Data sets are our friends

mathematicsDahlia Lithwick, an intrepid senior editor for Slate, has a piece up (a version of which also ran in the Washington Post yesterday) that makes the case for gay marriage and laws protecting gay parents. Reporters frequently cover gay marriage issues, but gay parenting rights are also in need of thoughtful analysis (the links below are to PDF files):

A heads-up to those of you still fretting about the alleged evils of gay marriage: The parade has moved on. Try as you may to vote or legislate your way out of a country that solemnizes such relationships, committed gay couples are already giving birth to, adopting, and fostering children. Whether or not same-sex marriage becomes widely legal in America, same-sex parenting is a done deal. . . .

According to the 2000 census, 34 percent of female same-sex households and 22 percent of male ones include children. Good data are extremely hard to obtain here, but the Lambda Legal Defense Fund estimates that 6 million to 10 million gay parents are caring for 6 million to 14 million children in this country.

And that does seem very decisive. One of my close gay friends is in a relationship in which he helps care for his partner’s children every other weekend. Another friend and former colleague moved with his partner to Ohio to be near his offspring. In both cases the men with children were previously married and seem to be very loving fathers. In neither case do the men serve as primary caregivers. But the data made me pause because the vast, vast majority of gay men and women I know who have absolutely no children in their lives. It could be that I know an extremely non-representative sample of gays, but let’s look deeper at the data.

There are only 78.1 million children under the age of 18, according to 2000 census data. Even though reliable data suggest the percentage is much smaller, let’s be generous and say that 5 percent of the United States population is gay. Does it really make sense that 5 percent of the population is caring for up to 18 percent of the children?

The census data that Lithwick links to says:

A reflection of changing life styles is mirrored in Census 2000′s enumeration of 5.5 million couples who were living together but who were not married, up from 3.2 million in 1990. These unmarried-partner households were self identified on the census form as being maintained by people who were sharing living quarters and who also had a close personal relationship with each other. The majority of these unmarried-partner households had partners of the opposite sex (4.9 million) but about 1 in 9 (594,000) had partners of the same sex. Of these same-sex unmarried-partner households, 301,000 had male partners and 293,000 had female partners.

mathbookOkay, so if 22 percent of male-male households have children, that’s 66,220 male gay couples with children they care for. And if 34 percent of female-female households have children, that’s 99,620 female couples that have children they care for. Same-sex households that aren’t gay are also included here, I should note, but let’s just leave that out of the equation.

So if gay couples are caring for up to 14 million children, as Lathwick states, that means that the 165,840 gay households with children in America care for an average of 36 to 84 kids.

Now perhaps she meant to include gay households such as the ones I mentioned earlier — which would completely change her argument since her point is “Try as you may to vote or legislate your way out of a country that solemnizes such relationships, committed gay couples are already giving birth to, adopting, and fostering children.” Also, from both a judicial and social analysis standpoint, caring for children and caring for children occasionally are two very different things.

Anyway, perhaps it is true that the average gay household with children includes 84 kids under the age of 18. Or, perhaps, Lithwick got a bit overzealous in her attempt to make a point.

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Family, military prayer policy or criminal investigation?

allen45Read this for a refresher, then read this. A bit shocking, isn’t it?

Here are the details:

Claude A. Allen, who resigned last month as President Bush’s top domestic policy adviser, was arrested this week in Montgomery County for allegedly swindling Target and Hecht’s stores out of more than $5,000 in a refund scheme, police said.

Allen, 45, of Gaithersburg, has been released on his own recognizance and is awaiting trial on two charges, felony theft scheme and theft over $500, said Lt. Eric Burnett, a police spokesman. Each charge is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

What to make of it all? One might ask why the Washington Post put Allen’s race so far up in the story (sixth paragraph). He’s certainly qualified and has the conservative credentials to serve at this level.

The Post followed up Sunday with this piece, the race factor is about as high as one could put it, and it’s ironic in several ways:

Claude A. Allen has said his mother warned him that as a black man he risked ruining his life, or at least his career, by becoming a Republican. As it turned out, nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Allen rose steadily through the Republican political ranks. From congressional campaign aide, to Senate staffer, state Cabinet secretary, federal appeals court nominee and the upper reaches of the Bush administration — all by age 45.

But Allen’s once-soaring career has taken a bizarre turn with his arrest Thursday on theft charges for allegedly ripping off two department stores in a phony refund scheme.

The arrest of Allen, who suddenly resigned last month as President Bush’s top domestic policy adviser, startled those in his big-ticket Gaithersburg neighborhood and at the White House who knew him as a soft-spoken and collegial aide who was loyal to his young family and devoted to his church.

“When I heard the story last night, I was shocked, and my first reaction was one of disappointment, deep disappointment,” Bush said yesterday.

cizik2Race is leading this story right now for the Post. You have a top aide in a Republican White House — who makes $161,000 — accused of engaging in shady dealings at some local stores for a few grand.

It’s a pretty basic Washington scandal, one that seems to drop by every five years or so. But I would contend there is a religion ghost that is not getting much attention at this point.

Only weeks earlier, Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, was using Allen’s departure from the White House as an example of how the Bush Administration is not friendly toward evangelicals because “they know evangelicals are obedient to a higher principle.”

What to make of this bizarre development?

The general guiding principle must be “innocent until proven guilty,” but one must wonder about the true reason Allen left the White House. Some said it was because Allen wasn’t satisfied with a White House policy on prayer in the military. Allen contended it was for family reasons.

More details are certainly to come out in support of Allen’s claim of innocence — right now reporters’ facts are largely provided by the prosecution — but it was well within reason to consider that Allen’s departure was due to the investigation.

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Exploiting in the name of Jesus

basketball hoopThe New York Times ran with a great piece last weekend on schools that pose as educational facilities, but are in reality, merely basketball factories.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love basketball and I am all about supporting educational institutions that have strong basketball programs. But education is what most definitely should come first, not basketball. As the Times story shows, that is sadly not the case:

An investigation by The New York Times found more than a dozen of these institutions, some of which closed soon after opening. The Times found that at least 200 players had enrolled at such places in the past 10 years and that dozens had gone on to play at N.C.A.A. Division I universities like Mississippi State, George Washington, Georgetown and Texas-El Paso.

“I would say that in my 21 years, the number of those schools has quadrupled, and I would put schools in quotation marks,” Phil Martelli, the men’s basketball coach at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said. “They’re not all academic institutions.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association acknowledges that it has not acted as such places have proliferated. For years, its Clearinghouse has approved transcripts from these institutions without questioning them.

As a relatively intense follower of basketball, especially the NBA, I do not find such stories surprising. As the story tells, ever since NBA superstar Tracy McGrady went from a small 200-student academy in North Carolina directly to the Toronto Raptors, these institutions have abounded, particularly since his coach received $1 million from Adidas after McGrady signed a shoe deal with the company.

But it is one thing to have an impression that something’s happening and another to have a 3,700-word story tell you about it. Here’s hoping that the NCAA cracks down on institutions such as these.

One may ask, “Where is the religion in this story?” Well, our friends over at The Culture Beat caught the story and identified a religion ghost missed by the NYT:

What struck me most, besides the sham, was how many of these “schools” had religious names like “Lutheran Christian Academy,” whose “classroom” is pictured above, “Redemption Christian Academy,” “Genesis One Christian Academy” and, not to put too fine a point on it, “God’s Academy.”

I have no idea why this should be the case but I had noticed how many prep basketball powers had these kinds of names. I’m not talking about real Catholic and Evangelical schools. I mean ones that I’m pretty sure opened a few days ago and are now ranked among USA Today‘s “Super Prep” top 25 and whose motto appears to be “Exploiting Young Black Men in Jesus’ Name.”

This is the kind of religion ghost we should hope that the Times doesn’t pick up on.

Again, sadly, this is not surprising. And, unfortunately, these programs may have Christians involved (one is run by a pastor) — hence the names.

Kudos to the NYT for this excellent sports story, but in my opinion, it’s a pity the Times didn’t catch the religious theme. Other sports departments seem to be able to get religion, or at least know it when they see it.

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A poll and a three-part series

muslim americansMore and more Americans don’t like Muslims, says a Washington Post-ABC News poll, and one-third of all Americans hear prejudiced comments directed against Muslims.

That’s a nice poll you have there, Washington Post-ABC. What are you going to do with it, if I may ask? How about a thorough in-depth report on the current status of Muslims in America, with a close examination of the religion’s history, politics and cultural issues? Or you could just leave that to your chief competitor, the New York Times.

More on the NYT later. Here is what the Post gave us:

The poll found that nearly half of Americans — 46 percent — have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when Muslims were often targeted for violence.

The survey comes at a time of increasing tension; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show little sign of ending, and members of Congress are seeking to block the Bush administration’s attempt to hire an Arab company to manage operations at six of the nation’s ports. Also, Americans are reading news of deadly protests by Muslims over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Conservative and liberal experts said Americans’ attitudes about Islam are fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists.

american muslimsThat darn media keeps ruining it for all moderate American Muslims. Did these experts have anything to say about the massively long three-part series in the NYT this past week on an American imam and his life in the United States? That might explain things a bit more.

I thought not.

Links to the NYT‘s three-part series are here, here and here.

The reporting by the NYT‘s Andrea Elliott is tremendous and will deserve a closer look at some point in the future. From the relatively brief skimming I’ve done, Elliott gives the issue the justice it deserves with a careful examination of the current state of Islam in the United States:

Over the last half-century, the Muslim population in the United States has risen significantly. Immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa have settled across the country, establishing mosques from Boston to Los Angeles, and turning Islam into one of the nation’s fastest growing religions. By some estimates, as many as six million Muslims now live in America.

Leading this flock calls for improvisation. Imams must unify diverse congregations with often-clashing Islamic traditions. They must grapple with the threat of terrorism, answering to law enforcement agents without losing the trust of their fellow Muslims. Sometimes they must set aside conservative beliefs that prevail in the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam.

NYTmastheadIslam is a legalistic faith: Muslims believe in a divine law that guides their daily lives, including what they should eat, drink and wear. In countries where the religion reigns, this is largely the accepted way.

But in the West, what Islamic law prohibits is everywhere. Alcohol fills chocolates. Women jog in sports bras. For many Muslims in America, life is a daily clash between Islamic mores and material temptation. At the center of this clash stands the imam.

In America, imams evoke a simplistic caricature — of robed, bearded clerics issuing fatwas in foreign lands. Hundreds of imams live in the United States, but their portrait remains flatly one-dimensional. Either they are symbols of diversity, breaking the Ramadan fast with smiling politicians, or zealots, hurrying into their storefront mosques.

A reporter doesn’t come to those conclusions overnight. They take months and months of talking to people and book research. It is not accomplished by talking to a few random people on the street and a couple of professors that say things that back up your survey results.

Speaking of which, let’s go back to the WaPo poll story. Here is a statement tucked away in the story that, among others, needs a bit of follow-up:

As a school bus driver in Chicago, Gary McCord, 65, dealt with many children of Arab descent. “Some of the best families I’ve ever had were some of my Muslim families,” he said in a follow-up interview. “They were so nice to me.” He now works for a Palestinian Christian family, whose members he says are “really marvelous.”

WAPOMastheadBut his good feelings do not extend to Islam. “I don’t mean to sound harsh or anything, but I don’t like what the Muslim people believe in, according to the Koran. Because I think they preach hate,” he said.

As a reporter, I do the best job I can to verify claims that seem anywhere close to extreme. If a Democrat says the Bush administration’s fiscal 2007 budget cuts funding for the poor, I want to see the empirical evidence.

While reporting on theology or religion is a bit harder (but more interesting) than budgetary data, including a comment such as “I think they preach hate” exacerbates Muslims’ troubles in America. Why would McCord not like what Muslims believe (what do they believe, by the way?), believe that they preach hate (do they?), yet maintain that his interactions with Muslims are quite positive?

The Post‘s story, other than the poll results, is little more than a random selection of Americans stating views that give color to their survey results. Poll numbers are great, but the background and research provided by the NYT trump the Post‘s story any day.

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Wild times down in Alabama

facebookThe powers that be are saying it early and often down in Alabama: The three students held in connection with that wave of fires at rural Baptist churches were just a bunch of wild guys who were having some fun and things got out of control.

There certainly seems to be evidence that points in that direction.

However, reporter Richard Fausset at the Los Angeles Times picked up an interesting subplot in this drama and put it high up in his story.

The arrests of the men … were a balm for some members of the nine burned churches. But there also was bitterness and bewilderment as churchgoers learned of their alleged motives — and that two suspects were students at Birmingham-Southern College.

The private liberal arts school, where tuition is $21,000 a year, is associated with the United Methodist Church.

Anyone who grew up in the Deep South can read between those lines. What we had here, it seems, were some well-off white kids from the progressive Christian campus in town or, at the very least, the campus that would be to the cultural left of the local Baptists, be they white or black.

Now, please understand that — down South — there are a lot of United Methodists who are still pretty conservative on a lot of issues. And Birmingham-Southern College has a good reputation with people who study values and education. Click here to see its entry on the Colleges That Change Lives site.

burning cross 01I don’t think Fausset is hinting that some people think this was some kind of mainline Protestant hate crime against the local fundamentalists. But there are cultural tensions at play. For example, consider this:

All three suspects were in federal custody Wednesday. Two of them — Benjamin Nathan Moseley, 19, and Russell DeBusk Jr., 19 — are Birmingham-Southern students who have been suspended and banned from campus awaiting further action from authorities, school President David Pollick said. The third, Matthew Lee Cloyd, 20, is a former Birmingham-Southern student who transferred in the fall to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The suspects were all apparently active in campus life. According to Birmingham-Southern’s website, Moseley recently starred in two plays, a farce titled “Young Zombies in Love” and a “white-knuckle psychological thriller” called “Extremities.” DeBusk worked on a production of “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

Once again, we have a lively stereotype in play here. I think it is safe to say that, on most conservative campuses, the theater programs are not known as havens for the most conservative students on campus. I have — as a professor and, eons ago, as a student — seen more than a few campus scandals involving the free-spirited folks who tend to thrive in theater and film-studies programs (and journalism programs, too). What can I say: Creative people are often not fond of rules.

So were these simple good old Southern boys out having a wild night with a six pack or two? Could be. But I am still fascinated with the simple, pesky fact that these guys kept driving past lots of other sanctuaries to nail churches — black and white — with the word “Baptist” on the signs out front.

However, the authorities are clearly going out of their way to tell people not to worry about that. Fausset reports:

The arrests … ended weeks of nervous speculation in this conservative churchgoing state. Because all of the burned churches were Baptist, some had wondered whether the fires were specific attacks against that faith. Others wondered whether they were expressions of a more general anti-religious sentiment. In some areas, church members had begun keeping night watches over their houses of worship.

On Wednesday, however, Gov. Bob Riley assured Alabamans that the attacks were an “isolated instance.”

announceAnd the basic Associated Press report adds:

Court papers said Moseley told agents that he, Cloyd and DeBusk went to Bibb County in Cloyd’s sport-utility vehicle on Feb. 2 and set fire to five churches. A witness quoted Cloyd as saying Moseley did it “as a joke and it got out of hand.”

Tommy Spina, an attorney for Cloyd, said, “This is not a hate crime. This is not a religious crime.”

Maybe these wild boys simply wanted to burn down the churches that, in their view of the world, represented the puritan forces that would want them to settle down, sober up, live straight and become accountants or preachers, as opposed to actors in edgy plays and movies. Reporter Rick Lyman of the New York Times, acting on the totally logical assumption that these college students had their own pages at Facebook, was able to report the following passage (which raises more questions than it answers):

In the area on Mr. Moseley’s page where visitors can post messages, alongside more than 12 expressing shock at the arrests and promising to pray for the accused, was one that Mr. Cloyd posted on Jan. 9. It read:

“To my dearest friend Moseley:

“The nights have grown long and the interstates of Alabama drunk driverless, the state troopers bored, the county sheriffs less weary, and the deer of Bibb County fearless. 2006 is here, it is time to reconvene the season of evil! … May our girlfriends be concerned about our safety, may our parents be clueless, may our beers be frosty, may our love lives be fruitful, may our weed be green as the freshly mowed grass!”

Well, that certainly sounds like some wild guys who like to party, hit the highway and, perhaps, burn down some churches along the way. I’d still be interested in knowing more about why they burned down some of the churches they roared past and not others. Maybe they just wanted to sock it to the prudes, fundamentalists and other Bible thumpers who shop at Wal-Mart rather than the trendier stories at the malls on the good side of town.

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South Dakota reconsiderations

dcfightEven though our reputation is only slightly above ex-cons, I’m extremely proud to be a reporter.

Most journalists, or at least the ones I’m privileged to know, strive to be fair and helpful in their coverage of contentious and confusing stories. Most succeed. In fact, the number one thing that surprised me about reporters — when, in my second career, I became one and dwelt in their midst — was that they managed to be so fair given how liberal they are personally. It’s true, reporters are more or less liberal. But having personal convictions does not make you biased. Being a sloppy, lazy and unethical reporter makes you biased.

But there is one issue where it’s harder to find good coverage than bad. There is one issue where we do such a horrible job covering it that it makes me ashamed: abortion. I have thought about it for years and have been unable to figure out why reporters tend to botch portrayals of the opposing sides or fail to dig into the non-political aspects of the issue. From style guides on down to local reports of protests, journalists forget much of what they learned when they work on this issue.

Which is why I continue to be so thankful for Stephanie Simon on the faith and values beat at the Los Angeles Times. She found a really interesting angle for her story on the South Dakota abortion ban: how opposing sides on the abortion issue are dealing with making political compromises for their cause.

Some foes of abortion — fearful that South Dakota has moved too far, too fast — now find themselves reluctantly opposing efforts to protect all fetal life from the moment of conception. They are even angling to block another abortion ban that seems likely to pass in Mississippi.

For their part, some abortion-rights activists feel they must acknowledge the sentiment behind the South Dakota ban by assuring America that they, too, regard abortion as a grave moral concern. But such language outrages others in their movement, especially abortion doctors, who feel it stigmatizes and alienates their patients.

That some pro-lifers wish this South Dakota ban had not passed is fairly well known. But that pro-choice activists are considering reshaping their message is news. Mark Stricherz, a really smart friend who is a Roman Catholic and populist writer, has been following the Democrat abortion debates regularly. Yet I haven’t really seen good mainstream news coverage of the political questions pro-choice activists and Democrats are asking.

While the Republican Party is officially pro-life, many of its members and elected representatives are not. On the Democrat side, there has been a striking decline over the last couple of decades in the percentage of elected members of Congress who oppose legalized abortion. There has also been a striking decline in political power, which I wrote about recently. That’s leading some Democrat strategists to wonder whether pro-choice orthodoxy is such a good idea. Of course, this debate is happening at the same time that Kate Michelman is considering entering the Pennsylvania Senate race to thwart the chances of Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat.

abortionIn other words, this is a great story for the political and religion beats. Here, Simon looks at the various views on the pro-choice side:

The liberal think tank Third Way is circulating a memo on Capitol Hill advising politicians who support abortion rights to recalibrate their message. Instead of stressing a woman’s right to choose, they should tell voters that they support “personal liberty,” but accept that it’s a “moral responsibility” to reduce the number of abortions. (That number has declined steadily from a peak of 1.43 million in 1990 to 1.29 million in 2002, the latest year statistics are available.)

A number of abortion-rights activists have bought into that strategy. They’ve been on the defensive for more than two decades, ever since conservative and fundamentalist Christians began pushing social issues like abortion to the forefront of political debate. . . .

Such tactical positioning infuriates Dr. Warren Hern, who runs an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo. He, too, would like to see fewer women with unwanted pregnancies; he counsels all his patients on contraception. But in his view, the availability of safe, legal abortions should be a cause for national pride — not shame. . . .

One out of every three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. . . .

Above all, [National Women's Health Organization president Susan Hill] said: “We have to stop apologizing” for the nation’s abortion rate — and start mobilizing the millions of women “who believe it was the best choice for them.”

This jockeying among Democrats and the pro-choice advocates with whom they are so closely entwined should not have caught reporters by surprise. Strategist James Carville has been openly discussing losses in membership from Roman Catholics for almost a year.

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No (religious) roots?

rootsSome roots are shallow and weak. They do the everyday job of holding their plant in the ground, but when given a slight yank of the wrist, they come right out of the ground.

Other roots are deep. They are nearly impossible to remove without a backhoe and a lot of ripping and tearing.

Such are the religious roots at the heart of the conflict in Iraq, and as the Bush administration miscalculated this fact a long time ago, the mainstream media continue to miss this story for a variety of reasons I shall discuss later.

Sunday morning’s Meet the Press interview with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed little we didn’t already know about the administration’s view of Iraq’s religious divide. What has me up in arms is host Tim Russert’s poor follow-up to a statement by Pace.

Russert asked Pace about a Knight-Ridder report last week revealing that the White House was warned two years ago that the insurgency in Iraq “had deep local roots, was likely to worsen, and could lead to civil war.” Pace responded:

I do not believe it has deep roots. I do not believe that they’re on the verge of civil war. I do believe that there are a small number, relatively small number, of individuals who are ideologically committed to the terrorist ideology and are going to do whatever they need to do to try to bring those citizens back under tyrannical rule.

Perhaps we’re not on the brink of civil war in Iraq. How do you define a civil war anyway? Does one side have to wear red and the other blue? However, to state that the Iraq conflict lacks deep religious roots is akin to stating that the ocean is not deep.

Yes, the Sunni-Shia divide is largely political and a majority of Muslims in the world don’t consider it a big deal religiously. The religious differences do matter, however, and contribute to the seething cauldrons of extremism that we have in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

A report from The Economist last week sums up the Iraq quandary which is deeply rooted in a historic religious split:

Iraq’s experience may be unique, yet it is far from being the only example of tension between Sunnis, who make up 85% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and the multiple sects of the Shia minority. In places as far apart as Pakistan and Lebanon, a centrifugal momentum appears to be exacerbating sectarian feelings. The emergence of revolutionary Iran as an ambitious Shia regional power, and potentially as a nuclear-armed state, has combined with the coming to power of Shias in Iraq to encourage greater assertiveness by Shias in the many countries where they have been historically disenfranchised.

This, in turn, has aroused the awareness of Sunnis to what many see as strangers in their midst. Shia empowerment has been matched by the evolution of radical Sunni chauvinism. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabists, for example, have always taken a dim view of Shias, but this has been amplified by the country’s oil wealth (which happens to be in the region where Shias live), and twisted by some into the violence of terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda. …

Yet the danger of conflict has always existed, ever since the murder, 29 years after Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, of the Caliph Ali, who was the Prophet’s son-in law and the father of his grandchildren, Hassan and Hussein. The word shia derives from the Arabic shi’at Ali or the partisans of Ali, and referred at first to the political faction that believed leadership of the Muslim community should remain in the hands of the Prophet’s family. When the caliphate passed instead to a rival branch of Muhammad’s tribe, other disgruntled groups, including many non-Arabs recently converted to Islam, joined the Shia cause, which drew further emotive strength following the martyrdom of Hussein at the hands of a Sunni army.

This is the big question that must be answered: how effective have the Sunni and Shia fringe groups been in exacerbating this sectarian divide for their own benefit? Measuring this aspect is difficult, partly because the Sunni-Shia divide is more political today than anything, but its roots are in Muslim theology going back decades and while it may be surprising to someone unfamiliar with religious history, theology matters a lot longer than one would think.

I guess I shouldn’t fault Russert for missing the story. NBC News’ website partner Newsweek ran a week ago with a top-of-the-cover-headline dramatically stating “HOLY WAR,” but the subsequent article fell flat on its face when it came to explaining the holiness of the conflict. The article fails to offer a single sentence explaining the religious/doctrinal differences between a Sunni and a Shiite. Maybe they assume we learned about it in a high school or college geography class way back when and we’re all experts in all things Sunni and Shia.

terroristA question tmatt raised is whether it is Jihad to attack other Muslims. Apparently this is not so, but Osama bin Laden and his fellow Wahhabist clearly don’t appreciate Shias. More from The Economist:

One obvious factor is the upsetting of old balances by the intrusion of western power, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and more widely, through the global campaign against Islamist terrorism. But this intrusion was in turn largely provoked by something else, the radicalisation of large numbers of Sunni Muslims, fired by ideas of a return to “pure” Islam and of uniting Muslims into a single nation modelled on the early caliphate.

The most famous proponent of such ideas, Osama bin Laden, has always carefully refrained from any reference to the Shias. Yet he and many fellow-travellers adhere to a school of thought, influenced by Saudi Wahhabism among other currents, which holds the rival sect to be an elemental threat to Islam as a whole.

Before their overthrow, Mr bin Laden’s protectors in Afghanistan, the Taliban, mounted merciless pogroms against that country’s Shia minority, the Hazara, on purely doctrinal grounds. It is the parties in Pakistan most closely aligned to al-Qaeda that have bombed Shia mosques and torched Shia villages, simply because they hold the Shia to be infidels. Mr bin Laden’s lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, refers to Shias as al-Rafida, a Wahhabist slur meaning rejectionists or turncoats. They are the near enemy, as opposed to the American far enemy, he says, “and far more destructive”.

The vast majority of Sunni Muslims find such notions as repulsive as anyone, yet even milder forms of Sunni chauvinism have had nasty effects. Pakistani analysts, for instance, tend to trace the origin of communal strife to the 1980s, when General Zia ul-Haq, then in power, tried to bolster his legitimacy by imposing Islamic law. The trouble was that his laws were those of the Sunni majority, and met with protest from Shias. Their resistance, in turn, provoked radical Sunnis to form vigilante groups, which in some cases recruited among peasants working on large, Shia-owned estates. The result was tit-for-tat killings, culminating in a series of bloody bomb blasts at Shia mosques.

Why have the American mainstream media largely missed this story? Does it go too deep? Are network executives afraid it’ll put Americans to sleep? Dramatic headlines declaring “HOLY WAR” probably sell more copies than a more nuanced position explaining what exactly is holy about the current conflict. Perhaps the failure of the Bush Administration to see the religiously delicate situation in Iraq took whatever steam the story ever had out of the sails?

I guess when you think about it, covering a story that goes back more than 800 years before the printing press was introduced to Western culture does present its own unique set of challenges. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try a bit harder.

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Planned Parenthood vs. a straw man

Notebook and pen 01And now it is time for another episode of “As the Notebook Turns,” an ongoing feature in which friends of this blog offers their side of conversations and/or interviews with journalists. In this case, the person on the other side of the reporter’s notebook is, in fact, a journalist herself. This episode is drawn from a post by Dawn “The Thrill of the Chaste” Eden, a fierce blogger who also works on the copy desk at the New York Daily News.

Let’s join the always opinioned Dawn as she talks with a journalist from a major British newspaper and they discuss his research trip into the American heartland — South Dakota — to do a profile of the abortion providers there who live under the gun, so to speak.

He said he wanted to get opinions from the street, which he did, and he also interviewed employees of the abortion clinic. He had notified the clinic ahead of time that he would be coming, and an executive was there to greet him.

“Which one?” I asked.

He took out her card. It was the president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.

“Who were some of the pro-life people you talked to?” I asked.

“I talked to a pastor,” he said. He added that the pastor “wasn’t very intelligent” but gave him some good quotes.

I pressed on. “Who was the highest person you spoke to in the pro-life movement?”

“I didn’t want to speak to people from organizations,” he said. “I was there to visit the clinic and speak to people on the street.”

“Yes, I know that,” I said. “But the clinic knew you were coming, and they sent an executive who oversees Planned Parenthood in three states to speak to you.”

He looked at me quizzically. I sighed.

jdkingblond2In the end, it appeared that the British journalist would end up with a classic abortion coverage scenario in which a brilliant, well-prepared female professional speaks for the pro-abortion-rights side of the debate and a straw-man evangelical male yahoo speaks for those who oppose abortion. Truth is, the vast majority of anti-abortion activists are female and it isn’t hard at all to find a female evangelical church leader, a crisis-pregnancy volunteer who has experienced abortion herself, the actual president of a local pro-life network or some other logical person to stand opposite the articulate Planned Parenthood leader.

As it turns out, there is yet another option that some would even say is worse than the straw man. Eden has updated her blog item to include the URL of the Telegraph article by reporter Harry Mount, showing us what ended up in print. Want to guess what happened?

I will show you the end of the story, in which the reporter allows the Planned Parenthood leader to offer her version of what protesters shout outside the facility.

On a story that is this loaded with hot language, it is always best — if at all possible — for journalists to attend real demonstrations and take their own notes instead of letting leaders on one side of the story jam secondhand, loaded words into the mouths of leaders on the other side of the story. Yes, comment-typing folks, that concept would be just as true if you turned the situation around and used secondhand quotes to slam the pro-abortion side.

Every week pro-life protesters surround the Planned Parenthood clinic, bristling with cameras, on the edge of Sioux Falls.

“They shout, ‘Sarah, you’re a Nazi’,” said Sarah Stoesz, the president of Planned Parenthood, which operates clinics across America. “At the parking lot, they shout, ‘How many babies did you kill to get that car?’”

The roads are dotted with posters saying “ABC: Abstinence Breeds Control” and “Abortion — One dead: Two wounded”, next to a silhouette of a grieving couple and a child’s grave on a hilltop.

The quotes may be accurate. It may also be true that there are two or three rude demonstrators, while dozens of other sing hymns and pray silently. It’s hard to know without being at the demonstration. Right?

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