Funny, that rainy day is here — complete with dance steps

Honestly, I thought I was reading some stray chapter from the New Agey Celestine Prophecy the other day. All the telltale blemishes were there: mystical experiences, wise native Americans, energy from within, persecution by white folks, a strange lack of factual material.

But no, it was a long-form feature in the otherwise respectable Los Angeles Times. The topic was rain dancing, an attempt to relieve the years-long California drought.

The story was part of the Times’ “Column One” series: prime journalism, best of show. But it was more like a study in politically correct, wide-eyed worshipfulness, right from the start:

The woman in line at the bank said she had already sold all her cattle and was now selling her land.

It was one too many tales of drought hardship for Laynee Reyna, also known as She Who Makes Things Happen — a name given to her by a shaman decades ago.

She felt a great spirit seize her. In the crowded bank lobby, the 79-year-old raised her arms.

Everyone in this town has got to come together and pray and dance for rain, and we’ve got to do it now,” she said.

Teresa Lavagnino, depositing checks at a teller’s window, rushed over.

“Can you do it? Can you make that happen?” she asked. “I can spread the word.”

If you’re a working journalist or if you’re used to reading news in newspapers, you’ll no doubt be asking questions already. Did the reporter witness that incident? How did she know Laynee Reyna felt a “great spirit”? And which shaman gave Reyna a name that sounds like a mashup of Suze Orman and Dances With Wolves?

You won’t be terribly surprised to know that “She Who Makes Things Happen” is a former hippie, as is her ex-husband, “Chief Sonne.” Reyna then brings in a native American consultant, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, for the lore to organize proper rain dances. Why her? Another hanging question.

With Sayers-Roods and her mother on hand, we can get to some serious rain dancing. They sew “traditional regalia,” design a dance and add “a collection of words in the tribe’s Mutson language.” They rehearse three times, and hey, it drizzles.

Again: Was the reporter there?

If not, who told her that? And did she check the weather that day? I’m guessing “no,” because she offers no attributions or hard dates.

She does mark Feb. 2 as a rainy day, but her reporting shows incredible credulity. “People felt their heartbeats match the pounding drums,” she says, without saying how she divined this. She admires Sayers-Roods’ “remarkably clear voice.”

And she seriously quotes Laynee Reyna intoning: “We are they who are calling the rain. We are true to where we stand — on our Mother Earth.”

If your eyes aren’t already rolling, the dancers also — oh, just let the Times tell us:

The circle danced clockwise. And then counter-clockwise to make sure there wasn’t too much rain and landslides.

Some women of an age who would favor Donna Summer added a disco touch. The children formed their own circle in the middle of the larger one.

Reyna passed out bottles of water. She told people to take a sip and spit it out as they danced. Spit it in the air. Spit it on the ground. “Water attracts water.”

People were laughing. It turned into a spitting water fight. Penney the terrier did her part by licking children’s faces.

At least the reporter had some proof of the last item: Next to the article is a photo of Reyna spitting a stream of water high in the air.

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Concerning that gathering called by the Ecumenical Patriarch

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” according to a famous quote by publisher Philip Graham of the Washington Post. If so, shouldn’t journalists have a sense of history? Especially when the history stretches over centuries?

Like when Reuters reports on a recent conference of Orthodox patriarchs. It starts out OK, then degrades quickly:

Patriarchs of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians ended a rare summit in Istanbul on Sunday calling for a peaceful end to the crisis in Ukraine and denouncing violence driving Christians out of the Middle East.

Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.

Here’s where to hit the “pause” button.

Are we talking about an “ecumenical council” or an Ecumenical Council, as in a meeting of the leaders of the ancient patriarchates called by the Ecumenical Patriarch? In this case, the upper-case letters really matter.

Either way, this is big news.

But watch how ya throw that term around, buddy. An ecumenical council — no big E, no big C — would be one called by the leaders of all faith groups to settle church-wide matters. And as Theopedia shows, only seven councils — the last in the year 787 — have been honored by Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism alike. Of course, those events took place before the Great Schism of 1054.

Adds the site:

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do. Supporters of the councils contend that they did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture that had been misinterpreted by heretics. The primary value of these early ecumenical councils is their documentation of the early consensus of doctrines regarding the nature of Christ and the Godhead.

Nor does the roster for the upcoming meeting include Oriental Orthodox churches, which accept only the first three “ecumenical” councils. The Oriental Orthodox include a couple of newsmakers, the Copts of Egypt and the Armenians. Other notables include the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox in east Africa, and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India.

What’s the deal? Well, none of these churches are currently in communion with the Eastern Orthodox churches (although talks with the Copts are getting interesting) and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Thus, they are not being invited to this gathering of the Eastern Orthodox bodies that are in communion with one another. It would help if the story explained some of these differences.

All told, that’s a lot of Christians to overlook, when it comes to the information in this story. There are some holes.

Dare I add a little finger-waggling on the need to hire religion writers who actually know something about religion?

To be fair, this Reuters story gets a lot right.

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Church & state: Double coverage challenge in Seattle

I often ding mainstream media for lapses on religious doctrine. I also criticize them for ignorance of legalities that deal with religion. The story of Mark Zmuda, the gay administrator who was fired from a Catholic school, gives me a twofer.

The Seattle-based educator says Eastside Catholic School didn’t tell him not to marry his partner. He also accuses the Archdiocese of Seattle of pressuring the school to run him out. Says TV station King 5:

Mark Zmuda filed a complaint for damages against Eastside Catholic and the Seattle Archdiocese Friday. Zmuda told reporters the school was initially supportive of his marriage, but said he believes the school changed its position under pressure from the church.

“The information we have is that there was involvement from the archdiocese. Pressure was put on the school to fire Mark,” said Richard Friedman, Zmuda’s attorney.

“I was asked by the school to break my wedding vows to keep my job. I was told I could either divorce or be fired. How could anyone ask anyone else to make that choice? I was fired,” said Zmuda.

Other media have gotten, shall we say, enthusiastic about the case. USA Today ran an AP story that reported the lawsuit even before it was filed. Huffington Post reported the same — even saying in the headline that the lawsuit had already been filed, although the story itself said only that Zmuda was planning to file.

All that strikes me as a journalistic lapse. I don’t know HuffPost’s and AP’s and USA Today’s editorial policies; but at the newspaper where I worked until late 2012, we didn’t announce lawsuits, or protests or demonstrations, until they’d been filed. Often, we found, people wouldn’t follow through after they got their publicity.

I could recite the GetReligion litany on mainstream media taking sides — quoting, for one thing, students and parents who support Zmuda but not those who support the school’s decision — but let’s not make it a threefer. With this one, we’ll look at church, then state.

A gold star for King 5 for quoting a statement from the archdiocese that it “has no authority to direct employment decisions for the school.” It would have been nice to point out what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality and marriage as well.

King 5 also could have asked about the school’s website while reporting:

Zmuda said that he applied for the job, the school’s website read, “it did not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, marital status or sexual orientation.” He also said the employee handbook indicated the school did not discriminate.

“If I had read the school’s website and it had said, ‘We do not hire gay men or gay men who marry,’ I would have never taken the job at Eastside Catholic,” said Zmuda.

Did the website really say that? Was the statement taken down? Who would know? King 5′s curiosity seems to run out at this point. Also, is it possible that Catholic schools hire gays who are celibate and accept the moral teachings of the church? The issue is public opposition to the church’s doctrines.

Now, the legalities. None of the articles by KIRO, HuffPost or USA Today show much awareness of a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that acknowledged the right of a religious group to hire and fire.

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Those elusive Devout Catholics™ are back

We have another Devout Catholic™ sighting!

That legendary creature, best known to reporters in mainstream media, is rarely spotted in real life, but they seem to show up in the news all the time. (See the attached photo.)

One appeared in a Los Angeles Times article about a campaign to loosen up laws in Oregon against same-sex marriage. This was a small herd in Portland that wanted to sport big white buttons for “marriage equality” while attending Ash Wednesday.

Brave move or childish stunt? That would be a subjective call. Almost as subjective as, say, this Times article.

More on that later. Right now, here are a couple of offending paragraphs — the first two in the story, in fact:

When Jackie Yerby and a small band of devout Catholics go to the cathedral for Mass this Ash Wednesday, they will be sending an unmistakable message. Pinned to their lapels will be big white buttons that proclaim, “Catholic Oregonians for Marriage Equality.”

The newly formed group wants to show that “just because we’re Catholic doesn’t mean we don’t support same-sex marriage,” said Yerby, who served on the board of Catholic Charities of Portland for six years. “We support same-sex marriage because we are Catholic.”

It’s a decidedly quirky species. For one, it always seems to differ with the leaders of the pack. Their own shepherd, Archbishop Andrew K. Sample of Portland, has urged his folks to prevent changing state law to allow gay marriage. Devout Catholics™ may not be more Catholic than the pope, but more Catholic than an archbishop ain’t bad.

The new Devout Catholics™ are rare even in Portland. Yerby’s organization first met last month and has a mere “few dozen members,” according to the Los Angeles Times article. Significantly, those relevant facts are buried in the 26th paragraph of the 34-paragraph story — after the reporter has gotten max mileage from their devout disagreement with Sample.

Longtime readers of tmatt, of course, know that he and GetReligion specialize in Devout Catholic™ spotting. Five years ago, he asked why a couple of odd characters — a horoscope columnist and a voodoo high priest — have gotten the label.

When Archbishop Donald Wuerl was made a cardinal, tmatt saw the label appended onto loud-mouthed TV commentator Chris Matthews. And late last year, tmatt observed that some media are using “practicing Catholic” in ways just as loose and fuzzy.

Therefore, tmatt fumes:

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Sharp reporting exposes anti-Israel PCUSA study

I once made a Presbyterian leader sputter.

Didn’t mean to. I just asked a question about the Middle East that he didn’t like. Things like that happen.

He was a Palestinian-American activist who was addressing the Religion Newswriters Association several years ago. His topic was the need to divest stocks of companies that did business with Israel until that bad ol’ country stops oppressing Palestinians.

During a Q&A period, I asked if companies should apply similar pressure on the Palestinian side. That’s when he sputtered: “Do you realize how poor Palestinians are? Were you born on the moon?” Etc., etc., etc.

I let him run his bolt before pointing out: “Many companies do business with nations that support Palestinian guerrillas. So there is a corollary.” He finally conceded that he opposed violence on all sides.

How diplomatic. But the exclusive focus of his speech was on Israel.

Why the trip down memory lane? It was occasioned by a new story on “Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Guide.” Issued by the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the study doesn’t appear to move much from the viewpoint of my friend years ago.

I’m heartened to see that my skepticism is shared by the likes of the new religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Peter Smith’s robust and many-sided article says the new guide “includes depictions of Zionism as a heresy at the root of the Middle East crisis.”

Smith reports also that a “major governing body” — which he identifies later as the Presbyterian Mission Agency — recommends dumping investments in three corporations that deal with Israel. As his story notes, this is the measure voted by the Presbyterian General Assembly a decade ago, then reversed at subsequent assemblies.

He says the two events have “combined to roil already-tense relations between Presbyterians and Jews,” giving local examples in the Pittsburgh area. And he quotes both sides:

The study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” while not an official church declaration, represents the work of a group created by the denomination 10 years ago. The illustrated 72-page guide, produced by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decries what it calls years of fruitless talk over a two-state solution, saying Israel has effectively been creating a single state with apartheid-style oppression of Palestinians. It decried Israel for “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians from hundreds of communities in 1948 and said the state resulted from a “toxic relationship between theology and politics.”

Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he realizes the study guide “isn’t something that is emanating from the grassroots.” But he called it “a crash course to advocate for an end of the Jewish state.”

He said it reads “as if there were no wars waged against Israel, no campaign of terror by groups including Hamas and Hezbollah and … ignores the reality that Israelis and the American Jewish community support a two-state solution.”

The reporter says the PCUSA leadership has “distanced itself from the publication, emphasizing the decentralized nature of the denomination” — an odd claim in a church body that has long stressed its connectional nature. Smith quotes the executive director of the Mission Agency that the report is a “statement to the church rather than on its behalf.”

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Interview or argument? There’s a difference, CNN

Want to get drunk fast?

Watch this video and take a swig of an adult beverage every time Chris Cuomo interrupts Bill Donohue.

After 12 minutes, you won’t be able to stand up.

Cuomo brought Donohue onto CNN’s morning show New Day in the latter’s role as head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. The topic was the Arizona law that was just vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer. As you may recall, the law would have allowed anyone to decline to do business with someone on religious grounds. Gays were believed to have been the main targets, in sympathy with Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong.

Meaty stuff for a discussion, to be sure. What if the businessman believes blacks are inferior? Conversely, without the law, would a Jewish photographer be forced to shoot pictures at a Klan or skinhead wedding?

And the talk is actually pretty productive for the first half of the interview. But then Cuomo makes it a quarrel. Either that or badgering. Sometimes he doesn’t even wait for Donohue to finish a sentence before adding more preachments thinly veiled as questions.

Here are some excerpts from where the two discuss a recent situation in New Mexico, of a photographer who didn’t want to take pictures at a gay wedding. Donohue actually says he has “no sympathy” for such people. Then he raises fears about forcing churches to accept gay weddings.

“No, we’re not going there,” Cuomo says at first. Then when Donohue insists, Cuomo gets more argumentative, moving from law to morality.

Donohue: We feel, people of faith, that our rights are being whittled away in the name of gay rights having to trump ours. We need to have an honest discussion. I’d like to see a moratorium on this …

Cuomo: How does gay marriage compromise your rights?

Donohue: The problem with gay marriage is this: It makes a smorgasbord. It basically says that there’s no profound difference, socially speaking, between marriage between a man and woman — the only union that can create a family — and other examples. I don’t …

Cuomo: Who says that’s the purpose of marriage? What if you want lifelong companionship and commitment?

Donohue: If a man and woman don’t have sex, we can’t reproduce, can we? We can’t propagate …

Cuomo: You don’t have to be married to propagate.

Donohue: No, that’s right, you …

Cuomo: And you don’t have to want kids to be married.

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Yo, Globe: Why settle for fog when you have a better option?

So I had a meeting the other day with a former GetReligionista and, within minutes, the topic of the conversation turned to a subject many religion-beat professionals (past, present and future) have been discussing in recent weeks: Now that the folks who run The Boston Globe have John L. Allen, Jr., what precisely are they going to do with him?

In a way, this is a variation on one of the big questions looming over our age, journalistically speaking.

At the heart of the debate is an agonizing economic equation that is driving many old-school journalists crazy: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive. Some people word the second half of that equation differently: Opinion is cheap; reporting is expensive. The end result is usually the same, as far as I am concerned. And, of course, freelance opinion is the cheapest option of all. We’ve been on this foggy road (yes, that fog) for quite some time now.

Allen, of course, is a great reporter whose years of work — while at the liberal National Catholic Reporter — was taken seriously because he relentlessly provided waves of new information from high-quality voices on all sides of Catholic debates at the local, regional, national and global levels. He was working at a publication with an obvious point of view, but he kept producing real reporting, even in his columns and works of analysis.

Now Allen is at the Globe, which is a mainstream newspaper that, one can only hope, remains committed to coverage built on the classic American model of the press, with journalists striving (yes, often imperfectly) to achieve high standards of accuracy, balance and fairness. Some professionals continue to use the word “objectivity” with a straight face. However, the Globe team has also talked about starting its own online publication about Catholic news, period. What approach would that start-up use?

Allen has started work and is producing a wide range of material. I thought his mini-feature on the style of Pope Francis — which was for some reason labeled “analysis” — was especially delightful, as a quick overview of symbolic details that add up to a larger whole.

The headline: “New reality in Vatican: Surprise, it’s the pope!” Basically, the idea is that it’s getting harder to predict where Pope Francis will, literally, show up. Here is a key slice:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a member of a Vatican council that oversees the Synod of Bishops, a summit of Catholic prelates from around the world. The council meets every so often in a building a few blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica, and the practice has been that it passes conclusions to a papal aide without getting face time with the boss.

In October, however, Francis decided to walk down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad Roman street leading away from the basilica, to join one of their meetings. It was an act akin to the President of the United States heading over to Congress to sit in on a meeting of a House committee – i.e., something almost inconceivable to anyone accustomed to the usual protocol.

Francis spent six hours over two days with the council. Aside from his presence, what struck members was the informality of his approach.

“He came over like it was just another day at the office, with his lunch box,” Dolan said. “We couldn’t believe it.”

And this, too:

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To the barricades! It’s the religious conservatives again!

The reliably liberal New York Times has waved yet another red flag, thinly masked as in-depth news, on the traditional-religious bigots who disagree with its morality — even daring to pass contrary laws. This time, Ground Zero is Arizona, which is considering a bill to allow businesses to choose whom they serve.

Never, in this alleged news report, are we left in doubt of the “correct” opinion to take.

Not with a headline like “Religious Right in Arizona Cheers Bill Allowing Businesses to Refuse to Serve Gays,” even though “Religious Right” isn’t even in the body of the story.

The article quickly brings in — right from the lede paragraph — other examples of non-gay backlash, in New Mexico, Washington State and Colorado. Later, it adds three other states:

The Arizona measure comes as multiple states are considering such exemptions, with considerable controversy. In Tennessee, the legislature is considering an exemption for wedding vendors; in Kansas, a similar measure was set aside when conservative senators raised concerns about discrimination. In Oregon, opponents of same-sex marriage are seeking to place an initiative on this year’s ballot that would allow individuals or businesses to opt out of participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies.

For those who need visual cues on what to think, the story is topped with a photo of a gay couple who complains that a florist wouldn’t provide flowers for their wedding. The two beefy men are photographed smiling, hand in hand, on a sunny porch. What nice folks.

Further down is a shot of Arizona Representative Justin Pierce, speaking in favor of the bill, looking all stern and suited in a dimly lit legislative chamber. The choice is yours, dear reader: Smiling, sunlit couple or boring, lecturing suit.

Now let’s count fingers. The numbers game isn’t the only way to compute bias, but in this case it’s pretty glaring. We start with a quote in favor of the bill, rather high in the story:

“In America, people should be free to live and work according to their faith, and the government shouldn’t be able to tell us we can’t do that,” said Joseph E. La Rue, the legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that advocates religious liberty and supports the measure passed by the State Legislature. “Faith shouldn’t be something we have to leave inside our house.”

Then we get a rebuttal quote with a set-up paragraph:

But civil libertarians and gay rights advocates say there is a difference between protections for clergy and houses of worship that do not want to participate in same-sex marriage and the obligations of business owners that serve the general public.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it’s not a blank check to harm others or impose our faith on our neighbors,” said Daniel Mach, who directs a program on freedom of religion and belief for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Arizona legislation. “Over the years, we as a nation have rejected efforts to invoke religion to justify discrimination in the marketplace, and there’s no reason to turn back the clock now.”

So far, so fair (except for the setup paragraph, which the first quote didn’t have). Then the anti-bill side picks up steam — a consultant to Gov. Jan Brewer, a Hispanic leader, a pizzeria owner — before we hear from a leader in a “conservative group that supported the bill.”

That leader does offer an eye-opener on Arizona law:

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