A win for the left in Great Britain?

050319 n114So speech and actions that “glorify” terror are now illegal in England, which represents a kind of victory for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The bottom line: This is the kind of news event that is shredding old definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” right now. You can sense that in Alan Cowell’s report in the New York Times. It was a showdown, for the most part, between Labor and the Conservative and Liberal Democratic opposition.

Mr. Blair’s critics said the vote, one of three crucial parliamentary tests in as many days, was as much a display of political maneuvering as a strengthening of British laws, which already include prohibitions like those used last week to prosecute Abu Hamza al-Masri, a firebrand Muslim cleric. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for soliciting to murder and promoting racial hatred.

Opponents had said the term “glorification” was legally vague and unnecessary. “The existing law is quite adequate to the problem,” said Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

So is soliciting murder the same thing as praising jihad?

By the way, who gets to define “jihad”? If a radical Islamist defines “jihad” one way — waving a sword — and gets arrested, does that mean you then have to arrest a moderate Muslim for using a more spiritual definition of the word? Wait, sorry about that. Who gets to define what is dangerous spiritual language and what is not?

And, while we’re at it, does that mean that opposing this law means one is soft on terrorism? That’s the precisely the kind of logic that, once upon a time, “liberals” used to accuse “conservatives” of using. Didn’t free-speech liberals here in America oppose that kind of thing when President Bush and Co. started down that path? Wait, there’s more:

A proposal to close mosques used by radical imams has been dropped, and a plan to extend the permitted period of detention without charge or trial to 90 days from 14 has been abandoned in favor of 28 days. Speaking after the vote, Mr. Blair said the new law “will allow us to deal with those people and say: Look, we have free speech in this country, but don’t abuse it.”

So what is the line between offensive speech and dangerous offensive speech and who gets to draw it? Didn’t the old law — with that “murder” language — go far enough?

Meanwhile, you just know that now there is going to have to be some kind of law that leans the other way.

If you legislate on one side of this clash in order to fight terror, you will now need to legislate on the other side in order to fight, well, Islamophobia. This is where talk of new British laws against “religious hatred” enter the picture. I dug into this a bit this week in my Scripps Howard News Service column, which included some interesting remarks in the House of Lords from the brilliant scholar and bishop N.T. Wright. If you wish, click here to read my column and then you can click here for Wright’s text. Here is a piece of summary language from the column:

Wright stressed that it will be dangerous to pass laws that attempt to replace, amend or edit religious doctrines that have shaped the lives of believers for centuries. But politicians seem determined to try.

Thus, Birmingham University forced the Evangelical Christian Union off campus and seized the group’s funds because it refused to amend its bylaws to allow non-Christians or atheists to become voting members. Thus, Wright noted that police have shut down protests in Parliament Square against British policies in Iraq. Comedians — facing vague laws against hate speech — are suddenly afraid to joke about religion. And was there any justification for government investigations of the Anglican bishop of Chester and the chairman of the Muslim Council of Great Britain because they made statements critical of homosexuality?

Public officials, said the bishop, are trying to control the beliefs that are in people’s hearts and the thoughts that are in their heads. The tolerance police are becoming intolerant, which is a strange way to promote tolerance.

Now, is what the bishop is saying “liberal” or “conservative”?

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Not knowing the language

on the media Kudos to National Public Radio’s On the Media team for last week’s episode (available here in transcript and mp3 form) that focused in-depth on the media in the Middle East and their coverage of everything from the political situations to the violence between Muslims and Israel.

The weekly show, typically airing on Fridays, is something of a more in-depth audio version of Poynter’s Romenesko, providing commentary on all things media-related from the previous week.

Last week’s show, focusing exclusively on the Middle East, is a wake-up call to American media organizations covering the intensely religious conflict, which managing editor Brooke Gladstone described as “one of the most covered, hardest to cover stories of all time.”

Each of the episode’s five segments is worth the time (easily listened to as a podcast). As Gladstone says in this segment,

News consumers, especially in America, often believe they already know this story. They know in each instance where wrong was committed, where justice was done. But responsible reporters aren’t supposed to bring unbreakable assumptions into the field, so this week I’m reporting from Jerusalem to learn how local reporters on both sides of the divide cover themselves and each other.

The highlight of this episode was this comment from As’ad AbuKhalil, a native of Lebanon who closely monitors Arab news with more than a half-dozen Arabic-language newspapers, two satellite dishes and a number of Internet magazines, all from his California home. He is a political science professor at Cal State Stanislaus, author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia and blogs at angryarab.blogspot.com. Here’s what he had to say:


I find a huge difference between European media and between the American media on the coverage of the Middle East. I mean, I can think of very few, if any, American journalists who deliver the news from the Middle East to us here, whether in visual media or print media, who really know Arabic or Hebrew or Persian or Turkish. That is not the case in European media, and it shows. You find a much more in-depth understanding on nuances of politics and society that is missing from the American media. In America, we are accustomed to a correspondent who stays like three weeks in Lebanon, and then the person is back in Washington, D.C., and he may be covering or she may be covering Michael Jackson, and then we send them to Germany and then to Iraq. I mean, it’s a mess.

I’ve hammered on this issue a number of times in the past, and this assertion provides some confirmation for what I’ve suspected: that journalists covering the conflict in the Middle East don’t quite get it when it comes to what drives this conflict. If this is indeed true, that American media organizations do not send reporters who know the local languages, it is indeed startling.

Sure, knowing the local languages can’t prevent one from reporting a story, but when language is so key for communicating complex religious issues and understanding their history, how can one expect to get the story right?

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Faith-based funding

electionexplanation2Religion reporter Alan Cooperman covers faith-based initiatives for the Washington Post. His story today, which highlights a report from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare, had some interesting phrases.

Despite the Bush administration’s rhetorical support for religious charities, the amount of direct federal grants to faith-based organizations declined from 2002 to 2004, according to a major new study released yesterday. . . .

The study by the nonpartisan Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy examined 28,000 grants made by nine federal agencies over three years. It found that religious charities got an unchanging share — about 18 percent — of the money awarded each year.

But because the total pie of available funding shrank by more than $230 million over the three years, the slice that went to religious groups also declined, from $670 million in fiscal 2002 to $626 million in fiscal 2004.

Note the lead, which is, essentially: despite claims of support, the amount of money to faith-based groups decreased under Bush. I have really enjoyed Cooperman’s writing for years and this is a minor quibble, but I think it’s important to note that a leader can, in fact, support faith-based initiatives and at the same time oversee a funding decrease. It’s not necessarily a contradiction and therefore doesn’t require the loaded word despite. In fact, the third paragraph I’ve excerpted here shows that overall government-wide discretionary spending went down (while spending to pay for the war in Iraq and to fund mandatory entitlements skyrocketed, of course) and is the reason for the decrease.

It’s just a good reminder that budgets are contentious issues and reporters shouldn’t take sides on policy prescriptions. Because of that, the language should be as neutral and straightforward as possible. In fact, the more contentious the issue, the flatter the language should be.

Another note: see how the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy is characterized? That’s right — nonpartisan. If there is a worse descriptor for reporters to use, I’m not aware of it. And, in fact, the Roundtable has a fairly good record of raising legal and ethical questions against faith-based initiatives. I know this because I used its research when I was writing a chapter of my book against faith-based charity funding! The Roundtable might be nonpartisan in the sense that it more-or-less opposes charitable choice and faith-based funding no matter which party supports it. But is that the best way to characterize the group? How about we reveal the Roundtable’s funding, at least?

Also, I’m not sure how great of an idea it is for Cooperman to vouch for the group while he’s covering it. But all of this quibbling is actually not what I intended to say. I think it’s good for reporters to look into faith-based funding and see how it’s changing — or not changing, as Cooperman’s report says — public policy. There’s a treasure of information to be mined.

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Waving the white flag

white flagGone are the days when journalists stood on principle.

American newspaper editors and ombudsmen scrambled together columns for their publications’ weekend editions explaining why they chose not to run images of the cartoons that have resulted in several death threats against journalists. The general consensus, according to my unscientific review, is that they were too offensive. For a more thorough listing of the columns than I will provide, check out Poynter’s Romenesko.

My favorite column from the weekend had to have been Tim Rutten over at the Los Angeles Times:

Nothing, however, quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper’s art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili’s notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren’t as touchy as Muhammad’s.) Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with — you guessed it — one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.

He didn’t even blush.

Rutten then ripped into the hypocrisy of American newspapers, using the film version of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code as an example of how the media will not hesitate to jump all over a movie that distorts a major religion.

It all comes down to the Fatwa, doesn’t it? Christians don’t issue them, Muslims do.

Certainly, there should be reviews since this is a news event, though it would be a surprise if any of them had something substantive to say about these issues. But what about publishing feature stories, interviews or photographs? Isn’t that offensive, since they promote the film? More to the point, should newspapers and television networks refuse to accept advertising for this film since plainly that would be promoting hate speech? Will our editors and executives declare their revulsion at the very thought of profiting from bigotry?


News reports over the weekend revealed that certain Arab governments were behind the riots. How despicable is that? They even handed out copies of the cartoons. Now, why in the world would any media organization want to play into that type of strategy by publishing the cartoons, as blogger and columnist Andrew Sullivan insists that they do?

The answer is simple: reporters don’t concern themselves with what governments want when publishing content. Sure, publishing the cartoons in the United States would not have exactly calmed the situation in the Middle East and would have played into the hands of those seeking to incite the riots. But does that change the fact that they were legitimate news items that should be published?

As Sullivan said in a column in this week’s Sunday Times:

The fundamental job of journalists is to give you as much information as possible to make sense of the world around you.

surrenderAn Indianapolis Star column is a great example of the weak thinking going through the minds of the profit-focused leadership of American newspapers. As a longtime reader of that newspaper, I know a thing or two about its tradition of publishing legitimate news (disclaimer: I used to work there. See my bio for more details).

I was quite disappointed in Dennis Ryerson’s explanation for why the cartoons were not published:

Newspapers also have every right to be provocative in a truly free society. Indeed, many readers want us to be just that, so long, that is, as our provocation supports their point of view.

With that right come responsibilities.

The Star shouldn’t be in the business of promoting any religion or point of view in its news columns; we need to respect all religions and all views.

But our responsibility also is to avoid intentionally giving offense to a basic tenet of an entire religion, which is just what reprinting the controversial cartoons would do.

The column is fraught with mischaracterizations, starting with the assertion that publishing images of Muhammad violates a basic tenet of Islam — since when?

Ryerson writes, “It is sadly unfortunate that many people hold the Islamic faith, as opposed to Islamic extremists, as being responsible for world terrorism.” Actually, all of Islam is responsible in one way or another for the extremism. It is the responsibility of Muslims to rise up and dispel this myth. Some are thankfully trying.

Few times has the Indianapolis Star held back in publishing things that certain groups in the local community would have found offensive. I remember a highly publicized case of a photo of two women kissing. The newspaper lost 5,000 in subscriptions (ouch for a Gannett publisher). I also remember the publication of photos of barrels full of dead dogs (for a Humane Society story). People were traumatized and the Humane Society was reformed.

Remember the photos of the prison abuse scandals? The Washington Post used editorial discretion and did not run the photos that were most offensive, but they did run some. Remember the photos of dead Americans hanging from bridges?

All legitimate news that offended, created outrage and caused problems for one government or another. And all published. Why not now?

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Italian PM: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics”

berlusconiThe scandals and corruption charges surrounding Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi make the GOP’s problems in Washington seem minor league. Berlusconi is one of the 25 richest people in the world. His businesses create a number of legal problems for him politically, and he is facing charges of bribing judges in a trial involving one of his businesses. He’s also compared himself to Jesus Christ in a speech to political supporters:

But then he went on to complain that he feels like what he called “the Jesus Christ of Italian politics”.

“I’m a patient victim. I put up with everything. I sacrifice myself for everyone,” he said.

Opposition politicians called Mr Berlusconi’s comparison grotesque, although he was simply using popular speech.

In Italian, for example, you can refer to someone as a Povero Christo, or a poor Christ, without being accused of blasphemy.

Berlusconi’s statement will be used against him by his political opponents. Those in the European media, who love gifts like Berlusconi who keep on giving, will blast the comments across their front pages.

But do Italians really care that a man who owns a handful of television stations, some radio stations, a collection of newspapers, an advertising business, some film companies, insurance corporations and food and construction outfits said he’s on the same level as Jesus Christ? It certainly won’t generate any riots or burnings, nor should it.

This politician is conflicted with interests beyond repair, and during his tenure the country’s press freedom ranking dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free.” The Economist has been unrelenting in criticizing Berlusconi (just glance over his Wikipedia file and you’ll get an idea).

Berlusconi recently said that only Napoleon did more than he has as a leader, and called a German European Union MP a Nazi concentration prison camp guard. Berlusconi also once said that Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman.

This is a country where Jesus Christ was put on trial (the case has since been thrown out). With all these comments under Berlusconi’s belt, is this religious reference really all that surprising?

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Free religious speech?

Chaplain ShieldMy brother went to the Air Force Academy, which also happened to be a few miles from where my family lived in Colorado. We loved going to football games, but my father (a pastor) cringed each time they began the pre-game ceremonies with a prayer. Mostly that was because the clergy always prayed for an Air Force victory. He felt this was grossly inappropriate and trivialized prayer.

The good news for my dad is that the new religious guidelines issued Feb. 9 by the Air Force Academy seem to discourage such instances of prayer. The bad news for Pops is that they seem to encourage such trivialized content.

Julia Duin of the Washington Times has been all over this story, providing regular updates and an understanding of the conflict. Here’s how she succinctly sums up the one-page guidelines:

The Air Force yesterday released revised guidelines on religious observance that say chaplains need not recite prayers incompatible with their beliefs, but that also encourage “non-denominational” or “inclusive” prayer in public situations.

It is always interesting to see how various reporters wrap their heads around the odd bedfellows that come together in religious liberty and free speech fights, but most reports did a good job of explaining how some Christians involved in the battle just want the freedom to pray according to their conscience. Having said that, do these first three paragraphs in Robert Weller’s AP account clarify anything?

The Air Force released new guidelines for religious expression Thursday that no longer caution top officers about promoting their personal religious views.

The revisions were welcomed by conservative Christians, who said the previous rules was too strict and lobbied the White House to change them.

Critics called the revisions a step backward and said they do nothing to protect the rights of most airmen.

I mean, the guidelines do caution officers about promoting personal religious views, the revisions were not unilaterally welcome by conservative Christians and who are the critics mentioned in the third paragraph? Adjectives can be our friend! I don’t want to bash on Weller, as I understand wire service accounts can be difficult, but a complex issue deserves a bit more clarification.

Which brings us back to Duin. She not only got the gist of the guidelines, she broke a Washington story that was totally missed by the political trade blogs:

bush allen

Meanwhile, White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen, a key aide who had sided with evangelicals on the issue, resigned abruptly Wednesday after five years with the Bush administration. His short letter to the president called it “the best decision for my family.”

In a Jan. 22 conversation with Rep. Walter B. Jones reported in The Washington Times, Mr. Allen promised the North Carolina Republican that President Bush would pressure Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld into allowing military chaplains to be more explicit about their faith.

She cites a military source saying Allen (pictured with President Bush) resigned to protest the White House’s refusal to lean on the Pentagon about the issue. If true, that’s quite the bombshell. It also shows how religious reporters can break political news that political reporters might not. Again, compare Duin’s info with the befuddlement of National Journal Group’s Hotline on Call or Weller’s lead.

I hope reporters continue to cover these brief guidelines and their implementation. As some keen reporters figured out long ago, this story is more about wars within the Air Force chaplaincy than anything else. Do these guidelines protect the rights of non-mainstream religious leaders? Will the Air Force pay lip service to religious freedom but then not promote the charismatic and evangelical chaplains who preach and pray in ways that make the rest of the chaplain corps uncomfortable?

Also, a final plea: Could reporters covering this story break out from getting all their quotes from the same few people (Mikey Weinstein, Ted Haggard, Tom Minnery)? I mean, there are hundreds of millions of people in this country, more than a dozen of whom have thoughts on the issue. Let’s hear from a more diverse pool.

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Not getting it, again

nytIt’s not the first time I’ve written about The New York Times not getting it. Sadly, this is not the first time the NYT has missed it (remember the Holocaust).

So says Andrew Sullivan:

So we now discover that the hideously offensive and blasphemous cartoons — so blasphemous that CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post won’t publish them … were reprinted last October. In Egypt. On the front frigging page. No one rioted. No editor at Al Fager was threatened. So it’s official: the Egyptian state media is less deferential to Islamists than the New York Times. So where were the riots in Cairo? This whole affair is a contrived, manufactured attempt by extremist Muslims to move the goal-posts on Western freedom. They’re saying: we determine what you can and cannot print; and there’s a difference between what Muslims can print and what infidels can print. And, so far, much of the West has gone along. In this, well-meaning American editors have been played for fools and cowards. Maybe if they’d covered the murders of von Gogh and Fortuyn more aggressively they’d have a better idea of what’s going on; and stared down this intimidation. The whole business reminds me of the NYT‘s coverage of the Nazis in the 1930s. They didn’t get the threat then. They don’t get it now.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of this issue. After some thought, I don’t feel, like Sullivan, that the NYT or the Post should print these cartoons. It would only inflame the situation and accomplish little.

But it does matter that extremist Muslims have been able to whip up a huge frenzy over how the Danes — I repeat, the Danes — have allegedly insulted an entire religion and now this group, whoever they may be, are attempting to make a free democratic state bow to their wishes.

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Tip: follow the money

Jesusbus2So evangelical leaders are front and center in a public relations campaign launched this week. Editors and reporters are giving the campaign heavy coverage because the evangelical leaders are surprising them by calling for reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times story yesterday hit the major points:

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

This is obviously a worthy news story, even if it is an orchestrated PR campaign (more on that later) and Goodstein writes a good account, even if it is lacking in explaining the religious motivations of both the the signers and those who oppose the effort. However, I find it interesting how news coverage of religious adherents is biased in favor of political action. If a religious group does something political — be it protesting cartoons published in Denmark or signing a petition for reduced carbon dioxide emissions — it is ensured heavy coverage. And this makes it seem like the groups have a large relative size and impact. But what about those religious adherents who are more focused on, well, religious notions of salvation, eternal life, doctrine and creeds? They simply aren’t noticed unless they engage in politics. Not that we haven’t discussed this gripe before . . .

In any case, the Chicago Tribune‘s Frank James covers the religious angle a bit more than Goodstein but struggles with accurately conveying evangelical views on the issue. Check this paragraph out, for instance:

But environmental issues have proved divisive within the body of believers who identify themselves as evangelicals. Some who believe the world is in the “end times,” with a return of Jesus imminent, have not seen the necessity of protecting the environment for the long term. Others, meanwhile, have taken the view espoused by the evangelicals who unveiled their campaign Wednesday, that humans were given dominion over the Earth with the responsibility to protect it.

Got that? You either believe Armageddon means environmental issues are meaningless or that God wants humans to protect the earth. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure many prominent evangelicals actually hold the first view (and he doesn’t name any who do), James surely doesn’t think he’s accurately conveyed the views of evangelicals.

Both stories quoted the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I remembered his name from the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign of a few years ago. During research for my book on the interfaith movement, I found that the idea for the evangelical network came from non-evangelical interfaith environmentalist activists who strategically decided to reach out to the politically powerful group. The What Would Jesus Drive? campaign was run by Fenton Communications, which is also responsible for the Alar apple scare of the 1980s and, more recently, MoveOn.org advertisements. The Evangelical Environmental Network itself, which has many evangelical partners, is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which isn’t really known for funding evangelical efforts.

I haven’t done research on the Evangelical Climate Initiative, but it definitely has ties to the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign run by Fenton Communications. Hopefully some reporters covering this story will not just parrot the press releases being issued and will look deeper into the genesis of this campaign. And no matter what they find, following the money is always a good idea.

Update: Through a completely egregious error on my part, for which I have nothing but excuses, I missed the fact that Goodstein does mention the funding:

The Evangelical Climate Initiative, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, is being supported by individuals and foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

The initiative is one indication of a growing urgency about climate change among religious groups, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a clearinghouse in Amherst, Mass., for environmental initiatives by religious groups.

Interfaith climate campaigns in 15 states are pressing for regional standards to reduce greenhouse gases, Mr. Gorman said. Jewish, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox leaders also have campaigns under way.

My earlier mention of Pew was with regard to the Evangelical Environmental Network. So it would be interesting to see how, exactly, the two groups are related. It would also be interesting to see what, if any, ties there are to the Tides Foundation and Fenton Communications. Precisely who is orchestrating this interfaith campaign?

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