Houston, we have a problem (with AP)

victoria osteenAt all costs avoid the Associated Press’s coverage of the lawsuit against Victoria Osteen. The article the AP has distributed is full of examples of poor journalistic practices that damage the reputation of the profession.

CNN.com did it’s best to make things worse with an equally terrible headline to the story:

Mega-preacher’s wife sued over loss of faith

HOUSTON, Texas (AP) — She’s the wife of a renowned evangelical pastor and one of the leaders of a Houston megachurch, but Victoria Osteen is being accused of behavior that wasn’t very Christian.

For some energetic analysis of the AP coverage, see what a reader had to say:

Nothing shows up in the story supporting this statement until the final paragraph, and even then the support is as vague as possible. The woman suing Victoria Osteen said her faith was affected. Her faith in what? God, Christians, Christianity, the Osteens? Pastors? Churches? Spirituality? Religion? Texas? And when did an affected faith become the same thing as a lost faith? Perhaps these terms become synonymous when you want people to read your story, expecting they’re getting something other than what you’re offering. It sounded like a story involving a pastor’s wife and a member of the pastor’s church.

For another perspective, see the ABC News headline and lead, which seems to be tilted towards Osteen’s side of the lawsuit:

Osteen’s Wife on Trial for Temper Tantrum

Can a crankiness land you in court? The case of Sandra Brown v. Victoria Osteen is the story of a chance encounter on an airplane that turned into a nasty legal battle.

For a more balanced perspective, and one that does a much better job at placing accusations in the context of a civil lawsuit potentially involving millions of dollars, see the Houston Chronicle‘s coverage from Thursday here, here and here. The newspaper even had a column on the subject.

The big story out of yesterday’s proceedings had to do with an accusation that a witness for the plaintiff’s played the “race card.”

An earlier lighthearted mood in the civil trial of Victoria Osteen took a decidedly serious turn Thursday afternoon when a witness implied that the Lakewood Church co-pastor acted racist during an incident on board a Continental flight three years ago.

Flight attendant Maria Johnson said Osteen sought her out instead of two black attendants, leading to a confrontation in which the co-pastor is accused of assaulting one of the black flight attendants.

In afternoon testimony and under redirect from Reginald McKamie, the attorney who is representing flight attendant Sharon Brown, Johnson said that she felt Osteen singled her out because she was “the only white girl.”

When Osteen’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, then questioned Johnson, he accused her of playing the “race card,” prompting an audible gasp from the gallery overflowing with onlookers.

The article has the extended back-and-forth conversation between Osteen’s attorney, the flight attendant, and the plaintiff’s attorney. What the article rightly makes clear is that Osteen’s attorney attempted to use the witness’s suggestion that race was involved in the situation to his advantage. See here the last time accusations of playing the “race card” were used as an attempt to gain an advantage.

For those of you who want to follow this lawsuit, The Chronicle seems to be the place to go for thorough balanced coverage of the proceedings. Coverage of the theological side of this religion story has yet to make it into many stories yet, but hopefully once the day-to-day coverage of the trial winds down we will see more coverage of the “prosperity gospel” movement and whether or not someone’s faith can really be impacted as alleged in this lawsuit.

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Revisiting race and religion

1969TimeYesterday we looked at that Pew report which criticized the mainstream media’s coverage of Obama’s speech on race and religion. The report claimed that the media got the race angle at the expense of the religion angle.

I thought of that when reading about the absolutely horrific Democratic primary campaign that was waged by Nikki Tinker against incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen. Tinker is black, Cohen is Jewish and the district is majority black. Ben Pershing of the Washington Post‘s Capitol Briefing blog reported on recent ads from the Tinker campaign:

Tinker’s last two TV ads have been particularly rough. In a spot released earlier this week, a black local former county commissioner criticizes Cohen for not supporting the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The ad includes images of a hooded Klan leader and a burning cross.

And Tinker’s most recent ad accuses Cohen of voting against allowing children to pray in schools — a charge his campaign denies — even “while he’s in OUR churches slapping hands and tapping his feet.” Is the “OUR churches” line a reference to Cohen being Jewish? It’s not exactly clear, nor is it clear whether Tinker’s late attacks will do her campaign any good.

She lost. In a landslide. But while Pershing reported, correctly, that the contest focused heavily on race, gender and religion, other media reports emphasize race — even while reporting about anti-Semitic fliers being distributed. One was titled, “Why do Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus?” If you can’t find a religious angle in that, you should have your vision checked. Still, the New York Times report by Adam Nossiter began this way:

Race Takes Central Role in a Memphis Primary

In the culmination of a racially fraught Congressional campaign in Memphis, a black candidate is linking her liberal-leaning white primary opponent in Thursday’s contest, Representative Steve Cohen, to the Ku Klux Klan in a television advertisement.

Similarly, U.S. News & World Report called the tactics “race-baiting.” (It strikes me that this is inopportune timing for Matt Bai’s upcoming piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.)

No one would deny that Tinker ran a racist campaign, but the means by which that racial message was targeted to voters was through religion. Forgive my editorializing here, but it’s wonderful that such a campaign would fail. But that some campaign strategists thought religion was a good carrier for the message — and that voters disagreed vehemently — is an interesting angle that is mostly lost in the coverage.

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Not getting Casey Democrats

CaseyPin 03John M. Broder of The New York Times wrote that Barack Obama’s campaign is likely to give a speaking slot at the Democratic convention later this month to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., whose late father was famously denied the privilege:

Sixteen years ago, the Democratic Party refused to allow Robert P. Casey Sr., then the governor of Pennsylvania, to speak at its national convention because his anti-abortion views, stemming from his Roman Catholic faith, clashed with the party’s platform and powerful constituencies. Many Catholics, once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, never forgot what they considered a slight.

This year, the party is considering giving a speaking slot at the convention to Mr. Casey’s son, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who like his late father is a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion rights …

The Obama campaign is being close-mouthed about its convention plans and would not confirm whether Mr. Casey would be given a prime-time speaking slot. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that the call was Mr. Obama’s, but that a prominent speaking role for Mr. Casey would assist in the candidate’s efforts to woo Roman Catholic voters.

Mr. Casey, who endorsed Mr. Obama early and campaigned extensively for him in Pennsylvania, said there was no formal offer yet from Mr. Obama or the party. But, he said, “I think we’ll get something worked out.”

I have enjoyed Broder’s stories about the presidential campaign this year. But this story struck me as more of a political trial balloon floated by the Obama campaign than an examination of the national Democratic Party’s newfound approach toward Catholic voters and the issue of abortion. (Read this old tmatt column for the late Gov. Casey’s view of the diversity of the Catholic vote.)

For one thing, the story lacks essential details about Casey’s speech. What will it be about? Will it call for changing the party’s plank in favor of legalized and taxpayer-financed abortion? Or will it call for reducing the number of abortions through increasing access to contraception or, as Casey’s legislation calls for, increasing housing, maternal, and childcare support?

For another thing, the story is a curiously Orwellian rewriting of political history. For years, reporters invariably included the standard Democratic disclaimer about Casey Sr.’s exclusion from the podium at the 1992 Democratic convention: Casey was not barred because his speech was pro-life, but rather because he failed to endorse the party’s presidential nominee. Now this story, as well as others, affirm Casey’s Jr.’s account, as well as mine: Casey was barred because his speech was anti-abortion. What gives?

Perhaps Broder and his editors never bought into this falsehood. Yet, and this is the third weakness in the story, the article never gets a reaction from liberal feminists and abortion-rights supporters. What do they have to say about Casey’s speech?

Those groups are the ones to ask, not the working-class Democrats who are moderate and even conservative on the issue . After all, they likely pressured nominee Bill Clinton in 1992 to block Casey from speaking. On the day that Casey, Sr. would have spoken, Clinton in his only appearance of the day attended a reception for the National Women’s Political Caucus. “It makes a difference whether,” he said, “whether the president believes in a woman’s right to choose, and I do.”

Finally, the story asserts that Casey Sr.’s position on abortion stemmed form his Catholic faith. This is inartful at best and dubious at worst. In his autobiography, Casey Sr. describes his anti-abortion position in terms of traditional Judeo-Christian values, citing the biblical injunction to be your brother’s keeper. On page 145, he elaborates on the source of his position:

As governor, I viewed abortion as the gravest of a whole array of chilren’s issues. For me, it was a simple step in logic: If government has a duty to protect the powerless, then who among us was the most powerless, most defenseless, most voiceless? The answer: Children.

Broder’s story had redeeming qualities. It included long quotes from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, a vocal pro-life Catholic leader; former Clinton advisor Bill Galston, and Doug Kmiec. Indeed, I take faithful GR reader Julia’s point:

This article is a huge improvement over what you usually get from the NYT about Catholic concerns and the election.

Perhaps true, but the story also shows how big of an improvement is still needed.

Photo: The picture of Gov. Casey dressed up at the Pope was distributed by pro-abortion-rights Pennsylvania Democrats at the 1992 Democratic convention; the pin is courtesy of Michael Donohue.

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An abused story

abuseI was in high school 20 years ago. It was an age of great pop music, mullets, and impending U.S. victory in the Cold War. If that sounds like a long time ago, it was.

Which is why I find it odd that The New York Times buried this fact in its story about a Catholic priest who has been removed from ministry because of allegations that he fondled two teenage boys.

Reporter Paul Vitello’s story was curious. It had strong virtues but also strong defects.

On the one hand, Vitello showed that in some cases at least, the Catholic Church’s new policy about removing alleged abusers is severe:

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the first accuser came to the archdiocese in June. After an internal investigation, he said, the church sent the case to the district attorney’s office, but did not remove Monsignor Harris because it is church policy “not to alert the target” of a potential criminal investigation.

During the district attorney’s investigation, the second accusation against Monsignor Harris emerged, and the diocese ordered him to step aside, Mr. Zwilling said. The five-year statute of limitations has lapsed in both cases, and charges are not likely to be brought, said Alicia Maxey Greene, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

The archdiocese still must decide whether Monsignor Harris will be returned to his duties, “returned to the lay state,” or permitted to retire to “a life of prayer and penance,” an inactive status, Mr. Zwilling said. Monsignor Harris is one of 15 archdiocesan priests who have been removed since 2002 on sexual abuse allegations, with just one returning to his post, he said.

Also, Vitello showed that the priest, Monsignor Wallace A. Harris, was no recluse or loner; on the contrary, he was popular and influential:

Monsignor Harris, 61, is widely known in Harlem for his church’s charity works, and known in the community of 648 priests who serve in the Archdiocese of New York as an expert organizer and charismatic leader. He is the chairman of the archdiocesan priests’ council, a position to which he was elected by the priests. He was appointed by Cardinal Edward M. Egan as vicar of central Harlem, one of five vicariates in the five boroughs.

Later, Vitello added

The monsignor was assigned to coordinate Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Yankee Stadium in April — and it is part of local legend that the task involved making sure that 100,000 ponchos were ready in case of rain. “How many people could do that?” Ms. Tuckett said. “He is a very smart man; he makes things work like clockwork.”

On the other hand, the story’s lede was buried. The story opened not with the allegations against Monsignor Harris, but rather about the fact that one former pastor was addicted to cocaine and booze while another one was convicted of molesting a 12-year-old girl. What this angle has to do with the main story line I don’t know.

Also, the fact that the alleged abuse 20 years ago was buried. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither the archdiocese nor the Manhattan district attorney’s office would provide more details. But people familiar with the district attorney’s investigation said the complaints involved the fondling of two boys, about 13 or 14 years old, when they were students at the Cathedral School in Manhattan, where Monsignor Harris was assigned before becoming pastor at St. Charles Borromeo.

Readers only learn that the alleged fondling occurred two decades ago comes via a quote from an upset parishioner. By contrast, Oren Yaniv of The New York Daily News highlighted that the alleged abused occurred 20 years ago:

A popular Harlem priest accused of sexually abusing two minors 20 years ago will not be charged because the statute of limitations has expired, prosecutors said yesterday.

The allegations against Msgr. Wallace Harris of St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church on 141st St. date from the late 1980s.

The Catholic Church’s new policy is strict in many ways. Yet I think that the Times‘ story needed to explore the question of why abused teenage boys would come forward 20 years later. Is this unusual? Is it possible or likely that the boys’ memory is faulty? (In the early- and mid-1990s, the question of recovered and repressed memory was a big one.)

As is, the story conveys the impression that the church, St. Charles Borromeo, is somehow to blame. As one parishioner says,

“Must be something about that building,” said Roger Firby, 50, a retired corrections officer who has lived most of his life within walking distance of the church. “Always got some trouble.”

Yeah, I guess. But that is a strange way to explain the abuse and the allegations.

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Unitarians keeping the faith

unitarianThe news of senseless shootings last Sunday at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has unfortunately quickly drifted to the back pages of many newspapers across the country. The Knoxville News Sentinel continues to be the best place to go for hourly updates on the case. Overall their coverage has been solid, as would be expected from the local newspaper.

Here is a well-reported story on the congregation’s church service only a week after the shooting:

Last Sunday morning, a gunman shattered the safety and sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This morning, the congregation reclaims that physical space and spiritual center.

“We are not going to let a Sunday go by without a service there,” said Ted Jones, president of the Kingston Pike congregation and a longtime church member. . . .

“It’s saying we are not going to let our space be violated or damaged, that it is still a good space and we are not going to let anything make it not a good space,” Jones reflected in an interview last week. “This space is safe and sacred and ours. And we are going to define how we think about it. …

“This space — it’s a disfigurement, it’s been wounded. It’s not dead, but it’s tarnished. And we need to untarnish it the best we can.”

To get another perspective on how members of the congregation reacted, see this paragraph from a back-page Washington Post update on the story:

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, about 60 people from five UU congregations in Northern Virginia came together for a service Monday evening. Bill Welch, the congregation’s minister for programs, talked about how isolating it can be to be a liberal in today’s world of right-wing talk radio and conservative Christians “that talk about liberals as if we are bad people.”

The idea that liberalism as currently defined in the United States is under threat received a bit more coverage in the News Sentinel, but in terms of hard news reporting, this article adds little:

National, and even international, coverage of the shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church turned late this week into a discussion into whether it’s safe in America to be a liberal.

“One of the biggest contemporary ironies is that being liberal in the United States of America, home of history’s greatest democracy, has become dangerous. That danger is particularly acute for religious liberals, as the recent tragedy in Knoxville demonstrated,” Bill Maxwell wrote in the St. Petersburg Times.

The article goes onto quote snippets of columns from around the nation (without links!) that voice similar opinions, followed by a lengthy list of YouTube video links. Is that all news readers are going to get in terms of coverage of this rather important issue of motive?

The motive behind the December church shooting in Colorado Springs was fairly confusing and strange. The same could be said for the August 2007 church shooting in Missouri. The big difference in this case is that there is evidence of the shooter’s motive from a four-page letter that has yet to be released in its entirety.

From a criminal procedure perspective there are two interesting developments to watch for in this case: will the defendant seek the insanity plea (which seems possible, if not likely), and will the prosecutor request the death penalty? Some of the victims in the case are already giving their thoughts to the local news media with the obvious religious and political background present. This story is solid except the lead of the article is confusing to me and could be the result of a simple typographical error.

Will other members of the church comment on these two important issues that have serious religious overtones?

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Hey Lobdell! We say, “Amen”

REM tableau 2 01Faithful GetReligion readers will remember the story of William Lobdell, the Los Angeles Times scribe whose first-person account of how covering the religion beat cost him his faith ran on the front page of that newspaper.

That was strong stuff and it will, I am sure, surprise few readers to know that Lobdell has now turned that spiritual journey into a book entitled “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America,” which is due out in early 2009.

It is also interesting to read his new account of how he lost his faith in the Los Angeles Times and the modern newspaper, in general. But that’s another issue.

However, while visiting his new online home — he is doing alternative journalism in Orange County — I noticed his very blunt, very GetReligion-esque take on a recent Associated Press story. The headline: “Media bias against religion.”

Take it away, Mr. Lobdell:

In the media, I always thought open and honest debate about religion is healthy for everyone. What I hate is the natural media bias that seeps into news story. Below is a little feature on some parents who were rushing to catch a plane and left one of their five children behind (“Home Alone 6″?). The story gives the basics and then adds, “Israeli media said the parents were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple but did not give their names.”

Why is it newsworthy to tell the reader that the parents were ultra-Orthodox? Is there a practice within ultra-Orthodox wing of Judaism that orders parents to leave their children behind? What if they were Catholic? Would that make it in the story?

Nope. There’s a perception by many that the orthodox branches of any religion are filled with wingnuts. This may or may not be true, but tackle the issue head-on instead of slipping it cynically into news stories.

All I can add is, “Amen.” Of course, you see slanted reports about liberal forms of religion in, well, conservative media. Lobdell is right. It’s nasty to see that sort of thing in a basic wire-service report. Amazing.

Photo: Well, obviously.

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“The most segregated hour …”

hands 01Every serious student of recent American history and religion knows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about racial segregation and Christian churches. But few surely know the ways in which little has changed from King’s day. They would do well to read a CNN article on the subject.

Reporter John Blake’s story
was one of unusual power and honesty. Rare is the mainstream newspaper article that tells uncomfortable truths about both black and white Christians. This is one of those stories. Consider Blake’s lede:

The Rev. Paul Earl Sheppard had recently become the senior pastor of a suburban church in California when a group of parishioners came to him with a disturbing personal question.

They were worried because the racial makeup of their small church was changing. They warned Sheppard that the church’s newest members would try to seize control because members of their race were inherently aggressive. What was he was going to do if more of “them” tried to join their church?

“One man asked me if I was prepared for a hostile takeover,” says Sheppard, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, California.

The nervous parishioners were African-American, and the church’s newcomers were white. Sheppard says the experience demonstrated why racially integrated churches are difficult to create and even harder to sustain. Some blacks as well as whites prefer segregated Sundays, religious scholars and members of interracial churches say.

Later in the story, Blake elaborated on the reasons for the racial segregation. He summarized the views of the pastor of one inter-racial church this way:

Woo doesn’t say his church has resolved all of its racial tensions. There are spats over music, length of service, even how to address Woo. Blacks prefer to address him more formally, while whites prefer to call him by his first name, (a sign of disrespect in black church culture), Woo says.

The second sentence in this passage hit home with me. My Catholic parish technically is almost all black. I go there for confession and for morning Mass; I revere the pastor, a priest of uncommon holiness and charity. Yet I don’t take my wife and daughter there because the Mass is too long. Our 14-month-old can barely tolerates a 60-minute Mass (at the heavily white parishes), let alone a 150-minute one.

These long services survive regardless of the pastor. The lesson is clear: the black congregants prefer long services. Yet it is also clear why few black Catholics attend the local white Catholic churches. Every third or fourth sermon is a variation on the Jesus-loves-you theme. Whether this message would resonate with local working- and middle-class blacks is doubtful.

Perhaps I digress. Regardless, Blake’s story also showed a firm grasp of the New Testament and Christian theology. Besides the impressive conclusion, Blake summarized the theology of inter-racial parishes this way:

interracial church advocates say the church was never meant to be segregated. They point to the New Testament description of the first Christian church as an ethnic stew — it deliberately broke social divisions by uniting groups that were traditionally hostile to one another, they say.

DeYoung, the “United by Faith” co-author, says the first-century Christian church grew so rapidly precisely because it was so inclusive. He says the church inspired wonder because its leaders were able to form a community that cut across the rigid class and ethnic divisions that characterized the ancient Roman world.

“People said that if Jews, Greeks, Africans, slaves, men and women – the huge divides of that time period — could come together successfully, there must be something to this religion,” DeYoung says.

The passage above was not perfect. A brief passage examining whether segregation is itso facto bad would have been great. Catholic parishes were, and to an extent still are, segregated by ethnicity. Is it un-Christian that Hispanic Catholics have their church, while Irish and Italian Catholics have theirs?

But those are quibbles. Blake’s story did more than Get Religion. It is one of the best newspaper stories I have read this year.

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Bush’s worship plans in China

bush on freedom
The media is starting to cover the ironies and excitement of President Bush’s visit to China for the 2008 Olympics. The New York Times has already appropriately played up the fact that Bush attempted to go to worship at a house church but was denied by the Chinese government.

Here’s the lead of the article which appeared Tuesday:

WASHINGTON — Aides organizing President Bush’s trip to China for the Olympics considered having him worship at a house church, one of the underground religious institutions that routinely face official harassment, but the Chinese authorities ruled it out.

Pastors, lawyers and other political activists whom Mr. Bush considered meeting in Beijing as a signal of support have instead been ordered by the Chinese authorities to leave the city during the president’s visit. Scores of others have been arrested.

The idea of giving a Reaganesque “tear down this wall” speech on human rights in China — as members of Congress and others are calling for Mr. Bush to do — has been abandoned as potentially insulting to the president’s hosts, one senior administration official said. Besides, most Chinese would probably not see or hear it, because of state control of the news media.

While this is symbolically ironic and important, it should not come as a surprise to anyone. The fact is that these house churches are operating outside the country’s laws whether we like it or not.

Now please don’t jump to the comment button and call me some sort of freedom hater. I am not. My point is that Americans, Christians, people of any faith, freedom lovers, and the entire Western world may not like the China’s laws, but it is in fact the law of China and Americans don’t get to decide Chinese laws. Also, the comparisons with Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech ought to be either explained better or dropped all together because the situations are hardly the same.

The real story here is that the Bush White House seemed to make a big deal out of Bush’s request to visit a house church. Does anyone really expect the Chinese authorities to allow that to happen in their country or to even attempt to reform their laws overnight?

Some of the NYT‘s coverage reflects the viewpoint that Americans can go over to other countries and convince them to make exceptions to their laws to make everyone happy:

While he evidently will not worship at an underground church, Mr. Bush does plan to attend services on Sunday at the Beijing Kuanjie Protestant Church, one of the most prominent of those officially registered by the government. (And then, that night, he will watch Kobe Bryant and the rest of USA Basketball play China.)

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who was among a group of advocates who met with Mr. Hadley last week to discuss China, said the problem with the balance Mr. Bush was striving for was that it too readily accepted the Chinese authorities’ conditions.

Referring to the decision to visit an authorized church, he said: “It’s not an affirmation of religious freedom. It’s an affirmation of government-controlled religion.”

An aspect of the story that is missing is the reality of Chinese law. The law in China is fairly flexible. The massive size of the county and huge population makes the American concept of law and order seem an impossible objective. Would it have been possible for Bush to quietly visit a house church during his visit? If Bush minimized any notion that his presence in China would somehow release the bonds on the country’s religious freedoms, perhaps the government would have allowed him some flexibility. That said, Bush is president of the United States and he has made his goal as president is to spread freedom around the world. Any notion of avoiding publicity or quietly visiting anything in China is probably my own wishful thinking.

As the next couple of weeks play out, watch for the media’s portrayal of the underground religious groups in China, along with their government-approved counterparts and let us know your thoughts on how they are portrayed and covered. I would be particularly interested if the subject of religion came up during any of NBC’s coverage of the games.

The Christian church overall is growing quite rapidly in China. I recently heard a statistic that there are more Christians in China than Communist Party members. I hope the issue receives the in-depth coverage it deserves, but think worry that Kobe Bryant’s jump shot will receive most of the attention.

Photo of President Bush with Vice President Cheney addressing the media at the State Department, August 14, 2006 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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