Yo, Politico: IRS commits — not violates — sins

Isn’t it interesting how unfamiliar some folks are with religious language?

A reporter passed on this example and it’s telling. It comes from a Politico story about why no one at IRS will ever be held accountable for targeting people for their political beliefs (turns out such targeting is a no-no in our country — who knew?). “Heads won’t roll at the IRS” begins:

Lawmakers pressing for more heads to roll at the Internal Revenue Service are going to be disappointed.

“Why weren’t more people fired?” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) demanded at a hearing Tuesday on the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, channeling the frustration of his colleagues.

Turns out it’s not so easy.

In fact, it appears that no one has been formally reprimanded and a spokesperson for the union representing IRS workers said it hasn’t been called to help any employees yet. Most employees involved in the targeting program are covered by protections for federal workers that could drag out the termination process.

I wrote a story in 2003 about how federal data indicated that not a single employee at Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs and State had been fired in the previous five years, despite all of the reports of poor performance at each agency. I doubt things have changed much since then. Perhaps they have gotten worse.

In any case, this IRS story does turn out to have quite a few interesting religion angles (on that note, maybe you’ll want to see Sarah Posner defend the IRS for its actions against various Americans over at The Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” section).

But this is the section that shows the importance of getting religious lingo right:

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Pope Francis’ ‘obsession’ with the devil

It’s kind of charming that all popes have to deal with bad media coverage and global press frenzies. This week we’ve seen some awful media coverage of Pope Francis, including coverage of his blessing of a man after Mass on Sunday. Part of the blame must go to the Italian press, which really went crazy with the story in a way that might not be prudent. But I’ll restrict myself to the English-language media. Let’s begin with the Telegraph (U.K.):

Pope Francis appears to have been captured on video performing an exorcism in St Peter’s Square.

The astonishing footage, taken immediately after Pentecostal mass on Sunday 19th May, shows the Pontiff approach the second of two wheelchair bound people, whose face is pixelled out.

After a priest leans across the boy or young man to tell Francis something, the Pope’s expression becomes more serious, the voice-over notes. He then grips the top of the subject’s head firmly and is seen pushing him down into his wheel chair. As this is happening the Pontiff recites an intense prayer, and the boy’s mouth drops wide open and he exhales sharply, Italian press reports added this morning.

Where to begin? Let’s begin by pointing out that Sunday was Pentecost. Not Pentecostal, which suggests something else entirely.

OK, as for this exorcism, it would be a curious exorcism indeed since it was relatively quick and spontaneous, compared to the rites and protocols used by Roman Catholics and other traditional Christians. How to analyze these claims, which seem to be fueled largely by the claims of one Fr. Gabriele Amorth? Usually the media are really good at being skeptical of the claims of any Catholic and it would be wise to reach deep for just a tad of that skepticism when covering this one, as Mark Shea explains here. I’m not saying his claims shouldn’t be covered, but they should be placed in context of previous claims he’s made and how he’s viewed by, say, traditionalist Catholics.

I’m perhaps most disappointed by various reports I saw under the Associated Press. Take, for instance, how WHPTV headlined its AP story on the matter:

Pope Francis accidentally performs exorcism

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis’ obsession with the devil has taken on remarkable new twists, with a well-known exorcist insisting Francis helped “liberate” a Mexican man from four different demons, despite the Vatican’s insistence that no such papal exorcism took place.

This isn’t journalism. It’s very embarrassing. That word “accidentally” is scandalously untrue as is every other word in the headline. And how about that lede? Obsession? Obsession? Excuse me? What the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is this?

A longer version of the story is headlined, at Newser.com,

 The pope and the devil: Francis’ obsession with Satan leads to suspicion he performed exorcism

The story is written, according to that link, by the AP’s Vatican reporter, which is somewhat difficult for me to believe. I mean, all reporters should know this, but religion reporters should definitely know that Satan figures prominently in Christian thought. You want to write about someone completely over-the-bend obsessed about Satan? How about this guy?

I mean, is the Pope being Catholic really something we want to have straight news writers present as “obsession?” And, what’s the substantiation for this sick compulsion that Pope Francis has? Let’s see what’s in the story:

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‘I’m an atheist, Wolf’


Oh what a perfect clip for GetReligion.

You have to watch it to get the full gist but CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer is, above, interviewing Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca, holding her son Anders. (Full interview here.) Then, as transcribed by Politico:

Blitzer: We’re happy you’re here. You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?

Survivor:  Yeah.

Blitzer: Did you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?

Survivor: I — I’m actually an atheist.

Blitzer: You are. All right. But you made the right call.

Survivor: Yeah. We are here. And you know, I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.

Blitzer: Of course not.

Is this not a perfect example of why yes/no questions are a bad idea? I mean, it turned out all right. In fact, the survivor’s response is what made this such an interesting interview, despite Blitzer’s best attempts. But what was he expecting to have someone say?

Also, though, while I object to the form of the question and how it gave too much direction to the respondent, I do find it interesting how this question rests in the general sector of “journalists are weird about religion and disasters” that I’ve noticed over the years. My favorite recent example was from another CNN interview. It was back in February and the legendary Poop Cruise had finally docked. CNN was ignoring the Gosnell trial but, for some reason, doing round-the-clock coverage of the survivors of the Poop Cruise. But when two survivors tried to say what Scripture verse had sustained them during their journey, they were cut off. It was weird.

Anyway, the vast majority of the time the problem with how religion is treated in disaster interviews is that the reporters behave as if religion plays no role in sustaining people during their time of need. Perhaps it’s the loving way in which the atheist here answered the question, but I found it oddly interesting and comforting to see that religious adherents and skeptics alike get the silly questions that make assumptions about belief or non-belief.

Another interview I want to highlight was aired on CBS. I can’t stop thinking about it. The reporter is speaking to an older woman who lost her entire house while she sat in it. She is battered and bruised but she rather cheerfully describes what she went through and talks about how she knows she lost her dog under the ruins. A few minutes into the interview, someone off camera says “A dog!” The interview subject then realizes that her precious dog is alive and she asks for help getting him out of the rubble. She’s so very happy. And then she says, unprompted:

“Well I thought God just answered one prayer to let me be OK, but He answered both of them. Because this was my second prayer.”

It’s a powerful moment and it was captured simply by letting someone speak freely about a dramatic moment.

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How To Be A Lousy Journalist

Over at Intercollegiate Review, I have a piece with some helpful journalism tips. Here’s how “How to Be a Really Lousy Journalist for Fun and Profit” begins:

There has never been a better time to consider a career in journalism. Newspapers are thriving, magazines are innovating, online journalism listicles are becoming more substantive, and cable-news talking heads are shouting at holograms.

Journalists are living up to our reputation as the country’s most trusted profession (at least compared to IRS agents and American Airlines customer-service representatives). Whether it’s our nuanced and thoughtful analysis of hot-button topics such as gay marriage or our tenacious coverage of the terrorist attack in Benghazi and Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in Philadelphia, people know you can count on us to get the story right.

Would you like to succeed in this environment? As a long-time reporter and media critic, I’m happy to share tips on what to do if you want to make it in modern journalism.

Don’t Sweat the Details

Is there a difference between an Evangelical and an evangelist? Who cares? Don’t know the technical reason why Christians celebrate Easter? Will anyone really notice? Do you confuse the author of Hebrews with Paris booksellers? We all do! Whether you’re reporting on important U.S. Supreme Court decisions or how many people died in a terrorist bombing, what’s most important is getting the story first, not getting the story right, particularly under the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle.

Don’t Question Authority

If the powers-that-be suggest that a terrorist attack on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 was the spontaneous and direct result of an unseen YouTube video with junior high school production values, who are you to be skeptical?

If these same authority figures suggest that therefore it’s dangerous for Americans to speak freely, share their religious views, and express their artistic sensibilities however they want, you should probably just join them in calling for restrictions on these First Amendment freedoms.

It’s advice you’ve seen me sarcastically give for years, if you’re a GetReligion reader. But the folks here at GetReligion gave me excellent additional tips to include, and they’re sprinkled throughout.

There were dozens more I could have included. What are your tips for how to be a lousy journalist?

 Image of journalist via Shutterstock.

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Protip: Immaculate Conception is not the Virgin Birth

Did you hear about the anteater that conceived a baby even though she had no male mate around? I mean, she had a mate, but he was removed from her area longer than the six months required to gestate a baby anteater. Theories for how this miracle happened include the very non-miraculous idea that the mommy anteater and daddy anteater mated through a fence and the somewhat more mysterious idea that the pregnancy was paused or that implantation was somehow delayed.

So of course this is a made-for-media story. As you can see in the image to this post (or anywhere it went out online), some went with the “immaculate conception” approach. Which is, you know, weird, since the immaculate conception has nothing to do with conceiving a baby without the presence of the male.

The Atlantic Wire figured out its error and mildly tried to correct it by appending a note that they were only repeating other people’s errors and by putting quotes around ‘Immaculately Conceived’ as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

First, let’s discuss the religious teachings in play since this is a routine problem. From Wikipedia:

The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the Catholic Church maintaining that from the moment when she was conceived in the womb, the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free of original sin and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism.[1][2] It is one of the four dogmas in Roman Catholic Mariology. Mary is often called the Immaculata (the Immaculate One), particularly in artistic and cultural contexts.[3]

The Immaculate Conception should not be confused with the perpetual virginity of Mary or the virgin birth of Jesus; it refers to the conception of Mary by her mother, Saint Anne. Although the belief was widely held since at least Late Antiquity, the doctrine was not formally proclaimed until December 8, 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus. It is not formal doctrine except in the Roman Catholic Church.[4] The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is observed on December 8 in many Catholic countries as a holy day of obligation or patronal feast, and in some as a national public holiday.

Not perfect, but you get the idea. The Immaculate Conception refers to what Roman Catholics teach about Mary being conceived without original sin. The Virgin Birth refers to what most Christians teach about the circumstances of Jesus’ conception. Great. Can we stop having this error, then?

Here’s the note the Atlantic Wire appended to the piece:

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Downplaying the canonization of Christians martyred by Muslim invaders?

In a recent post about an error in a story about a new saint, readers talked about the notable lack of media coverage of another set of new saints — Christians martyred by Islamic invaders.

One reader commented:

The mainstream media didn’t seem particularly interested in a group of Catholics martyred by Islamic invaders. Every brief account I saw gave only the information that those who did the killing were “Ottomans” or “Turks.” But how many Americans are historically savvy enough to know the Turks–or Ottomans- were Moslem–and that the killings were because the Italians wouldn’t convert to Islam?

Musn’t disturb the fiction that the only bad guys in the religious conflict between Islam and Christianity were the Christian Crusaders. In fact, repeatedly one reads in the media and some popular history books the false claim that Islam always respected the religion of those they conquered.

Another said:

I think it’s fair to move from the general to the specific and wonder how many American reporters are that historically savvy. While I’m certainly in the camp that is willing to have concerns about the fictions our media seems determined to maintain to protect what certainly appears to be a common “narrative,” the failure of the writer to connect the dots may simply reflect ignorance that there are connections. Given how things Catholic–and this Pope’s election, in particular–have been so routinely (and dare I say, predictably) covered lately, the focus of this article and its deficiencies is hardly surprising.

So I wanted to be sure to highlight an Associated Press story I came across in the Washington Post. It’s about the martyrs. What do you think of the headline?

Hundreds who refused to embrace Islam are new saints in pope’s 1st canonization ceremony

At first I thought it odd that their refusal to deny Jesus Christ was put in terms of a refusal to “embrace” Islam, but I think the headline writer was merely trying to make sure that Islam’s role in their martyrdom was highlighted. From the top of the story:

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Pod people: Define ‘fetus’ and give three examples

The first question I faced, in this week’s “Crossroads” interview, sounded relatively simple: Why did journalists struggle to use the word “fetus” accurately when covering the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell?

Like or not, I have had to pay a lot of attention to this issue in recent weeks. For those who have been off the planet during that time, click here for a recent look at The New York Times and its evolution on this topic.

But in this podcast, we went back to the beginning and tried to follow the logic of these arguments all the way through to the end.

You see, back in the days just before and just after Roe vs. Wade, journalists found themselves caught between two forms of language. On one side, on the moral left, there were people who wanted to use the term “fetus” whenever possible, in order to avoid talking about the selective termination of “babies,” “unborn children,” etc. Since surveys show that most journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, are pro-abortion rights, this can affect coverage.

Meanwhile, real people in the real world tend — when dealing with pregnancies — to use baby language. I mean, surely it is rare for someone to come home from the doctor waving an early ultrasound image and say, “Hey! Look at the first picture of our fetus (or perhaps grandfetus)!”

So what happens when you have a story in which two different groups of people — in direct and paraphrased quotations — using these two radically different forms of language? There is tension, to say the least.

I have seen stories in which it was clear that reporters, or editors, went out of their way to avoid direct quotes that included “baby” and “unborn child” language. The result? Paraphrased quotes that literally put fetus language into the mouths of people who didn’t use it.

And what is happening now?

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Well here’s a new spin on female ordination

Let’s begin this post with this link to the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law:

Can.  1024 A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.

Now, keep that in mind as you read this Miami Herald story about Madre Laura, who was beatified by Pope Francis on Sunday:

In her lifetime, Laura Montoya’s stubborn determination to help Colombia’s indigenous people brought the reproach of society, the political elite and the church, which viewed her work with suspicion and accused her of being unstable.

But on Sunday, an adoring nation celebrated the woman, better known as Madre Laura, as this Catholic country’s first saint.

We learn about how her hometown celebrated the momentous occasion. We learn about some of her early life experiences before we get to this paragraph:

In 1914, even before she was ordained, Montoya organized an expedition of six women, including her aging mother, and took a 10-day trip into the wilderness to live with and minister to an indigenous Emberá Katío clan near the town of Dabeiba. Initially, the mission didn’t have the church’s backing, as officials thought that such risky ventures were best undertaken by men. Church leaders called her “crazy” and “visionary,” and suggested that she might be looking for a husband in the wilderness, according to her biographer Manuel Díaz Álvarez.

It’s all really interesting, but … “ordained?” What is the writer confused about, exactly? To what is he trying to refer?

The rest of the story is well done, including discussion of Laura’s legacy and how other women followed in her path, such as:

“Laura taught us that our teaching had to come from a place of love and respect for their customs and their beliefs,” Parra said.

Montoya required her nuns to learn the local languages and live, sleep and eat in the same conditions as their congregation. That sometimes meant living in abject poverty.

The story does a good job of personalizing Montoya and describing her not just as a saint but a humorous and down-to-earth person as well. One nice detail is that one of the two people involved in the miracles attributed to Laura presented Francis with Montoya’s relics on Sunday.

I also thought this might have been a buried lede:

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