Who says there’s nothing funny about Islamofascism?

nightjourneyofmuhammadThe interweb is buzzing about last night’s South Park episode. Did Comedy Central forbid creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker from showing an image of Muhammad? In the episode, Kyle, one of the show’s main characters, persuades network executives to run a Family Guy cartoon with a short scene including Muhammad. Kyle gives a speech about the importance of free speech. The Volokh Conspiracy, which broke the story, quoted Kyle’s speech, which ended:

“If you don’t show [Muhammad], then you’ve made a distinction between what is OK to make fun of and what isn’t. Either it’s all OK or none of it is. Do the right thing.”

At the point in the episode where Muhammad is supposed to be shown, the South Park creators inserted two statements:

In this shot, [Muhammad] hands a football helmet to Family Guy.

Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of [Muhammad] on their network.

Eventually (spoiler alert!) Al Qaeda broadcasts its own cartoon showing Americans, President Bush and Jesus defacating on each other and the American flag. You know, say what you want about them, Stone and Parker sure know how to embarrass their own network.

Many blogs have been up in pixels about the censorship, but it looks like David Bauder of the Associated Press is the first mainstream reporter to cover the issue. He also provided a bit of historical context about how the show came to be written:

In an elaborately constructed two-part episode of their Peabody Award-winning cartoon, “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker intended to comment on the controversy created by a Danish newspaper’s publishing of caricatures of Muhammad. Muslims consider any physical representation of their prophet to be blasphemous.

A brief interjection here to point out that AP reporter gives the impression that Muslims are unanimous in their belief that any physical representation of Muhammad is blasphemous. That’s not true. And while many reporters, myself included, repeated this untruth, Bauder has had a few months to learn from our mistakes. It is not acceptable for reporters to repeat this talking point without acknowledging reality. The 1514 picture I used here is The Night Journey of Muhammad on His Steed, Buraq. It is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go here for more Muslim physical representations of Muhammad that are supposedly not allowed.

And if you are going to say that Muslims find representations of their prophet to be blasphemous, why not mention what Christians think of portraying their divine Savior in such a disrespectful manner? Do they think not think it’s blasphemous? Is it the notion of blasphemy that is the undercurrent to this story? Or is it the threat of violence? Okay, back to our story:

When the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers worldwide in January and February, it sparked a wave of protests primarily in Islamic countries.

Parker and Stone were angered when told by Comedy Central several weeks ago that they could not run an image of Muhammad, according to a person close to the show who didn’t want to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.

The network’s decision was made over concerns for public safety, the person said.

Comedy Central said in a statement issued Thursday: “In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision.” Its executives would not comment further.

Wow. And wow. There can be no question that an image of Jesus defacating on flags and President Bush during Holy Week is blasphemous and offensive. So how to explain Comedy Central’s decision? Especially considering that Comedy Central used to show Muhammad images with vigor? I certainly hope that my journalistic brethren will investigate this with rigor.

I’m a bad prognosticator of these things, and increasingly cynical, but I worry that this story will just go away. And I worry the media will simply acquiesce to violent demands rather than uphold the virtue of tolerance of all perspectives — including offensive ones like South Park‘s. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that there is much of a difference between the cowardly decision of almost every mainstream newspaper, including the standard-bearing New York Times, to hide the news (that is, the cartoon images of Muhammad which sparked the violent and fatal riots by some Muslims across the globe) and Comedy Central’s decision.

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Work that Rolodex

rolodexWell, the Judas Gospel story, the one that was supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity, seems to have passed away rather quickly. Christianity was similarly unfazed by the week’s reports that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, and that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph. Let’s see if Christianity implodes under the allegation that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

The Judas Gospel thread had a number of comments. I wanted to share a few because they highlight a problem that reaches beyond the National Geographic public relations incident. I had questioned why all of the stories about Judas quoted the same narrow group of scholars. Amy Welborn shared her thoughts:

I’m guessing that the consistency that we see in the press stories are on this are due to nothing else than dependence on the press packet. The voices in the stories are all “consultants” and experts to the project. [Donald] Senior and [Craig] Evans are both in the program.

Reader Matt agreed that reporters on this story suffered from limited Rolodexes. He explained a bit more about how reporters get their sources:

I’ve worked at two newspapers. Every reporter at these papers had lists of experts provided by different sources. Stanford University made sure that each reporter had actual Rolodex cards to be filed by topic. For instance, there was an economics card with the names and phone numbers of several professors good for a quote. San Jose State’s College of Sciences and Arts published a little booklet titled “Knowledge Resources for Journalists” with the same kind of information. (Every election Dr. Terry Christiansen from the Poli Sci dept is interviewed on TV at least once.) One of my colleagues had a list of experts published by U.C. Berkeley stuck on her cubicle wall. Does Holy Cross or St. Vladimir’s or Biola or Franciscan of Steubenville publish similar lists and get them into the hands of reporters?

And everyone knows that Elaine Pagel’s agent is Royce Carlton. Royce Carlton makes money by getting bookings for their clients. They need to keep their client in the public eye and make sure that she is available to reporters covering any story related to any of her books or speaking topics. Does anyone know who Archbishop Dmitiri’s agent is? Or who is Harold O.J. Brown’s agent? Or who is Scott Hahn’s agent? How would a reporter reach these people? Does the average reporter know that these people, who would offer a different view than that of Pagels, even exist? I doubt it. The economic incentive to get their names out is not as great as it is for Pagels.

We reporters have our go-to sources. And we love it when a good public relations firm helps us locate folks who can speak coherently and competently, particularly when we’re approaching a deadline. But, as we saw, there are pitfalls with this. A wide variety of sources, especially for complex religious topics, helps reporters avoid embarrassing themselves like many of them did in promoting National Geographic‘s magazine sales and television show.

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Does the Couric story have legs?

hc couricWell now, it seems that I was not alone in thinking that the Katie Couric announcement was a landmark event or even a sea change for the network nightly news shows.

People want to know: Is this the triumph of infotainment? Is this an open admission that someone needs to create the left-wing Fox News?

I freely admit that I am all but alone, so far, in connecting the Couric bias issue to religion and the lightning-rod issues that go with it, such as abortion rights, euthanasia and the redefining of marriage. Most people on the right prefer to say that she is merely biased, period.

Again let me stress: I am not saying that Couric is anti-religion. She is not “secular.” She merely clashes with traditional forms of religion.

Truth is, I have met very few secularists in American life (although their numbers are growing, as stressed in that Atlantic MonthlyTribal Relations” piece that I keep urging GetReligion readers to consume). The issue is Couric’s long history of pouncing on culture-war issues while letting her freak flag fly (to paraphrase David Crosby, one of my favorite oldie musicians).

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal (source of the line drawing) summed up the bias story this way: Couric’s rise buries the idealistic claim that news anchors can serve as neutral voices in the public square.

In days past, whatever we suspected about their leanings, anchorpersons felt compelled at least to pose as disinterested reporters of “the way it is.” Ms. Couric dropped that veil long ago. The list of her utterances and leading questions posted on the Media Research Center’s fretful Web site … may not fully represent the range of her opinions and peeves. Unless she’s a total fake on camera, though, there’s little doubt about where Katie stands across the great red-blue divide. Democrats and their pet causes get tender respect; Republican and “conservative” policies get introduced in terms of the alleged threat they represent to our great nation.

Arguably, it’s better to know this and be done with the illusion of true neutrality. There are so many information outlets available now that alert consumers can choose to avoid newscasters whose judgment they don’t trust or shows with an unwanted political slant.

Here is the more interesting question to me: Do liberal or progressive viewers actually want perky Couric as their official voice on moral and social issues? I mean, don’t you think it’s rather hard to see her sitting in one of the top chairs at PBS or NPR?

This is that gravitas issue that people keep writing about, and there is more to this than her age, gender and decades of loyal mass-media service to pushing pop culture, fashion, parades, sports bras and fad diets.

I mean, Couric is a liberal’s liberal. But do the liberal consumers want to embrace her? Is she one of their best and the brightest? Hey, all of you ordained mainline women: Is Katie a winner for you? All of you professors in cutting-edge women’s studies departments: Do you care if CBS puts Katie behind a desk that displays her legs? Do you mind if she walks around on a set, while the men are displayed more modestly? Does any of this matter, so long as she keeps the faith on sexual revolution issues?

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CBS rolls the niche-news dice

george11You know, you just know, that the powers that be at the CBS Evening News have been focus-group testing this big move for months.

Right now they are celebrating, but they also have to know that a large chunk of America did not (early poll numbers here) want to see Katie Couric end her 173-hairstyle career at the Today Show and move to the top chair at the Big Eye.

There is something here that I am missing. CBS removed a veteran liberal general in the media culture wars (that would be Dan Rather) and immediately experienced (to the shock of all) a nice upturn in ratings under the safe, respectable, non-offensive leadership of veteran Bob Schieffer. So now it is time to name Couric, who, in her own way, is almost as controversial as Rather?

Hours before the announcement, Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik tried to connect some of these dots.

In her favor, Couric will inherit a rejuvenated newscast on the upswing. … The CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer has gained some 750,000 viewers compared to the same time last year, while both the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and ABC World News Tonight have lost audience. Since Peter Jennings left ABC’s anchor desk a year ago after announcing that he had lung cancer, World News Tonight has lost almost as many viewers as CBS has gained.

For the first time in more than a decade of dwelling in a distant third place, CBS Evening News is within striking distance of overtaking ABC — and Couric could be the beneficiary of that. But the success CBS has enjoyed is a double-edged sword. Should the momentum falter — or worse, the ratings start to drop once Couric arrives — the blame is sure to be placed solely on her.

What does this have to do with religion?

I think that CBS executives should be nervous, for reasons that have a lot to do with television viewers in red zip codes and, surprise, the moral and cultural issues that often dominate the news. I think that the focus-group folks must have said that Couric will be a hit in blue zip codes and will woo female and young viewers in the red zones.

But is she elite enough for the blue intellectuals? Can she manage to hold her tongue and convince anyone that her strong feelings on religious and social issues will not shape the newscast?

This is, after all, the early-morning host who has almost kept the conservative Media Research Center staff in business all by herself, spinning out what media critics on the right consider a world-class collection of biased sound bites. Click here to jump to a greatest hits collection in honor of her elevation. Couric has been ticking off cultural and religious conservatives for many years now, with — wow! — her recent on-air tussle with the founders of Ave Maria University providing a new chapter in a long drama.

But it is crucial to note that media critics on the left have rushed to her defense. This is the key point: She is a lightning rod for the right and, in some ways, an icon for many on the left. Hillary Clinton is rejoicing tonight.

So what is CBS up to? How will this decision affect coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues? Of conflicts between world religions? And one final question, in this age of Fox News and its rising statistics: Has CBS simply decided to venture into the marketplace of niche news by creating a franchise led by a woman who will drive away many viewers, but rally others?

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God wants you to be a millionaire

osteenI have a friend, and former editor, who used to watch televangelists with a drinking buddy. They would come home from a night on the town and keep drinking while watching CBN or some other preacher network. It was all fun and games until one night they accidentally donated $50 to Pat Robertson. The good news is that they realized they needed to cut back on their drinking.

I confess that I also like to watch televangelists while imbibing. And one of my favorites is Joel Osteen. I have been watching the ubiquitous preacher for years now, waiting for him to say anything uniquely Christian. If you watch him, you’ll know he has GREAT NEWS where other preachers just have Good News. Did you know God wants you to be wealthy and get a great-looking spouse? It’s true. Did you know God wants you to get a killer job and a fast car and the respect of your peers? True again.

Osteen is everywhere. His book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, sold more than 3 million copies. He packs the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play, with 40,000 devoted fans every week. The New York Times‘ Ralph Blumenthal wrote a fascinating profile of Osteen, who just signed a huge contract for a new book, possibly as much as $13 million.

“You know what, I’ve never done it for the money,” he said in an interview after Sunday’s service, which he led with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. “I’ve never asked for money on television.” But opening oneself to God’s favors was a blessing, he said. “I believe it’s God rewarding you.” . . .

Or, as he also puts it: “God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner.”

He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. “Better yet,” he writes, “it was the premier spot in that parking lot.”

The article is all about Osteen’s teaching of the prosperity gospel, so it includes a lot of details about money. He shows how much money Osteen brings in at each week’s services ($1 million), how much money via mail ($20 million), the size of his staff (300), how much it cost to turn the Compaq Center into a church ($95 million) and the state of the church’s financial statements (notable for their accountability). The most interesting detail by far is that the church put a globe instead of a cross in what would be the apse.

What’s nice is that Blumenthal treats Osteen respectfully while giving a voice to Osteen’s critics:

In “Your Best Life,” Mr. Osteen counsels patience, compassion, kindness, generosity and an overall positive attitude familiar to any reader of self-help books. But he skirts the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial, leading some critics to deride the Osteen message as “Christianity lite.”

“He’s not in the soul business, he’s in the self business,” said James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of a forthcoming Simon & Schuster book on megachurches: “Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to in Your Face.”

“There’s breadth but not too much depth, but the breadth is quite spangly, exciting to look at — that’s his power,” said Dr. Twitchell who called Lakewood “the steroid extreme” of megachurches. He said church critics fault Mr. Osteen for “diluting and dumbing down” the Christian message, “but in truth,” he said, “what he’s producing is a wild and alluring community.”

The article is really interesting and informative, and I’m sure Osteen’s fans and critics would both agree. I would have liked a bit more comparison between Osteen’s theology of glory and the theology of the cross, but that it was alluded to at all is a great start.

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Death and dying

thoughts while dyingI was thinking Tuesday that it would be interesting to do a long, drawn out series on death and dying. This of course has already been done many times by reporters far more gifted and in much more prominent publications than I could hope to attain, but it would be an education and an experience that I would appreciate. In college, a course was taught on the sociology of death and dying and I regret to this day not enrolling.

The religious aspects of death and dying are of course a very compelling aspect, if not the most compelling aspect, of what I would hope to explore. As a believer in Christianity, I have my own thoughts on where I believe I will go when I pass away, but what do others think and how does that affect their daily lives?

My thoughts on death and dying were prompted by this tremendously well-done radio broadcast on National Public Radio Monday titled “A Year to Live, A Year to Die” by Mary Beth Kirchner:

At age 48, Stewart Selman was told he had a malignant brain tumor. Less than 5 percent of people who are diagnosed with malignant tumors of the brain live for more than a year. To leave a record for his wife, Rebecca Peterson, and their two children, Selman began an audio diary.

Although Stewart knew his messages would be heard by a wider audience, Rebecca says she didn’t have the courage to share them until now — three years after her husband’s death.

Stewart Selman started recording his audio diary on February 22, 2003. His first entry was made while he was in the hospital awaiting tests, awake and alone in his room at two in the morning. It had been two weeks since he first learned about his brain tumor.

“We only live about five minutes from where the CAT scan was done. I was kind of keeping it together,” Stewart said. “This was a big deal. I drove home and my kids were downstairs playing a game. I went upstairs and I saw my wife and I just started crying … I knew I had this brain tumor. And I knew my life was going to change forever.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” says Stewart’s wife, Rebecca.

going into the sunsetAnd thus begins an amazingly moving story of struggle, pain and suffering that only begins to scratch the surface, I believe, of the material gathered by Kirchner.

The story behind the story is equally compelling. I am curious, though, why Kirchner did not follow up on the religious aspects of the story. We find out at the end of the article that Stewart was Jewish. He shares some thoughts about where he may end up after he dies, but that’s about it.

While it’s a tremendous story about grief in the face of tragedy (and not to be a spoiler, but it’s also a story of tremendous hope), the entire religious aspect is ignored. Perhaps Rebecca asked for the religious angle not to be covered? It’s made clear that she’s not Jewish and there are a couple of references to a generic “god,” but again, that is it.

I know this piece is freelance and NPR doesn’t seem to exercise much editorial control over the production — nor do I feel it needed to — but this should put a damper on any claims that NPR interjects too much religion into its journalism.

This 20-minute story was selected for the Story of the Day podcast and is easily available in both the text version and the audio version. I recommend listening to it though because hearing the voices was a tremendously moving experience.

On a related note, former newspaper columnist Art Buchwald, 80, has been quite public that he is in his final days, and he has some interesting thoughts on God:

The big question that keeps coming up all the time when anybody, an interviewer, talks to me is: Do I believe in God? The answer is I believe in God, but I’m not too certain that the people that are telling me, “It’s God’s will,” are the ones I want to listen to.

If faith in God is the big question people are asking Buchwald, why wasn’t the question at least raised with Stewart? Failing to do so leaves me with an incomplete picture of the story.

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Please, reporters, cover the religious left

bouncerstvI am one of those people who generally fares better economically under Democrats, but generally votes Republican due to, yes, abortion. While I have certainly voted for Dems, even pro-choice Dems, under specific circumstances, the murder of unborn children trumps my bank account in the grand scheme of things.

Posted by Ken at 10:14 am on March 26, 2006

I’m one of those people would generally fares better economically under Republicans, but my wife and I vote for Democrats because of social issues. … If you are concerned about poverty, the death penalty, just war, a foreign policy based on human rights, a humane immigration policy, and policies which promote toleance and diversity, we put our economic needs aside and vote for Democrats.

Posted by Daniel at 12:01 pm on March 26, 2006

Terry, given the responses and the rather tortured way you backed into religion here, I think this posting was entirely too political … and only slightly relevant to the GR mission. Just my opinion. …

Posted by Stephen A. at 8:00 pm on March 26, 2006

I have WiFi for a moment, so let me jump in here for a second to respond to a few readers’ comments about my gentle jab about media coverage of the GOP and “family” issues. Ken and Daniel nicely illustrate the sentiments I was writing about. Stephen A. says I tortured logic to turn this into a religion story.

Well, I disagree. Right now, the single strongest indicator of how people will vote in an American election is how often they attend worship services. The “pew gap” keeps coming up, even when you are looking at cultural groups in which the Democratic Party rules — such as African-American and Jewish voters. If you find a black voter or a Jewish voter who breaks ranks and votes for the GOP, you will almost always find moral and cultural issues at the heart of that decision. And you will find the “pew gap” in there, too. They will be hyperactive in their congregations.

Why does this favor the GOP? That’s simple. The growing segments of organized religion in America — the forms of religion with pews — are conservative. The religious left is very powerful, but, in its institutionalized forms, the religious left is aging and shrinking. The Unitarians are growing, a bit, I hear.

ucc ad1Nevertheless, the religious and secular left coalition (the so-called anti-fundamentalist voters) is, in all of its forms, a major story in American life right now. Once again, people must read that Tribal Relations story in The Atlantic Monthly. Read it now.

And there are parts of the oldline religious left that are kicking at the demographic chains that bind them. Take the United Church of Christ, for example. Remember the ads not that long ago accusing conservative churches of institutionalized racism? Those “God is still speaking” ads?

Well, the UCC is back for another round, this time arguing that the MSM is pro-religious right. As 365gay.com reports:

The 30-second commercial begins with a shot of an African-American mother trying to calm a crying baby. Sitting in a church pew, the mother fidgets anxiously, as she endures disapproving looks from fellow worshippers. Eventually, someone in the wings pushes an “ejector” button to rid the church of her — and her noisy baby. Into the air they go flying.

In similar fashion, a gay couple, an Arab-American, a person using a walker, among others, get “ejected.” Finally, when a homeless person wanders in and takes a seat, nervous parishioners — expecting she’ll get the boot for sure — scoot away from her.

Cheap shots? Probably. But this is a story, both the mainline decline and the forms of religion that take the place of the old mainline.

Meanwhile, I remain very pro-free speech so I think the networks should open up and let both sides speak. Come on, folks, run the UCC ads. And the ads for conservative religious groups, too. This is America.

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Million-year war for Earth begins tonight

imageNYET2South Park is as South Park does, and if they were to pick on religions, it was bound to happen they’d pick on Scientology — and if they were going to pick on Scientology it was bound to happen that they’d be snide about it.

So, it’s no major shock to anyone.

Which makes Isaac Hayes’ (belated) reaction out of place, for me, as a Scientologist. Hey, Chef, you were in bed with them dogs for how many years? And, NOW is when you get up and check for fleas?

Posted by Greg Churilov at 5:46 pm on March 17, 2006

Our friend Greg has been commenting on GetReligion since my earliest Scientology post in late February, and he’s been consistent in defending the group from those who raise negative portrayals of Scientology. So to hear this from an avowed Scientologist was interesting, to say the least.

It’ll be interesting to see what Matt Stone and Trey Parker do tonight in an episode that is supposed to give the character Chef played by Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist, a grand finale.

There’s no word on whether the show will mention Scientology, but after last week’s rerun of the famous Scientology episode was pulled at the last minute, it’s hard to predict what will happen, especially after this statement from the show’s creators:

So, Scientology, you may have won this battle, but the million-year war for Earth has just begun. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail!

chef4Fox News’ Roger Friedman has said that Hayes couldn’t have made that statement regarding the show’s “intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs” because he is recovering from a stroke he suffered in January and that someone else was putting words in his mouth.

While the current unproven speculation is that Scientologist somehow got Hayes to issue that statement, we do know that someone else will be putting words in Hayes’ mouth tonight:

A Comedy Central spokesman would not confirm or deny that Chef’s voice in tonight’s episode is provided by Hayes, but he did reiterate that Hayes is no longer involved with the show. However, it would not be difficult to weave together existing dialogue from Hayes. And it is not unusual for creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to deliver episodes at the last minute.

As the South Park creators navigate this legal minefield, I predict that there will be at least a subtle reference to last week’s yanking of the Scientology episode. Whether Scientology will be mentioned is another matter.

A two-minute preview of the episode on the show’s website gives few answers to these questions (the plot seems to evolve around the attempted mating of a horse and pig), but this is the subtitle: “When the boys are down on their luck with a recent science project, Chef offers a helpful solution.”

Overall the media’s coverage of this event seems fairly consistent with what similar controversies receive. Speculations on a person’s physical capability to make statements — and thus alleging that the statements come from Scientology — are a bit much in my opinion, especially considering how easily that can be disproved, but you can’t deny Stone and Parker’s ability to capitalize on their share of controversy.

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