From our “no comment” department

obama messiahThe following is not taken from a news story. It’s part of a column from (wait for it) the San Francisco Chronicle. And, yes, we have crossed paths with this man’s work before.

So I have no comment on Mark Morford’s answer to the question: What’s really going on with Obama (no other names needed at this point)?

I have no comment about the headline: “Is Obama an enlightened being? Spiritual wise ones say: This sure ain’t no ordinary politician. You buying it?”

Read the thesis for yourself, or a small part of it.

Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.

The unusual thing is, true Lightworkers almost never appear on such a brutal, spiritually demeaning stage as national politics. This is why Obama is so rare. And this why he is so often compared to Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to those leaders in our culture whose stirring vibrations still resonate throughout our short history.

More? More?

But you gotta wonder, why has, say, the JFK legacy lasted so long, is so vital to our national identity? Yes, the assassination canonized his legend. The Kennedy family is our version of royalty. But there’s something more. Those attuned to energies beyond the literal meanings of things, these people say JFK wasn’t assassinated for any typical reason you can name. It’s because he was just this kind of high-vibration being, a peacemaker, at odds with the war machine, the CIA, the dark side. And it killed him.

Now, Obama. The next step. Another try.

Like I said, I have no comment at all. This is a column by a person whose elevator may or may not stop on all of the floors. I’ll let you judge that.

But you know that this is the kind of thing that is going to get people on the other side of the coin — the Obama is a Muslim and probably the Antichrist side — rolling in their tiny publications that are read by literally dozens of people (as opposed to a daily newspaper in a major city), until they draw mainstream coverage and then it hits Drudge, talk radio, Colbert Report, etc.

Paging Pat Robertson, where are you Pat Robertson?

So I have no comment on this. But you can watch for updates over at the Obama Messiah site. And perhaps Timothy Noah will bring back his “Obama Messiah Watch” feature at Slate.com, which kept an eye on the media Obama worship front.

OK, here is my comment. Sigh.

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Nope, no religion here

Khalid Shaikh MohammedIt’s pathetic how American policymakers fail to recognize the significance of religion in the battle against terrorism. What is more pathetic, and likely a cause of policymaker’s failure to recognize religion as essential to understanding terrorism, is that journalists don’t really get religion in covering terrorism. If the newspapers and newscasts policymakers read and watch do not cover religion as an essential component of the story, it is not likely that the elected officials will understand its importance.

Take for example accounts by two of the nation’s leading news organization on the arraignment of the “9/11 Defendants.” The New York Times article creates a colorful portrayal of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the master and commander of the courtroom during Friday’s legal proceedings, while The Washington Post portrays him as a sleepy, unkempt, sad individual whom no one should fear.

If you read between the lines, religion seems to have been everywhere in that courtroom, but the news stories hardly discuss religion. The NYT mentions the “talk of martyrdom” in the headline but only mentions it twice in the article. The Post did not mention martyrdom until the last paragraph.

The NYT mentions the word God not once, while the Post included the following quote that inadequately represents the significance of the words’ meaning:

Just 24 minutes later, after the other detainees answered a series of mundane questions, Mohammed stood up to address the court. He opened by chanting Koranic verses in Arabic, complete with an English translation for the court, offering a few unexpected lyrical moments. But his words then veered sharply. Although polite and almost deferential, Mohammed quickly made clear his dislike of America.

“I consider all American laws under the Constitution to be evil and not of God,” Mohammed said. He particularly took issue with a society that allows “same-sexual marriage” and other things that “are very bad.” He said he could not accept a U.S. lawyer because the nation is “still in Iraq and Afghanistan and waging their crusade.”

Am I missing the reason why the reporter would have left the Koranic verses out of the article? Can we at least get references?

The NYT did find time to include a word about Allah (unlike the Post), but the significance of the statement goes unsaid:

Mr. Mohammed, who is sometimes known as K.S.M., was at the first table. He could not, he explained, work easily with lawyers trained in the American legal system, which he described as evil. “They allow same sexual marriage,” he said, “and many things are very bad.”

He held his own in rapid fire back-and-forth with the judge dealing with the particulars of the proceedings, but then would retreat into another world. When Judge Kohlmann explained the risks of going through a death penalty case without a lawyer, Mr. Mohammed answered: “Nothing shall befall us, save what Allah has ordained for us.”

A major theme of these articles is the significance of the legal battles that this incident represents. The proceedings and the outcome will have a huge impact on the country’s ability to prosecute accused terrorists. However, the picture is incomplete if reporters leave religion out of focus or off the canvas.

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Not perfect

perfectFor the past three decades, Gold’s Gym and its imitators have gained market share at the expense of the YMCA and YWCA (aka the Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Women’s Association). A whole new culture of fitness for the body’s sake was spawned. Even the 1985 film “Perfect” could not avoid the conclusion that gyms became pick-up points. Now devout Christians are forming their own health institutions.

None of this history appears in The New York Timesstory about the growth of Christian fitness clubs. In fact, reporter Katie Zezima provides little religious or spiritual context or background for her otherwise interesting story. Are the Christians mentioned in the story evangelicals and if so, which type? Why are these Christians so concerned about temptation?

That said, Zezima let her interview subjects talk and present reality from their respective. The lede was strong:

Jason Russell, a fitness buff, had long found it difficult to combine his Christian faith with his job as a gym manager, which required him to be around women in spandex and men concerned only with how macho they are.

“Me being a single guy and trying to walk the Christian line, it was difficult,” said Mr. Russell, 30. “I needed not only to protect myself, but as a leader, to help others with their spiritual journey.”

Mr. Russell had been planning to open a gym of his own. Then he discovered Lord’s Gym, a 10,000-square-foot fitness center here that meshes prayer and push-ups. Its goal, says its owner, Paul Sorchy, a chiropractor, is to provide a modest setting where members can feel comfortable exercising. Mr. Russell is now its manager.

Alas, the remainder of the story is a variation on this theme: Christian health clubs arose in response to their secular counterparts. Zezima quotes from several Christians and a university professor echoing Russell’s perspective. For example, Zezima writes

R. Marie Griffith, a professor of religion at Princeton University who has written about Christian diet and fitness programs, said such gyms appealed to people who might not have found other fitness programs effective or appealing.

“These are places where fitness is important, not sex or vanity,” Professor Griffith said. “It’s supposed to be that we’re not going to forget we’re Christian here. There’s a sense of comfort around people with the same moral values as you have; no one’s going to rock your world.”

Griffith’s quote is prosaic. She’s not saying anything that the Christian fitness-goers aren’t. Zezima talked with an Ivy-League academic for this?

Zezima’s story isn’t bad. It’s just a disappointment — a piece that promised to explore a new religious trend and delivered few results.

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Pounding the polygamy beat

Polygamy Under Attack FrontWhen Texas judge issued an order Monday allowing the parents in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to begin picking up their children, I noticed that the CNN headline was:

Polygamist moms can pick up their kids

That was at 12:54. By 1:36, it was changed to

Polygamist parents OK’d to pick up their kids

That’s a good change. The FLDS had put the mothers of the siezed children front and center as part of a smart public relations move. Putting the older fathers out there would have just reminded the public of the polygamy and age differentials. It’s smart for the FLDS to highlight the mothers but the press shouldn’t follow suit. The original headline is a small example of the many problems we saw with media coverage of the sect. Frankly, much of the coverage was sensationalistic, unreflective and about an inch deep.

In a sea of horrible coverage, one reporter in particular is an exception. Brooke Adams has been covering polygamous families for the Salt Lake Tribune for years. Day after day, she reports hard news and keeps a blog devoted to the subject. This week, for instance, she noted that the last DNA reports would arrive on 51st District Judge Barbara Walther’s desk and the state’s abuse and criminal investigations would pick up speed. The first thing Texas authorities will be looking for is whether sect leader Warren Jeffs fathered any children with four girls he married between 2004 and 2006. Apparently the sect says that the marriages were never consummated but the state alleges otherwise:

The search warrant that allowed Arizona authorities to collect DNA samples from Jeffs a week ago laid out a chilling pattern of underage marriages.

Using bishop’s records and photographs found at the YFZ Ranch, the Texas Attorney General’s Office alleges:

1. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on Jan. 18, 2004, in Utah. The evidence: Wedding photos.

2. That the girl gave birth on Oct. 14, 2005, when she was 15. The evidence: Photos of the girl and Jeffs moments after birth; he is holding the newborn.

3. That Jeffs sexually assaulted a 12-year-old he married on July 27, 2006, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records and photographs.

4. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on July 22, 2004, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records.

5. A marriage between Jeffs and a 12-year-old girl on April 16, 2005, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records.

The DNA will show whether Jeffs and any of the girls are parents of any child at the ranch.

And if they do, the probe will likely snare others: the girls’ parents and anyone else who knew and kept silent. No more floodlights; this time the state will be proceeding with laser-beam focus.

I didn’t even see this reported elsewhere. One story that I wish we’d highlighted here was Adams’ piece from April about how the YFZ Ranch raid echoed the Short Creek raid from the 1950s. It was one of the most prescient pieces of reporting I’ve read all year.

Thankfully Adams’ work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Kelly McBride highlighted her work for Poynter. Characterizing other reporters as gullible and sensationalistic, McBride provides examples of how Adams out reported them. She says that Adams’ reliance on polygamous families instead of Texas authorities made the difference:

Some readers of Adams’ coverage might see an overly sympathetic view of the FLDS. I see something different. Sometimes being a good reporter means taking on an unpopular cause, asking difficult questions. Yes, there are children in the FLDS church who have been forced into marriage and thus sexual relations, Adams says. But there are also families who don’t do that, she says.

I actually agree that some of her coverage was overly sympathetic. But still, her stories included more real people than anyone else’s. And she was healthily critical when no one else was. What made Adams’ work different according to McBride?

*Knowledge. Adams has experience and history with the topic. That meant she knew more about the FLDS than most of her sources. She could spot myths and hyperbole and kept them out of her reporting.

*Thoroughness. Rather than simply reporting what Texas authorities were saying, Adams scrutinized all the court documents and then did her own reporting to verify or refute the evidence.

* Collaboration. Adams said her editor, Sheila McCann and her photography partner, Trent Nelson, were great supporters.

* Conviction. Maybe it helped that she was isolated in Texas, unable to see how her stories were playing back home. But Adams said she wondered why no other newsrooms were pursuing the same angle she was.

* Persistence. Getting FLDS families to open up is incredibly difficult. But Adams kept at it.

I can’t imagine many papers in the country other than the Salt Lake Tribune having a full-time polygamy reporter but Adams’ reporting sure does show the difference of having someone on the beat full-time.

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Outreach for atheists

philly billboardAs a believer, I am not quite sure how a nonbeliever would react to Thursday’s story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an interstate billboard intended to reach out to atheists and nonbelievers in the area. See here how the story introduces the billboard:

With its image of blue sky and fluffy clouds, the rectangle floating lately over I-95 near Allegheny Avenue suggests something dreamy, almost heavenly.

At least from a distance.

Drivers headed north toward the giant billboard might first discern the words God and Believe and suppose this to be the work of a fundamentalist church.

But this is the work of no church.

“Don’t believe in God?” it asks. “You are not alone.”

Think of it as a sign of the times.

So people who don’t believe in God can’t use blue sky and fluffy cloud imagery to express their non-belief? Instead of a straightforward description of the billboard or a viewpoint, the story’s lead compares atheism with church-goers. Fair comparison?

And exactly how is this billboard a sign of the times (whatever that means)? Last time I checked, interstate billboards are generally seen as a tacky way of getting one’s message across.

Unfortunately, the story’s lead is hardly the highlight, at least from a critic’s point of view. Check out the description of the local business who donated the $22,500 to mount the billboard campaign:

No horns poke through Rade’s wiry gray hair. He is tall and bony, quick to laugh, and dressed for the office — he is president of Wireless Accessories Inc. — in shorts and sneakers. He has the restless energy of a teenager. He is 70.

“I’d like everyone to believe what I do,” he said, referring to his “absolute certainty” that there is no divine being running the universe and no life after death. “I think it would be a better world if they did.”

That’s really great for the reporter to point out that Rade has no horns because I was really wondering about that. Thanks for clearing it up for us.

In all seriousness, this is what we do not need our news stories about issues of faith to do for us: highlight unfair misconceptions about a group of people.

Speaking of groups of people, check out how the group is characterized near the end of the article:

Fred Edwords, spokesman for the roughly 10,000-member American Humanist Association, said he thought it was easier for atheists and agnostics to be public than in previous decades.

“In the 1980s, people were saying we’re part of a great conspiracy, trying to take over the schools and courts.”

The recent spate of best-sellers bearing such titles as The God Delusion, God Is Not Great and The End of Faith suggests a broader public interest in religious skepticism, Edwords said. “But we still feel we’re the last minority group it’s OK to say bad things about.”

The last bit about atheists and agnostics being a minority group is interesting and probably should not have been included in an objective news story without a deeper explanation.

A key element in the definition of a minority group has traditionally been in inherent unchangeable characteristic. Now, I am not saying that people who do not believe in God are spiritually incapable of believing in God. Nor am I saying that they can’t choose to believe in God. That’s a world of messy theological debates that has no place on this blog.

What I am saying is that reporters should be very careful before they use loaded terms such as “minority group” without referencing an accurate definition to support exactly what that term means in this context.

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When you assume . . .

godgeneThere’s been something of a trend among a certain subsection of evolutionary anthropologists to explain religion as the product of a gene. Not that there is any evidence of a religion gene, mind you. Heck, not that there’s any evidence that such a gene is possible! But if there was, you see, it could explain Methodists.

Reporters, who report on science about as well as they report on religion, love these stories. I came across one such article published by ABC News. Written by Ewen Callaway, it was originally published by New Scientist, which means it’s not as bad as some of these stories tend to end up. But it’s still bad. The headline, which is in no way backed up by the story, is “Religion Is a Product of Evolution, Software Suggests.” Here is the chunk about the software program constructed by James Down, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan:

To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people — those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

Argh. The truth is that Dow, not a software model, suggests that “Religion Is a Product of Evolution.” He crafted a software model with the necessary assumptions to elicit the conclusion he’d already suggested. Way to just swallow the study hook, line and sinker, Callaway! There is just no way that a study this weak should receive media play. Assumptions underly the entire study — not evidence or facts. A computer simulation may be useful, but it is not a scientific fact. No experiments were performed, no data were collected.

If you assume the existence of a religion gene and then assume that gene has an advantage in the population, it does nothing to advance the debate about why religion exists to build a software program designed around those assumptions.

Check out that second-to-last paragraph. It shows that Dow just reworked the study until it came up with the answer he was looking for. The reporter should have been much more critical. Even if the reporter wanted to assume an evolutionary explanation for religion, a much more critical article could have been written. The irony that this software model — based on completely unproven assumptions — would be used by ABC News to denigrate religious belief is too much.

Stories like this don’t serve science or religion well.

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Evangelism as hate speech?

censorshipA news story from across the pond about Christian preachers being told by police officers not to preach in a predominantly Muslim area is an example of how a news organization slant can present a relatively simple factual situation in any number of different ways.

Here’s the Telegraph‘s headline followed by the first paragraph:

Christian preachers face arrest in Birmingham

The evangelists say they were threatened with arrest for committing a “hate crime” and were told they risked being beaten up if they returned. The incident will fuel fears that “no-go areas” for Christians are emerging in British towns and cities, as the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, claimed in The Sunday Telegraph this year.

And here is The Sun:

Preacher ‘hate jibe by a cop’

Two Christian preachers say a police community support officer accused them of “hate crime” for handing out gospel leaflets in a Muslim area.

Lastly, here is the BBC:

Christians ‘told not to preach’

Two Christians claim a police community support officer told them to stop leafleting in an area of east Birmingham where many Muslims live.

The usual back-and-forth ensues in these stories with various perspectives emphasized, or ignored all together. Notice that the BBC does not even mention the word “arrest” in its report, while the Telegraph puts “arrest” right in the headline.

The Telegraph also highlights the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester. What is interesting about Nazir-Ali, and likely unknown to most Americans, is that he is Pakistani-born and holds Pakistani and British citizenship. GetReligion readers also need to know that he is one of the directors of the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life, which oversees this weblog. Here’s a recent tmatt column that adds some more information about the bishop and his role in these debates in Great Britain.

This story is also an example of where reporters would best serve their audiences by going beyond the police reports and statements from the parties and finding some outside source to comment on the legal issues at play. The weak free speech laws in the United Kingdom likely make this type of incident more probable than in the United States and other countries with strong tradition of free speech. However, could some, such as the police officers, see Christian evangelism in a Muslim community as akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater?

This leads into the theological and social perspective that is missed: why is it that Christian evangelism is so offensive, particularly to Muslims, and how much of it has to do with the fact that Muslims are a minority in the UK? There are answers to these questions, and reporters shouldn’t overlook those questions even if even if there are no easy answers.

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The Jurassic media landscape

stateoffearBeing in the media criticism game, I like to read the various ombudsmen and press critics out there. I’m pretty sure Jack Shafer at Slate is my favorite. His criticism is unconventional and thought-provoking. His latest column looks back at novelist Michael Crichton’s 1993 prediction that mass media would die within a decade. When the decade came and passed and media remained strong, people thought Crichton misguided. But now that the media giants are faltering, Shafer revisits the issue with Crichton.

The interview with Crichton only briefly touches on religion but mainstream media treatment of religion news is, of course, part of this larger story. I’m curious what readers think about Crichton’s media analysis and the future of mass media. Do you agree with hm? If so, how do the problems he cites play out in religion news, if at all? Here are a few of the questions from Shafer’s Q&A with Crichton:

Do you think the media’s factual content and accuracy is up or down from 2002 (when we last corresponded)? Do you still think it’s flashy but junk?

Surely you jest. Factual content approaches zero, and accuracy is not even a consideration. I think many younger reporters aren’t really sure what it means, beyond spell-checking. And in any case, when the factual content approaches zero, accuracy becomes meaningless.

Why do I say factual content approaches zero? The easiest way is to record a news show and look at it in a month, or to look at last month’s newspaper. That pulls you out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news, and you can see more objectively what is actually being presented. Look at how many stories are unsourced or have unnamed sources. Look at how many stories are about what “may” or “might” or “could” happen. Look at how many news stories have opinion frames, i.e., “Obama faced his most challenging personal test today,” because in the body you probably won’t be told much about what the personal test was, or why it was most challenging (which in any case is opinion). In summary, reliance on unnamed sources means the story is opinion. Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content.

At my last job, we had to rely almost exclusively on unnamed sources. We covered the federal bureaucracy and our subjects weren’t allowed to speak on the record, for the most part. Or consider how difficult it would be for Jacqui Salmon to write about the Washington National Cathedral layoffs. Fifteen percent of the staff there were laid off but given severance packages conditional on their silence. I think she handled the story really well. but readers should be cautious about the almost complete lack of accountability inherent with the use of anonymous sources. More important is Crichton’s first point. I do get the feeling that many reporters don’t even know what objective journalism is as a goal. They do view themselves as activists. Remember what Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet said about coverage of the Rev. Michael Pfleger? That the press corps was admiring because they shared his activist tendencies?

Here’s another interesting tidbit:

The truth is, we live in an age of astonishing conformity. I grew up in the 1950s, supposedly the heyday of conformity, but there was much more freedom of opinion back then. And as a result, you knew that your neighbors might hold different views from you on politics or religion. Today, the notion that men of good will can disagree has disappeared. Can you imagine! Today, if I disagree with you, you conclude there is something wrong with me. This is a childish, parochial view. And of course stupefyingly intolerant. It’s truly anti-American.

If this doesn’t describe the ideological ghettoization of the internet, I don’t know what would. This is probably one of the main reasons why I support American-style journalism over the European model. It’s easy enough for us to all retreat to our communities where everyone agrees with us on everything. I’m astonished at how many people seem to think that their views are held by everyone but the most intolerant freaks (who are, of course, undeserving of respect or acknowledgment). We’ve been witnessing a bit of that in our discussions of same-sex marriage. A newspaper, by presenting just the facts and showcasing differing viewpoints can do so much to support the community.

Shafer asks Crichton why his prediction that consumers would demand better information has not come true. Crichton says he’s perplexed but ties it into the changing nature of the economy:

I have been very interested in the differences between how scientists and engineers treat information, for example. The fact is, engineers are much more rigorous about information, and it has legal consequences for them. In contrast, scientists (and politicians) are just playing with information. Broadly speaking, they have no responsibility for what they say at all. Now, as our society shifts away from manufacturing (now something like 15 percent of workers are engaged in making something), I speculate that this is having an effect on what we regard as information. I speculate we are moving from the rigor of engineers to the free-for-all of politicians. In which case, nobody is interested in high-quality information. It only gets in the way.

It’s an interesting hypothesis. What do you think? Is Crichton all wet? Does he tap into why newspapers are facing problems?

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