New York Times finds a moral absolute?

childrens playgroundAfter reading the article several times, I really do not know where to start when it comes to chasing the ghosts in the sprawling New York Times feature story on pedophilia in cyberspace. It was called “On the Web, Pedophiles Extend Their Reach,” and I’ve been haunted by it for a week.

But we can start with the obvious: It does appear that the Times has found a moral absolute that it can affirm when dealing with the various armies of the sexual revolution.

So pedophilia is bad — period — even though the piece briefly waves at several issues related to this behavior without explicitly passing judgment. Would the newspaper’s editorial board, for example, back conservative calls for stricter enforcement of statutory rape laws? Even if that led to investigations of allegations against Planned Parenthood for protecting offenders?

But some of you will view that as a digression from the main issue — pedophilia. And you would be right. But that leads to one of my basic questions about the Times piece: What precisely is pedophilia? How is the newspaper defining this term? What are the origins of this condition, as science has struggled to understand them?

To be more specific, where does draw the line between “pedophilia,” sexual activity by adults involving prepubescent children, and “ephebophilia,” illegal sex with underaged boys and girls in their teens?

Let me offer the blunt illustration that explains the difference, as told to me once by an expert on the topic. A 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 16-year-old Britney Spears is sick and disturbed and being tempted to commit a crime. But this man is not sick, disturbed and a criminal in precisely the same way as a 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 6-year-old Britney Spears. The same would be true of a gay adult male.

Where did the Times draw this line in its research? There are activists who want to see the age of sexual consent lowered. How low? For what reasons? Reporter Kurt Eichenwald does note this:

In this online community, pedophiles view themselves as the vanguard of a nascent movement seeking legalization of child pornography and the loosening of age-of-consent laws. They portray themselves as battling for children’s rights to engage in sex with adults, a fight they liken to the civil rights movement. And while their effort has brought little success, they celebrated online in May when a small group of men in the Netherlands formed a pedophile political party, and they rejoiced again last month when a Dutch court upheld the party’s right to exist.

The conversations themselves are not illegal. And, given the fantasy world that the Internet can be, it is difficult to prove the truth of personal statements, or to demonstrate direct connections between online commentary and real-world actions. Nor can the number of participants in these conversations, taking place around the Internet, be reliably ascertained.

But the existence of this community is significant and troubling, experts said, because it reinforces beliefs that, when acted upon, are criminal. Repeatedly in these conversations, pedophiles said the discussions had helped them accept their attractions and had even allowed them to have sex with a child without guilt. Indeed, law enforcement officials say that the refrain of justification from online conversations is frequently voiced by adults arrested for molestation, raising concern that such conversations may lower pedophiles’ willingness to resist their temptation.

The noted religion scholar Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University appears briefly in the article, because he is the author of Beyond Tolerance, a 2001 book about Internet child pornography. He describes the online world of pedophiles as an “alternative reality” with its own view of life.

Then Jenkins is gone and we never return to the basic question that he is trying to raise — the moral structure of that alternative world. The article is back to talking about technology and the lives of these online hunters, the largest percentage of which, according to the Times, say they are schoolteachers. A few parents describe ways to approach the friends of their own children. And some talk about abusing their own children.

Once again, they stress that this is a matter of civil rights, education reform, civic charity or even of religious freedom. Parents and prudes are the enemies who are preventing their children from expressing their true sexual feelings. The ultimate goal is sexual liberation.

In the pedophiles’ world view, not all sexual abuse is abuse. There is widespread condemnation and hatred of adults who engage in forcible rape of children. But otherwise, acts of molestation are often celebrated as demonstrations of love.

“My daughter and I have a healthy close relationship,” a person with the screen name Sonali posted. “We have been in a ‘consensual sexual relationship’ almost two months now.” The daughter, Sonali wrote, is 10. . . .

Pedophiles see themselves as part of a social movement to gain acceptance of their attractions. The effort has a number of tenets: that pedophiles are beneficial to minors, that children are psychologically capable of consenting and that therapists manipulate the young into believing they are harmed by such encounters.

“Every human being, no matter the age, should be allowed to have consenting mutual sexual relations with anyone they wish,” a man calling himself Venn wrote. “All age of consent laws must, and forever, be abolished.”

I could go on and on. But here is my main point again: Does this story raise issues that are essentially moral or even religious?

If these beliefs and actions are wrong, why are they wrong? Is there a moral difference between the sexual abuse of a young child and a teen? Why? To what degree is the cause of pedophile liberation reflected in mainstream American life, media and education? Where do the lines blur?

There is more to this story than technology. Isn’t there? Does anyone else see the ghost?

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Is Getreligionistas a keeper?

frappr navI have asked the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc to find a way to put the link to the Frappr site for GetReligionistas somewhere on our left sidebar for those who want to continue to sign up. I may make another appeal or two on my own listserv, as well.

It’s kind of fun, but also shows us — again — the need to try to get more international coverage into the site. In fact, the first few days we had more global people on the Frappr map than we do now.

So, hey, where did some of you go? Sign back in.

Also, please let us know if there has been any kind of negative result from this fun little toy, some major rise in spam or anything like that. We do want to know where you are and what you think. Sign in, if you will!

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Presbyterians, 9/11 and the digital-news era

Sept11WTCSouthTowerUA175Once upon a time, news stories used to break at the local level and then, gradually, work their way up the news food chain through the wire services until they reached, or failed to reach, the national newspapers and networks.

Like I said — once upon a time.

Today, it seems that more and more stories are starting in cyberspace — in niche media, but at the national level — and then, from time to time, they work their way back down the food chain to the local level. This is where editors in one-newspaper towns choose to cover, or not to cover, major local stories that they should have had the news savvy to break in the first place.

Want to see a perfect example of this process?

Start by clicking here to go to Christianity Today‘s web coverage of the controversial decision by the Presbyterian Publishing Corp. — which is based in Louisville, in the great state of Kentucky — to publish the book Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action.

Note the 7/31 date on the original story posted by reporter Jason Bailey. Here is the lead:

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government, according to a book to be released later this month by Westminster John Knox Press — a division of the denominational publisher for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action is the third book on the subject by David Ray Griffin, a professor emeritus of theology at Claremont School of Theology who is also a well-published and prominent process theologian.

As Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher noted over at Beliefnet, this is a really interesting step by leaders in a denomination that has already had a rough couple of months in public relations. Remember that “Mother, Child and Womb” story about the Trinity or the local-option decision on the ordination of sexually active gays, lesbians and bisexuals?

So, in terms of making headlines, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was hot. This does not even take into account flare-ups about the denomination’s statements on Israel. So you would think that this story about a troubled mainline denomination handing a big pulpit to a 9/11 iconoclast would jump straight into the headlines or, at the very least, the local newspaper. This is a story, clearly, that is going to resonate in the pews.

Think again.

The staff at Religion News Service saw the Christianity Today story and, a few days later, the wire service shipped its own report by Daniel Burke, with a nod to CT. This story ran at Beliefnet under the headline “Sept. 11 Conspiracy Book From Presbyterian Press Raises Eyebrows.” The report noted — no surprise here — that conservatives in the denomination were not amused. Take, for example, the Rev. Toby Brown in Cuero, Texas.

“Why, out of all the things they could be publishing, would the church choose this?” Brown asked in an interview. “What business does the church have getting involved in theories about 9/11?”

Brown predicted “this is going to be a big deal” and said many Presbyterians gathered at blogs and chatrooms are planning a boycott of the publisher. “It makes it look like our church might be endorsing the book’s ideas, or at least close to that kind of notion, and that would be false,” he said.

Now this brings us, more than two weeks later, to a report (on Aug. 14) in the Louisville Courier-Journal about the uproar over the book. Here is my question, just as a reporter: Isn’t the story about the uproar supposed to be the local newspaper’s follow-up story? I mean, the local newspaper is supposed to break this kind of story. It’s a hot story about a national church — based in your city — and it is linked to the biggest, most emotional story in decades in the United States of America (that would be 9/11). So you write the first story, it makes waves and then the local newspaper gets to write the follow-up story about the reaction.

AAACross1This is journalism 101 stuff. All news is local.

Reporter Peter Smith ends up writing a hard-news report about a story that is already national in scope and several weeks old. He does, however, a fine job of linking this new story into wider PCUSA trends from recent years. Smith makes it clear that this is not a fluke. The story has legs.

The book, “Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11,” written by David Ray Griffin, a professor emeritus at Claremont School of Theology in California, accuses the Bush administration of carrying out the attacks as a pretext for expanding America’s “demonic” imperial power.

Griffin argues, among other things, that the World Trade Center towers collapsed because of secretly planted explosives — he quotes eyewitnesses who claim that’s what it looked and sounded like — and not because airliners crashed into the buildings, causing fires.

Writers on conservative Presbyterian Web sites have been responding by saying officials of the Louisville-based denomination are out of touch with members and by calling for a boycott of Presbyterian Publishing Corp. The corporation funds itself from book sales and has editorial independence in deciding what to publish, although its board is elected by the denomination’s legislative General Assembly.

But as word of the book spreads, some Presbyterians lament that it comes as the 2.3 million-member denomination struggles with financial troubles, declining membership and a controversial General Assembly vote to open the door to ordaining gays.

So here is the ultimate question: Where was the Courier-Journal when the story broke?

Why did it take digital waves from online publications, a wire-service report and a few thousand items in the blogosphere to get this story into the Monday edition (the day when you use weekend stories that editors sort of overlooked) of the newspaper in the city in which the story began in the first place?

Just asking. Any guesses?

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Jesus Christ was born where?

Jesus born in, one of the most heavily visited news sites on the Internet, posted these headlines this morning in an attempt to cover the rapidly developing cycle of violence in the Middle East:

  • Israeli soldiers battle Hezbollah inside Lebanon

  • A Hezbollah rocket attack on Nazareth, revered as birthplace of Jesus, kills two people, Israeli army says
  • Israeli soldiers battle Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon near Avivim, Israel
  • Orient Queen leaves Beirut carrying about 800 U.S. and British citizens to Cyprus

Note to editors and producers at Jesus Christ was not born in Nazareth. Nazareth was his hometown. He is often referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth.” But he was born in Bethlehem. Like in the Christmas carols. It may sound like a minor error, but it is actually quite significant theologically. A Nazarene being born in Bethlehem was a bit unusual at the time, as people did not travel much, and it fulfilled key biblical prophecies.

What does this say about CNN editors’ knowledge of religion and their ability to present the news of a conflict that has ancient roots in religion?

The good folks over at Christianity Today noticed this error and one of their interns, Jason Bailey, a Wheaton College senior, was smart enough to take a screen shot. The error was quickly fixed, but not corrected. A correction requires admission of a past wrong. We in the print media know that an error requires a retraction. This makes us quite careful in what we publish. Apparently those standards do not apply to cable news websites.

Jason would like to refer CNN editors to this map for future reference, and maybe they could search their own archives to fact-check their headlines in the future.

Update: One of our readers, Michael M., noted that The Boston Globe did the exact same thing in an article on Monday:

Last night, Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon penetrated farther than ever into Israel, hitting Afula, 33 miles south of border, and landing on the outskirts of Nazareth, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus. Israeli officials said Hezbollah possessed rockets that could fly more than 40 miles and warned residents of Tel Aviv, the country’s metropolitan hub about 70 miles from the border, to be alert.

The blast in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, brought the Israeli death toll to at least 24, half of them civilians. Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 148 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians.

So not only did CNN get it wrong — CNN got it wrong in what looks a lot like a cut-and-paste job from the Globe. The wording is nearly identical.

I should also note that others have heard the same mistake over the radio.

It’s time to call for a correction, folks. I’ll let you know when we get it.

Second Update: If you want to help us out in getting the Boston Globe article corrected, go here. It’s a basic error. Let’s see how long it takes the Globe to fix it.

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Post time for another Orthodox correction

1097250162 s1qdaq78jk7 sackconstHere we go again, only this time GetReligion is requesting a correction from The Washington Post. We recently discovered that the copy desk at The New York Times takes corrections very seriously, going so far as to dig back into history and correct past mistakes as well as the one that was bugging us.

The email address for Washington Post corrections is a logical one: So here goes:

Corrections desk, The Washington Post:

My name is Terry Mattingly and I am a journalism professor and religion columnist who works with the website that discusses religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. We would like to request a correction in your April 9 news feature with the headline “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries.”

We realize that this story by Karl Vick story is rather old, but it only recently came to the attention of our weblog.

Here is the passage that concerns us. The goal, at this point in the story, is to explain the roots of the current violence in Istanbul against Catholic priests and Christian missionaries in general.

The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.

“Missionaries and the Crusades are related,” Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs declared in a pamphlet published last June. The directorate, which exercises control over all Turkish mosques, distributed a sermon for Friday prayers nationwide a year ago. Imams warned worshipers that missionaries were involved in a plot to “steal the beliefs of our young people and children.”

The problem with this statement is rather obvious. At least, we think that it is obvious.

It is true that the sacking of the great Byzantine city of Constantinople in 1204 did create bitter wounds that affect the modern world — wounds that affect contact between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The late Pope John Paul II was especially concerned about this, as shown in this news event that received global news coverage (including this 2004 report in the Telegraph):

The Pope delivered an emotional apology to Orthodox Christians … for the Catholic plundering of Constantinople eight centuries ago, saying it caused him “pain and disgust.” He made his comments during a visit to the Vatican by Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians.

“In particular, we cannot forget what happened in the month of April 1204,” the Pope said, in reference to the sacking of Constantinople by crusaders. “How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust.”

The incident, which was part of the Fourth Crusade, was one of the most violent events of the Middle Ages. It contributed to the collapse of the Byzantine Empire three centuries later.

hagiasophialastAfter centuries of fighting, Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders in 1453 and the great Hagia Sophia cathedral was turned into a mosque.

You can verify this by reading the following essay on the website of the — lo and behold — Washington Post. It begins:

On the afternoon of 29 May 1453 the Sultan entered the long-desired city. Riding a white horse, he advanced down an avenue of death. The city of Constantinople was being put to the sack by the triumphant Ottoman army. According to an observer from Venice, blood flowed through the streets like rainwater after a sudden storm; corpses floated out to sea like melons along a canal. An Ottoman official, Tursun Beg, wrote that the troops `took silver and gold vessels, precious stones, and all sorts of valuable goods and fabrics from the imperial palace and the houses of the rich. In this fashion many people were delivered from poverty and made rich. Every tent was filled with handsome boys and beautiful girls.’ On rode the Sultan, until he reached the mother church of Eastern Christendom and seat of the Oecumenical Patriarch, the cathedral of the Holy Wisdom built 900 years earlier by the Emperor Justinian with the largest dome in Europe. He dismounted and bent down to pick up a handful of earth, which he poured over his turban as an act of humility before God.

So the Post has reported that actions by Islamists in modern Turkey against Christians are somehow rooted in anger over the actions of Western Crusaders against Eastern Christians in 1204?

Please correct the error in the April 9 report and any earlier Post stories that repeated it.

Thank you.

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A Lott of irony in this one

You are not going to believe this laugh-to-keep-from-crying update on the life and Roman Catholic times of former GetReligion-ist Jeremy Lott, the author of that In Defense of Hypocrisy book.

What a world.

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Tmatt regrets the (almost) error

rimshotlogoOur friends at are still working to repair and upgrade our comments pages, which were taken down in the midst of a tsunami of spam this past weekend. We hope to open up some of the newer posts for comments here shortly.

Meanwhile, I feel the need to make a strange kind of confession while noting the vital role that copyeditors play, a role that is only getting more important in the often confusing age of the World Wide Web.

You see, I have a commentary piece on today’s op-ed page at USA Today entitled “The media, God and gaffes” and it almost opened with a really bad error — by me. This would have been a horror on several levels, in large part because this is a column that grew out of a lecture I gave at USA Today on (wait for it) journalists making too many errors linked to religion news. That lecture, as you can imagine, grew directly out of posts on this blog.

This commentary piece, by the way, is part of the newspaper’s “Focus on Faith” series, which I am told has developed a pretty solid readership. I wonder if other newspapers should consider starting an ongoing editorial-page slot for commentary on religious and cultural issues. Anyway, here is how my piece opened:

Journalists in Washington, D.C., know how to cover protests.

At the top of the “to do” list is finding that killer quote that captures the style of the protesters and their cause. This is harder than it sounds, as illustrated by this disastrous story.

Picture this scene. A flock of Pentecostal Christians has gathered at the U.S. Capitol for yet another prayer rally about sex, abortion, family values and the public square.

“At times, the mood turned hostile toward the lawmakers in the stately white building behind the stage,” wrote The Washington Post in its coverage of the event. Then, without explanation, the story offered this on-stage quotation from a religious broadcaster: “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone in the Capitol.”

Slay what? Clearly, the reporters didn’t know about the experience that Pentecostal Christians call being “slain in the Holy Spirit,” in which they believe they are transformed by a surge of God’s power. The result was a journalistic train wreck that ended up in the book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

“The problem,” wrote authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “was that the reporter didn’t know, didn’t have any Pentecostals in the newsroom to ask, and was perhaps too anxious for a ‘holy sh-t’ story to double-check with someone afterward whether the broadcaster was really advocating the murder of the entire Congress.” This mistake made “a strong case for the need for humility” at the news desk, they said.

I won’t bore you with details of the near mistake, except to say that I misread a slightly vague passage in the book and almost attributed the “slay everybody” quote to the wrong newspaper. I had tried to check the source of the passage myself but — here’s the WWW-era warning for reporters — I (a) currently lack a password and (b) the quote I was trying to confirm seems to be hidden in archives and, thus, didn’t show up in ordinary searches. Also, I am not the first person to misread the passage involved. Thus, it was easier to find the error searching online than to find the accurate reference.

So I issue this mea culpa as a way of saying thanks to the ultra-careful copy desk at USA Today. As I tell my students, journalism isn’t rocket science, but it is a really picky line of work. This blog often chides copy desks for failing the sweat the details. This was a case where people went the extra mile and I am most grateful.

P.S. The omnipresent Amy Sullivan of The Washington Monthly sent me a private email noting another interesting mistake, when a commentator didn’t seem to realize that Protestants don’t take communion in Roman Catholic parishes. This item has, it seems, been corrected to remove a very, very offensive turn of phrase. Check out the very first comment linked to it.

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Pardon the interruption

printingpress 01 01As some of you have noticed, we are currently having some technical difficulties. This has required us to turn off the comments sections of the blog. Our tech friends at hope to have matters straightened out by Monday or thereabouts. So we’ll take today off and, maybe, swing back into action late Sunday with comments about religion coverage in the weekend editions.

Hang in there with us. Cyberspace can be complicated, sometimes.

Oh, what the heck.

Did anyone else see that “Blessed be the Bloggers” story in the Raleigh News and Observer? On one level, it’s a short feature about the role that blogs are playing in all kinds of denominations, from totally free-church Protestantism to American Catholicism. But it opens with a very concrete test case that deserves more inspection — the role of bloggers in the minor earthquake at the recent Southern Baptist Convention.

Reporter Yonat Shimron opens the door, but it doesn’t look like her editors gave her the room she needed to flesh out this major story.

Blogs give ordinary people a pulpit and make clergy one of a crowd. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the weeks leading up to the Southern Baptist Convention, held last week at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. In recent years, the convention of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has offered up unchallenged candidates for the presidency.

But this year, many Southern Baptists were unhappy with the endorsed candidate, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Springdale, Ark. The bloggers among them got online and vented. By the time delegates — called “messengers”– arrived in Greensboro, they were ready to give challenger [Frank] Page their vote. It’s impossible to say how many of the messengers actually read any of the blog entries. But there was no question the bloggers created a buzz.

Actually, the “moderates” over at Associated Baptist Press had this story going into the convention. Click here to see their story on the rising tide of Baptist bloggers. And, of course, I mentioned this angle here at GetReligion in my post on the surprise election of Page. Since then I’ve continued to receive emails from old Baptist sources of mine about the blogging hooks in this story.

No doubt about it. There’s a story in there that affects everybody from the Southern Baptists to the Episcopalians. As the old saying goes: Freedom of the press belongs to people who own one.

I hope ours is back up and running very soon. See you in the comments pages in a day or two.

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