and so is doctrine.”

One of the other stories mentioned was this:

… Sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls. …

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

This leads me to a timely story that ran recently in The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and was also picked up by Religion News Service. The oh-so familiar headline proclaimed: “Catholic schools fight to keep doors open as future dims.” The lede was intentionally nostalgic and to the point:

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Suzanne Alworth remembers the glory days of Catholic schools: classrooms taught by nuns packed with close to 40 children in blue-and-white plaid uniforms.

But 35 years later, Alworth’s high school, Immaculate in Montclair, where she graduated in 1979, is fighting to stay open. The school is $900,000 in debt, enrollment is less than half of the building’s capacity and the Archdiocese of Newark will close its doors if it can’t come up with a plan to boost enrollment and improve its finances, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

“It was a complete surprise when they decided to close the school,” Alworth said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep this school open because I believe in its mission.”

Like I said, it’s a familiar, but very important story.

I think it would be instructive to apply the old journalism mantra “who, what, when, where, why and how” to this piece. I am especially interested in the “why,” in this case. Why were there lots of Catholic students in the past and not today?

That opening section led to a solid statement of the bleak local numbers, which then tied into the national picture. The key, of course, is falling enrollments.

Enrollment in Catholic schools across the country has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, according to data from the National Catholic Education Association based in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, there were more than 5.2 million children enrolled in almost 13,000 Catholic schools. Today, there are fewer than 2 million children in fewer than 6,600 schools.

In the last decade, almost 1,900 Catholic schools across the country closed and almost 580,000 students moved out of the Catholic school system, said McDonald. For many students and families, the closures and threat of closures have caused not only anxiety, but also heartbreak.

This story includes many fine personal details and local specifics. However, it left me asking big “why” questions: Why is this happening? What is the reality behind these painful trends? Why are the desks empty?

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Wrestling with that old Anglican timeline, in South Carolina

Anyone who follows news on the religion beat knows the drill when it comes to reporters framing the global, national, regional and local conflicts between Anglicans: The battles are about homosexuality, period, and all heck broke loose in 2003 when the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay and non-celibate bishop.

The problem with that news template is that it’s simplistic. Debates over sexuality have driven the headlines, but the doctrinal debates are much broader than that. Also, crucial cracks began forming in the Anglican Communion long before 2003.

Thus, it is good to celebrate even the most humble of journalistic victories in the fight against what your GetReligionistas have long called “Anglican timeline disease.” Note this lede in an Associated Press report about developments down South:

ST. GEORGE, S.C. – About 50 conservative Episcopal churches in South Carolina are in court this week, trying to keep their name, seal and $500 million in land and buildings after they broke away from the national denomination in a wide-ranging theological dispute.

The breakaway group, the Diocese of South Carolina, said it had to leave the national church not just because of the ordination of gays, but a series of decisions it says show national Episcopalians have lost their way in the teachings of Jesus and salvation.

Bravo. Later in the story, however, there is a close encounter with the “everything began in 2003″ myth.

The Episcopal Church, along with other Protestant denominations, had been losing members for decades before gay rights came dramatically to the forefront when Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop in 2003.

So “dramatically to the forefront” isn’t a bad way to word this, I guess, but what about the earlier theological adventures of New York Bishop Paul Moore Jr. and Newark Bishop Jack Spong? What about the 1998 global Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops and its crucial affirmation of ancient Christian doctrines on marriage and sex?

As a public service — especially for scribes covering the battle in South Carolina — here are one or two other landmarks to consider adding to the timeline, just in case editors grant room for one or two more strategic facts.

Let’s start with this 1979 resolution at the Episcopal General Convention in Denver:

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Surprise! Same-sex couples produce happier kids, media say

Ordinarily, quality journalism benefits from solid information, concrete evidence and a healthy dose of skepticism.

But certainly, major news organizations can be forgiven when they err on the side of a higher ideal, right?

In this week’s example, that higher ideal would be acceptance of same-sex parents.

At this point in history, producing a baby apparently — and regrettably, it seems — still requires a father and a mother. But on the bright side, a “major study” has come up with this encouraging news:

Children of same-sex couples are happier and healthier than peers, research shows

That was the headline in the Washington Post. 

The breathless top of the Post story:

Children of same-sex couples fare better when it comes to physical health and social well-being than children in the general population, according to researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“It’s often suggested that children with same-sex parents have poorer outcomes because they’re missing a parent of a particular sex. But research my colleagues and I published in the journal BMC Public Health shows this isn’t the case,” lead researcher Simon Crouch wrote on the Conversation.

Crouch and his team surveyed 315 same-sex parents with a total of 500 children across Australia. About 80 percent of the kids had female parents and about 18 percent had male parents, the study states.

Children from same-sex families scored about 6 percent higher on general health and family cohesion, even when controlling for socio-demographic factors such as parents’ education and household income, Crouch wrote. However, on most health measures, including emotional behavior and physical functioning, there was no difference compared with children from the general population.

Crouch suggested the greater social cohesion among same-sex families comes from an equal distribution of work. He said same-sex couples are likely to share responsibilities more equally than heterosexual ones.

“It is liberating for parents to take on roles that suit their skills rather than defaulting to gender stereotypes, where mum is the primary care giver and dad the primary breadwinner,” he said.

The Boston Globe chose a similar headline, but one without any clunky attribution to a study or research (kudos, Globe!):

Children of Same-Sex Couples are Healthier Than Their Peers

And from the New York Post:

Study shows children of same-sex couples are happier

But before we all get too excited about this research, the Post did include a quick, obligatory note of caution:

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