NYTimes inside private GOP session on abortion strategy?

ShutDoorMeeting

Apparently, this past spring, the Republican National Committee held a closed-door meeting in which a circle of conservative women discussed a topic that they have been discussing for decades — how to talk about abortion when dealing with mainstream journalists, especially television reporters.

Apparently, someone taking part in this meeting decided to invite a reporter from The New York Times to step inside the closed doors. Bravo for whoever made the brave decision to do that.

Apparently, however, it took quite a while for editors at the Times to decide that this was a story worth printing, since it just ran in late July, under the headline, “Conservatives Hone Script to Light a Fire Over Abortion.”

On one level, this is pretty straightforward stuff. However, I have one rather basic journalistic question: If this was a closed-door session, was the Times reporter actually invited to attend or did someone slip into the meeting? Consider how this issue is framed at the top of the report.

It was not on the public schedule for the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting at the stately Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. But inside a conference room, a group of conservative women held a boot camp to strengthen an unlikely set of skills: how to talk about abortion.

They have conducted a half-dozen of these sessions around the country this year, from Richmond, Va., to Madison, Wis. Coaches point video cameras at the participants and ask them to talk about why they believe abortion is wrong.

Please hear me: The content is valid either way. However, shouldn’t this question about access to the meeting have been mentioned? If a reporter snuck in, that’s interesting, especially in terms of decades of tensions about abortion coverage and mainstream news-media bias. If a reporter was invited into the meeting, then that is even more interesting — for the same reasons.

Meanwhile, I thought it was rather strange that the Times team thought that this session focused on an “unlikely set of skills.”

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Yo editors: Can the state pay Catholics to help immigrants?

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As usual, there was a stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers waiting for me at the end of last week when I returned from a consulting trip to a campus in Iowa. One of the papers contained a very timely and newsworthy story.

My goal here is to argue that — just possibly — this story was even more newsworthy than the Sun editors thought that it was. More on that in a minute.

The immigrant children crisis is one of the hottest stories in America right now and justifiably so. As it turned out, there was a totally logical local angle here in Baltimore, one that ended up on A1:

Here is the top of the story:

Catholic Charities wants to care for about 50 children from Central America at a campus in Baltimore County, seeking a role in the immigration crisis even though the consideration of other sites in Maryland has met with fierce local opposition.

The organization plans to apply to federal officials to house the children at St. Vincent’s Villa, a residential facility on Dulaney Valley Road, Catholic Charities head William J. McCarthy Jr. confirmed. … McCarthy said housing the children would amount to his organization doing its job.

“Our role and our mission is to meet the needs of these children,” he said. “This is obviously the result of things beyond my control — policies and political posturing that has left these children as victims.”

And more:

The Catholic Charities proposal would be on a much smaller scale than government proposals that would have placed hundreds of minors in an unused Social Security office in Baltimore or at the army center in Carroll County. … Catholic Charities developed the plan in response to a request from a federal agency that was looking for ways to house immigrant children before the crisis rose to the top of the national political agenda this summer. …

And the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church has already received grant money to house immigrant children at a home in Woodlawn. The organization is caring for about two dozen children there.

It seems to me that the implication is that Catholic Charities is doing this service as a partner with the federal agency. Are tax dollars involved, similar to the grant to the United Methodists? I am not sure.

Why do I raise that financial question?

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On Hobby Lobby, explain that ‘deeply held religious belief’

You got so close, Philadelphia Inquirer.

You got so close to a fair, enlightening news story on a Democratic senator who says he opposes abortion but rejects the religious concerns raised by Hobby Lobby in its recent U.S. Supreme Court win.

But here’s where you fell way short: in providing crucial details concerning the actual religious objections involved. Your story seems to get politics. Religion? Not so much.

The Inquirer report, of course, was published before a Democratic bill to reverse the high court’s Hobby Lobby ruling failed in the Senate Wednesday.

Let’s start at the top:

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Casey, an antiabortion Democrat, plans to vote Wednesday for a bill that would overturn the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision and force most businesses to offer employees the full range of contraceptive coverage, even if the owners raise religious objections.

The Pennsylvanian is siding with fellow Democrats – who argue that they are protecting women’s right to decide their own health care – and against many religious groups and Republicans, who say the court ruling protected religious liberties.

Casey, who is Catholic, said Tuesday in an Inquirer interview that he draws a distinction between abortion – which he still opposes – and contraception, which he has long supported and which he believes can reduce the number of abortions.

“The health-care service that’s at issue here is contraception, which means prior to conception,” Casey said.

But abortion has been a central part of the Hobby Lobby firestorm, which has also touched on health care, religious freedom, individual rights, and election-year politics.

OK, fair enough. Casey believes that the contraception involved here “means prior to conception.” But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Don’t expect an answer anytime soon in this story.

More from Casey:

Casey on Tuesday became the first antiabortion Democrat to cosponsor the bill, aimed at reversing the Supreme Court decision allowing business owners to exclude certain contraception options from their employee health packages. Some business owners said certain types of contraception could amount to abortion, an idea disputed by many doctors and scientists.

“I’m a pro-life Democrat, always have been, always will be,” Casey said. He later added: “I’ll go with the scientists on what contraception is, rather than a religious viewpoint of what science is.”

But what do Hobby Lobby’s owners believe? Oops. I already asked that. Still no answer.

Deep in the story, the Inquirer finally gets around to that question — but answers it only vaguely:

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Concerning the latest (alleged) interview with Pope Francis

So how would you like to be a press officer for the Vatican these days? Honestly, they should be getting combat pay.

Here is the question that I have been asking, during the latest round of the game called, “What did the pope say and who says that he said it?”

In terms of basic journalism craft and ethics, what is an “interview”? Here is the top of a Reuters report that shows why I am asking this:

ROME, July 13 (Reuters) – About 2 percent of Roman Catholic clerics are sexual abusers, an Italian newspaper on Sunday quoted Pope Francis as saying, adding that the pontiff considered the crime “a leprosy in our house”.

But the Vatican issued a statement saying some parts of a long article in the left-leaning La Repubblica were not accurate, including one that quoted the pope as saying that there were cardinals among the abusers.

The article was a reconstruction of an hour-long conversation between the pope and the newspaper’s founder, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who has written about several past encounters with the pope.

And what precisely is a “reconstruction of an hour-long conversation”? Here is some additional information:

The Vatican issued a statement noting Scalfari’s tradition of having long conversations with public figures without taking notes or taping them, and then reconstructing them from memory. Scalfari, 90, is one of Italy’s best known journalists.

While acknowledging that the conversation had taken place, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying that not all the phrases could be attributed “with certainty” to the pope. Lombardi said that, in particular, a quote attributed to the pope saying cardinals were among the sex abusers was not accurate and accused the paper of trying to “manipulate naive readers.”

So this was a private conversation and the journalist did not — perhaps as an homage to Truman Capote — take notes or use an audio recorder. Instead, he left the hour-long conversation and then, with his razor-sharp (we can only hope) 90-year-old memory, he “reconstructed” the verbatim quotations from this event.

Reuters went out of its way to say, over and over, that Pope Francis “was quoted as saying” these words, thus distancing itself from the precise content. Is that enough?

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Should Louisiana priest say what he heard in confession?

Dead men file no lawsuits. They also don’t defend themselves to TV reporters. And live priests don’t divulge what they hear in the confessional.

That frees news media like WBRZ-TV to pile on the bias without being sued or contradicted.

Rebecca Mayeux, 20, told the Baton Rouge station that she was molested when she was 14 by George Charlet Jr., a fellow parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. She says she went three times about it to the pastor, Father Jeff Bayhi, only to be rebuffed. “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” she says he told her.

When she finally told her parents, they hired a lawyer, but the case has been complicated by the sudden death of the alleged molester of a heart attack. That puts pressure on Bayhi to talk about what he heard during confession.

WBRZ’s so-called Investigative Unit totally takes Mayeux’s side. It paints her as “an intelligent college student in the prime of her life” and that “reading is one of her favorite hobbies” — as if she’d be less credible if she were old, dumb and illiterate.

Chris Nakamoto, the main inquisitor, er, reporter, switches between saying what happened “according to Mayeux” and assuming that it all happened as she says. He shows a picture of Mayeux and Charlet “during the time frame Charlet was sexually abusing her, and brainwashing her through what she says were emails and scripture.” Interestingly, the text version of the story softens that accusation to “when she claims Charlet was abusing her” (emphasis mine).

WBRZ tries a “gotcha” moment with a TV videoclip of a YouTube homily by Bayhi, in which he urges parents to take action when they learn their children are being hurt. The clip “appears to contradict what he told Rebecca Mayeux,” Nakamoto says, ignoring the other possibility: that it simply contradicts what Mayeux claims the priest would say in such a situation.

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In Catholic schools: Demographics is destiny, so is doctrine

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about religious faith and mathematics that turned into a “Crossroads” podcast. The post talked about a number of hot stories and trends on the religion-news beat — think thinning ranks in the Catholic priesthood, for example — and then boiled things down to this statement: “Demographics is destiny and so is doctrine.”

One of the other stories mentioned was this:

… Sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls. …

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

This leads me to a timely story that ran recently in The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and was also picked up by Religion News Service. The oh-so familiar headline proclaimed: “Catholic schools fight to keep doors open as future dims.” The lede was intentionally nostalgic and to the point:

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Suzanne Alworth remembers the glory days of Catholic schools: classrooms taught by nuns packed with close to 40 children in blue-and-white plaid uniforms.

But 35 years later, Alworth’s high school, Immaculate in Montclair, where she graduated in 1979, is fighting to stay open. The school is $900,000 in debt, enrollment is less than half of the building’s capacity and the Archdiocese of Newark will close its doors if it can’t come up with a plan to boost enrollment and improve its finances, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

“It was a complete surprise when they decided to close the school,” Alworth said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep this school open because I believe in its mission.”

Like I said, it’s a familiar, but very important story.

I think it would be instructive to apply the old journalism mantra “who, what, when, where, why and how” to this piece. I am especially interested in the “why,” in this case. Why were there lots of Catholic students in the past and not today?

That opening section led to a solid statement of the bleak local numbers, which then tied into the national picture. The key, of course, is falling enrollments.

Enrollment in Catholic schools across the country has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, according to data from the National Catholic Education Association based in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, there were more than 5.2 million children enrolled in almost 13,000 Catholic schools. Today, there are fewer than 2 million children in fewer than 6,600 schools.

In the last decade, almost 1,900 Catholic schools across the country closed and almost 580,000 students moved out of the Catholic school system, said McDonald. For many students and families, the closures and threat of closures have caused not only anxiety, but also heartbreak.

This story includes many fine personal details and local specifics. However, it left me asking big “why” questions: Why is this happening? What is the reality behind these painful trends? Why are the desks empty?

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Wrestling with that old Anglican timeline, in South Carolina

Anyone who follows news on the religion beat knows the drill when it comes to reporters framing the global, national, regional and local conflicts between Anglicans: The battles are about homosexuality, period, and all heck broke loose in 2003 when the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay and non-celibate bishop.

The problem with that news template is that it’s simplistic. Debates over sexuality have driven the headlines, but the doctrinal debates are much broader than that. Also, crucial cracks began forming in the Anglican Communion long before 2003.

Thus, it is good to celebrate even the most humble of journalistic victories in the fight against what your GetReligionistas have long called “Anglican timeline disease.” Note this lede in an Associated Press report about developments down South:

ST. GEORGE, S.C. – About 50 conservative Episcopal churches in South Carolina are in court this week, trying to keep their name, seal and $500 million in land and buildings after they broke away from the national denomination in a wide-ranging theological dispute.

The breakaway group, the Diocese of South Carolina, said it had to leave the national church not just because of the ordination of gays, but a series of decisions it says show national Episcopalians have lost their way in the teachings of Jesus and salvation.

Bravo. Later in the story, however, there is a close encounter with the “everything began in 2003″ myth.

The Episcopal Church, along with other Protestant denominations, had been losing members for decades before gay rights came dramatically to the forefront when Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop in 2003.

So “dramatically to the forefront” isn’t a bad way to word this, I guess, but what about the earlier theological adventures of New York Bishop Paul Moore Jr. and Newark Bishop Jack Spong? What about the 1998 global Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops and its crucial affirmation of ancient Christian doctrines on marriage and sex?

As a public service — especially for scribes covering the battle in South Carolina — here are one or two other landmarks to consider adding to the timeline, just in case editors grant room for one or two more strategic facts.

Let’s start with this 1979 resolution at the Episcopal General Convention in Denver:

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How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

THE RELIGION GUY EXPLAINS:

So far, no-one has yet posted a question on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing certain religious exemptions from the Obama Administration’s birth control mandate. So The Guy is posting his own analysis of an important case that highlights the nation’s religious, moral, legal, and political divisions.

The case involved the Hobby Lobby craft stores and two smaller businesses wholly owned by evangelical Protestant families. They believe that because human life begins at conception it’s sinful to pay for intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning-after” pills that may constitute early abortion by (a disputed point) preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Other Christians disagree. Justice Alito’s opinion for a spare 5-4 majority said such “closely held” commercial companies enjoy religious freedom protection just like churches and individuals.

Two religious denominations that favor total birth control coverage charge that the Court violated liberty rather than respecting it. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association said the ruling “dangerously diminishes the religious, moral, and legal rights of every American, but especially women,” and decried “the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.” Reform Judaism’s top four officials jointly declared that the Court majority “denies the religious liberty” of these women employees and “the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Protestant businesses were supported by the Catholic and Mormon churches, numerous evangelical groups, Orthodox Jews, a prominent Muslim educator, 107 members of Congress (mostly Republicans), and 20 of the 50 states. The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops said the Court upheld “the rights of Americans to live out their faith in daily life.” The public policy spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, hailed “an absolute victory for religious liberty” and for “common sense and conscience.”

The Baptist also accused the Obama Administration of “cavalier disregard of religious liberty” and lamented that not long ago no-one could have imagined such an attack on religious rights. That might sound overwrought, but traditionalists express alarm that getting all contraception without cost would overrule Constitutional protection of conscience. An April Kaiser Health poll showed 55 percent of Americans think companies should cover birth control “even if it violates their owners’ personal religious beliefs.” More broadly, last year’s Newseum poll found 34 percent believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in upholding citizens’ freedoms, up from 13 percent in 2012.

A few technicalities: Many articles said this ruling denies “access” to birth control, but the Court guaranteed that 49 years ago. Rather, the issue is whether women employees must pay $500 to $1,000 for IUD placements or the modest cost of the pills. Hobby Lobby opposes only those two methods and, like most Protestants, has no problems with the 16 other birth control options in the federal mandate. (The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress doesn’t actually mandate birth control coverage, which the Obama Administration added later.) Though some ridicule the idea that companies have rights the way individuals do, the Court cited well-established precedents for treating corporations as ”persons” for legal purposes.

The ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic House and Senate and signed by President Clinton in 1993, when the two political parties were more united on religious matters.

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