It’s strictly taboo: Lancaster paper kills article on a witch

How controversial could a witch be in 2014? Plenty, if you’re in Lancaster, Pa. — where a newspaper ran a feature on a local practitioner, then killed it.

At issue is a long, friendly, garden-variety profile on Kim Cabot Consoli of Bainbridge, in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal. The May 17 feature, by a former GetReligionista — the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans — that described Consoli’s “craft,” how she practices it, her relationship with a Mayan teacher and Salem witch Laurie Cabot, etc. There was also a sidebar primer on things like the definition of “Wiccan” and whether witches worship Satan.

Then, as media watcher Jim Romenesko reports, the newspaper learned that Consoli had another record — an arrest on charges of prostitution.

Then the story was quickly taken offline.

Here is the really interesting journalism hook in this story about a news story. The newspaper’s editors then ran a lengthy mea culpa.

“Had this information been mined earlier, the story would never have been written, let alone published,” executive editor Barbara Hough Roda wrote. She added some idealistic words about the need for “context, balance and thoughtful story play.”

A closer look, though, suggests another motive for pulling the story: objections from readers about a feature article on a local witch. The prostitution arrest took up three of the 10 paragraphs. Consoli’s witchcraft was the subject of four other paragraphs, including the first three:

Last weekend’s Faith & Values pages carried an article about a Bainbridge woman who practices witchcraft.

The topic was not typical fare for the section, nor for our newspaper. Like many stories, its unusual nature made it newsworthy. Yet while the presence of one witch living among us is noteworthy, even unique, it is also true that Lancaster County is certainly not seeing a proliferation of Wiccans.

Our presentation and the amount of space we gave the story wrongly suggested the latter. Our report focused largely on one woman, and did not put witchcraft into a larger context of the faith and values of our community. Our overall treatment was certainly not proportional to the scope of the subject matter.

And further down in the article:

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Why should the devil have all the best press?

Satan sells newspapers.

Where would newspapers or television be without devil stories? Satanic ritual abuse, exorcisms, secret cults and rituals, demon possession — all are beloved by editors, and as Dan Brown knows well are snapped up by readers. I would make my fortune if I could write a story whose key words include Satan, an albino member of Opus Dei, Miley Cyrus and the Episcopal Church.

The Satan angle has propelled the news of what would otherwise be an unremarkable conference being held this week at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum into the eye of the European press.

Coincidentally, a student club at Harvard has caught the attention of the Catholic Church and, through one of the heroines of the Catholic blogosphere, the American media after they announced plans to hold a Black Mass. The reaction to the Harvard story leads me to ask whether the press has sensationalized this incident. No one seems to have asked the question: What sort of Harvard Satanists are we discussing? Atheistic Satanists in the tradition of Anton LaVey, devil worshipers or silly students?

Which also prompts me to ask, who gets to define what a Satanist is?

The European wire service ANSA reports:

Catholic prelates from 33 countries are in Italy for the ninth annual conference on exorcism. ‘Exorcism and Prayer for Liberation’ is on through May 10 and is expected to draw 200 participants from countries as far afield as Australia and South Korea. Events are spread between Rome and Bologna. “It’s devoted mostly to priests who are the first to learn the ministry of exorcism, but not only to them,” said Father Cesare Truqui, an exorcist from the Legionaries of Christ, which is organizing the conference together with Catholic organization GRIS. “A priest is usually side by side with a group of laypeople who help,” he told Vatican Radio.

The story provides colorful comments from Father Truqui, who:

… noted that Pope Francis in his April 11 homily admonished the faithful to “learn to fight the devil … who exists even in the 21st century”. “The pope reminds us,” added the exorcist, “that speaking of demons doesn’t mean creating a new theology outside the Gospels, but rather staying within Jesus Christ’s teachings”.

It was after having read these Italian press accounts of the annual exorcism conference in Rome that I came across stories in Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald about Satanism at Harvard. (The Boston Globe has since filed their report.) The story has piqued the imagination of the Catholic press and spawned (spawn of Satan?) a great deal of chatter on the Internet. Is the noise justified from a press perspective, though?

The Herald approaches the story through a statement released by the Archdiocese of Boston calling upon the school to “disassociate” itself from a Black Mass planned for Monday.

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That ‘throuple’ rite: Who led them through their vows?

First, let me assure regular GetReligion readers that I am not writing this post out of the desire to be able to put the trendy word “throuple” in a digital headline. And, besides, the wits at The New York Daily News had already put the rather obvious “Three women and a baby!” in their lede.

No there were some real, live religious questions that nagged at me after seeing several news references to the polygamous relationship between Brynn, Doll and Kitten Young, a trio of either lesbian or bisexual women (the personal histories are complex) who are testing the limits of legal relationships in the always edgy state of Massachusetts. Here is a key section of the story, which points back to its origins in the splashy pages of British newspapers:

Doll, 30, and Brynn, 32, had been together for 2-and-a-half years when they decided to spice up their relationship with an additional partner.

Smitten after meeting Kitten, 27, through a threesomes’ website, they decided to tie the knot to each other last August. And, after undergoing IVF with an unknown sperm donor, the youngest of the group is now with child.

“The three of us have always wanted kids and wanted to grow our family,” Kitten, who like Doll took IT expert Brynn’s surname because she is the main breadwinner, told The Sun.

“We decided that I’d be the one to carry the babies because I’d like to be a full-time mom,” she added.

Massachusetts became, in 2004, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. It does not allow polygamy, however, meaning the trio’s marriage is not officially recognized. Despite this, they claim their union is the real deal.

So, my first Godbeat question: They walked down what brand of aisle? A newspaper photo makes it clear that this is an outdoor wedding, so the religious context for the rite could be just about anything. The art also shows what appears to be a formally dressed man who is leading the brides through their vows.

Now, the mainstream media stories about this social development answer all kinds of questions, both intimate (yes, who sleeps where, plans for future conceptions, etc., etc.) and legal. However, the precise nature of the religious rite — one that they appear to have done everything in their power to make similar to a wedding — goes completely unexplored.

Why? Isn’t that, potentially, one of the most newsworthy elements of this story?

However, the coverage across the pond in The Daily Mail offers another crucial clue.

Maybe.

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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Why did some ancient religions fall and others rise?

MADDIE ASKS:

What caused ancient religions to become less prevalent?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Our previous Q and A item treated ancient Confucianism, Jainism, Shinto and Taoism, which have survived into the 21st Century but with radically diminished status. Maddie wonders why ancient Babylonian, Greek and Roman mythologies died out and Zoroastrianism has nearly disappeared while Judaism and Hinduism didn’t vanish like other ancient creeds. She asks, did the younger proselytizing faiths of Christianity and Islam simply “push out” the dead creeds?

All very intriguing.

There’s ample mystery here and The Guy is a journalist, not an expert on the history of world religions. But we can scan some common theories. Of course believers in an ancient faith that survived presumably attribute this to divine intervention.

Does dynamism explain the expansion of Christianity and Islam? Or rather, did internal weaknesses of other faiths doom them? Perhaps both. Islam has always had global ambitions and expanded through evangelism (“dawah,” Arabic for “invite”) and also political, social and military pressures. Christianity is equally evangelistic but in modern times mostly gains adherents without political or military force.

Zoroastrianism has at least survived while many other ancient creeds did not. This great faith was formulated by Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) around the 6th Century B.C.E., the same remarkable spiritual epoch that produced the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Mahavira, and major prophets in the Bible. It long dominated its homeland of Persia (present-day Iran). But Muslim forces invaded in a 7th Century C.E. conquest and over time used this control to almost totally supplant the older religion. Unlike Islam, Zoroastrianism has not utilized evangelism or political-military tactics. Today it survives among some few Iranians who haven’t emigrated along with perhaps 200,000 “Parsis,” descendants of Zoroastrians who fled Persia for India. Today’s tiny numbers appear destined to shrink even further due to a low birth rate.

Zoroaster shared with Judaism the worship of one supreme being, Ahura Mazda (the “Wise Lord”) and some propose that monotheism is the key to perpetuating a faith. Perhaps so in some cases, but that cannot explain the long lifespan and impact of Hinduism, with a multitude of gods, or of Buddhism, which doesn’t necessarily worship gods at all.

Another theory that seems to better fit the historical evidence is that long-term success requires a definitive body of holy writings with captivating messages in poetry and prose. Such are the Zoroastrian Avesta and the Rig Veda, a hymn collection that’s the earliest and most important of Hinduism’s four central scriptures. Tradition says the Hindu text dates back countless thousands of years; western experts believe that at minimum it originated prior to Moses, the traditional author of the Bible’s first five books.

Similarly, the remarkable survival of Judaism despite oppression could be attributed to its incomparable Tanakh (Christians’ “Old Testament”). As Simon Schama’s new book The Story of the Jews says, the Hebrew Bible provided “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel.” With the Bible came articulated belief in the one God, developed scriptural moral codes and laws, and bookish intellectual rigor growing from biblical study and commentary, all resulting in strong ethnic solidarity.

Today’s world Jewish population is 15 million. Though Judaism has survived, like Zoroastrianism it seems destined to gradually fade as secularized Jews defect from belief in God and study and practice of their ancestral faith, alongside higher intermarriage and lower birth rates.

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Seeking “Help!” on five venerable world religions

JAEDE ASKS:

I need to know the founder, area of the world it’s in, what their holy book is called and their holidays, for Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Jaede headlined this item “Help!!” and was probably sweating over some school exam or term paper so this comes too late. Nonetheless, a sketch of these five Asian creeds might be informative since they’re lesser-known than the much larger Hinduism and Buddhism. The Guy is grateful that Jaede didn’t ask about their complex belief systems and practices! And after some research The Guy failed in attempts to summarize their many regional and local holidays. Much more could be said but here are a few basics.

The five are listed below in order of adherents as of 2010, estimated by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell seminary, a standard data source.

Such numbers are controversial, and aspects of these faiths influence much broader populations, reflected in higher numbers from such sources as www.patheos.com/Library.html. Apart from the statistics, The Guy relied especially on The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987). Conventional years and centuries are designated here by the multifaith B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) rather than the familiar B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, “Year of the Lord”).

SIKHISM (10,678,000 adherents) was founded in India by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.) and developed by a series of nine authoritative successors through 1708 C.E. Its center is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, near today’s border with Pakistan. Most Sikhs live in India but the faith has spread to Sikh communities worldwide (where the men stand out by wearing obligatory turbans). Though a distinct world religion, Sikhism shares some concepts with Hinduism (e.g. reincarnation and the law of karma) and Islam (worship of one all-powerful God). Its scripture is the Adi Granth (“First Book”), also called the Granth Sahib, collected hymns and poems of the Guru and others. This is supplemented by collected life stories about the Guru as well as manuals of conduct.

Further info at www.thesikhencyclopedia.com.

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Funny, that rainy day is here — complete with dance steps

Honestly, I thought I was reading some stray chapter from the New Agey Celestine Prophecy the other day. All the telltale blemishes were there: mystical experiences, wise native Americans, energy from within, persecution by white folks, a strange lack of factual material.

But no, it was a long-form feature in the otherwise respectable Los Angeles Times. The topic was rain dancing, an attempt to relieve the years-long California drought.

The story was part of the Times’ “Column One” series: prime journalism, best of show. But it was more like a study in politically correct, wide-eyed worshipfulness, right from the start:

The woman in line at the bank said she had already sold all her cattle and was now selling her land.

It was one too many tales of drought hardship for Laynee Reyna, also known as She Who Makes Things Happen — a name given to her by a shaman decades ago.

She felt a great spirit seize her. In the crowded bank lobby, the 79-year-old raised her arms.

Everyone in this town has got to come together and pray and dance for rain, and we’ve got to do it now,” she said.

Teresa Lavagnino, depositing checks at a teller’s window, rushed over.

“Can you do it? Can you make that happen?” she asked. “I can spread the word.”

If you’re a working journalist or if you’re used to reading news in newspapers, you’ll no doubt be asking questions already. Did the reporter witness that incident? How did she know Laynee Reyna felt a “great spirit”? And which shaman gave Reyna a name that sounds like a mashup of Suze Orman and Dances With Wolves?

You won’t be terribly surprised to know that “She Who Makes Things Happen” is a former hippie, as is her ex-husband, “Chief Sonne.” Reyna then brings in a native American consultant, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, for the lore to organize proper rain dances. Why her? Another hanging question.

With Sayers-Roods and her mother on hand, we can get to some serious rain dancing. They sew “traditional regalia,” design a dance and add “a collection of words in the tribe’s Mutson language.” They rehearse three times, and hey, it drizzles.

Again: Was the reporter there?

If not, who told her that? And did she check the weather that day? I’m guessing “no,” because she offers no attributions or hard dates.

She does mark Feb. 2 as a rainy day, but her reporting shows incredible credulity. “People felt their heartbeats match the pounding drums,” she says, without saying how she divined this. She admires Sayers-Roods’ “remarkably clear voice.”

And she seriously quotes Laynee Reyna intoning: “We are they who are calling the rain. We are true to where we stand — on our Mother Earth.”

If your eyes aren’t already rolling, the dancers also — oh, just let the Times tell us:

The circle danced clockwise. And then counter-clockwise to make sure there wasn’t too much rain and landslides.

Some women of an age who would favor Donna Summer added a disco touch. The children formed their own circle in the middle of the larger one.

Reyna passed out bottles of water. She told people to take a sip and spit it out as they danced. Spit it in the air. Spit it on the ground. “Water attracts water.”

People were laughing. It turned into a spitting water fight. Penney the terrier did her part by licking children’s faces.

At least the reporter had some proof of the last item: Next to the article is a photo of Reyna spitting a stream of water high in the air.

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Muslim vs. Christian in the Central African Republic?

The pictures and reports out of Central African Republic are grim. The country is in the grips of a civil war that is pitting predominantly Muslim tribes against Christian and Animist tribes. The violence is especially fierce around the city of Bangui, the capital. The city is home to a Muslim minority of migrants from the East and North and neighboring Chad as well as soldiers of the Séléka militia of former President Michel Djotodia.

The carnage around Bangui has received great play in the French press — most likely because that is where the reporters are. Muslims have gathered at the city’s airport to seek protection from African Union and French troops, while in the city individual Muslims and Christians have been murdered by rival mobs. Le Monde and Le Figaro reported on one particularly gruesome incident, which both newspapers saw as emblematic of the country’s collapse into chaos.

The French newspapers have done a sterling job in reporting on this unfolding crisis. One of the ways their work has stood out is that they did not come to Bangui unencumbered with knowledge about the country’s past. A former French colony, the Central African Republic’s squalid history (remember Emperor Bokassa I?) is not new news. The French press has refrained from describing this as a religious civil war — but has treated the fighting as a tribal and political clash with religious overtones.

Yes, their is an al Qaeda angle, and the CAR is on the tenth parallel — the front line between Islam and Christianity in Africa. But the French press has not resorted to the easy answer of religious hatred driving this conflict.

So what’s been happening?

On Wednesday the country’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, attended a military parade in the capital. A man watching the review was seized by some of the soldiers and accused of being a spy for the Séléka militia. In full view of Western reporters and some government ministers the man was beaten to death.

Le Figaro wrote:

La scène a duré de longues minutes pendant lesquelles des soldats de l’armée régulière, certains en uniforme, ont lynché à coups de pieds, de briques, de barres de fer l’un des leurs, accusé d’être un ancien Séléka, la rébellion à majorité musulmane. L’assassinat, mercredi en plein jour et en public, a engendré une fureur et un plaisir effarant dans la troupe. La vue du corps démembré a fait l’effet d’une fête.

Ce massacre d’un homme mercredi à Bangui n’était pas un simple massacre de plus dans une ville qui en a déjà connu beaucoup. C’est le symbole d’un pays qui ne parvient pas à calmer ses esprits, à juguler les vengeances. «C’est un drame, un mauvais signal. Je ne comprends même pas comment on peut être aussi bête et aussi méchant», assure, affligé, un officier français.

The scene lasted several minutes. Soldiers of the regular army, some in uniform, lynched a man they accused of being a former member of the Muslim Séléka militia, kicking him and beating him with bricks and iron bars. The assassination on Wednesday in broad daylight and in public  created a furor as well as great pleasure for the the crowd. < The sight of dismembered body created a party atmosphere.

The massacre of a man Wednesday in Bangui was not a simple killing in a city that has already experienced many more deaths. It is the symbol of a country that fails to calm his mind, to curb revenge. “This is a tragedy, a bad signal. I do not even understand how people can be so stupid and so mean,” said a distressed French officer.

The Washington Post‘s reporter in Bangui has also written of the fear gripping the city. In a story entitled “Tens of thousands of Muslims flee Christian militias in Central African Republic” published the day after the lynching, the Post offered vignettes that illustrated the dire situation facing Muslims in Bangui. These human interest angles made this piece stand out — and demonstrated the value of having a reporter on the spot. Well done.

But the article also illustrated the dilemma of reporters and editors covering a story from the ground but neglecting to offer context and history. The article begins:

Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing to neighboring countries by plane and truck as Christian militias stage brutal attacks, shattering the social fabric of this war-ravaged nation.

In towns and villages as well as here in the capital, Christian vigilantes wielding machetes have killed scores of Muslims, who are a minority here, and burned and looted their houses and mosques in recent days, according to witnesses, aid agencies and peacekeepers. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled their homes.

The cycle of chaos is fast becoming one of the worst outbreaks of violence along Muslim-Christian fault lines in recent memory in sub-Saharan Africa, tensions that have also plagued countries such as Nigeria and Sudan.

The brutalities began to escalate when the country’s first Muslim leader, Michel Djotodia, stepped down and went into exile last month. Djotodia, who had seized power in a coup last March, had been under pressure from regional leaders to resign. His departure was meant to bring stability to this poor country, but humanitarian and human rights workers say there is more violence now than at any time since the coup.

The article does state the violence is not all on one side:

Christians have also been victims of violence, targeted by Muslims in this complex communal conflict that U.N. and humanitarian officials fear could implode into genocide. Several hundred thousand Christians remain in crowded, squalid camps, unable or too afraid to return home.

But attacks on Muslims in particular are intensifying, aid workers said.

To which I would write — “Yes, but … ” and point to the contrasting tone of the French stories.

The attacks on the Muslim minority are appalling, but there is no explanation from the Post as to why the attacks are taking place now — and why they are so vicious. The language used in this story — though understandable to American ears — does not paint a true picture of what is going on. It is tribe against tribe — tribes who happen to be predominantly Muslim or Christian or Animist — that is driving this.

The violence we are witnessing began not in the past few weeks but in December 2012 when a coalition of rebel groups from the eastern CAR called Séléka (primarily composed of Muslim ethnic Gula bolstered by Chadian and Sudanese volunteers) launched an assault on the government of President François Bozizé, an ethnic Gbaya.
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