Failing to burn shoe leather on Scientology

tom cruise and scientologyBill Blakemore of ABC News dropped a blunt assessment of the Tom Cruise-Paramount situation Thursday: It’s all about Scientology. (By the way, did you hear Cruise has inked a new deal already?) It’s the link that everyone has been wanting to make, but no other reporter has had the guts to run with it, until now.

In the scarcely reported article, Blakemore dumps the garbage can on Scientology, bringing up Time‘s reporting, Rolling Stone‘s article and the opinions and research of two smart-sounding individuals, cult expert Rick Ross and Stephen A. Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta.

The article starts off with some fairly run-of-the-mill Scientology stuff: the cruel emperor Xenu, intergalactic tribulations between extraterrestrials and of course, L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who came up with Scientology. But then it gets into the attempts by Scientologists to gain acceptance around the world. Enter Tom Cruise, stage right:

“Scientology made significant inroads into Congress during the Clinton administration,” says sociologist Stephen A. Kent at the University of Alberta. “Other governments including the U.K., France and Germany have not given Scientology tax exempt status,” he says.

Kent says that, following contacts between Scientologist John Travolta and President Clinton, the U.S. State Department became an advocate in Germany on behalf of Scientology.

Cult expert Ross says the Germans are extremely wary of Scientology, and consider it a fascist organization.

Kent adds that active lobbying on Capitol Hill got prominent Scientologists — including musicians Isaac Hayes and Chick Correa, as well as actor Travolta — before congressional committees.

And during the current Bush administration? Professor Kent cites a 4:30 pm meeting listed on the official schedule of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on June 13, 2003[,] with Tom Cruise and Scientology official Kurt Weiland.

This is all very interesting stuff, but most of it we’ve heard before. Blakemore relies heavily on Kent and Ross in this report for anything outside the Time and Rolling Stone pieces. He makes it clear that obtaining answers from Scientology leaders was harder than getting detailed answers from a government agency involved in national security (it’s hard, trust me).

So rather than simply talking to a couple of people that act as talking heads, which is what he was attempting to do in contacting Scientology’s offices, why couldn’t Blakemore be a bit more energetic and check out some of the claims that Kent and Ross make?

Go talk to some real Scientologists. Go to one of their booths. They’ll talk to you. Watch the video they show people. Then come back to us with what you discovered. This type of reporting means leaving your telephone, email (unless you have a BlackBerry) and the comforts of the office. I know it sounds difficult, but it’s what good reporting takes.

Time‘s Richard Behar pulled it off, as did Rolling Stone‘s Janet Reitman. If you are not going to put the necessary shoe leather into the reporting, at least provide your readers with links to the articles you cite.

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How do you report on people who love martyrdom?

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

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

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

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

Check out this section of the Hersh piece:

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

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

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Too many Bible verses in those texts?

bibleHere is a story from last weekend that I have been thinking about most of the week. The story is not new, but there has been a major development.

This is complicated stuff and, it seems to me, reporter Marla Jo Fisher has most of the major voices featured in her report for The Orange County Register.

Here is the opening of the story:

How much Christianity is too much for the University of California?

That’s a question being asked these days, in a federal lawsuit that has pitted Christian schools against admissions officials at UC who decide which high school courses are eligible to be college prerequisites.

The issue revolves around decisions by the University of California to reject three Christian-themed courses at a high school in Murrieta and several textbooks by two well-known Christian textbook publishers. The move came in the wake of a 2002 decision by the UC to look more closely at school accreditation and quality issues.

“These textbooks had already been used by many, many schools,” said Robert Tyler, attorney for plaintiff Calvary Chapel Christian Schools of Murrieta, along with the Association of Christian Schools International and five students. “It’s a fundamental shift. They were acceptable in the years past.”

Now, here is the key question and, at this point, there does not seem to be a clear answer. But this is the angle that the newspaper must pursue to nail this story down — before it heads into higher and higher courts.

In the past, Christian schools have been judged harshly on the basis of what they do not have their students read and the viewpoints to which their students are not exposed. In other words, they fail to cover basic territory that state universities expect students to have covered before admission.

But Fisher does a fine job of pointing out that this may not be the case this time around. There is evidence, this time, that the students are being punished for the Christian concepts and readings that are being included in the classes, not for a failure to cover basic territory.

What we have here is new territory — maybe. That is what the newspaper has to find out. For example, we have yet another vague use of the “creationism” term. We do not know what the schools are teaching in science classes, whether it’s seven-day creationism, a concept of gradual change over time that denies that creation is random and unguided or some other mix of theories. We do not know if the students are reading a wide variety of materials about evolutionary theory, or not. “Creationism” is too vague a word. We need facts.

The goal, in a fine Christian school, is to actually hold debates that you may not be able to hold on a secular campus, to read more points of view — not less. Note this passage in the story:

Included in the lawsuit and among the courses proposed by Calvary Chapel school in Murrieta and rejected by UC: Christianity’s Influence in American History, Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic and Christianity and Morality in American Literature.

“Unfortunately, this course, while it has an interesting reading list, does not offer a non-biased approach to the subject matter,” the rejection letter for the literature class read.

Lawyers for the Christian schools argue that these proposals should not have been rejected when other schools have approved courses such as Western Civilization: The Jewish Experience, and Intro to Buddhism.

Were the reading lists for the classes too weak? Some said that was not the problem. Were the students graduating from the controversial schools academically weak and unprepared? Apparently not.

Stay tuned.

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Pew gaps about the pew gap

WDobsonIt’s time for another round of “Name That Newspaper.”

Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have released another large chunk of their annual blast of data about the state of religion and public life. In newspapers this translates into religion and politics and, this close to an election, that translates into headlines about who is headed up, with God, and who is headed down.

In that spirit, GetReligion readers are asked to guess which of the following two headlines and leads come from The New York Times and which comes from The Washington Times.

Brace yourselves, because this will be really hard.

Few see Democrats as friendly to religion

Liberal or progressive Christians, who make up 34 percent of the population, are disunified on key issues, and only one out of four Americans considers the Democratic Party friendly to religion, a Pew poll shows.

And now, here is our second lead covering the same study:

In Poll, G.O.P. Slips as a Friend of Religion

A new poll shows that fewer Americans view the Republican Party as “friendly to religion” than a year ago, with the decline particularly steep among Catholics and white evangelical Protestants — constituencies at the core of the Republicans’ conservative Christian voting bloc.

And there you have it. If you could not figure out that story No. 1 comes from The Washington Times and that story No. 2 is from The New York Times then, honestly, I don’t know what we can do for you.

But please let me stress that I do not intend this exercise as a criticism of either Julia Duin or Laurie Goodstein, the veteran Godbeat reporters who wrote these news stories. After a quick glance at some of the survey materials, it seems to me that both of these stories are accurate and, frankly, both are pretty obvious to anyone who follows the news or this weblog.

Yes, there are quite a few conservative religious believers in quite a few conservative pews who are not very happy with the Republican Party at the moment.

Meanwhile, the “religious left” has been getting lots and lots of ink in recent months — as well it should. There is quite a bit of evidence that the Democratic Party is, in large part, led by a coalition of people who are either secular or very active in liberal denominations that are defined, in large part, by their opposition to the traditional religious views of believers on the traditional side of the aisle.

kerry communionHowever, the “religious left” itself is rather small when it comes to real people sitting in real pews. It tends to hail from religious groups that are aging and shrinking. Click here for a controversial essay in the Los Angeles Times on that topic.

So, it is one thing to say that the GOP has reason to fear that people in pews may not be all that fired up. It is something else to say this means these core voters will switch to the other side of the social-issues aisle. And, as always, this means that voters in Catholic pews are the great swing factor — as they have been for ages and ages. Amen.

This leads me back to another Pew study that was released a few weeks ago that focused on how Americans feel about social issues. The big lead on this story was that Americans are confused and/or diverse on social issues and, thus, it is wrong to talk about “culture wars.” However, the numbers had not changed that much. Click here to go to that study and, if you wish, click here for the Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote about it.

Once again, it isn’t all that shocking to find out what core Republican voters believe about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. What I found interesting in that previous Pew report was the information about my fellow Democrats, especially those of us who are opposed to abortion. Here is part of my column, drawing on an interview with veteran pollster John C. Green. These are some wild numbers.

As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats. Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which Green said might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions.

“Many of those liberals are black Democrats who are frequent church goers,” said Green. “But those Democrats are still out there.”

Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions,” the choice that Green called a “modern pro-life stance.” Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

But this does not mean that all of those Democrats are going to vote Republican. The poll numbers are more complex than that.

So if you are really interested in these topics, it pays to read several different reports about the same research and, if you have the time, scan the poll numbers for yourself. These days, it will almost always be available with a few clicks of a mouse.

UPDATE: Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has a lengthy post up at Beliefnet on this new Pew poll. Check it out.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with that


Here is my question for the day, as we watch the latest chapter in the Tom Cruise passion play.

If Frank Rich of The New York Times chooses, of his own free will, to stop spending his own hard-earned dollars to purchase tickets to Mel Gibson movies, and this decision is largely based on Rich’s rejection of Gibson’s religious beliefs (including sins, struggles, opinions, confessions, etc.), does this mean that Rich is a bigot?

Or let’s apply that question to the Cruise drama, which I think is part of the larger drama of Hollywood trying to come to grips with the values and tastes of ordinary Americans in an age when DVDs, home theaters, cable, the World Wide Web and a host of other factors are giving consumers all kinds of options other than lining up at the local mall multiplex.

If millions of ordinary Americans chose, of their own free will, to stop spending their own hard-earned dollars to purchase tickets to Tom Cruise movies, and this decision is largely based on their rejection of Cruise’s religious beliefs (sins, struggles, opinions, confessions, etc.), does this mean that these ordinary Americans are bigots?

I ask this question because of the following passage in the orginal Los Angeles Times story about the nasty, nasty divorce that ended the megastar’s 14-year business arrangement with Paramount. I refer to the part where reporters Kim Christensen and Claire Hoffman write:

For more than a year, Cruise’s public outbursts have made headlines and sparked speculation that one of Hollywood’s most bankable figures might be tarnishing his image.

In a series of unrelated incidents, Cruise publicly denounced Brooke Shields last year for taking antidepressants, jumped up and down on a couch during “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and proclaimed his love for fiancee Katie Holmes, and jabbed an accusing finger at Matt Lauer on the “Today” show as he lectured his host on the evils of Ritalin, a stimulant used to treat attention deficit disorder.

At the same time, Cruise’s increasingly vocal advocacy of Scientology has drawn attention to his faith — at times colliding with his career.

Note this interesting statement of fact: “In a series of unrelated incidents …”

How does the newspaper of record in Hollywood know that these episodes are unrelated? I would argue that, for millions of Americans, all of this seemingly bizarre behavior is connected. Many Americans now believe that Cruise is bizarre because they consider his personal beliefs bizarre. In short, the connecting thread is the public’s view of Scientology.

spEP912  Trapped in the Closet  2This is hard for the media to deal with because (a) it’s hard to write about Scientology, period, in Hollywood and elsewhere; (b) quite a few people in the MSM consider all strong, doctrinaire religious beliefs somewhat bizarre; and (c) because all of this is linked to years of rumors about Cruise that, frankly, may never escape the world of innuendo (and journalists, with good reason, refuse to go there, even if South Park already has).

Meanwhile, the economic realities of Hollywood are changing for a wide variety of reasons, most of them rooted in technology. Click here for a Los Angeles Times Cruise update that focuses on this angle.

At some point, Sumner Redstone and his team at Paramount have to ask if paying Cruise more money than Tom Hanks makes sense in today’s market. What is the studio supposed to do if a megastar is determined to offend millions of moviegoers? Cruise has every right to practice his faith and to be an evangelist for it. Consumers have every right to tell him to go make movies on some other planet.

This is the between-the-lines theme of the somewhat snippy second-day feature in — where else — the Style section of The Washington Post that ran with the headline “Viacom’s Rationale: Cruise Is Risky Business” and a loaded second deck that said, “In Hollywood, It’s Okay to Be … Whatever. That Is, Unless You Start Costing Someone Money.”

Believe it or not, the story by William Booth and Anita Huslin doesn’t deal with the Scientology issue until the 16th paragraph, where this lurch takes place:

“His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount,” Redstone told the [Wall Street] Journal.

Though Cruise has been a Scientologist since 1990, when he was introduced to it by his first wife, Mimi Rogers, he has risen in recent years to the upper echelons of the organization to become a kind of world ambassador for the religion. Eyebrows began wagging as he explained how he helped wean addicts from drugs by promoting vitamins and when he set up tents with Scientology information on the set of “War of the Worlds.”

Then came the TomKat union. Within months of meeting actress Katie Holmes, 16 years his junior, Cruise trampolined on Oprah’s couch and declared his love for her. Then Cruise let loose on actress Brooke Shields for using antidepressants to treat her postpartum depression, and followed up with a rant at Matt Lauer on the “Today” show, chastising the host for promoting Ritalin and not understanding the evils of psychiatry. (No. 2 Cruise ex Nicole Kidman, whose father is a psychologist, maintained a pained silence through all.) Cruise also challenged the rebroadcast of the “South Park” episode “Trapped in the Closet,” which satirized Scientology. Then in April, he announced to the world the birth of his and Kate’s first child, daughter Suri, who was reportedly birthed in silence as prescribed by the Church of Scientology.

Well now. The “Trapped in the Closet” episode was a satire of Scientology? That’s what that was all about?

I do not envy the reporters who end up covering this story. It’s going to be very hard to keep this religion ghost, well, in the closet. It’s going to be hard to find people who can speak on the record for Cruise and his followers. It’s going to be hard to deal with the big issues, because of all the rumors. Maybe the story will just go away? Maybe?

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Explaining Muslim disagreements

sunnishiteLike a gazillion other people, I’ve started reading The Christian Science Monitor each morning. That’s because former hostage Jill Carroll has been telling her story on its pages over the last week and a half.

Each installment has been very interesting, if too short. But something in yesterday’s account really caught my eye:

I could also see that Shiites were high on their list of enemies. Once, when attempting to explain the historical split between Sunnis and Shiites, Abu Nour, the leader of my captors, stopped himself after he referred to “Shiite Muslims.”

“No, they are not Muslims,” Ink Eyes said. “Anyone who asks for things from people that are dead, and not [from] Allah, he is not a Muslim.”

He was referring to Shiites appealing to long-dead Islamic leaders to intercede with God, asking for miracles such as curing the sick. It’s a practice similar to that of Catholics praying to saints.

Wow! I have been trying so hard to find examples of doctrinal disagreements between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This is the very first doctrinal difference I’ve seen.

It shouldn’t take a brutal kidnapping for reporters to share such information. These disagreements should be fleshed out in all major papers. And not just doctrinal disagreements but also any other factors that have spawned conflict over the ages. This story, which is ostensibly about Sunni and Shiite conflict, fails to explain the divide. So does this story, published today — although it does mention sectarian violence repeatedly.

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Take my wives, please!

polygamyisutahsome As I’m weeks away from my own impending nuptials, the thought of marrying more than one person seems awful — like residing in the Fifth Circle of Hell. Spouses are like noses. If you have more than one, people look at you funny.

But my fiance’s father dropped a bombshell on me a few months ago: the in-laws have polygamous ancestors. Which is not all that surprising considering they have been Mormon for generations.

So I was delighted to read this Salt Lake Tribune comprehensive breakdown of presidential contender Mitt Romney’s polygamous ancestry. Written by Thomas Burr, the article not only details the polgyamy, but explains it in a historical and religious context and analyzes the political fallout. Not bad!

I had no idea how vast Romney’s polygamous past was. His great-grandfather fled to Mexico after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced the Principle in 1890 so that Utah could join the union. His family tree includes six polygamous men with 41 wives:

Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith said he had received a revelation from God that men were encouraged to have multiple wives.

The doctrine was a return to a practice predating Jesus Christ. Not all Mormon men took multiple brides, but many did. Smith is thought to have had as many as 29 wives at one point.

Mitt Romney’s ancestors converted to Mormonism as the church was starting to spread in the 1830s and 40s. His great-great-grandfather, Miles Romney, eventually took on 13 wives, including the niece with the same name of his first wife, Elizabeth Gaskell.

. . . Parley P. Pratt was one of the influential LDS Church leaders during the early years. He married 12 times, though his first wife died before he took a second. A former husband of one of his plural wives eventually killed Pratt.

. . . Miles Park Romney took five brides, though one left him and the church. According to an American Heritage magazine story in 1964, he married one woman, Millie Eyring Snow, after the LDS Church’s 1890 “manifesto” renouncing polygamy. The two never had any children.

Parley Pratt! You can’t marry women who already have husbands! Anyway, the article goes on to analyze whether the polygamous past will have any fallout for Romney, citing polls and political analysts who think he’ll be fine. I thought Kate O’Beirne of the conservative National Review had the best line about the whole thing:

Should Mitt Romney join a 2008 race that included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and George Allen, the only guy in the GOP field with only one wife would be the Mormon.

Polygamists were also in the news earlier this week when a small group of children rallied in defense of their family makeup at a protest in Utah. I thought I would point out the different fashion reviews. Here’s AP:

Dressed in flip-flops and blue jeans, bangs drooping over their eyes, the teens at Saturday’s rally talked on cell phones and played rock music, singing lyrics written to defend their family life.

Here’s Reuters:

Most of the young men who spoke wore slacks, shirts and ties; the women wore long dresses and blouses.

Come on! There were only a dozen kids there! How could these details be so different? Also, what image were the reporters trying to convey using these different details? And which one is true?

Photo via NoveltyWearsOff on Flickr.

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A faulty Sunday school lesson

FirstBaptistWatertownOh the confusing tales that we journalists weave, except when we attempt to deceive by making them too simple.

Did you hear that Thomson Financial has begun using computer-generated stories? Yes, some of what journalists used to do is now being done by computers. I can’t say that’s surprising, because of the cut and paste, let’s get that data out there nature of some journalism.

This type of technology is a long way off from replacing religion reporters — except, perhaps, when you ignore the details of a slightly complicated story and write a formulaic article with a shocking headline that confirms stereotypes and misreports the facts.

When I first stumbled across an Associated Press article about the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher because her Baptist church had adopted a “literal interpretation” of the Bible’s teaching on women in the church, I knew something was amiss. Here is a report from Dan Harris of ABC News, who is not a regular religion reporter, that is only slightly more detailed than the AP’s:

Aug. 21, 2006 — After 54 years of classes, a New York Sunday school teacher is getting an unexpected lesson in theology: She lost her job because of her sex.

Mary Lambert, 81, has been a member of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., for 60 years. She had her wedding on the premises, raised her kids in its halls and taught Sunday school at First Baptist for more than five decades.

But she recently received a letter from the church board notifying her that the board had voted unanimously to dismiss her from her post. The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible’s First Epistle to Timothy, which states: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

Actually if Harris had bothered to dig any further, he would have discovered a more complex story that is messy and involves church politics, factions, and what appears (at least to outsiders) as petty squabbling. I also have a suspicion that this article did not surprise his editors because it confirmed all their worst stereotypes. This article would set off alarm bells in the head of any editor with even the slightest understanding of the theology behind conservative church policies.

I won’t make any claims of knowing the full story, but after reading this letter from the church’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy LaBouf, it’s obvious that Lambert was not fired simply because she is a woman. A convenient fact that Harris and the AP left out of their articles is that, according to this letter from the church’s deacon board, which includes women, a large percentage of the Sunday school teachers at First Baptist Church, Watertown, N.Y., are women. They are not being fired.

Judging from LaBouf’s letter, it appears the church fired Lambert for making a fuss earlier this year — that ended up in the local media — about changes being made by a new pastor:

We had originally intended to include the various multifaceted reasons for the dismissal in our [correspondence;] however after legal review it was recommended that we refrain from including issues that could be construed as slander and stick with “spiritual issues” that govern a church, which the courts have historically stayed out of. With threats of lawsuits in the past we wanted to try hard to not go down that road again. I am sure you can understand why we would desire to exercise caution.

Yes, Pastor LaBouf, we all understand. However, your church’s sneaky actions did not make it easy for reporters and this seems to have backfired. But that is no excuse for reporters failing to dig out some of the nitty gritty facts and report them.

But why should we expect that level of detail from news reporters? It’s clear that reporters, including the author of this Reuters story, read the letter but chose to omit its details. What other facts have been left out?

It’s really not that complicated a story, unless you ignore facts to downgrade it to a level that could be written by a computer. Just remember, reporters, facts keep journalists in business.

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