Let Dallas be Dallas?

Dallas Skyline dayThat post from the other day about the Dallas Morning News Solstice coverage continues to draw interesting comments.

As I said in the comments pages, it’s clear that the solstice celebration was a valid news story. But it’s also clear that many Christmas-related events that were much, much, much larger were deemed to be old hat and not worthy of fresh coverage.

That may or may not be true. We don’t know if there were valid news hooks linked to any of those other mainstream events in Dallas. If the tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?

Anyway, here is the archetypal comment from one of our faithful readers on the journalistic left, which means, in this case, that the purpose of news is to educate the mainstream readers who need to have their world views broadened until they resemble those of journalists:

Michael says:

The goal of a local newspaper is to cover events that are newsworthy and interesting. The goal is to get readers to consider things they’ve never considered before, open a door to something they don’t know much about, to tell the untold stories. It is not to always just hold up a mirror for the reader so that they can gaze at themselves, although clearly there is a role for that.

The question is how you achieve that balance. On the Solstice, writing about the Solstice is a reasonable news decision. Just as on Christmas, there will be the inevitable story from Midnight Mass because that is a reasonable news decision.

But if I had to choose between a story about a Solstice celebration in the buckle of the Bible belt or a story about Bible Belt Megachurch doing their 17th annual Living Nativity, it’s a reasonable news decision to cover the news because it is going to be “new” and “news” to many readers. There’s a reason we don’t call it “olds.”

Winter solstice LW2 01Meanwhile, I received a private email from a Dallas reader who wanted to comment on the reality that is facing readers and former readers of the most powerful newspaper in Texas. It appears that this reader still reads the dead-tree-pulp edition.

As a Dallas Morning News reader who is grateful for the extra coverage the newspaper has given to religion over the years (and who mourns the loss of the Religion section), I appreciate your attention to our hometown paper’s continuing reporting on religion here. I don’t know if you get to see the print edition of the News, but this past weekend’s Religion page was a good example of what I consider to be the paper’s blind spot about its own audience.

There were two stories on the page. One was a story from wire services about Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas. The other was about Latino Christians and a Christmas procession. Both were interesting, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was the best the newspaper in this overwhelmingly Christian community can do on the weekend before Christmas. If you look on the page opposite the Religion page, it’s a full page of ads for Dallas area churches listing the times of their Christmas services. All of them are in English.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I couldn’t help thinking that the News is selling ads to English-speaking people (mostly Protestant) who observe Christmas, but their news pages have nothing really for those people. I mean no disrespect to my Latino brothers and sisters in Christ, but how many of them are buying the Dallas Morning News? Maybe I’m too sensitive about this, but I get the feeling that my local newspaper is bored by ordinary northern European Christians who live in the suburbs, even though as far as I can tell from reading business trends stories, it’s people like us who are the few remaining subscribers to newspapers.

If you think I’m overreacting, please tell me. I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, because my Christian friends, a lot of whom have stopped subscribing to the News because they (we) think the paper is either hostile to people like us, or doesn’t care, talk about it. I’m also curious to know if the readers of your blog who live elsewhere in the country notice something similar about their own local newspaper’s religion coverage. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t want a newspaper that only pays attention to people like me! I’m just lots of times left scratching my head about the news judgment of editors. Is this just a Dallas thing, or do you see this trend nationwide? Or am I completely out to lunch.

Yours sincerely,
A North Texas Reader

More comments?

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Huckabee works the God network

Huckabee's network How does the press account for Mike Huckabee’s meteoric rise in the Republican polls?

We at Get Religion have mentioned his appeal to evangelicals (here and here) and ordinary voters, among other things. Peter Slevin and Perry Bacon Jr. of The Washington Post wrote an interesting story about Huckabee’s appeal to homeschool advocates. But no reporters I am aware of have focused on Huckabee’s appeal to largely unknown evangelical pastors, as Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News did in an excellent story:

Mike Huckabee’s political rise has been fueled by a vast network of local Christian leaders largely unknown to the general public but powerfully influential in evangelical circles.

That strategy — methodically rolling up the support of these grass-roots networks — has paid big dividends, helping catapult Mr. Huckabee ahead in Iowa and boosting his prospects in the Republican field.

“All these leaders that most of the national media don’t recognize, they’re all coming to Huckabee,” said supporter Kelly Shackelford of Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute.

On Sunday, the former Arkansas governor was in the pulpit of a San Antonio megachurch, where he made no apologies for the religious tone of recent holiday campaign commercials and delivered a sermon on the birth and resurrection of Jesus.

Although Mr. Huckabee lost some big-name endorsements, including 700 Club founder Pat Robertson, his campaign has successfully tapped the organizing apparatus of numerous religious figures whose local endorsements carry considerable weight.

Slater named many of the evangelical figures from whom Huckabee has drawn support. There was evangelical speaker Janet Folger; Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association and chancellor of Patrick Henry College; Don Wildmon of the American Family Association. Study that list. Recognize any names? Sure, GR readers might, but it’s doubtful the typical reporter does. (I recognized only the names of Farris and Wildmon — and I wrote for Christianity Today.)

My only quibble with Slater’s story was a slight lack of context. The rise of little-known evangelical pastors is an old story, not a new one; he should have read or re-read Bowling Alone. For as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam pointed out, “Religious conservatives have created the largest, best-organized grassroots social movement of the past quarter century. It is, in short, among evangelical Christians, rather than the ideological heirs of the sixties, that we find the strongest evidence of an upswelling of civic engagement against [an] ebb tide …”

That criticism aside, Slater’s insight should have a major implication for the press. Stop obsessing about which candidates big-name Christian leaders endorse. Start learning about whether the candidates are tapping into church networks.

By way of counterexample, remember when Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani. The New York Times splashed a picture of the two men’s smiling visages on its front page. With Giuliani’s now campaign flagging, you can see how much Robertson’s support helped him.

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Back to church life at New Life

new life church in the rockiesCovering the first Sunday service after a man opened fire in a church would be no easy task. Rocky Mountain News religion writer Jean Torkelson captured a widely expressed sentiment by asking, “What would you expect from your congregation the following week?”

I’ll turn the question around: What should we expect from the reporters covering the event?

I do not think I would be that comfortable covering this kind of church service. That is not to say I would not take the assignment. I would just find it difficult for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, reporters must do things that are difficult, including covering Sunday morning’s worship services at New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

The Colorado Springs Gazette‘s coverage focused on the words of the church’s senior pastor:

Hands were raised once again in praise, but it was not any given Sunday at New Life Church. Nor should anyone have pretended it was, Senior Pastor Brady Boyd said a week after a gunman killed two young worshippers.

Boyd said he was proud of the 7,000 to 7,500 attendees of Sunday’s two morning services who rallied against fears about returning to the site of last week’s rampage, where 18-year-old Stephanie Works and her 16-year-old sister, Rachel, were killed.

“Last weekend was a test,” Boyd said. “We’re going through a test, we’re operating in a test. But we’re passing the test.”

Boyd told parishioners to be honest with their feelings.

“It is OK if you’re not doing well,” Boyd said. “I don’t want any of us to walk around with a mask or facade of strength when inside our hearts are not doing well.”

The Gazette article focused a lot on the story of Larry Bourbonnais, who left the church on Sunday morning at the request of New Life’s leaders. I am still a bit confused about the details, but apparently he has been telling various reporters that he tried to prevent the shootings. A lot of it is the not that unexpected he said, she said that can’t really be substantiated unless the legal authorities do a thorough report on what went wrong and how the incident could have been prevented.

In contrast, The Denver Post‘s article on Sunday morning’s service mentions the Bourbonnais issue and moves on. The story does have something of an odd lede that I had to read a couple of times to fully understand:

You would sooner find an atheist than an empty seat in New Life Church on Sunday morning, just a week after the sound of gunfire sent worshipers scurrying for safety.

For both morning services, the megachurch’s 7,500-seat worship center boomed with music, punctuated by dancing fountains, fog machines and lighting fit for rock opera. Palms were raised, and shouts for peace and salvation filled the sanctuary.

“If you asked somebody who was a nonbeliever or who did not read the Bible, they would have said, ‘Well, that place will be empty next weekend,’” senior pastor Brady Boyd told the congregation.

The lede makes more sense once you read the senior pastor’s quote, but I am still a bit perplexed why the reporter does not think that atheists avoid church services. Perhaps it is New Life’s services that atheists are known for avoiding, or is it some general stereotype that you would never find an atheist in a church? Either way, I do not think it is the strongest lede I have read lately.

However, overall the stories covering the service have been as solid as one could expect in this difficult situation. New Life members are probably tiring of the media coverage over the last year, and that can only make a reporter’s job more difficult.

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Enemies of Tiny Tim?

TinyTimBaptist Press ran an intriguing story this week. It was one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying stories from the sort-of-secular public square.

Hang on. Sit down, in fact. You’re not going to believe this one.

Nine U.S. Representatives voted against a resolution expressing support for Christianity in general and Christmas specifically.

Ho hum, you say? Here’s the punch line to the story. When similar resolutions were put up for a vote on behalf of Ramadan and Diwali, no House members voted against them.

The resolution’s sponsor expressed astonishment over the “no” votes. Rep. Steve King, R.-Iowa, said he could not understand how members of Congress could vote against the measure after the House approved without opposition similar resolutions honoring observances of Islam and Hinduism.

… “I would like to know how they could vote ‘yes’ on Islam, ‘yes’ on the Indian religions and ‘no’ on Christianity when the foundation of this nation and our American culture is Christianity. … I think there’s an assault on Christianity,” King told Fox News, according to a release from his office.

Of the nine representatives, all Democrats, who voted against the Christmas resolution, seven supported both the Ramadan and Diwali measures. Those seven were Reps. Gary Ackerman and Yvette Clarke, both of New York; Diana DeGette of Colorado; Jim McDermott of Washington; Bobby Scott of Virginia; and Pete Stark and Lynn Woolsey, both of California. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida did not vote on the Diwali resolution, and Rep. Barbara Lee failed to record a vote on the Ramadan measure.

Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher suggested that the House vote was a waste of time. But as you might guess, I disagree.

After all, why did the nine U.S. representatives oppose the Christian resolution but not the other ones? Do they oppose Christianity in general or find some of its principles abhorrent? Perhaps they simply cannot cast a vote that would cause a conservative Christian or two to cheer?

Baptist Press reporter Tom Strode might want to go back and ask these kinds of questions to a few of the House members who voted against the Christian resolution.

The notion that some House members actually oppose Christianity is not far-fetched.

Earlier this year, Rep. Pete Stark of California announced that he doesn’t believe in God; he called himself a “non-theist.” Why does Stark oppose a resolution expressing support for Christianity but not other major religions? Having covered Stark for a couple of years for the old San Francisco Examiner, I know from firsthand experience that he is not exactly a tight-lipped pol.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that the Christian press runs a lot of stories like this one. The reporter has a great story to tell, one that the mainstream media overlook, but he or she fails to report it thoroughly. Perhaps they struggle with a lack of time and resources.

It need not be this way. Just read Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

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Give me that old-timer religion news

elderly in churchLeading off a package of religion stories in the Lansing State Journal this morning is a solid feature on the effect the growing elderly population is having on religious communities.

The story is broad and expansive, and rather than just looking at Christian churches, the reporter looked at a Hindu and Jain temple, an Islamic society and a synagogue. Here is what one of our readers had to say about the inclusion of those traditions in this religion piece:

Of particular interest is the sourcing of both local Jewish and Islamic interests written into the story without exoticism or excess fanfare. In fact, the way that the story is written, the issue of aging does exactly what it should do — unite disparate members and institutions of the local community, rather that automatically divide people between religious traditions.

The story leads off with a professor criticizing seminaries for failing to prepare their students for congregations that likely include substantial populations of elderly and retired people. Rather than simply focusing on the programming activities that some groups are working to improve, the article looks at the spiritual challenges individuals are facing and how churches are trying to address them:

“Thirty years ago, people who retired would have quickly seen themselves as aged or elderly,” said John Burow, a Delta Township Lutheran minister who teaches workshops on preparing spiritually for retirement. …

And the roles that our culture offers to seniors “are not sufficient for the 15 or 20 years of mental and physical vigor” that people now will often have left after retirement, he said.

“It’s unworthy of a spiritual being to totally wrap their retirement around their Winnebago or their golf game,” he added.

Kathy Hubbert, 67, spent a recent Saturday morning in the basement of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Lansing, pondering retirement at one of Burow’s workshops.

Hubbert, who lives in Lansing, worked as a nurse for more than 35 years. She didn’t think much about retirement until she found it upon her a year and a half ago.

“It’s hard to make that transition from a hard-working person to all of a sudden getting up late and thinking ‘What’s the purpose of today?’” she said.

The other stories, which are all shorter and more focused, deal with a variety of important issues. According to numbers from the AARP, Baby Boomers are supposed to remain seekers with tenuous ties to congregations as they age. While it is always questionable to rely on one group’s statistics, it is an important issue, and the article finds good examples to go along with the numbers.

Another short story deals with how the elderly are “vulnerable” to donation appeals. While I do not doubt that the elderly are vulnerable to donation pitches and that there are preachers who would love to take their money, it is also true that some elderly are able to give away more money.

The last two stories are particularly solid. The first discusses the effect of religion on the elderly with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, and the other discusses aging clergy.

Overall, the package is a great example of how to tackle a major issue in today’s society and pair it with the equally compelling subject of religion. If only more local weekly religion sections of American newspapers could be half this strong in terms of quality content.

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How do evangelicals view Mormons?

450px Salt Lake City Temple MoroniTo what extent do evangelicals oppose Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith?

In the wake of Romney’s big speech last week, this is a natural question to ask. But based on stories by the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, I think that reporters could do a better job of answering it with nuance and perspective.

To their credit, both papers explored the depth of evangelical opposition to Mormonism. Each provided an illuminating statistic: while one in four Americans voiced qualms about voting for a Mormon for president, one in three evangelicals did the same. Dahleen Glanton and Margaret Ramirez of the Tribune had a noteworthy interview with Frank Page, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, about the theological differences between traditional Christians and Mormons over whether Christ is the only Son of Man who was the Son of God.

So far, so good: Yet as Mollie pointed out, reporters mischaracterize the nature of evangelical opposition to the Mormon faith. Laurie Goodstein of the Times described it as “anti-Mormon sentiment.” Consider, too, the following passage by Glanton and Ramirez:

Mormonism, founded in 1830, is still considered a new religion and consequently suffers from prejudice and misperception, according to scholars and church leaders.

Much of the ill-feeling stems from a controversial church history that includes polygamy, a refusal to allow blacks into the priesthood until 1978 and misunderstood rituals such as secret temple ceremonies and wearing of sacred undergarments.

Actually, Glanton and Ramirez quoted an evangelical whose opposition to Mormonism was rooted in prejudice and misperception. But the two reporters quoted other evangelicals who simply opposed Mormon theology out of principal, not prejudice and misperception; the evangelicals opposed the Mormon doctrines concerning Jesus Christ and other theological tenets.

Are we reporters really going to ascribe all religious differences to bias? Talk about seeing reality in terms of black and white rather than shades of gray.

Also, both stories leave unclear the depth of evangelical opposition to Mormonism. Glanton and Ramirez allude to an important point: no matter their theological differences with Mormons, evangelicals oppose the Democratic candidates’ support for abortion and homosexual rights even more. As the reporters note:

Rev. Erwin Lutzer, pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago, applauded Romney for focusing on the relationship between religion and politics instead of the specific doctrines of his faith.

Lutzer said if Romney wins the GOP nomination, evangelicals who cannot connect with any of the Democratic candidates might have no choice but to vote for him — even those who now say there is no way they would choose a Mormon.

“From our standpoint, Mormonism has always been a cult,” he said. “At the same time if we’re confronted by someone further away from our values, we might be forced to.”

I think both papers should have given this point greater emphasis. Are evangelicals so opposed to a Mormon candidate that many would vote for a culturally liberal Democratic presidential nominee, or would many simply stay home? In other words, do evangelicals consider Mormonism an equal or greater threat than secularism and religious liberalism?

These questions deserve answers. After all, take John F. Kennedy’s troubles in the South in 1960. While Kennedy won the Old Confederacy, his Catholicism helps explain his narrow defeat in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida.

I admire both reporters for going out of their way to talk with evangelicals about their views of Mormons. I just wish their portraits were more three-dimensional.

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Oh, that’s what Christmas is about?

reason for the seasonSomeone should inform American journalists that there is something of a shift going on across the pond regarding the Christmas wars. Thanks to Jerry for sending us the following story from Reuters that should be put on the desks of The Washington Post‘s features department editors for reasons that shall be discussed later in this post.

But first, let’s see what the chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has to say about how we should celebrate Christmas this year:

LONDON (Reuters) — Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims joined Britain’s equality watchdog Monday in urging Britons to enjoy Christmas without worrying about offending non-Christians.

“It’s time to stop being daft about Christmas. It’s fine to celebrate and it’s fine for Christ to be star of the show,” said Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“Let’s stop being silly about a Christian Christmas,” he said, referring to a tendency to play down the traditional celebrations of the birth of Christ for fear of offending minorities in multicultural Britain.

Suicide bombings by British Islamists in July 2005 which killed 52 people in London have prompted much soul-searching about religion and integration in Britain, a debate that has been echoed across Europe.

The Reuters article seems to blame the rise of Islamic terrorism for this new hands-off approach on the religious elements of Christmas. Clearly, our friends across the Atlantic are doing some deep thinking about what it means to live in a religiously pluralistic society, but it makes me wonder why the same discussions have not happened in America. Perhaps it is an idea for some journalist to explore.

Speaking of other journalists, the Post‘s Robin Givhan wants us all to know that we should listen to our therapists and chill out about Christmas. Givhan uses a series of classic movies to show that we should all strive to remember what Christmas is really about. And it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with religion.

So the chat shows get bogged down with experts offering tips on how to prioritize the To Do list or how to avoid debt. Therapists remind people that the real pleasures of the Christmas season are not found in a gift box. But we already know this stuff. We choose to ignore it. And then we complain about it.

At Christmas time, people need reassurance, not shopping guides and analysis. They go back to their past, which in hindsight always seems less complicated. Viewers revisit the Grinch, he of the teeny-tiny heart that grew three sizes upon learning the true meaning of Christmas, because his story grabs hold of an adult problem and wrestles it down into the simplest, most childlike terms.

And it may be that we need an annual screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to put our own lives in order. George Bailey learns to appreciate the life he has, instead of pining for the worldly one he once imagined.

The video clips attached to the story are a series of films that conveniently avoid famous religious scenes as well, which is too bad because the story could have at least mentioned the reason many people in Britain and in America believe we should celebrate the holiday.

Imagine an American newspaper carrying a quote like this from the Reuters story in the newspapers tomorrow morning. I think Bill O’Reilly head would explode:

Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Shayk Ibrahim Mogra said “To suggest celebrating Christmas and having decorations offends Muslims is absurd. Why can’t we have more nativity scenes in Britain?”

Talk about blowing the lid off the media’s typical Christmas wars story.

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About the Post’s bizarre Obama story

obama prayingI have mixed feelings about ombudsmen, but the latest effort by The Washington Post‘s Deborah Howell makes me think again about their usefulness. Howell dealt with the story the Post did a couple of weeks ago about the baseless rumors surrounding the Barack Obama presidential campaign that he is a closet Muslim. Even Post opinion cartoonist Tom Toles had a useful opinion on the piece.

Howell rightly points out the obvious problems with the story, but then goes on to quote the newspaper’s editors defending the piece and making what amount to affirmative denials that anything is wrong:

My problems with the story by National Desk political reporter Perry Bacon Jr. and the headline (“Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him”) were that Obama’s connections to Islam are slender at best; that the rumors were old; and that convincing evidence of their falsity wasn’t included in the story.

But there was no deliberate “smear job,” as some readers charged. The story said clearly in the second paragraph that Obama is a member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago.

It is great to know that the Post is not out there to deliberately smear political candidates, but that is not the serious question that must be addressed. The big question is how such a story slides through the editing process at a major American newspaper. Are there not bigger issues about Obama than groundless rumors? Surely it deserves a mention, but it is not news that Obama is dealing with crazy claims that he is some kind of Manchurian Candidate:

Bacon referred a request for comment to Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics. Hamilton edited the story, which several top editors saw before it was published.

… Hamilton said, “Reasonable people can disagree on this. But the people I have heard from are not reasonable. What I find especially disheartening is the idea that our motives are simply assumed to have been malicious.”

This is the new world mainstream journalists live in, one that will continue to be explored in this column.

The fact that “mainstream journalists” live in a “new world” is about 10 years old and should come as no surprise to anyone. Instead of focusing on people who try to accuse the Post of malicious behavior, the Post should be more concerned about those of us who think the newspaper was merely negligent in running this story.

In some ways, the negligence charge is worse than the charge of malice. If a reporter or editor was out to hurt Obama, the newspaper could simply fire or discipline the responsible person. That this seems to come down to insensitivity and/or carelessness is even more disheartening.

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