Go up, reporter

wallAs a gentile, I learned to think of the Jewish people mainly in religious terms. Reading the Old Testament alongside the New Testament will do that to a goy.

I grasped that the term Jew had an ethnic meaning as well. But it wasn’t until I began writing, if only occasionally, about Jewish-related stories, that it was impressed upon me that the religious and ethnic aspects of Jewish life are hardly one in the same.

Still, I think that sometimes reporters gloss over Jews’ religious identity. Take this Los Angeles Times story by David Haldane.

Haldane writes about a fairly recent program for young Jews: an all-expenses paid trip to Israel. As Haldane describes the program,

Birthright is the brainchild of, among others, Michael Steinhardt, a New York-based investor and philanthropist, who saw what he considered an alarming trend: the increasing disaffection of young, non-Israeli Jews from their culture and community.

“They typically stop their Jewish educations after their bar or bat mitzvahs,” he said, referring to religious coming of age ceremonies performed at 12 or 13. “I decided to focus on the next generation of our people. If there is a miracle in our lifetimes, it’s the birth of Israel. You can be Jewish and not visit there, but you’re missing a lot.”

This passage is enticing. It suggests that the program aims in part to teach the principles and practices of Judaism. After all, bar and bat mitzvahs are religious traditions.

Yet the story never elaborates on whether the trips serve a religious purpose. Haldane merely hints that they do. Early in the story, he writes:

The results have been important to Israel “both ideologically and strategically,” said Gidi Mark, the program’s Israeli marketing director and soon-to-be chief executive. In addition to contributing to the country’s economy and bolstering its support among Jews worldwide, he said, Birthright marks the young nation’s ascension as an “equal partner in taking responsibility for the future of the Jewish people worldwide.”

Later on, Haldane writes:

“There will be no free time, only structured free time,” Birthright staffer Jay Feldman told the soon-to-be passengers of bus 909, which, he said, would be making stops at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and Ben Yehuda Street (“like the Santa Monica promenade”), as well as museums, monuments and the port city of Eilat, to name just a few.

The Western Wall is a distinctly religious site. A place of prayer, the wall is considered the last remnant of the Holy Temple. No wonder that Pope John Paul II prayed there. Yet Haldane does not offer so much as a dependent clause about the Wall.

More broadly, none of the young interview subjects mention religion, not even the young woman who hopes to be a rabbi someday. This criticism is not specific to religion, as no young people talk about Israel’s national or geopolitical significance. But in a story about Israel, the near silence about religion in general and Judaism specifically is deafening. Do they not see Israel in terms of God’s many promises to the Jewish people?

Haldane should have disentangled the strands of Jewish identity in this story. Again, I realize that Judaism is uniquely bound up with religious and nationalistic elements. In Exodus, God promises to Moses that his people will receive Canaan in return for their faithfulness. But this story shows no sign that Haldane tried to disentangle them.

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Competition within The Family

us politicsForgive me as I do some shameless promotion of an excellent new blog.

The evangelical Christian publication Christianity Today has launched a new blog designed specially for covering the 2008 election season. The author, Sarah Pulliam, has been working for the publication through college in-between newsroom internships at The Columbus Dispatch and the Colorado Springs Gazette. She will be covering both the Republican and Democratic conventions this fall for the magazine and the blog.

Christianity Today in a way represents the complex evangelical political scene reporters are covering this fall. Founder Billy Graham started the publication because he wanted to “plant the evangelical flag in the middle-of-the-road, taking the conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems.” Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has already been interviewed by the publication, but nothing yet from the presumed Republican nominee John McCain.

A recent online poll by the magazine shows that Obama may be winning the support of its readers:

Obama passed McCain (41%) by garnering 51 percent of the vote during our poll that closed yesterday. In June, McCain led Obama 50 to 33 percent. The two were tied in March at 26 percent.

An informal survey of the blog shows that Obama was the feature of eight posts, McCain two and four related to subjects relating to both or neither.

The blog also includes content from two others who write on religion and politics: Dan Gilgoff of Beliefnet’s God-o-Meter and Mark Silk’s Spiritual Politics.

If reporters needed more evidence that evangelicals are not a monolith, this blog would be a good place to go.

UPDATE: The editor of the CT blog is my younger sister.

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Post story is dehumanizing

dehumanizeOver at The Washington Post, reporter Ashley Surdin wrote about an unprecedented ballot-initiative in Colorado:

A proposal to define a fertilized human egg as a person will land on Colorado’s ballot this November, marking the first time that the question of when life begins will go before voters anywhere in the nation.

The Human Life Amendment, also known as the personhood amendment, says the words “person” or “persons” in the state constitution should “include any human being from the moment of fertilization.” If voters agreed, legal experts say, it would give fertilized eggs the same legal rights and protections to which people are entitled.

The ballot initiative is funded by Colorado for Equal Rights, a grass-roots antiabortion organization. Its purpose, initiative sponsor Kristi Burton said, is to lay a legal and legislative basis for protecting the unborn. Its passage would also open the door to modifying other laws for the same purpose, she said.

I see two main problems with Surdin’s story.

The first problem is Surdin’s use of the dehumanizing term “fertilized egg.” Yes, Surdin does attach the descriptive word “human” in the lede and refers to the “unborn”, but elsewhere the reporter doesn’t. Surdin’s use of the term is prejudicial. By using the term “fertilized egg” consistently, Surdin implies that a human at the very earliest stage of life is a thing or an object, not a person or subject. Why not use the more accurate and fair term “human embryo”?

The second problem is the absence in the story of religious, scientific, and philosophical perspectives. Surdin does not quote any religious figures, or any embryologists or philosophers. Were Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen, authors of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, not available? How about William Saletan, a liberal writer for Slate?

These voices would have provided essential context for readers: the debate over personhood is more than political or legal. Yet Surdin focuses exclusively on the initiative’s political and legal ramificiations. That shortchanges readers.

Which is why using accurate and fair terms is so important. In the absence of them, Surdin’s story was only a step or two removed from being a press release for NARAL or Planned Parenthood.

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Hello CT: Take Trib folks to lunch

ChicagoMagsSecond verse, same as the first.

This doesn’t happen very often. The folks at the Chicago Tribune‘s features staff have done it again, leaving me in an interesting position. Once again, they have named their favorite 50 magazines and, once again, their view of life in the modern world (and Chicago) does not include a single magazine dedicated to faith issues.

Let’s be clear, again. They are not listing what they believe are the best magazines, or the most powerful or the most popular, in terms of circulation. The goal is simple, which is for this circle of journalists to list their own personal favorites. The newspaper notes:

Once again we’ve gathered around the magazine racks in our minds and pulled out our favorites. We are a mixed bag of folks, and the list reflects that, ranging from the inevitability of the New Yorker to the surprise of G-Fan, a magazine for Godzilla aficionados. We like magazines that instruct, entertain, take us places we’d otherwise never know. So here’s our list. Let us know what we’ve missed: ctc-tempo@tribune.com.

It’s an interesting collection and a whole lot of fun.

However, this does, in my opinion, offer an open window into one journalistic room — the room that represents the worldview of the Chicago Tribune features staff. Or, perhaps, this gap stands for some other factor on which I cannot put my finger.

Anyway, as I wrote the last time (and make sure you check out the interesting comments thread on that one):

Note that this means the features staff at the Tribune does not even include anyone who is reading — or, at least, seems to enjoy readying — the powerful, influential, excellent religious magazines that are published in the Chicago area, magazines that have great influence across the nation and around the world. I refer, primarily, to Christianity Today, Touchstone and The Christian Century, and I am sure I am missing several others (help me out here).

There are signs of “religion” in the new list, broadly defined. If opera (small niche) and sports (giant niche) are not secular religions for many Americans then I do not know what subjects deserve the label.

It is possible that religion is simply too hot to handle. If you name one religious magazine, that would imply some kind of preference for that flock of believers, whether evangelical or hip, edgy American Buddhist. Or how about kind of tweedy hip, smartly edgy evangelicals — in greater Chicago?

This is an interesting and symbolic ghost. Again. And, again, the Trib people have asked for feedback on holes in their list. So, please carry on.

Photo: Chicago magazine stand. Michael Payne’s picture of the week.

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‘Take, eat; this is My body’ (revisited)

Eucharist 04Earlier in the week I lamented the poor coverage of that Florida college student’s Communion protest. In the comments, reader Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz noted that the story was continuing in Minnesota:

Thanks for covering this. I was appalled by the reporting on this story. Amateurish doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Now it will be interesting to see if anyone picks up on the story that Paul Zachary Myers, the University of Minnesota biology professor who made a name for himself opposing the film ‘Expelled,’ has asked for someone [Editor's note: blasphemous language in that link] to send him some consecrated Hosts in order to publicly desecrate them. He’s doing this in response to the coverage surrounding what Mr. Cook did. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Reporter Paul Walsh at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune picked the story up and did a great job, I think. The story, headlined “Communion wafer held ‘hostage’ raises holy heck,” is remarkably straightforward and calm considering the heated emotions on various sides.

A Minnesota university instructor and avowed atheist is jousting with a national Catholic watch dog group over a smuggled communion wafer, which the associate professor dismisses as a “frackin’ cracker.”

Paul Z. Myers, who teaches biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, on his blog this week expressed amazement that a Florida college student who briefly took a wafer “hostage” from a church ceremony has been receiving death threats for an action that was characterized “a hate crime” by the Catholic League.

Under the headline, “It’s a frackin’ cracker!” Myers wrote in an at-times profane blog entry: “Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane.”

He added: “Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? … I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage … but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart.”

A few thoughts. I’ll note that the source for the claims of death threats was the student who disrespected the Eucharist. Many of us wondered whether people confused Biblical admonitions regarding the Eucharist with death threats. For instance, in the earlier comment thread, reader Michael noted:

Journalist or not, if someone tells you that they received death threats, how can you not be curious about what was actually said?

“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.” 1 Cor 11:28-29

I wonder if someone just paraphrased that and he took it as a death threat.

To be sure, sacramental Christians regard the consecrated elements as the actual body and blood of Christ. So there’s probably not a good analogy to other religions. But I’m wondering if media coverage would be the same if P.Z. Myers had threatened to disrespect, say, the Koran. One wonders whether a reporter might have asked Myers if he felt more comfortable attacking Christians then adherents to other religions.

Anyway, Walsh’s story notes that Myers claimed the blog entry was more protest than threat and that it has generated a great deal of response, including from the Catholic League.

I had never heard of P.Z. Myers until I saw him condescending to religious adherents in the documentary Expelled. Here’s a clip of portion of his interview. Walsh made sure to mention Myers’ religious beliefs:

Myers, who was raised Lutheran and now considers himself a card-carrying atheist, said he’s been getting a “few death threats” since the conflict began, “but I don’t take them too seriously.”

His opponents, he said, describe him as a “strident, militant atheist” because of his activism in the debate of evolution vs. creationism.

I’m always amazed how media coverage of evolutionary debates portrays one side as religious and the other side as irreligious. In fact, some evolutionists — certainly not all — are more engaged in religious battles than their opponents. It’s basic journalism but still good that Walsh included these details. Again, just very straightforward and well done for a brief article.

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Post story gets the sermon

black handsSadly, this is the kind of story that Washington Post readers see on a fairly regular basis — a long, detailed daily report on a funeral that symbolizes a crisis in an urban or, increasingly, suburban community hit by violent crime.

I read this story
yesterday as I rode back to Baltimore on the commuter train. I thought that it was going to be yet another example of a story that was set in a church, built around the words of the preacher, yet never really allowed the readers to go to church, if you catch my meaning.

I was wrong. Here’s the top of Avis Thomas-Lester’s story from the Tabernacle Church outside Washington, D.C.:

A Laurel minister told mourners for Ronnie L. White yesterday that they all bore some responsibility for the destructive road his life took and urged his friends to turn their lives around so they would not follow him to an early death.

Speaking before 400 loved ones, the Rev. G. Randolph Gurley said the 19-year-old did not suddenly decide to go astray the day he allegedly killed a Prince George’s County police officer. Less than 36 hours after White was brought to the county jail on first-degree murder charges, he was found dead in his cell of apparent strangulation.

“When did it all start? Who all has a part in this tragedy?” Gurley asked, gazing intently into the eyes of several people in the pews before him. “We all know someone took his life, but it goes beyond that. We know that Ronnie didn’t wake up that day and say, ‘Today I’ll participate in some activity that will result in someone’s life being lost and later lead to the loss of my life.’ His family, his friends, the school system, certainly the faith community … maybe we all have a part in this.”

The usual details are all here, from the weeping young mother to pews packed with young people who, based on their attire, are not regularly in pews.

The minister’s sermon, or, at least, the part reported is, in this genre, usually based on politics and community issues. It often seems that the tragedy could have been prevent with a few more dollars from the government to fund a few more social programs.

Not this time. The preacher looked out into the pews and spoke to the young people. All of those tank tops, tattoos and hip t-shirts in tribute to the fallen hero and his — one way or another — gang?

Gurley told the young people to “wear the T-shirts in love” for White, but to remember that they represented death. “How long will it be until your face will be on one of these T-shirts?” he asked, drawing some loud sobs. …

Gurley, who has been a pastor for 30 years, was unabashed in his anger at losing another member of his flock. White’s funeral was the sixth for a young person at the church in the past decade, he said. The first five died of gunshot wounds. An autopsy showed that White died of asphyxiation after he was choked.

“I wish I could speak of a long and prosperous life, how he had lived life to the fullest, of his wife and children … and how finally … he had succumbed to a death of natural causes,” Gurley said. “Unfortunately, that is not the case.”

As I read, I kept wondering what the pastor had said that had been left out. To put it bluntly, I wanted to know if the Gospel was being edited from the sermon. This pastor clearly was looking out into those pews and talking to the people sitting there. Did he leave faith out of this?

Finally, at the very end, the reporter gave us the final act of this particular drama.

Perhaps it would have been better to hint early on — inverted pyramid and all — that this final detail was coming. That’s a matter of writing style and, well, art. But Thomas-Lester did not deny readers what, for the preacher and for some in the pews, was the bottom line:

“This is not the time to threaten or be threatened,” Gurley said. God, he said, would ensure that justice is done.

“Pour out a little Hennessy [cognac], drink some 40s, smoke a bag of weed, hit a dipper or two if you want to … but that won’t bring him back,” he said. “Get as drunk or as high as you want and do it in his honor if you want to, but that will not bring him back.”

Gurley then challenged the mourners to use White’s death as motivation to improve their own lives.

“Come in my life today,” Gurley prayed on behalf of the hundreds who flocked to the altar at his invitation to give their lives to Christ. “Come into my heart. Change me. Save me. Let me be blessed.”

There’s more. Read on. This story gives you the “-30-” and the “Amen.”

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Troubles with Templeton obits

templetonBy most any measure, the late Sir John Templeton was a remarkable man. He was a pioneer in not one but two fields: investing in stocks and donating money to explore the intersection of science and religion.

After Templeton died Tuesday, his obituaries were quite detailed and informative about one of those fields. You can guess which one his obituaries didn’t fare so well.

Religion News Service’s obituary
was not objectionable. It just wasn’t insightful. Reporters Daniel Burke and Benedict Cipolla noted, appropriately, that Templeton grew up in a town not far away from the Scopes Monkey Trial occurred, a big influence on his outlook. Yet their religious analysis was only skin deep. Take this passage about the intellectual projects that Templeton funded:

High-profile initiatives have included a study on the healing benefits of prayer, overseen by a researcher from Harvard Medical School; an investigation into the development of purpose among young people; the Stanford Forgiveness Project; and the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year award through the Religion Newswriters Association.

In February, the Templeton Foundation announced that it will donate $4 million to researchers at Oxford University to investigate the origins of belief in God.

While some critics questioned the subjects and methods of Templeton-funded projects, even skeptics acknowledged the caliber of many of the studies, and several grantees praised Templeton for his hands-off manner.

Surely this last paragraph needs an extra sentence or two of explanation; as I will note later, two publications asserted that actually the caliber of the studies was questionable. To get their point across, Burke and Cipolla should have found out what made Templeton’s projects distinctive or not. A quote from an expert or academic would have been helpful.

This quote from Templeton, too, cried out for explanation:

“I formed charity foundations … so that, within a century, humans will know a hundred times more about divinity and spiritual principles as any human has known to date,” Templeton said in 2003.

Templeton presumably is referring to the masses, not spiritual leaders. But come on. Templeton is making a bold claim: that his charity foundations, and others like them no doubt, will reveal divinity and spiritual principles. A quote from a scholar or Templeton aide would have been helpful to readers.

At least RNS’ story was critical and fairminded. Scientific American‘s obituary was one sided and sneering. According to reporter JR Minkel, Templeton was a well-meaning but naive old man. Consider the obit’s final few paragraphs:

Critics charged that by attempting to reconcile what the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould referred to as the “nonoverlapping magisteria” of science and religion, Templeton was twisting scientific concepts in religion’s name.

“This is a sad event, since from all I’ve heard from those who met him, he was a very nice fellow,” biologist P. Z. Myers, a fierce opponent of creationism, wrote on his blog, Pharyngula. “It’s just too bad that he threw so much money away into a fruitless and pointless endeavor that does nothing but prop up belief in unreality.”

Others supported Templeton’s work. He was knighted in 1987 by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropy.

While Queen Elizabeth is better known than P.Z. Myers, the contrast is not fair toward Templeton. Myer’s quote is pointed and polemical. The Queen is not quoted, nor are any supporters of Templeton. Were no Templeton Prize winners available?

The Los Angeles Times‘ obituary had a different problem. It made an outright bizarre statement about the Templeton Foundation’s projects:

… the Templeton charities have engendered controversy over the years for their support of research into such topics as character development, forgiveness, free enterprise and the role of prayer in medical healing.

Detractors have argued that the grants back flimsy science aimed at promoting religion and right-wing causes. The online magazine Slate called Templeton “a conservative sugar daddy” whose ultimate goal was “the reunification of science and religion.”

How topics such as character development and forgiveness are controversial is never broached. I realize that numerous post-Enlightenment philosophies deny free will, as do some Christian ones. But unless I am wildly off base, a typical LAT reader would wonder why character development and forgiveness, or even prayer, meet intellectual resistance.

Don’t get me wrong. Maybe Templeton’s awards and prizes were hokum, although I doubt it given the roster of its past winners. But these obituaries needed to explain why it was so.

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Chuck Colson, Renaissance man

BurglarSir John Templeton, the wildly-successful mutual-fund manager who pioneered international investing died Tuesday at the age of 95. He was also well-known for giving away much of his fortune to scientific and religious causes.

Mark will be looking at some of the obituaries, which seem amazed by Templeton’s belief that science and faith might be reconciled, in the next day or so. But one had an error we have to point out.

Like many other papers, the Telegraph focused a great deal on Templeton’s religious philanthropy. But check out these paragraphs:

In 1973 he inaugurated the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, an annual award to remedy the Nobel Foundation’s omission of religion from its prizes.

A brilliant publicist, Templeton guaranteed that his prize would always be worth more than the Nobel, and arranged for the Duke of Edinburgh to present the award at Buckingham Palace, thus ensuring full press coverage.

From 1973, when it stood at £70,000, the prize money has risen to £820,000, making the Templeton Prize one of the world’s largest annual monetary awards.

Winners over the years have included Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the Reverend Dr Billy Graham, and Charles Colson, the Watergate-burglar-turned-minister. Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jews also qualified to win the prize.

All of which is interesting. Except that Chuck Colson (who, by the way, donated his entire prize to Prison Fellowship) was not a Watergate burglar and is not an ordained minister.

Other than that, no problem. The bungling of these descriptors is just sloppy journalism. As for the second of those two mistakes, it makes you wonder if the reporter thinks that all people involved in religious work are clergy (see James Dobson, etc., etc.).

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