Jerry Falwell, gay-rights activist?

My Scripps Howard News Service column is out and it’s about the story behind an odd little news story involving a new gay-rights activist named Jerry Falwell. Does anyone have any theories as to why this story did not get more MSM attention (other than the fact that Falwell is as far from the limelight these days as Pat Robertson should be)? Just curious.

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Two articles, one viewpoint

cosmosTwo articles in The Washington Post this weekend caught my attention (and some of our readers’ attention). Both took on a chunk of the big debate over “where we all came from” and both were displayed prominently in the main section of the paper.

A reader named Todd wondered if this article on the Post‘s science page was actually a news report or an op-ed piece. Considering the confusion many Americans have over the nature of newspapers’ editorial pages, this is not surprising. I heard Bill O’Reilly on a podcast today praise the departure of Michael Kinsley from the Los Angeles Times as a victory for those in L.A. who want balance in their local newspaper. Since when did Kinsley ever have any say on anything off the op-ed pages, Mr. O’Reilly?

I digress. Both articles are “news” articles in the traditional sense. They take a set of facts and lay them out with the pretense of allowing the reader to decide. But most readers should have little trouble discerning the viewpoint of the authors based on the placement of facts and what I will call the “credibility tone” given to the sources quoted in the piece. While both pieces are well written, the apparent lack of objectivity is a huge shortcoming in both articles.

Tmatt has previously addressed the issue of journalists giving alternative theories to evolution credibility, and I recommend that those who are interested go back and check out what he had to say and the ensuing debate in the comments section.

The main feature in the Post‘s science page was this article broadcasting loudly and clearly the newly discovered evidence that further proves evolution as a fact, plus two nicely designed graphics and a “money quote.”

The problem with the news article is that it didn’t seem all that newsy to me. Stuff like this has been trickling out for years, and the article is clearly intended, by the sources for the Postand most likely the Post’s science editors, to level a blow against the creation science movement, which has evolved into the “intelligent design” movement. The author behind this piece is quick to jump on new information without the skepticism that every reporter should carry when writing about a new development.

The second article that caught my attention was this A3 feature news story on a museum dedicated to creation science that has yet to fully open.

The article attempts to show the difference between creation science and intelligent design, but the reporter spends much time dismissing the theories presented by the scientists behind the museum. In all fairness the article, in my opinion, is an honest effort at objectivity, but this issue is simply too hot and ideologically driven for almost any reporter to truly show 100 percent objectively in 1,300 words. To the Post‘s credit, both articles were filed in the science section of its website. Alas, the shortcomings of newspaper journalism.

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I don’t mean to bug ya

BonoAndBushI should have highlighted this article a week ago, but I’ve confirmed that it’s still available online (and, thanks to a tip from Avram, we now have a non-expiring link). In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, James Traub wrote about Bono, debt, economics and political lobbying, and he kept it all interesting for more than 9,000 words. Then again, it’s hard to be dull when Bono is part of the story.

The profile shows Bono as a pragmatic lobbyist, a rock star willing to work, despite the advice and the disapproval of many around him, with the Bush administration. Traub doesn’t take long to deliver the sort of condescension toward Bushies that seems de rigueur in the Times:

When I went to meet Bono at the bar of his hotel, I saw Richard Gere seated at a table with a gorgeous woman in a little fur jacket and a leather cap. Bono, on the other hand, had removed himself to a quiet back room, where he was keeping company with a plump, middle-aged white guy in a suit and tie. (Bono was wearing a T-shirt and a fuzzy sweater whose sleeve needed mending.) This was Randall Tobias, head of the Bush administration’s AIDS program. The administration had just announced that the program was providing antiretroviral drugs to 155,000 Africans with AIDS. Another kind of activist might have said, “That leaves 25 million more to go.” But not Bono: he looked his cornfed interlocutor in the eye and said, “You should know what an incredible difference your work is going to make in their lives.” Tobias looked embarrassed. Bono said various wonderful things about President Bush. Tobias beamed.

Traub does not write at length about Bono’s faith, but he does mention in passing that Bono’s children attend the Church of Ireland. (Interpreting the world through an excessively American lens, Traub calls that church “Episcopalian.” It’s the other way around: The Church of Ireland is, like the Episcopal Church, Anglican.)

He also delivers the most tender description I’ve ever read of Bono’s first visit with Sen. Jesse Helms, one of his several surprising allies in the ONE Campaign:

In mid-2000, Bono received an audience with Senator Jesse Helms, viewed by Bono’s fellow lefties, including members of the band, as the archfiend himself. Bono quickly realized that his usual spiel about debt service and so on wasn’t making a dent. So, he recalls: “I started talking about Scripture. I talked about AIDS as the leprosy of our age.” Married women and children were dying of AIDS, he told the senator, and governments burdened by debt couldn’t do a thing about it. Helms listened, and his eyes began to well up. Finally the flinty old Southerner rose to his feet, grabbed for his cane and said, “I want to give you a blessing.” He embraced the singer, saying, “I want to do anything I can to help you.” [Former Congressman John] Kasich, who was watching from a couch, says, “I thought somebody had spiked my coffee.”

Finally there is this wonderful image of how Bono mixes stubborn negotiation skills and evangelical piety as he works with the Bush administration:

Bono told [Condoleezza] Rice that he would appear with Bush at an event promoting the president’s development-assistance program if Bush would also commit to “a historic AIDS initiative.” The day before the planned appearance, in March, Bono learned that the president would not do so. He was now playing for dizzyingly high stakes. Virtually everyone around Bono despised Bush; and now some of his most trusted advisers urged him to deny the administration his precious gift of legitimacy. And Bono, in an uncharacteristic act of confrontation, called Rice and said he was pulling out of the joint appearance.

Rice was very unhappy. She recalls telling him, “Bono, this president cares about AIDS, too, and let me tell you that he is going to figure out something dramatic to do about AIDS.” But, she added, “You’re going to have to trust us.” Bono accepted her pledge. According to Scott Hatch, a former aide to the Republican House leadership whom Bono hired to help him gain access to conservatives, “Bono really took it on the chin from the left for dealing with a Republican president.” But Bono says he felt that the administration deserved praise for the aid package; and he trusted the Bush White House, though his friends thought him ludicrously naïve. He says that he has not regretted his trust. “I have found personally that I have never been overpromised,” he says. “In fact, the opposite — they tell me they won’t do something, and finally they do it.”

As he was being taken to meet Bush, Bono recalls, he told the driver to circle the block a few times while he sat with a Bible in his lap, hunting frantically for a verse about shepherds and the poor. He was getting later and later. Finally he found a passage to his liking, and he went into the Oval Office. There he recited the passage he had chosen from the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in. . . .” Bono then presented Bush with an edition of the Psalms for which he had written the foreword.

The Bono of this profile is not as politically pure as the rock star who once hectored his audience in the film Rattle & Hum (Traub recounts Bono’s famous “Am I bugging you?” moment.) He’s a whole lot more interesting, open-hearted, creative — and effective.

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Finding Port Arthur (turn right at Houston)

house7aJust a personal note here tonight, after a day of watching Hurricane Rita coverage on various cable channels.

When I was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, we had an old saying that went something like this. If you wake up in the morning and your bed is surrounded by water, roll over and dip your finger in the water. If it’s fresh water, go back to sleep. It’s no big deal. The pumps will take care of it sooner or later.

However, if you roll over and taste salt in the water, get out of town because the seawall (pictured) is down and that means the Gulf of Mexico is coming back to claim everything.

Actually, it is never a very good idea to taste the water in that part of the world, because of all the oil and chemical processing plants. Some of this colorful atmosphere ended up in the music of local artists, people like the Winter brothers and that renegade named Janis Joplin.

Anyway, the sea wall held once again and the pumps will eventually get rid of the rainwater. But today also left me thinking about another reality linked to journalism and its, well, struggles to pin a news value on life and destruction.

I have to admit that I did rather enjoy watching Geraldo Rivera grandstand in the wasted downtown city streets of my old hometown. I kept waiting for him to wrap himself around the Janis Joplin statue during a big gust of wind.

It was also fun listening to the visiting newscasters find new and unique ways of saying things like Sabine Pass (it’s suh-bean, not SAY-bine). It was also clear that the MSM, for obvious reasons, was set up for Houston and Galveston, not for all of those strange out-of-the-way places in Southeast Texas. I loved the moment on CNN when someone said, “Jasper? I guess we’re going to have to find out where Jasper is.”

Maybe so. People live there, after all. But for most of today, the MSM reports were still dominated by visuals and information from New Orleans and from Houston-Galveston. I know why this is and it is, of course, all about numbers. This is understandable.

It made me think about that old myth about The Associated Press having a chart that shows the value of a human life, in news terms. If you are a journalist, you have heard about this.

In terms of people being killed in catastrophic events, one American dying is equal to 10 Brits or 50 people in France, which is equal to 100 people in Mexico and maybe 1,000 people in Afghanistan (unless those Afghan deaths would somehow hurt President Bush politically and make it harder to nominate a cultural conservative to that other open chair at the U.S. Supreme Court).

It’s a nasty, cynical concept, but precisely the sort of things journalists laugh about during long days in tired newsrooms. And that’s what I have been thinking about today. How many people in worn-out Texas and Louisiana refinery towns does it take to equal how many hip, NPR-feature-worthy folks in a colorful city such as New Orleans? I mean, try to imagine someone writing something crazy like this about flooded small towns along the Texas-Louisiana border:

New Orleans, our old flame, how bitterly we hate it that this has befallen you. Fate is crueler than we feared, to strip away the illusions that made us love you even better in your rich, ripe age than in the headlong passion of youth — which we secretly rekindled, if only in memory, each time we sank again into your warm embrace.

And, yes, of course, we’ll come to you again. Only perhaps not just yet, not in the merciless glare of the emergency ward, with the tubes encircling you like water snakes and the inescapable whiff of the bedpan.

Believe it or not, that is from The Dallas Morning News and it is not satire.

I understand. Honest, I do. I’m a veteran in the news business. But still, thinking about all of this created an interesting emotional undercurrent during a long day. Not all towns and not all people are created equal, in the headlines.

The seawall held. That’s the news.

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Cruising the Times for a ghost?

I have a question about the following story in The New York Times. Is there a ghost in this journalistic visit to a Queens parking lot? A snapshot:

One recent evening, a half-dozen mothers stood chatting, waiting for their children to finish soccer. A stone’s throw away, a group of gay men stood narrating the attempt of a man trolling the lot in a tan sedan to woo the cute man parked in the black S.U.V. with tinted windows backed into a spot.

You could make a case that this is a moralistic story, from either the left or the right. It could be a “What is going on here?” story from an AIDS educator. It could also be a “See what these people are really like?” story from, oh, the Family Research Council. It could also be an stunningly amoral travel-page piece. What think ye, readers?

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Do black Christians need to be angry?

image003It’s a challenge, in the print context of GetReligion, to do much reporting about the content of broadcast media. We can, of course, look forward to the day of expanded websites in which networks offer interactive print versions of the features that they broadcast in audio and video forms. We are seeing this happen more and more.

Nevertheless, religion-beat reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty at National Public Radio just served up a report that offered a totally new (at least to me) take on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To hear it, click here and fire up the RealAudio player. Here is the brief description of the report from the NPR homepage:

All Things Considered, September 19, 2005 — For African Americans watching Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV, the need to help was especially pressing. But anger has often accompanied that desire to help, and many black churches are struggling to both provide immediate aid and to help black Americans confront the bigger issues the storm raises.

That’s one way to put it, and the key word is “anger,” because the MSM’s storyline post-Katrina has been built on that emotion. But Hagerty’s reporting digs into a not-so-subtle split within the African-American church.

She starts in a logical place — the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Washington, D.C., which calls itself “The Cathedral of African Methodism.” The church responded to the TV coverage of Katrina by quickly rounding up $20,000 in donations and 45,000 pounds of goods and shipping them off to Mississippi in an 18-wheeler.

This is not a big surprise, notes Haggerty, because studies show that black believers regularly give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charities — especially church causes — than whites. The church aid flowed straight to needy people, while many other agencies were briefly stalled by forms and interview procedures.

This is where the anger comes in.

Many of the church people making these donations were, of course, moved by the images of black people suffering in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. They got mad and this motivated them. As the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton said of the storm’s fallout: “I hope that it keeps us angry, that it keeps us on alert against forces that dismantle people.”Bishop T D  Jakes and the Potters House Mass Choir   A Wing and a Prayer

But is prophetic — even political — anger the best, or the most constructive, stance for the black church to take today?

The word “today” is key, because right now that anger would be focused on President George W. Bush. Thus, the issue looming in Haggerty’s report is black church anger at other black church leaders who focus on a more positive, conciliatory approach to working with, and correcting, this White House. The big, and I mean big, example of this is Bishop T.D. Jakes at The Potter’s House in Dallas. He recently drew a big spotlight speaking at the National Cathedral service to remember those lost in Katrina. This meant he shared a spotlight, by default, with Bush.

As Haggerty notes, all of this raises a big question: “Who speaks for the black church and what kind of message will it have?”

Oh, and will those voters stay angry and solidly Democratic?

P.S. There might be a link between this story and another lurking just over the horizon (and I don’t mean Hurricane Rita). Click here and let me know what you think.

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Doing that sex, salvation & science thang

It seems obvious that two of the most controversial subjects in American government (and thus in journalism) are sex and salvation. The question is whether we now have to add a third “s” word to the list — science. Once you have asked that question, you then can ask whether the reason science is so controversial is that, when it evolves into philosophy and theology, it is shaping what journalists, politicos, academics, artists and others think about sex and salvation. So maybe we do not need the third “s” word after all.

Here are a few snapshots from the front lines in the past day or so:

family 4cTensions about religion and cultural conservatism were everywhere during a New York City bash to honor an emotional Dan Rather and HBO Documentary and Family president Sheila Nevins, according to a Hollywood Reporter article by Paul J. Gough. And what are the key topics causing the tension? That’s easy.

Nevins said that even in the documentary world, there’s a certain kind of intimidation brought to bear these days, particularly from the religious right.

“If you made a movie about (evolutionary biologist Charles) Darwin now, it would be revolutionary,” Nevins said. “If we did a documentary on Darwin, I’d get a thousand hate e-mails.”

That’s right, friends. Negative mail. Clearly the republic cannot survive this kind of free speech. (Let me be clear: If people go beyond anger and hate into threats, that’s another issue.) And what is the other big issue that she deals with?

Nevins said she didn’t shy away from such R-rated topics as “G-String Divas” and “Taxicab Confessions” but noted that sex and passion have been topics of literature since Chaucer’s day. “The most R-rated is a body bag, not a naked body,” Nevins said.

She was, I would imagine, preaching to the choir in that room. There would seem to be a gap between the leaders of Focus on the Family and HBO Family. You think? (And sorry, Google users, no art from G-String Divas with this post.)

On the essay front, darwin charlesas opposed to journalism, the powers that be at the Los Angeles Times have been extra busy making sure readers understand their point of view on the science question. Choosing from the various offerings, here is the thought for the day from James D. Watson.

This is not a quote that will be popular with the “theistic evolution” crowd:

We can only hope that a time will soon come when rational, skeptical thought renders the creationists’ stories as what they are — myths.

One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural, and it was a lesson that my father passed on to me, that knowledge liberates mankind from superstition. We can live our lives without the constant fear that we have offended this or that deity who must be placated by incantation or sacrifice, or that we are at the mercy of devils or the Fates.

That’s pretty clear.

Now this is going to seem totally unrelated, but it’s not. Associated Press religion-beat writer Rachel Zoll has a nicely detailed report about debates, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, about faith-based groups being allowed to directly receive government grants to do relief work. In other words, if government is going to stall at the switch, then it’s time to work with the religious groups that are willing to plunge in.

Now there are serious church-state issues at play here, including whether these dollars should limit the free-speech rights of the groups that get involved. The government loves strings more than doctrine. But that is only one of the ghosts that appear near the end of this report.

James Dunn, who served in Washington for more than two decades with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which works to protect the separation of church and state, said that among the unresolved constitutional issues is Bush’s desire to allow church groups to consider religion in hiring, even if they receive federal grants.

Critics say that’s discrimination. “I think what’s happening is they’re trying to dismantle the civil rights program without saying it,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

disaster logoNow, anyone want to guess the hot-button issues affected by the phrase “consider religion in hiring”?

You got it — sex and salvation.

There’s not way for journalists to dodge these issues. We might as well cover them, being careful to accurately quote articulate, informed voices on both sides (as opposed to, well, you know).

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Clean baptisms?

baptizingWhat a great read The Associated Press’s Roger Alford provided for us this morning. I forget, being a Presbyterian and a city dweller, that water pollution is not an issue exclusively for fishermen and nature lovers. I say kudos to Alford for his work in digging up this piece — that includes some interchurch conflict over baptism at the end — and doing some quality research as well.

Here’s the heart of the story:

These Protestants believe full immersion in water for professing youths and adults is a necessity, and that there’s no better place for Christianity’s initiation rite than the great outdoors.

“We were raised that way,” said Susie Hall, who was baptized with her husband by Dawson in Johns Creek earlier this year. “I feel closer to God in nature.”

But these days, the tradition is threatened in eastern Kentucky by rampant water pollution resulting from so-called straight piping of sewage into streams.

It’s a quality story about real people with real concerns that affect their religious practices.

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