Kaine’s faith vs. that new guy’s faith

Before the explosion of news from Fort Hood, there was another comment I wanted to make about the election of Virginia’s new governor, Robert F. McDonnell. So please allow me to dip into tmatt’s GetReligion Guilt folder and pull this one back out.

When the state’s current governor, Timothy Kaine, ran for office, his Catholic faith was a huge part of the story. There was a valid hook for this, since some of his views on social issues clashed with the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Still, Kaine was comfortable talking about his faith and, thus, he incarnated a crucial issue — the Democratic Party’s attempts to reach out to believers in pews and, in particular, to Catholic swing voters.

Now flash forward to the current race and the press coverage focusing on McDonnell, especially the coverage in the region’s all-powerful Washington Post.

It got to the point where I could ask people here inside the Beltway, “What church does McDonnell go to?” and people would almost always answer, “I assume he’s an evangelical Protestant of some kind.” The reason, of course, was the flood of coverage about the candidate’s master’s thesis at Regent “Pat Robertson” University.

So now McDonnell has won, becoming the state’s second Catholic governor. Surely, one would think, the facts about his faith have received more attention. Maybe they have, which means you’ve had a little wave of coverage of the Catholic issue. Then again, maybe not.

After the election, the Washington Post offered the following piece focusing on the challenge that is ahead for the new governor. Go ahead, search this news story for the word “Catholic.”

What did you get? Zero, right?

Once again, the emphasis here is on you know what and you know who. Near the top we read:

… McDonnell began the campaign with a record of conservatism acquired during 17 years in the state legislature and as attorney general. A graduate of the conservative Regent University in Virginia Beach and a friend of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s, McDonnell has made abortion restrictions, the prohibition of same-sex marriage and a tough stance on illegal immigrants top priorities at various times in his career. As a result, he has a strong base of support among grass-roots conservatives, allowing him to win the Republican nomination without challenge last spring and to focus on courting the middle during the general election campaign.

Reconciling those two aspects of McDonnell’s candidacy will be a central tension of his term as governor. Conservative activists are already pressuring McDonnell. The group Virginians for Life sent out an e-mail urging supporters to push McDonnell to defund the abortion provider Planned Parenthood. Last week, at the Richmond Convention Center, Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, told 1,300 supporters that McDonnell must reverse Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s decision last year to ban state police chaplains from using Christian prayer at department-sanctioned events.

And later we read, once again:

McDonnell might be able to avoid some difficult choices, at least initially, because he will be busy managing a deep state budget crisis while trying to fulfill a campaign promise to identify new money for road improvements. He has also promised not to raise taxes, a challenge that will give him a reason to avoid dealing with social issues such as abortion that could turn off moderate supporters.

“He’s got one big excuse, the economy, and he’ll use it frequently,” said Larry J. Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “He’ll say: ‘Gee, I’d like to do this. I want to do this, but we’re not going to have the money.” Sabato also predicted that McDonnell “will avoid social issues like the plague” because of his controversial graduate school thesis, in which he criticized working women, single mothers and homosexuals. After the thesis was widely publicized, he spent several weeks during the campaign defending himself against accusations that he is a right-winger.

One would think that nothing happened after that in the campaign, including McDonnell’s statements about his own family, his eldest daughter serving as a platoon leader in Iraq, etc., etc.

However, the key point is that the dominant force in McDonnell’s life — his Catholic faith — continues to be a smaller part of his press profile than that one brief stop for a master’s degree at Regent. For that matter, it would be nice to know why a traditional Catholic would choose to study there. That would be an interesting subject for research. How do you get from the University of Notre Dame and Boston University to Regent?

But no, Virginia’s second Catholic governor remains a bit of a Catholic mystery, as opposed to the state’s first Catholic governor.

Why is this? Is there some chance that McDonnell is the wrong kind of Catholic? Is it wrong to ask what active, frequent Mass and confession-attending Catholics think of him? That could be an interesting story. It could be.

After all, if the purpose of the Post report was to talk about the new governor’s attempts to move to the middle of the political spectrum, wouldn’t that make it crucial for the newspaper to include his Catholic faith? After all, part of the template for Kaine coverage was that his Catholicism made him more of a centrist. Doesn’t McDonnell’s Catholicism make him more of a centrist? Shouldn’t that issue be covered?

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Maybe the bishops really mattered

President Bush Welcomes Pope Benedict XVI To White House

Last night around midnight, the House of Representatives passed a health care bill by a narrow margin — 220 to 215. The Washington Post has the details.

The story explains that the package is complex and “would affect virtually every American and fundamentally alter vast swaths of the health insurance industry.” Private insurers would have to cover everyone (regardless of their risk) and would no longer be able to place limits on coverage. Premium increases will have to be run by federal regulators and “children” as old as 27-years-old will not be able to be removed from their parents’ policies. In four years time, a new insurance system would be established. Individual Americans would be forced to buy insurance and small businesses that don’t comply with the new requirement to provide insurance would be fined 8 percent of their payroll. A complex system to provide for low- and middle-income individuals through federal subsidies would be put in place along with the government itself entering the insurance marketplace.

Of course, this battle over a new federal entitlement program has been going on for a while and will go on for a long time, but yesterday’s passage was a major victory for those who sought increased federal control of the insurance market. Still, the House version will bear very little resemblance to whatever version the Senate passes, assuming it does pass such a bill, and the two will have to be reconciled at a later date.

But the big drama in this whole story last night was the Stupak Amendment, without which this bill wouldn’t have come even close to passing. Here’s how the Post puts it, late in the story:

Introduced on July 14, the House package was approved in sections by three House committees. Since August, Pelosi has huddled behind closed doors with various factions of her diverse caucus to merge the three parts into comprehensive legislation.

The sticking points were clear from the start. Conservatives opposed the bill’s price tag and limited efforts to cut costs. Moderates, who face the toughest 2010 reelection battles, were wary of big-government overtones in the public option. Democrats from wealthy districts opposed the tax on high earners, which originally would have affected taxpayers with annual incomes as low as $280,000.

One after another, the obstacles were overcome — except for the simmering dispute over abortion. In early October, Rep. Bart Stupak, an antiabortion Democrat from Michigan, met with Pelosi to express the strong objections of about 40 Democrats to a provision in the legislation that appeared to allow federal funding of abortion. Stupak said they would oppose the bill unless the language was changed. Pelosi was noncommittal.

Late Friday, the Stupak coalition was still holding strong, and had gained a powerful ally in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose leadership has close connections to Pelosi. Over the strong objections of Democrats who support abortion rights, the speaker relented to Stupak, awarding him the only Democratic amendment on the floor.

Now, I was watching CNN last night (in the emergency room with my 5-month-old, as it happens) and the coverage was just abysmal. Beyond the host of the program asking, in all earnestness, whether Republicans really cared about the fact that soaring medical malpractice costs weren’t addressed in the bill or whether they were just playing games, the team covering the bill’s passage were in a constant state of confusion about this bizarre Stupak amendment and why it mattered so much. Now, I know you don’t have the top dogs on the cable networks in the middle of the night but I could have done a better job sitting there on no sleep for a week and covered in my baby’s vomit.

Readers of this blog are in no way surprised that the big drama last night was over abortion. Let’s just look at a sample of recent posts. Here we point out to mainstream journalists an op-ed piece predicting that Stupak would be a force to be reckoned with. Here’s a look at the New York Times‘ front-page story about the huge obstacle of abortion funding to passing a health care reform bill. Here we again point out to mainstream journalists Steven Waldman’s excellent and highly prophetic column about why the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and their concern about abortion was so important. Here we’re criticizing the absence of pro-life liberals from coverage of the debate. Here’s an earlier post that makes the same point. And another. And another! In fact, this is a point we’ve been looking at for much of the year, with far too little coverage to praise.

I didn’t even write most of these posts but it’s pretty clear that, if you were paying attention, abortion would be a huge obstacle to overcome in passage of this bill. And that angle was just not covered well, which is surprising since it fits in with the bias many reporters have toward reporting the “fight” rather than the substance of the bills.

But in this space, we suggested over and over again that removing direct and indirect taxpayer funding of abortion would get pro-life Democrats on board.

Let’s go back to that Waldman piece, where he writes:

I believe Bishops matter a great deal politically when it comes to the abortion-and-health care debate.

(1) They want health care reform to pass. Most pro-life groups are either opposed to Democratic-style universal health care plans (e.g. Family Research Council) or neutral (Right to Life Committee). The Catholic Bishops are the only major pro-life group that wants health care reform. As a result, they have no interest in using the abortion issue to block health care. So when they raise objections about abortion provisions, members of congress may perceive them to be substantively rather than politically motivated.

(2) They may influence pro-life Democrats. Pro-life Republicans are unlikely to support health care reform even if the legislation was perfect, from their perspective, on abortion. The more important group is pro-life Democrats, who may be on the fence on health care reform, or lean in favor, but have expressed unwillingness to support it if legislation subsdizes abortion. Even those pro-life Democrats who aren’t Catholic can look at the Bishops as kindred spirits, since they too want to both oppose abortion aid and support health care reform. A reminder: about one quarter of Obama’s coalition came from pro-life voters.

House Lawmakers Work Towards Vote On Health Care Legislation

And to be sure, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and other progressives basically said the same things throughout the year.

So let’s go back to that line in the Post excerpt above. Did you catch it? Here it is again:

Late Friday, the Stupak coalition was still holding strong, and had gained a powerful ally in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose leadership has close connections to Pelosi.

Wow. This is a stunning statement and even more stunning in that it’s put in there without any attribution. It should be attributed, actually, since I’ve never heard that before. I had no idea that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had “close connections” to Pelosi. One of the things we’ve noticed in recent months is the curious political strategy of the Catholic Bishops. It’s not as if they were staying completely silent on the matter, but it seemed they pulled their punches at times. Could it be because of these “close connections”?

I want a fully-fleshed out story on just that one line in the Post coverage. And in the meantime, perhaps reporters shouldn’t be so shocked next time the abortion debate rears its ugly head in policy debates.

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Haggard and Dobson revisited

ted-haggardMark Barna has his hands full covering religion at the Colorado Springs Gazette. This morning’s two news stories on evangelical leaders varied from solid to so-so.

Appearing top right on A1 is an update on Ted Haggard, the once high-flying leader of the National Association of Evangelicals who was laid low by a squalid gay sex and drugs scandal. This morning’s story says: “Haggard starting new church at his Springs home”:

Ted Haggard, who started New Life Church in his Colorado Springs basement and built it into a megachurch with thousands of worshippers, said Wednesday that he is starting a church at his home.

“We wanted to do something in our house to connect with friends,” said Haggard, whose ties to New Life ended in scandal three years ago with the revelation that he’d been involved with a male prostitute in Denver.

Barna dukes it out with Haggard’s obfuscatory lingo (Haggard concedes that his “prayer meeting” actually qualifies as the start of a new church) and quotes two former ministry associates who express concern about Haggard’s return to church leadership so soon after his fall:

Several people who have worked with Haggard said it’s premature for him to be leading a church. C. Peter Wagner, who co-founded New Life’s World Prayer Center with Haggard, said the former pastor should first seek approval from the overseers before leading people in prayer and worship. Haggard quit the five-year restoration program in February 2008.

“My reservation is that he has not followed through completely on apostolic protocol,” Wagner said Wednesday.

Barna’s religion blog, “The Pulpit,” also features a comment from Mike Jones, the male prostitute who brought Haggard’s sin to light (Jones is not impressed).

But Barna’s A3 story on Dobson was less solid, beginning with a screwy headline: “Dobson’s Power Apparent: Maine’s rejection of same-sex marriage shows his influence.” Thankfully, the headline was changed for the online version.

James Dobson might be leaving Focus on the Family, but executives with the Colorado Springs-based evangelical organization say Tuesday’s vote in Maine on same-sex marriages proves his influence and message remain relevant.

Maine voters split 53 percent to 47 percent to repeal a law, passed by their legislators and signed by their governor, that would have allowed same-sex marriages. Focus donated $115, 266 to a coalition supporting repeal, Maine records show. The defeat means gay marriage has lost in all 31 states where the public has voted on it.

Jenny Tyree, Focus’ marriage analyst, said Dobson’s decades-long work to uphold traditional marriage continues to resonate with Americans.

Unfortunately, the story does not tell us:

(1) If Dobson did anything else to persuade Maine voters;

(2) How big (or small) Focus’s donation was as a percentage of the total repeal war chest;

(3) Whether Focus participated in the pro-repeal organization, National Organization for Marriage, which was investigated by Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Elections Practices;

(4) What role the Maine Family Policy Council (one of Focus on the Family Action’s affiliated state groups) played in the vote.

Dobson has been one of the most influential evangelicals of the past four decades. But was the Maine vote a demonstration of his power? Perhaps another article will answer that question.

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Mormons still to blame, somehow

same_sex_marriageTMatt has been looking at some of the larger issues of framing in coverage of Maine’s vote to overturn a law legalizing same-sex marriage. But I’m also curious about some of the nitty gritty. I’ve been meaning to look at some of the coverage for days so let’s begin with this pre-election story by the Washington Post‘s Karl Vick. The story explains the situation — the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill to permit same-sex couples to marry and gets his perspective that the “libertarian” Maine will note vote to overturn that law. The campaign against same-sex marriage, we learn, is drawing heavily on its communications strategy from their successful fight over the same issue in California last year. And then this:

Proponents of same-sex marriage are also playing on Mainers’ wariness of outsiders, calling attention to the California consultants and the volume of the “Yes-on-1″ campaign from out of state.

Questions about the largest contributor have sparked an investigation by the state ethics commission and a court battle. The National Organization for Marriage, or NOM, has contributed $1.6 million to Stand for Marriage Maine but has declined to reveal its own contributors, despite a federal district court decision last week that it must do so under Maine law.

Okay, while the figure for the National Organization for Marriage is incorrect (they actually say they contributed $1.8 million to the Yes on One campaign), perhaps the true amount wasn’t available at press time. But what I do find absolutely fascinating about this is that we don’t learn anything about this campaign contribution in context of the battle itself. For instance, how much money did the “No” campaign raise? And how big was the entire Yes on One effort to overturn the state law permitting same-sex marriage? And how much money for both groups came from “outsiders”? I mean, I have several neighbors in DC who worked for months on this, some driving up to Maine to work on the effort and others just working on raising money from here. They were pro-same-sex marriage folks, but nowhere do we learn that outsiders were working to keep the law, much less how much of the work to keep the law came from outsiders.

It turns out that the National Organization for Marriage contributed most of the Yes on One campaign’s resources. But more newsworthy, perhaps, is that the “No” campaign seems to have out-raised its opponents by 50 percent or so. See this more even-handed report from the Associated Press:

Both sides in Maine drew volunteers and contributions from out of state, but the money edge went to the campaign in defense of gay marriage, Protect Maine Equality. It raised $4 million, compared with $2.5 million for Stand for Marriage Maine.

See, that’s helpful information. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, says both groups claim to have raised $4 million (although that’s not true). While the Washington Post story does quote someone saying that same-sex marriage defenders had out-raised opponents two to one, no facts are included to substantiate the statement. Which brings me to another point. Check out this paragraph in the Post story about the National Organization for Marriage:

Some groups for gays say the organization is a stalking horse for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, which dominated fundraising in the California campaign. Many of the actors in a nationally televised ad produced by NOM, called “Gathering Storm,” turned out to be Mormon activists.

Wow. Okay, so the allegation at play here is that the Mormons are deceiving everyone by operating this group without being up front about it. That is a very serious charge. Nowhere is it substantiated. I mean, I know that the National Organization for Marriage has at least one Mormon board member — Orson Scott Card. But he’s hiding in plain sight. I found out that information by surfing the NOM website myself. And what does it mean that “many” of the actors in a television ad “turned out to be” Mormon activists? I don’t even know what that means, although it does sound scary. What, exactly, is a “Mormon activist”?

But if you have people making this claim, go ahead and name them and be specific about the charges of deception and, you know, maybe get a response from the church. While Vick did try (on a weekend, before an election) to reach the National Organization for Marriage to discuss the allegation, the church should also have been contacted. The allegation is denied by someone involved in the Maine political battle, for what it’s worth. Perhaps with so little to substantiate the charge and apparently no time to contact the targets of the charge, it should have been dropped from the story altogether. It tarnishes both sides when allegations such as that aren’t given a chance to be fully reported.

Anyway, the Washington Post pushes the claim that the National Organization for Marriage is a stalking horse for the Mormon Church. Which is quite different than what the New York Times says about it. I noticed it last week in Abby Goodnough’s preview of the Maine fight. And here it is again in her “news analysis” TMatt mentioned earlier:

“It interrupts the story line that is being manufactured that suggests the culture has shifted on gay marriage and the fight is over,” said Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, the conservative Christian group that is leading the charge against same-sex marriage around the country. “Maine is one of the most secular states in the nation. It’s socially liberal. They had a three-year head start to build their organization, and they outspent us two to one. If they can’t win there, it really does tell you the majority of Americans are not on board with this gay marriage thing.”

Okay, did you catch how Goodnough describes the group? That’s right, it’s a “conservative Christian group.” I have been following the coverage of same-sex marriage battles for a good year and a half now and it occurred to me that I had never once seen the National Organization for Marriage use religiously-based arguments in their campaign material. I know that Gallagher is married to a Hindu and I think she’s Christian. I know, from the Washington Post profile of executive director Brian Brown that he’s Catholic. But having Christians on staff doesn’t necessarily make your organization a “conservative Christian group” or that means that my local grocery store is Christian. There has to be a reason for describing a group this way. And I’m not sure I see that reason. Go ahead and take a look around the group’s website, review its public communications. Maybe it is a conservative Christian group — I just see no evidence of that. I even looked over their IRS forms for evidence to support the claim, but the only mention of religion in any of their documents is their mission to protect all faith communities that sustain marriage. Indeed, religious liberty is a big part of their mission but that doesn’t make the group itself religious anymore than it makes the ACLU religious.

But either way, I think the media need to get on the same page here. If the National Organization for Marriage is not what it claims to be (a nonprofit organization with a mission to protect marriage and the faith communities that sustain it) is it a “stalking horse” for the Mormon church or is it a “conservative Christian group”?

It’s so interesting to me that so many of these stories about the Yes on 1 victory in Maine portray it as a loss for gay activists. But that similar focus isn’t brought to bear on the scrutiny of the groups that are involved in the effort to legalize same-sex marriage. I mean, I’m on a bunch of denominational news list-servs and there were plenty of religious groups fighting this ballot initiative and working to keep same-sex marriage legal in Maine. Why don’t they get the same scrutiny as the Mormons, who actually may have had no discernible role in the Maine campaign? It’s just odd.

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Maine point: Someone loses, someone wins?

lesbian-wedding-cake-topperHere’s the thought for the day, as you ponder the headlines out of Maine. This famous quote is taken from “The Press and Foreign Policy” by Bernard C. Cohen:

” … (The) press is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion. It may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think ABOUT. And it follows from this that the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their personal interests, but also on the map that is drawn for them by the writers, editors, and publishers of the papers they read.”

I thought of this quotation while reading some of the early coverage of the not-so-stunning vote in Maine, which became the 31st state to reject same-sex marriage at the ballot box. Of course, it was also a stunning outcome because of Maine’s reputation for independent, enlightened, not-so-religious thinking as a state in true-blue New England. That second sentence, of course, reflects most of the mainstream news coverage leading up to the vote.

This leads us to the top of an early New York Times report (and you can expect in-depth sequels):

In a stinging setback for the national gay-rights movement, Maine voters narrowly decided to repeal the state’s new law allowing same-sex marriage.

With 87 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, 53 percent of voters had approved the repeal, ending an expensive and emotional fight that was closely watched around the country as a referendum on the national gay-marriage movement. Polls had suggested a much closer race. …

The Maine vote was particularly discouraging for gay-rights groups because it took place in New England, the region that has been the most open to same-sex marriage, and because opponents of the repeal had far outspent backers.

In other words, this was a lose for gay-rights activists, not a victory for groups that wanted to repeal the law. That’s what journalists call a news “template.” It’s what Cohen called a “map.”

This is also the principle that dominated the late David Shaw’s justifiably famous series in the Los Angeles Times about mainstream media coverage of abortion. He found, time and time again, that journalists tended to frame stories in a way that presumed the rightness of the pro-abortion-rights cause.

You see, reporters and editors often forget that they have a choice to frame coverage in a way that favors one side or the other. But we also have another choice, which is to do the hard work to find ways to frame a story in a way that balances the two interests — creating a debate, instead of electing to favor one side or the other.

In this Maine vote, the implication is that (a) the result was a shock because newspapers thought the vote would go the other way and/or (b) the result was a shock because the wrong side won. Or is the story that it was a shock (c) because voters keep voting for the status quo on marriage?

Before you click “comment,” please wait to hear my point. I think that this is a case where the Times basically got the story right, but buried a different lede that was also justified. Would it have been “conservative” to have led with the fact that this was the 31st ballot win in a row for those who oppose gay marriage, and then allow the leaders on the cultural left to respond that they will not back down, but carry the issue back to voters again and again until they find a way to win?

In other words, is it possible to write this story in a way that says — right up front — that someone won and someone else lost, instead of strictly framing it in terms of the loss for the gay-rights side? Yes, the loss is major news. But was it news that someone won?

120000-main_FullAnd what about the story that most Americans will be reading online this morning, which would be the basic Associated Press report?

This story led with the loss for the gay-rights side, but quickly attempted to offer perspectives from both the winners and the losers. Here is what that looked like in practice:

PORTLAND, Maine – Maine voters repealed a state law Tuesday that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed, dealing the gay rights movement a heartbreaking defeat in New England, the corner of the country most supportive of gay marriage.

Gay marriage has now lost in every single state — 31 in all — in which it has been put to a popular vote. Gay-rights activists had hoped to buck that trend in Maine — known for its moderate, independent-minded electorate — and mounted an energetic, well-financed campaign. With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, gay-marriage foes had 53 percent of the votes.

“The institution of marriage has been preserved in Maine and across the nation,” declared Frank Schubert, chief organizer for the winning side.

Gay-marriage supporters held out hope that the tide would shift before conceding defeat at 2:40 a.m. in a statement that insisted they weren’t going away.

“We’re in this for the long haul. For next week, and next month, and next year — until all Maine families are treated equally. Because in the end, this has always been about love and family and that will always be something worth fighting for,” said Jesse Connolly, manager of the pro-gay marriage campaign.

Please help your GetReligionistas watch the coverage today. I would be especially interested if anyone in the mainstream actually framed the story as a win for the cultural right, which would be flipping the template issue the other way. I don’t expect to see that and, besides, it would be the same principle in action — only with a conservative bias.

What I’m looking for is newsrooms that opened with a lede that tried to do justice to the feelings and beliefs of the left and the right, the losers and the winners. In other words, a strictly journalistic approach.

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Noor Faleh Almaleki is dead

Noor Faleh Almaleki has died in Phoenix. Thus, we have another development in the case of her father, 48-year-old Faleh Hassan Almaleki, who fled the United States after it is alleged that he hit the 20-year-old Noor and the mother of her boyfriend with his car.

The details of this tragic story are quite common by now, everywhere except on CNN. As I said at the beginning, something is going on with the coverage of this story in some newsrooms. People are struggling to report information that is out in the open and on the record.

Here is a chunk of the basic Associated Press report, as used by the New York Times:

Noor Faleh Almaleki, 20, underwent spinal surgery and had been in a hospital since Oct. 20, when police say her father ran down her and her boyfriend’s mother with his Jeep as the women were walking across a parking lot in the west Phoenix suburb of Peoria. The other woman, Amal Khalaf, is expected to survive.

Faleh Hassan Almaleki, 48, fled after the attack but was arrested Thursday when he arrived at Atlanta’s airport, where he was sent from the United Kingdom after authorities denied him entrance. … At a court hearing over the weekend in Phoenix, county prosecutor Stephanie Low told a judge that Almaleki admitted to committing the crime.

“By his own admission, this was an intentional act and the reason was that his daughter had brought shame on him and his family,” Low said. “This was an attempt at an honor killing.”

Family members had told police that Almaleki attacked his daughter because he believed she had become too Westernized and was not living according to his traditional Iraqi values.

Journalists are still struggling to decide how to work their way around the fact that “his traditional Iraqi values” is code language for his approach to Islam, which means journalists are struggling to know how to handle the divisions inside Islam — even here in America — on whether or not it is appropriate to kill a female who brings disgrace on her family. In this case, as noted in other stories, Noor had refused to be part of a marriage arranged by her parents. Over in London, the Times claimed that the marriage had taken place, but that Noor fled to live with her boyfriend’s family in Arizona.

Clearly there is some uncertainty here about some of these events. However, certain facts are clear — especially when you contrast the AP report (and early reports at ABCNews.com) — with the CNN stories that have been scrubbed clean of messy details linked to controversies about Islam and “honor killings” in some Islamic cultures. Again, please note the word “some.”

In the comments pages, this lack of factual information has been blamed on the hard economic times in the news business. It’s hard to report the facts when there are few reporters on deck to do the work. That’s true.

Noor-Faleh-AlmalekiBut in this case, editors at CNN have clearly made a decision to leave out facts that are already on the record, as well as highly relevant statements made on the record by authorities investigating the case. This is truly strange.

At this point, this is what we have from CNN. Here’s the key material:

Peoria police said Faleh Hassan Almaleki believed his daughter had become “too Westernized” and had abandoned “traditional” Iraqi values. Peoria police spokesman Mike Tellef told CNN the family moved to the Phoenix area in the mid-1990s, and Almaleki was unhappy with his daughter’s style of dress and her resistance to his rules. …

A friend of the daughter, Amal Edan Khalaf, 43, also suffered serious injuries in the attack, police said. Almaleki faces a separate aggravated assault charge in connection with her injuries.

Once again, is Amal Edan Khalaf merely “a friend”? Why avoid the subject of the arranged marriage, a key element in many of these tragedies? Why avoid the official claims that the father stated that this was an attempted “honor killing,” an attempt that has now turned out to have been successful?

I am sure that, on one level, it is accurate to say that the father “was unhappy with his daughter’s style of dress and her resistance to his rules.” But are we actually talking about “his rules,” or are we talking about the rules and traditions established with the Muslim community that he knows, the community that has shaped him?

Why edit the story in this fashion?

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Free speech … and hate speech

matthew_shepardEleven years ago gay teen Matthew Shephard was beaten and left to die on a Wyoming fencepost. That was also the year three white men in a truck, in another sickening act of violence, pulled African American James Byrd behind them until he was dead. This past Wednesday, President Obama signed the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In a fairly common practice, it was passed as part of a totally unrelated spending bill.

As this Associated Press story notes, the federal law has now been expanded to included crimes against people committed because of gender, sexual orientation and disability. The story by Ben Feller, which also includes a lot of detail on the spending bill, contained this interesting paragraph:

At the urging of Republicans, the bill was changed before it was passed in Congress to strengthen free speech protections to assure that a religious leader or any other person cannot be prosecuted on the basis of his or her speech, beliefs or association.

Feller doesn’t give details, but he does note what has been at the core of objections to the law: that it will constrain clergy and others who make public statements about homosexuality. In other words, does the law infringe on First Amendment protections and religious liberty? How are reporters writing about material objections to the hate crimes bill?

The best story I found (though it had its own problems) was a local one from Wyoming. But other articles either didn’t mention religious and free speech objections at all (they don’t go away because you ignore them), gave them scant attention, or fit the story into a particular ideological framework. That being said, I’m not sure from the coverage whether many editors considered this a standalone story, given where it seemed to end up — in online blogs.

Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times didn’t allude to objections in this brief “The Caucus” post — a straightup report on what happened without any outside opinions.

Here’s a sample of the second approach, from the USAToday.com website page “The Oval”:

Opponents called the hate-crimes bill unnecessary, noting that Shepard’s and Byrd’s attackers were convicted in state criminal courts. Some critics objected to the inclusion of hate-crimes legislation in a defense budget bill.

“The president has used his position as commander in chief to advance a radical social agenda, when he should have used it to advance legislation that would unequivocally support our troops,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Pence also argued that the law could be used to curb free speech rights, such as with religions that consider homosexuality a sin.

Yup, it is scandalous that Democrats and Republics tack totally unrelated amendments on to spending bills — and everytime it occurs, the other party is outraged, outraged, outraged. The bigger news here, however, are the constitutional issues, which get a scant sentence.

On the other hand, take this story from the Washington Times. There’s some good content here, but the author’s focus is on the “Obama gives gay rights activists what they want” pretty much to the exclusion of other threads.

Critics said that because the new law only adds harsher penalties for acts that are already illegal and subject to criminal prosecution, its main achievement is to move the nation toward the criminalization of politically incorrect speech.

“Bills of this sort are designed to forward a political agenda and silence critics, not combat actual crime,” said Erik Stanley, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian advocacy group.

“All violent crimes are hate crimes, and all crime victims deserve equal justice. This law is a grave threat to the First Amendment because it provides special penalties based on what people think, feel or believe,” Mr. Stanley said.

And that’s the objection of many conservatives and civil libertarians — that the law introduces a whole new class of what can be prosecuted in which the lines between permissible and impermissible speech aren’t clear.

By the way, if “minority classes” are being protected, then it’s the guys who ought to be happy. As far as I know, the census says that women are the American majority. None of the stories I saw really said anything about the other categories, like disability, now being federally protected — hmmm, I wonder why?

But how is this new law going to affect clergy and laypeople in the real world (grin) outside the Beltway? A story from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle offers us a practical point-of- view from a state which (unlike 45 others) doesn’t have hate-crimes laws.

Some Christians have expressed opposition to the bill because of a belief that it could criminalize pastors for preaching what the Bible says about homosexuality: that it is a sin to be repented like any other sin.

Opponents feel it could turn preaching the Bible into “hate speech,” and some fear that pastors could be blamed for a hate crime committed by someone in their congregation.

“I would never speak in a manner that would encourage someone to harm someone who is a homosexual,” the Rev. John Christensen, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Cheyenne, said. “Clearly, no one should engage in an act of violence against a person because of (his or her) sexual orientation.”Still, the bill steps dangerously close to the line, he added.

“I do have some concerns about it,” he said. “I see it as a backdoor to censoring speech.”

Is it only Christians who object to the new law? Last I heard, Nat Hentoff hadn’t converted (this article, with a clear bias, nonetheless has some amazing links).

Also, progressives would dispute Baylie Evan’s comment about Bible passages and homosexuality. Since Evans doesn’t say what kind of Lutheran pastor Christensen is (is this a Missouri Synod parish?) you have one Lutheran pastor disagreeing with another (but wait, he’s actually Presbyterian).

But though I don’t think the extended block quotes technique serves the story well, Evans gives both sides ample quotes to make their points. I found the extended passage from Charles Haynes, a scholar with the First Amendment Center, particularly useful.

It’s unfortunate that so few writers cared to go that deeply into the possible effects of a bill on Constitutional rights. Care to wager whether we’re going to see a federal court case on one of these issues sooner right than later? Keep watching this space.

Picture is of the late Matthew Shepard

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Monotony and poly-agony

PolyamoryA couple of months ago, Elizabeth looked at a big Newsweek piece on polyamory and criticized it for its lack of depth, neglect of religious angles, and its unrealistic portrayal of poly communities. Well, compared to this CNN story with an attention-grabbing headline of “Mate debate: Is monogamy realistic?,” that Newsweek article was a masterpiece. Apparently the premise of this article is that in oldentimes, people were monogamous but in these complicated modern times, it’s a completely unrealistic virtue and should be dropped post haste.

First off, contra the headline, there’s absolutely no debate in this story. The first 33 — yes, 33 — paragraphs of the story are all about how irrelevant and old-fashioned monogamy is and the final five include a psychologist saying that “nature” has provided powerful incentives for monogamy that are still valid. But even if you make it to the nether reaches of the story, there’s no debate in the sense of two sides rebutting each other. Here, in fact, are the story “highlights” (their term) as described by CNN:

–Changing social mores, growing life expectancy prompt new questions about monogamy
–Mating for life is within the realm of human potential, but it’s not easy, evolutionary biologist says
–Some people try polyamory, or having relationships with several partners at the same time
–Americans are too surprised by infidelity when it happens, author says

Now, I don’t know what version of history they’re teaching A. Pawlowski and the story’s editors at CNN, but I’m pretty sure that fidelity in monogamy was never something achieved with perfection by any group of people at any point in history. Monogamy isn’t something that has been valued because it is easy or ubiquitous. In fact, it might be valued precisely because it goes against human nature.

The top of the story uses celebrity infidelities as an example of how “the realities of modern life” work before suggesting that serial monogamy — changing partners as your life changes — might be the way to go. And then:

For some, even serial monogamy seems too restrictive.

The 1970s introduced the concept of “open marriage” in which couples stayed married but were free to date other people.

More recently, polyamory — the practice of having romantic relationships with multiple people at the same time with the full knowledge and consent of all involved — has been getting a lot of attention.

“We found the expectation that one person should be our everything seemed unrealistic given our day and age. … It’s oddly pressuring to set up that scenario,” said Mark, who lives in Springfield, Missouri, and is in a polyamorous relationship. (He asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons.)

So “some” reject monogamy. Some practiced “open marriage” (no stats on how that worked out on marriage success rates). And polyamory has “recently” “been getting a lot of attention.” This is less journalism than a poorly written freshman composition.

Mark, from the anecdote above, says that he and his wife both have partners and that they all get together to have dinner time-to-time:

“People describe polyamory as ‘poly-agony’ because of all the work you have to do to maintain things,” Mark said. “It’s just not normal to look over and see your wife with another man. I know a lot of people would have a real problem with that. I really don’t.”

Great quote. Now let’s ask some more questions. How does the addition of partners affect child-rearing, the avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases, obligations to spouse(s)? No room for that in this story. Instead we get a positive mention of a dating Web site that encourages married people to have an affair and a quote from a French author contending that monogamy, “which is really no more than a useful social convention,” will not survive. If that’s not enough, we get an entire section on how zee French are so much more sopheesticated about zis silly little monogamy. There’s this quote, which could launch into an interesting discussion:

“Americans are too surprised by infidelity when it happens. I think we go into marriage with perhaps unrealistically high expectations about human nature,” said Pamela Druckerman, author of “Lust in Translation.”

Unfortunately, the quote is just used to justify infidelity. The thing is that people do go into marriage with ridiculous expectations. I read this Michelle Obama quote in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story about her marriage that I just loved:

“The strengths and challenges of our marriage don’t change because we move to a different address,” she said. Mrs. Obama said “the bumps” happen to everybody all the time “and they are continuous.”

“The last thing we want to project,” she said, is the image of a flawless relationship.

You notice, when you’re married, that pop culture tends to obsess about relationships outside of marriage and pay very little attention to relationships during marriage. Sandra Tsing Loh may get published in The Atlantic regaling readers with her infidelity, divorce and rejection of marriage — but you don’t read too many articles about successful marriages. And when the media do discuss marriage, we get all sorts of absolutely childish characterizations — such as the idea that monogamy used to be easy and now isn’t.

And how big a role does religion play in marriage? For my husband and me, it’s everything. Even in our very short marriage of three years and two children, we probably wouldn’t have made it out of our first year without our faith in God. We pray, we use the Ephesians 5 model of marriage, we ask for forgiveness daily.

How big a role does religion play in this story about monogamy? It’s literally not mentioned. There is no discussion on either side of the aisle about religion, nothing about the sacrament of marriage, its spiritual components, or any role that religion might play.

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