Would Ms. Ali be safe at the Oscars?

Hirsi AliWe are getting closer and closer to the Oscars, and all kinds of people are bracing themselves for a night of political broadsides and idealistic sermons about hot social issues. It will, we are told, be a night for the Hollywood elites to be courageous and to speak up on behalf of freedom.

Thus, it is time — once again — for me to tilt at a particular windmill. Why isn’t Hollywood doing something to honor the outspoken feminist writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali? An honorary Oscar statue would be nice. Of course, inviting her to the ceremony would be dangerous since Ali — a member of the Dutch parliament — has been forced to live in hiding ever since the murder of the Michael Moore of Europe, the rude gadfly and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose throat was ritually slashed by radical Dutch Muslim in response to his blunt film Submission, made with Ali. (The second photo is a scene from the film.)

As it turns out, the crisis sparked by the 12 Danish cartoons of Muhammad recently inspired Ali to come out of hiding and to risk a public speech in a highly symbolic setting — Berlin. If you want to read MSM coverage of the speech here in America, good luck. The BBC did cover it.

You can click here and read Ali’s speech text for yourself. Here is my question: How many American newspapers would dare to run this speech on their op-ed pages in the current political climate? The apostate Muslim was not, it is safe to say, playing it safe. Many of the sound bites are memorable. Here is an early statement of her thesis:

I am here to defend the right to offend. It is my conviction that the vulnerable enterprise called democracy cannot exist without free expression, particularly in the media. Journalists must not forgo the obligation of free speech, which people in other hemispheres are denied. …

Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers the caricatures in The Cartoon Affair. These intellectuals live off free speech but they accept censorship. They hide their mediocrity of mind behind noble-sounding terms such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘sensitivity’. Shame on those politicians who stated that publishing and re-publishing the drawings was ‘unnecessary’, ‘insensitive’, ‘disrespectful’ and ‘wrong’. … Shame on those European companies in the Middle East that advertised “we are not Danish” or “we don’t sell Danish products. This is cowardice. Nestle chocolates will never taste the same after this, will they?

rad54BD9For Ali, the key to the whole affir is that the publication of the cartoons, and the global protests against them, confirmed precisely what European liberals (in the old sense of that word) wanted to confirm, that there is in fact “widespread fear among authors, filmmakers, cartoonists and journalists who wish to describe, analyse or criticise intolerant aspects of Islam.” The crisis also has put a spotlight on the rise of European laws to limit free speech that is offensive to Muslims.

This is the bottom line, for Ali: There was a time when European liberals defended Communism, while dissidents fled to the West seeking freedom. Now this is happening again, she said. It is at this point that Ali’s own story becomes her political message.

I am a dissident, like those from the Eastern side of this city who defected to the West. I too defected to the West. I was born in Somalia, and grew up in Saudi Arabic and Kenya. I used to be faithful to the guidelines laid down by the prophet Muhammad. Like the thousands demonstrating against the Danish drawings, I used to hold the view that Muhammad was perfect — the only source of, and indeed, the criterion between good and bad. In 1989 when Khomeini called for Salman Rushdie to be killed for insulting Muhammad, I thought he was right. Now I don’t.

You don’t have to agree with everything that Ali has to say — many Europeans do not — to realize that what she is saying is newsworthy.

Perhaps Susan Sarandon could do a dramatic reading of this speech at the Oscars. Or, perhaps, Frank Rich could write about this speech in the New York Times. He likes blunt statements that attack traditional forms of religious faith. Right?

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The Oprah of Christian TV?

700ClubSplashNew2During that dizzying rush of recent Pat Robertson headlines, more than a few GetReligion readers protested that I was wrong to say the MSM should “excommunicate” him as a mainstream Christian, or even “evangelical,” news source. After all, said these readers, the czar of The 700 Club was still the czar of The 700 Club.

Well, you just knew that at some point a major newspaper or network was going to rise up to defend — sort of — the honor of the Religious Right leader that mainstream journalists most love to hate. As it turns out, the Los Angeles Times has taken up that challenge. Sort of. To tell you the truth, the article by reporter Faye Fiore (headline: “A Wholly Controversial Holy Man”) is pretty good.

The bottom line: He still has lots of viewers and he may have more freedom to speak out now because he has little or no political clout at all. What he has right now is a camera and a satellite. Who does he speak for? Good question.

His evangelical peers have branded him “arrogant” for his comments, and students at the Christian university he founded worry that his candor could damage their school’s credibility. The political left eagerly monitors his appearances on his spirits-raising morning show. What they find becomes fodder for talk-show monologues.

“Pat Robertson said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke was God’s punishment for him giving up Israeli territory. … If you are playing along at home, this is Pat’s first idiotic statement of the New Year,” Jay Leno quipped. …

(At) age 75, and freed from the need to marshal political capital, Robertson seems even less restrained than ever. His verbal grenades sound more like bombs, and even those in the evangelical community are noticing.

The key word there is “even.” In reality, Robertson’s clout among evangelical Protestants has been fading since he was all but invisible during the 2000 Bush campaign for the White House.

So what power does he have? As it turns out, Fiore reports that Robertson does have clout in one major corner of the Christian marketplace — public relations. He has the ability to threaten the companies that produce products for shelves in Christian stores.

Yes, Robertson is a mini-Oprah.

… Robertson’s reach is vast. “The 700 Club’s” average daily audience exceeded 830,000 this season, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from 1 million a decade ago but formidable enough that some dare not incur his notorious wrath.

“He’s like a little bitty Oprah among evangelicals,” said Doug Wead, an author and former advisor to President George H.W. Bush. “He’s got a talk show, so if someone comes out and says Pat’s a little goofy, he is going to have to accept the fact he won’t be on Pat Robertson’s show when his book comes out.”

There’s much more to read, but I think I had better be quiet. After all, I have a book out right now.

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Should he stay or should he go?

20050615 idaho god hates fagsAs much as we here at GetReligion like to prod mainstream local newspapers to do a better job of covering religion news, we really should pause, every now and then, to discuss an even bigger problem. Hardly anyone in television news, national or local, has created a religion beat.

Thus, GetReligion reader John I. Carney dropped us a note to point out that WKRN-TV in Nashville — home of the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters and many other major religious institutions (not to mention more than a few musicians who mention faith from time to time) — has created a religion and ethics beat. Not only that, but reporter Jamey Tucker at News 2 has created a blog on which he discusses journalistic issues linked to his beat and, well, football. Football is a religion in parts of the South and Southeast, so this makes sense.

Anyway, Tucker just posted an interesting question and asked his readers for feedback before his coverage of a controversial issue. In fact, he asked for input on whether to cover the event at all. (By the way, thank you Mr. Carney for sending us a full URL for the Tucker blog item. This makes blog work much easier on our end!)

Here is the blog item in question:

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I’ve got mixed feelings about a story this week. The God Hates Fags folks are picketing another funeral at Fort Campbell. Now I don’t want to give these nimrods a second of attention or publicity. But, I would love to go and find out what part of the Bible they find that God hates anyone. I’d also like to talk to them about the overall negative opinion of Christians that others might have because of their words, their actions and their lack of compassion.

So, what do you think? Should I take a camera to Kentucky and talk to them? Or would ignoring them be better?

What we are talking about, of course, is the fundamentalist (he embraces the term) preacher that leaders in the gay and lesbian movement love to hate and, well, he feels the same about them, I think. His name is Pastor Fred Phelps and his church is Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Now, personally, I think News 2 ought to cover the story — in large part because Nashville is an amazingly diverse religion town and it has a solid opportunity to cover this group on the radical, way-out-of-the-mainstream right, from a wide variety of perspectives including the sane left (lots of interesting voices in Nashville) and the truly mainstream right, which would be the SBC leadership and others. There is more than one way to reject Phelps and what he has to say.

I say quote Phelps and his folks, within reason, and then let other people respond. It’s journalism. Don’t settle for the same old crazy photos. Do the news story. When you visit Tucker’s blog, you’ll notice that his readers are all over the map on this question.

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The silence of the shepherds, again

NipTuckSeas3Read the following Los Angeles Times report and tell me if the phrase “culture of death” does not pop into your mind every few paragraphs. As graphic as this Greg Braxton story is, I think it actually avoids several issues that would have made it even worse.

You know you’re in for it when a daily newspaper starts a story with this kind of “warning” disclaimer:

The following story contains graphic and good-taste-defying descriptions of bone snapping, limb hacking, fingernail pulling and body zapping. Read on at your own risk.

The actual thesis paragraphs put this mass-media torture campaign into a context that strikes me as rather mild. The movies are getting bad, as we’ve discussed before, but some of the television shows are wading into the same violent swamp:

… (In) the last several months, numerous torture scenes — many of them graphic and bloody — have been set pieces on TV dramas, not only in thrill-ride dramas, such as “24″ and ABC’s “Alias,” but also in melodramatic or escapist fare such as Fox’s “Prison Break.” One key character on ABC’s “Lost” is an Iraqi military officer who tortures a fellow castaway. “Alias” had an unnamed recurring villain who quietly tortured key characters. FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” a hit drama about the psychic turmoil of those who seek and perform cosmetic surgery, recently spotlighted physical turmoil with two simultaneous torture scenes, each set to a tango.

It’s unclear — both to those who create torture-inflected scenarios and those who have taken note of their proliferation — whether such themes reflect a pop culture recalibration or a blip on the screen. But for now, at least, torture seems inescapable.

Here’s the question I wanted to ask. Braxton asks if the ramping up of the pain and suffering might, in some way, be linked to this era of fear and terrorism. But I was left thinking darker thoughts. What happens when the movies are not as bad as what ordinary citizens can see, if they wish, on the World Wide Web with a few clicks of a mouse? What can Hollywood do to top an online videotape of a man’s head being hacked off?

The obvious thing to say is that some people who choose to drink from this bloody well are getting used to it by now and want stronger and stronger drink. You can hear clergy and other moral leaders voice that sentiment every now and then. And, sure enought, the Los Angeles Times offers a mild disclaimer of that kind.

The people behind these projects maintain that movie ratings and parental advisories on TV tip off viewers to graphic material, and many stress that audiences themselves ultimately set the boundaries for what’s portrayed on-screen. Networks’ and studios’ reading of audience reaction has some amping up the torture in their projects, believing that doing so increases its effectiveness.

OK, we hear you. But how does this work in homes that have four or five cable-linked televisions? How does this work in the age of director-cut DVDs? How does this work in an age in which most religious groups are totally silent about the role that entertainment plays in daily life, other than to blow the warning trumpets every year or two about sex in a specific show or movie (as if waves of teen-agers are rushing out to see Brokeback Mountain)?

There is a ghost in here. It’s the silence of the shepherds. Again.

Follow the mass-media statistics for ordinary homes and for those “conservative” homes. There is a story in there.

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PBS overloads on Christian programming?

The AppalachiansThe second item in the ombudsman column Monday by the Public Broadcasting System’s Michael Getler deals with complaints from viewers who believe the publicly funded PBS carries too many Christian-oriented programs.

This is not a new complaint to the nation’s two public media organizations. Back in August we commented on a similar column written by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. These complaints seem to be of the same vein.

According to Getler, most of the complaints dealt with specific programs. In thorough fashion, Getler dispatches with the complainers who were “very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS.” The horror!

I found most of the complaints cited by Getler ridiculous. As a journalist I receive my fair share of kooky comments, along with an equal number of solid questions and informed statements of opinion. I wonder, where are the informed, intelligent complaints about the coverage of religion on PBS?

And where are the complaints about separation of church and state? I guess/hope we’ve moved beyond that for public broadcasting. As long as the news or feature value of the shows’ content was valid — which they appear to be — how can one complain?

Here’s my favorite complaint:

It seems each show, whether it’s historical, scientific or documentary in nature[,] is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country.” This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as “Walking the Bible” and “Country Boys” and an earlier documentary on “The Appalachians.”

Where to start? Christianity is not exclusive to the right-wing evangelicals, ignoring a religion will not help subside conflicts and tensions and a relatively heavy load of religion programming does not implicate bias. Disclaimer: I have not seen any of these shows so I cannot judge their quality of slant.

Here is Getler’s explanation for the rise in Christian-related programming:

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary “Walking the Bible” is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the “vast majority” of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. “The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend,” wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, “The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as ‘Walking the Bible’?”

The “Walking the Bible” miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of “Country Boys,” a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS’s highly respected “Frontline” program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I’m the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But “Country Boys” also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that’s just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn’t see “The Appalachians,” which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Getler’s three questions are something of a copout, but not one I can be too hard on him for taking. They are tough questions and deserve some serious debate.

Q. Is religious content being elevated these days?

Q. Why is that happening?

Q. Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Tmatt believes that PBS could be attempting to attract viewers in a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.” Taxpayers are also the base of much of PBS’ funding, and taking on subjects that involve its viewers’ lives might be a smart move. If the country were 30 percent Islamic, I’m sure the network would air more shows on Islam.

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Robertson will skip NRB gig

robertsonFor those of you who are still maintaining the Pat Robertson watch, here is the latest from the omnipresent Julia Duin of the Washington Times (who, it seems, has been able to cover a dozen stories in the past week or so). It seems that the leaders of the National Religious Broadcasters have had second thoughts about Robertson’s upcoming address:

Although the evangelist was not told to step down, he did release a statement citing demands on his time. A spokeswoman for Mr. Robertson did not return a call requesting comment. An NRB statement said the speaker switch was a result of “scheduling complexities.”

By the way, let me offer a compliment with a kick.

Someone at the Washington Times online division needs to create a website that makes it easier to find all of the many, many stories linked to religion, morality and culture (even pop culture) produced by Duin and others. Yes, they need a site that is even broader than the “Culture, etc.” page. That would make it easier to contrast Times coverage with the Godbeat offerings over at the Washington Post. This would be good for people who care about religion news, in Washington and beyond.

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Killing that Hollywood pregnancy

oct11sid1tFor a glimpse into Hollywood’s ongoing efforts to empower women, please click here. Actress Kari Wuhrer is convinced that she was fired from “General Hospital” because she became pregnant. Thus, she is suing ABC-TV, seeking $3 million in damages.

“The vile underbelly of the Hollywood Machine encourages female actors to be as beautiful and slim as possible,” the suit said.

It added that an actress who “dares” to become pregnant has one choice: “Terminate her pregnancy or be terminated.”

The short Associated Press report does not answer a question that lawyers would want to know (“Was there a pregnancy clause in the contract that she signed?”) or another question that Dr. James Dobson may or may not want to know before he takes this case on the air (“Is this woman married?”). The New York Times report notes that Wuhrer’s lawsuit says that ABC killed off the contract of the former MTV star because she was not “sexy enough.” It would appear that Google Images disagrees.

All of this soap-opera drama would draw mixed, but predictable, ratings out there in Oprah America, according to a very helpful set of abortion-related materials assembled by the Public Agenda organization.

The culture remains pretty much where it has been for several decades — 20 percent in favor of abortion on demand, 20 percent in favor of banning abortion and about 60 percent saying they want it banned under some circumstances, but legal under others.

In other words, the mushy middle continues to change with the wind, depending on how poll questions are worded. But it is clear that the middle wants political and legal compromise, in part because the middle is willing to accept or look past moral compromise. That’s America.

Meanwhile, what’s on the soaps today?

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The Church of Oprah

poprahThis is slightly outside of the normal media coverage we follow, but I couldn’t help but notice that ghosts and religious terminology abound in recent stories about author James Frey. This is the man who wrote an exaggerated or possibly even fictional account of a drug- and alcohol-addled life of crime and successfully passed it off as his factual memoir A Million Little Pieces, which sold a gazillion copies and recently was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

The book and Frey were doing quite well until The Smoking Gun website ran a lengthy expose of their “fabrications, falsehoods and other fakery” on Jan. 8. The book hinges on the fact that Frey was a hardened criminal and drug addict, but in order to sell that story to readers, it appears that Frey changed facts. Driving without a license became a felony assault on cops. Possession of a Pabst Blue Ribbon was changed into possession of crack cocaine. Frey’s exaggerations and inventions would be less noteworthy if so many people hadn’t bought his book and if so many people didn’t believe so fervently in his story, according to The Smoking Gun:

While claiming that he does not desire to become the poster boy for unconventional recovery, Frey has nonetheless emerged as a source of inspiration and guidance for countless substance abusers (as well as their friends and loved ones) and other readers who have embraced “A Million Little Pieces” as a forthright, honest, and unconventional look at addiction. For Winfrey’s show, he even traveled to a Minnesota clinic and gave an on-camera pep talk to Sandie, a viewer who checked herself into rehab after learning about Frey’s book via an e-mail from the Oprah club. “If I can do it, you can do it,” Frey told her. A second Winfrey show is in the works, with her web site seeking viewers whose lives have been “dramatically impacted” by Frey’s book. The site asks, “Did ‘A Million Little Pieces’ Save Your Life?”

Last night Larry King had James Frey on his show for a hard-hitting interview. Just kidding. It was a relatively easy interview during which Frey kept explaining that he cannot be blamed for his faulty memory or subjective retelling or exaggeration. Things were not looking good for Frey until the high priestess of American spirituality called into the show to save the day. Here’s what Oprah Winfrey had to say:

“And I feel about ‘A Million Little Pieces’ that although some of the facts have been questioned — and people have a right to question, because we live in a country that lets you do that, that the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me. And I know that it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book and will continue to read this book.”

james freyTalk about a blessing! With Oprah’s absolution, Frey could very well land on his feet. The interesting thing is that the Oprah defense washes over the fabrication by attesting to some deeper truth — but it was the supposed 100 percent unadulterated truth of this memoir that was his biggest selling point. Frey kept reminding people that his words were completely honest and truthful, even recently. Take a look at this Jan. 6 letter from Frey’s attorney that reiterates the claim of complete truthfulness, for instance.

Is there something religious about the current state of memoir-driven literature? This idea that one must experience something personally in order for it to be valid? That these experiences must be dramatic and debauched? The publishing world seems to think the book would not work as fiction. Neither would it have sold — in the current climate at least — if Frey had copped to his banal and relatively comfortable upbringing. A life of unthinkable sin before conversion is what is needed. Do these mythical stories which Americans love find their way into news copy? Are reporters more biased toward dramatic conversion stories?

In any case, Seth Mnookin, a writer for Slate and a former heroin addict, said there was a problem with brushing over the factual discrepancies:

In building up a false bogeyman — the American recovery movement’s supposed reliance on the notion of “victimhood”– Frey has set himself up as the one, truth-telling savior. In fact, it seems clear that Frey would have been well-served by taking the kind of unflinchingly honest look at his own life that most recovery programs demand.

Like I said, religious terminology and concepts abound in this story. Not the least of which surround Oprah and her blessings and sanctions.

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