Teasing readers about propaganda

alqaedaLife is like a night in a second-class hotel. It contains hints of beauty and glory with little of the reality. This is more than a paraphrase of a quote from St. Teresa of Avila. It serves as an analogy for the coverage of religion in The Washington Post‘s two-part series about propaganda in the U.S. war against Islamic terrorism.

Reporter Craig Whitlock tantalized his readers with great quotes about the influence of religion in the battle. Yet he never examined or elaborated on it. I was left frustrated, feeling as if I were allowed to look at the dessert tray but not order from it.

Early on in the first article, Whitlock described the journalistic missteps of al-Hurra, the U.S.-funded Arabic language television network. His examples included the following:

One news anchor greeted the station’s predominantly Muslim audience on Easter by declaring, “Jesus is risen today!” After al-Hurra covered a December 2006 Holocaust-denial conference in Iran and aired, unedited, an hour-long speech by the leader of Hezbollah, Congress convened hearings and threatened to cut the station’s budget.

These are two fine examples of religious and political ignorance. Yet Whitlock did not analyze or elaborate upon their implications. Did Middle-Eastern audiences, most of whom presumably are Islamic, know or sense that the network’s anchors are Christian? Were network executives unaware that some Islamic speakers would be anti-Semitic or Holocaust deniers?

Both questions are relevant. Later on in the first story, Whitlock reports that the news staff idid not mirror its audience:

None of the team members spoke Arabic. For that, they relied on Mouafac Harb, a Lebanese journalist hired as al-Hurra’s first news director.
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According to former al-Hurra staffers, Harb filled the newsroom with Lebanese employees, many of whom had thin journalistic credentials. Anchors spoke in heavy Lebanese dialects, turning off viewers from other countries. On-air reporting errors were common.

“He hired his friends — this was the problem — and they didn’t have any experience,” said Magdi Khalil, a former producer who clashed with Harb. “I told him, ‘We need to improve the quality.’ He said, ‘No, no — we need to fill the air.’ He had no idea what being a news station means.”

In a telephone interview from Beirut, Harb said it wasn’t easy to persuade leading Arab journalists to come to Washington to work for a station funded by the U.S. government. He denied that his anchors and news-show hosts spoke in dialects but acknowledged that the staff was top-heavy with Lebanese.

You gotta wonder if religious differences also turned off viewers. Nearly two-fifths of Lebanon is Christian. Did Middle-Eastern viewers see al-Hurrah as not only the American channel, but also the Christian and Jewish one? It’s a real question. At the end of the story, Whitlock quotes one ordinary Middle-Eastern citizen saying the following:

On a busy shopping street in Cairo one recent evening, it was difficult to turn up loyal al-Hurra viewers. Most people said they had not heard of the station or had only a passing familiarity with it.

“I’ve watched it a couple of times, but I mostly watch al-Jazeera,” said Hayam Saad, 35, a homemaker. “There are just too many channels on the satellite dish, and people want something they can relate to.”

Other people cited al-Hurra’s strange mix of programming: old documentaries with Arabic subtitles, a program about a Jewish singing group on tour in Australia, a show on the history of bluejeans.

It’s too bad. Whitlock wrote a well-reported, interesting story. But the article’s failure to explore the role of religion made the story incomplete.

The same problem bedeviled his article about al-Qaeda’s successful use of the Internet. Just like in the first story, Whitlock began on a promising note:

Early this year, a religious radical calling himself Abu Hamza had a question for the deputy leader of al-Qaeda regarding the Egyptian secret police. “Are they committing unbelief?” he tapped on his keyboard. “And is it permissible to kill them?”

A few weeks later, an answer came from a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Killing the police is justified, Zawahiri replied, because they are “infidels, each and every one of them.”

This graph suggested a lot: al-Qaeda fighters are theologically curious, if blood thirsty; dependent on a wise man for theological and spiritual guidance; view religion as central to their being.

Yet Whitlock did not explore any of these angles. Instead, he wrote about al-Qaeda’s technological sophistication and power, as well as the success of a native Californian at making recruiting videos. Don’t get me wrong; each is a key part of the story. But isn’t the apparently religious-inspired enthusiasm of al-Qaeda’s members?

Sure, reporters have explored al-Qaeda’s religious beliefs before. But this story needed more religious context. Is their commitment to their brand of Islam their sole motivation? Do al-Qaeda fighters take all of their marching orders from figures such as al-Zawahiri or al-Zawahiri himself?

I’m not asking for much — a sentence here, a paragraph there. A little bit of religion coverage could have gone a long way.

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Pew views: Questions about Oprah America

rainbow vestments 04As you may have noticed — if you have taken a turn or two around the WWW in the past 20 hours or so (click here) — those amazingly productive people over at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have rolled out the second half of their lay-of-the-land study of religion in the United States.

I’ll kick off the GetReligion discussion of the coverage by looking at the national stories in the New York Times and USA Today. I would also urge you to head straight over to the Pew Forum site and check out the survey for yourself. We are very much at the stage where most — repeat, “most” — of the press reports are sticking to the Forum’s own talking points.

But first let me make three comments about the main headlines, which center on this question in the survey:

[IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.

Question No. 1: What is a “religion”? What is a “faith”?

I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ. There are others who might have a “dual covenant” view of Judaism, but not apply that belief to Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc.

Other Christians may believe that, somehow, all people will — in this life or the next — face some kind of spiritual decision about Jesus being “the way, the truth and the life.” But if you asked them if that means that only Christians will “be saved,” they will say that only God can know that. It is highly unlikely that they will say that the Bible is wrong or that centuries of Christian teaching are wrong. Yet it is unlikely that all of them — even Billy Graham — will be strictly dogmatic about what THEY know about eternity. How do they answer this Pew question?

In other words, there is a reason that the first two questions in the infamous “tmatt trio” are:

Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

Question No. 2: Is the American press now officially defining “tolerance” in doctrinal terms instead of in social or public terms? In other words, to be “tolerant” now, does one have to hold a certain doctrine of salvation? Do you have to be a “universalist” on that issue and believe that all religious paths lead to the top of the same eternal mountain?

What happened to the old definition — at the heart of American church-state separation — that citizens were supposed to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs and allow them full rights of free speech and association? In other words, is it now “tolerant” to be intolerant of people that you do not believe to be adequately tolerant on issues of salvation? There was a time, early in American history, when one of the main points of religious toleration was to provide freedom for people to proclaim their beliefs, even if that meant evangelism by, let’s say, Baptists in a state that was led by, let’s say, intolerant Anglicans (think Virginia). This point of view influenced the freethinkers of that day, including a deist or universalist like Thomas Jefferson.

Question No. 3: Has there been much actual change in the beliefs of the more committed 40 percent of the U.S. population that tends to practice its faith in a more strict manner? For a generation or two, the Gallup Poll numbers have consistently shown that about 40 percent of all Americans are frequent worshipers and people whose beliefs impact their daily lives in a strong way.

You can read the Pew Forum data and reach the conclusion there is a lot of change in the other 60 percent and perhaps some change in younger people in the 40 percent. But I am not sure that this survey shows that the vague, foggy faith of “Oprah America” has really cracked that much deeper into the beliefs of the people who are in the pews and on their knees week after week. I am sure there is change — James Davison Hunter has been seeing warning signs for decades — and I think the Pew Forum folks are sharp enough to find it and underline it. But I still want to know more about how the “true believers” are faring in this day and age. Has there been much change there?

So with that background, let’s turn to the lede in the Times:

Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths. For example, 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did. Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.

The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said.

stoles 01Several questions: How is that mush word “evangelical” defined? And, again, has a real tie between religious commitment and this new doctrinal toleration actually been demonstrated?

After all, a few lines later we read:

The survey confirms findings from previous studies that the most religiously and politically conservative Americans are those who attend worship services most frequently, and that for them, the battles against abortion and gay rights remain touchstone issues.

And later:

As past surveys have shown, this report found that Americans who prayed more frequently and attended worship services more often tended to be more conservative and “somewhat more Republican” than other people. Majorities of Mormons and evangelicals say they are conservative, compared with 37 percent of Americans over all. (Twenty percent say they are liberal, and 36 percent say moderate.)

This turns into politics so quickly, doesn’t it? I wish there was a survey that really went hard, in very detailed language, about the underlying doctrines.

Meanwhile, if you want a fuller survey of all the results — and the over-arching trends in the vague 60 to 70 percent of the population — turn to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s reporting in USA Today. Here is a key piece of her long story:

The survey finds U.S. adults believe overwhelmingly (92%) in God, and 58% say they pray at least once a day. But the study’s authors say there’s a “stunning” lack of alignment between people’s beliefs or practices and their professed faiths. …

Among the highlights:

* 78% overall say there are “absolute standards of right and wrong,” but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to “practical experience and common sense,” with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.

* 74% say “there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” but far fewer (59%) say there’s a “hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”

* 70%, including a majority of all major Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons, say “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

* 68% say “there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

* 44% want to preserve their religion’s traditional beliefs and practices. But most Catholics (67%), Jews (65%), mainline Christians (56%) and Muslims (51%) say their religion should either “adjust to new circumstances” or “adopt modern beliefs and practices.”

Like I said, there are many, many, many more angles and stories to investigate. Tell us the best ones that you have seen in other media.

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WaPo’s sabbath from criticism

sundayschool2 I got a confession to make. For years, I avoided reading the religion sections of weekend papers. The stories were uncritical and dull. They were about children lighting candles or people praying for peace and love.

That’s not why I read stories about religion. Good stories were about social conflict, individual sacrifice, and theological demands. They were about Jews vs. Muslims in the Middle East or Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland; Mother Teresa helping the poor on the streets of Calcutta; and disputes over what happens in abortion clinics and people do in their bedrooms. For lack of better words, religious stories were not only exciting but also complex.

Since contributing to GR, I now read the religious sections in weekend newspapers. Yet my main criticism of them, for most of their stories anyway, still stands. Take this Washington Post story by Jacqueline Salmon.

The story was about non-Christian religions that teach children their values and beliefs on Sunday. It was really two stories rolled into one, both of which were uncritical celebrations of religion.

The first story was about four religious groups that hold Sunday school for their children:

In the Hindu faith “there is nothing in the tradition which mandates Sunday as particularly sacred,” said Vineet Chander, a spokesman for the Hare Krishna movement. Formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, it is a branch of Hinduism.

But in the United States, Sunday “becomes a practical choice,” Chander said.

Later we read:

The Jewish faith offers Sunday school, even though its Sabbath runs from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. For Reform and Conservative synagogues, as well as some Orthodox ones, Sunday mornings are a time for younger children to learn about their religion and the Jewish culture in preparation for their bar or bat mitzvahs. …

Sunday religious programs for Muslim children are also a well-established tradition in the United States. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), one of the largest mosques in the D.C. area, offers morning and afternoon sessions for 500 children at its Sterling location, ADAMS spokesman Rizwan Jaka said. Along with studying the Koran, the children learn Arabic, socialize, play sports and do community service work. The usual Islamic day of worship is Friday.

Let it be said that this information is interesting; I did not know each group held Sunday school. But it is not news. As Salmon notes, each group has held Sunday school for years. So why are we presented this information now? It’s confusing.

The story also skirts an issue. Each of the three religious groups presumably changed its days to educate children. None worship on Sunday. Yet now they hold school on Sunday. Were there any dissenters over this change? Were there disputes?

The second story is about secular humanists expanding their number of Sunday schools:

In May, the American Humanist Association announced the launch of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center in Northwest D.C. to develop a curriculum for the humanist equivalent of Sunday school.

Children, and eventually adults, will learn about the history of secular humanism; the basics of critical thinking; values and virtues like humility, empathy and courage; the basics of evolution; conflict resolution; human rights; and the separation of church and state.

They’ll also receive a solid grounding in the world’s religions, said Bob Bhaerman, education coordinator for the Kochhar center.

At the Washington Ethical Society, a humanist religious community on 16th Street NW with about 300 members, Sunday school is already well established. Children start in nursery school and progress through high school.

The overarching goal: “Children learn to be kind and fair and get an opportunity to create a better world for all,” Sunday school director Peggy Goetz said.

Unlike the first story, this story was news. Yet it, too, is uncritical. Are secular humanists likely to succeed? Are they tapping into religious needs that traditional religions ignore? The story needed a scholar or academic.

No good religious news story is read before bedtime. It’s the type of story that can be argued over at dinner .. provide such a thing is allowed of course.

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What kind of Baptist church is this?

rublev trinity iconAssociated Press writer Angela Delli Santi wrote a story about a Muslim student’s lawsuit against his public high school:

A Muslim student who sued because his public high school graduation ceremony was held in a Baptist church has received an apology from Newark’s school district and assurances that it will not hold future events in houses of worship.

Bilal Shareef said he had to skip his 2006 graduation from West Side High School because his religious beliefs prohibit him from entering buildings containing icons of God.

The lawsuit was filed on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union. Newark public schools apologized to Shareef and his father and agreed to change its policies under terms of the settlement announced Monday.

A reader sent along the story because of the oddness of the second paragraph. Baptist churches aren’t exactly known for their icons, he noted:

What “religious icons” are found in Baptist churches other than a cross, a “Christian” flag and maybe, just maybe, Warner Sallman’s portrait of Christ?

Aren’t most Baptist churches really icon-free?

It’s a good question. I think the AP reporter could have explained Shareef’s objection much better. In Christianity, an icon is a representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage. Icons, such as the one pictured here, are particularly identified with Eastern Christendom. But even if it just means an image or representation, a further explanation is in order. And once we had a better idea of what in particular was problematic for Shareef, a greater discussion of the theological basis for his opposition should also have been included.

Speaking of Baptists . . . if you’re looking for coverage of the Southern Baptist Convention, you should read Peter Smith’s Faith and Works blog at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He’s got updates on efforts to clean up Baptist membership rolls (full story here), how the SBC elected their first president of color this week, a motion that would block Al Mohler from running for president, and much, much more.

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The eroding freedom to offend, part I

2a cbldf first amendment imageMost Americans probably assume that the First Amendment has locked in solid free speech and press rights for all eternity, but that has not always been the case nor may it be the case in the future. One of the most important under covered stories received some much-needed attention Thursday in The New York Times: the erosion of freedom of speech and the press around the world.

It is a very good development that the NYT did a news story on this subject. Spouting off opinions on how the world should be on the op-ed page is one thing, but it’s another matter to have a straightforward news account on the state of free speech in the United States and other parts of Western society:

“In much of the developed world, one uses racial epithets at one’s legal peril, one displays Nazi regalia and the other trappings of ethnic hatred at significant legal risk, and one urges discrimination against religious minorities under threat of fine or imprisonment,” Frederick Schauer, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in a recent essay called “The Exceptional First Amendment.”

“But in the United States,” Professor Schauer continued, “all such speech remains constitutionally protected.”

Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India all have laws or have signed international conventions banning hate speech. Israel and France forbid the sale of Nazi items like swastikas and flags. It is a crime to deny the Holocaust in Canada, Germany and France.

Earlier this month, the actress Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, was fined $23,000 in France for provoking racial hatred by criticizing a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep.

By contrast, American courts would not stop a planned march by the American Nazi Party in Skokie, Ill., in 1977, though a march would have been deeply distressing to the many Holocaust survivors there.

NYT reporter Adam Liptak gets credit just for giving the newspaper’s readers coverage of this story from an objective viewpoint. Too often key stories from the NYT are bumped to the editorial page.

There is so much that could be said, and hopefully other mainstream journalists and even the partisan press will pick up this story. This is an issue that could impact conservatives and liberals, traditional journalists and <a href="http://www.buzzmachine.com/2008/06/12/the-internet-is-the-first-amendment. Hopefully this will be just the first in a series of stories from several news organizations on the importance of strong free press laws. If future federal judges are not asked about this subject at confirmation hearings, news organizations should highlight that fact.

The story leads off with the high-profile example of free speech under attack in Canada where a group of Muslim students have sued a magazine under their country’s Human Rights Act. Here’s what one of the students told National Public Radio’s On the Media in April (More here from National Review‘s Mark Hemmingway:

BOB GARFIELD: Before you filed your complaint, you tried to persuade Maclean’s to let you rebut the Mark Steyn piece. Tell me how that played out.

NASEEM MITHOOWANI: Before we actually met with Maclean’s, we wanted to do some research into the editorial content of Maclean’s Magazine to see if this was essentially one article or one in a series of many.

What we found was within two years Maclean’s published 19 very lengthy articles, all which in some way, shape or form alleged that Muslims are to be viewed as the enemy.

We felt that it was time for the Muslim population to play a part in the discussion about Islam and Muslims that Maclean’s had started. We therefore went to Maclean’s editors. We asked that a mutually acceptable author — so not us, because we’re not writers, but somebody that we could both agree upon — would be allowed to author a response to the Steyn article.

We were told that Maclean’s would rather go bankrupt than allow for any response. And that’s what really spurred the human rights complaint.

For the rest of the story, see here what the magazine’s editor-in-chief had to say:

Maclean’s declined an interview, but Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Whyte made this statement last December, quote: “The student lawyers in question came to us five months after the story ran. They asked for an opportunity to respond. We said that we had already run many responses to the article in our letters section but that we would consider a reasonable request.

They wanted a five-page article written by an author of their choice to run without any editing by us except for spelling and grammar. They also wanted to place their response on the cover and to art-direct it themselves. We told them we didn’t consider that a reasonable request for response.

When they insisted, I told them I would rather go bankrupt than let someone from outside of our operations dictate the content of the magazine. I still feel that way.”

Unfortunately, the NYT article failed to show the true horror that this type of legal regime could place on news organizations. The idea of someone or a group having the ability to force a magazine or news organization to publish anything without substantive editing authority sends shivers up my spine.

First Amendment WherePut it simply, if a magazine runs articles that someone finds offensive, the publication’s pages could be held hostage or the editors and publishers subject to expensive lawsuits and damage awards. I wonder how many editors and publishers out there would rather go bankrupt than plead guilty and allow 5-page, unedited rebuttals printed in their magazines.

A big question I have is why two of the main forces behind this shift in the law are members of a major world religion, Islam, and liberal thinkers:

“It is not clear to me that the Europeans are mistaken,” Jeremy Waldron, a legal philosopher, wrote in The New York Review of Books last month, “when they say that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect against certain forms of vicious attack.”

Professor Waldron was reviewing “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment” by Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times columnist. Mr. Lewis has been critical of efforts to use the law to limit hate speech.

But even Mr. Lewis, a liberal, wrote in his book that he was inclined to relax some of the most stringent First Amendment protections “in an age when words have inspired acts of mass murder and terrorism.” In particular, he called for a re-examination of the Supreme Court’s insistence that there is only one justification for making incitement a criminal offense: the likelihood of imminent violence.

The religious component of this story is tricky because it involves a religion, Islam, that few American journalists have been able to cover with the subtleness necessary to properly convey its beliefs, customs and traditions. The coverage of the Danish Cartoon controversy comes to mind. Understanding Islamic blasphemy laws and how courts or commissions may or may not apply them outside Islamic legal jurisdictions is key to understanding how religion plays into this story.

A free press has developed primarily in the West, but that development is relatively new and incomplete. Journalists should also not forget the United States’ own history of repressing free speech and the press. There are Britain’s ancient blasphemy law, which remain on the books today.

Even Thomas Jefferson was known, once he became president, to engage in the repression of the press when it was in his favor to do so. Most significantly though, the nasty history of the Alien and Sedition Acts should remind all journalists that even in the United States at one point expressing one’s opinion could result in jail time.

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Obama a doomed apostate? (true or false)

obama father topperHey, did you hear that Barack Obama is not a Muslim?

Actually, the mainstream press has — thank God — devoted lots of coverage to shooting down that plague of forwarded emails. However, a more interesting topic has come up for debate over at the New York Times, in the wake of a controversial (to say the least) op-ed by Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of “Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.”

The very pushy headline on this piece: “President Apostate?” Here is the heart of the topic being discussed, which centers on the oft-stated claim that Obama’s election would be welcomed by the Muslim world.

This idea often goes hand in hand with the altogether more plausible argument that Mr. Obama’s election would raise America’s esteem in Africa — indeed, he already arouses much enthusiasm in his father’s native Kenya and to a degree elsewhere on the continent. But it is a mistake to conflate his African identity with his Muslim heritage. Senator Obama is half African by birth and Africans can understandably identify with him. In Islam, however, there is no such thing as a half-Muslim. Like all monotheistic religions, Islam is an exclusive faith.

As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother’s Christian background is irrelevant.

Well, here we go again. Note the problem areas in this discussion. There is one “Muslim world.” Obama was born a Muslim as Muslim law is “universally understood.” And so forth and so on.

The basic logic goes something like this. Obama’s father was a Muslim, at one time, which means the faith has a claim on his son. Obama is a convert to Christianity, which means that he is a Muslim apostate and, under Sharia law, some would say he should be killed for this offense against Islam. Note that I said “some” would see the issue that way, so I am already heading toward my point.

Luttwak, who is a military historian, goes on to make a number of points about the crime of apostasy and notes, in particular, that while there is some debate about the proper punishment for apostasy, there is wide agreement on the fact that Muslims who kill apostates should not be punished. Really?

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

That an Obama presidency would cause such complications in our dealings with the Islamic world is not likely to be a major factor with American voters, and the implication is not that it should be. But of all the well-meaning desires projected on Senator Obama, the hope that he would decisively improve relations with the world’s Muslims is the least realistic.

The public editor at the Times rejected, well, all of this in a fierce rebuttal column that ran with the headline “Entitled to Their Opinions, Yes. But Their Facts?”

obama cross 01Once again, Clark Hoyt makes a number of interesting points. But here is the big one:

Did Luttwak cross the line from fair argument to falsehood? Did Times editors fail to adequately check his facts before publishing his article? Did The Times owe readers a contrasting point of view?

I interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.

David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said.

That’s a pity in this case, because it might have sparked a discussion about whether Luttwak’s categorical language was misleading, at best.

As you would expect, I am all in favor of newspapers printing articles that debate these kinds of issues. That’s the whole point, in this case.

Luttwak clearly used language that was too simplistic on the issue of apostasy and Muslim identity, where claims of faith and ethnicity blur many lines. Yet it seems that, after interviewing some scholars in the context of North America — Hoyt comes close to going to the other extreme and saying that all Muslims agree with his more moderate, tolerant, evolving view of Islamic law.

Luttwak makes exclusive statements, based on one view of Islam. Hoyt comes very close to making exclusive statements on the other side of the issue and he certainly says that Luttwak is totally wrong — based on a competing view of Islam.

The problem, of course, is that there is no one Islam, no one view of this issue.

Truth is, debates continue to rage inside a number of different Muslim nations and cultures on how to handle apostasy and blasphemy. Reporters who cover these issues have to read both of these Times op-ed pieces with more than a grain of salt.

So all Muslims will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong.

So there are no Muslims who will see President Obama as an apostate? Wrong again.

Be careful out there.

Top photo: Barack Obama, Sr., and his son. Photo released by the Obama campaign team.

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Pounding the polygamy beat

Polygamy Under Attack FrontWhen Texas judge issued an order Monday allowing the parents in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to begin picking up their children, I noticed that the CNN headline was:

Polygamist moms can pick up their kids

That was at 12:54. By 1:36, it was changed to

Polygamist parents OK’d to pick up their kids

That’s a good change. The FLDS had put the mothers of the siezed children front and center as part of a smart public relations move. Putting the older fathers out there would have just reminded the public of the polygamy and age differentials. It’s smart for the FLDS to highlight the mothers but the press shouldn’t follow suit. The original headline is a small example of the many problems we saw with media coverage of the sect. Frankly, much of the coverage was sensationalistic, unreflective and about an inch deep.

In a sea of horrible coverage, one reporter in particular is an exception. Brooke Adams has been covering polygamous families for the Salt Lake Tribune for years. Day after day, she reports hard news and keeps a blog devoted to the subject. This week, for instance, she noted that the last DNA reports would arrive on 51st District Judge Barbara Walther’s desk and the state’s abuse and criminal investigations would pick up speed. The first thing Texas authorities will be looking for is whether sect leader Warren Jeffs fathered any children with four girls he married between 2004 and 2006. Apparently the sect says that the marriages were never consummated but the state alleges otherwise:

The search warrant that allowed Arizona authorities to collect DNA samples from Jeffs a week ago laid out a chilling pattern of underage marriages.

Using bishop’s records and photographs found at the YFZ Ranch, the Texas Attorney General’s Office alleges:

1. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on Jan. 18, 2004, in Utah. The evidence: Wedding photos.

2. That the girl gave birth on Oct. 14, 2005, when she was 15. The evidence: Photos of the girl and Jeffs moments after birth; he is holding the newborn.

3. That Jeffs sexually assaulted a 12-year-old he married on July 27, 2006, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records and photographs.

4. A marriage between Jeffs and a 14-year-old girl on July 22, 2004, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records.

5. A marriage between Jeffs and a 12-year-old girl on April 16, 2005, at the YFZ Ranch. The evidence: Bishop’s records.

The DNA will show whether Jeffs and any of the girls are parents of any child at the ranch.

And if they do, the probe will likely snare others: the girls’ parents and anyone else who knew and kept silent. No more floodlights; this time the state will be proceeding with laser-beam focus.

I didn’t even see this reported elsewhere. One story that I wish we’d highlighted here was Adams’ piece from April about how the YFZ Ranch raid echoed the Short Creek raid from the 1950s. It was one of the most prescient pieces of reporting I’ve read all year.

Thankfully Adams’ work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Kelly McBride highlighted her work for Poynter. Characterizing other reporters as gullible and sensationalistic, McBride provides examples of how Adams out reported them. She says that Adams’ reliance on polygamous families instead of Texas authorities made the difference:

Some readers of Adams’ coverage might see an overly sympathetic view of the FLDS. I see something different. Sometimes being a good reporter means taking on an unpopular cause, asking difficult questions. Yes, there are children in the FLDS church who have been forced into marriage and thus sexual relations, Adams says. But there are also families who don’t do that, she says.

I actually agree that some of her coverage was overly sympathetic. But still, her stories included more real people than anyone else’s. And she was healthily critical when no one else was. What made Adams’ work different according to McBride?

*Knowledge. Adams has experience and history with the topic. That meant she knew more about the FLDS than most of her sources. She could spot myths and hyperbole and kept them out of her reporting.

*Thoroughness. Rather than simply reporting what Texas authorities were saying, Adams scrutinized all the court documents and then did her own reporting to verify or refute the evidence.

* Collaboration. Adams said her editor, Sheila McCann and her photography partner, Trent Nelson, were great supporters.

* Conviction. Maybe it helped that she was isolated in Texas, unable to see how her stories were playing back home. But Adams said she wondered why no other newsrooms were pursuing the same angle she was.

* Persistence. Getting FLDS families to open up is incredibly difficult. But Adams kept at it.

I can’t imagine many papers in the country other than the Salt Lake Tribune having a full-time polygamy reporter but Adams’ reporting sure does show the difference of having someone on the beat full-time.

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Outreach for atheists

philly billboardAs a believer, I am not quite sure how a nonbeliever would react to Thursday’s story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about an interstate billboard intended to reach out to atheists and nonbelievers in the area. See here how the story introduces the billboard:

With its image of blue sky and fluffy clouds, the rectangle floating lately over I-95 near Allegheny Avenue suggests something dreamy, almost heavenly.

At least from a distance.

Drivers headed north toward the giant billboard might first discern the words God and Believe and suppose this to be the work of a fundamentalist church.

But this is the work of no church.

“Don’t believe in God?” it asks. “You are not alone.”

Think of it as a sign of the times.

So people who don’t believe in God can’t use blue sky and fluffy cloud imagery to express their non-belief? Instead of a straightforward description of the billboard or a viewpoint, the story’s lead compares atheism with church-goers. Fair comparison?

And exactly how is this billboard a sign of the times (whatever that means)? Last time I checked, interstate billboards are generally seen as a tacky way of getting one’s message across.

Unfortunately, the story’s lead is hardly the highlight, at least from a critic’s point of view. Check out the description of the local business who donated the $22,500 to mount the billboard campaign:

No horns poke through Rade’s wiry gray hair. He is tall and bony, quick to laugh, and dressed for the office — he is president of Wireless Accessories Inc. — in shorts and sneakers. He has the restless energy of a teenager. He is 70.

“I’d like everyone to believe what I do,” he said, referring to his “absolute certainty” that there is no divine being running the universe and no life after death. “I think it would be a better world if they did.”

That’s really great for the reporter to point out that Rade has no horns because I was really wondering about that. Thanks for clearing it up for us.

In all seriousness, this is what we do not need our news stories about issues of faith to do for us: highlight unfair misconceptions about a group of people.

Speaking of groups of people, check out how the group is characterized near the end of the article:

Fred Edwords, spokesman for the roughly 10,000-member American Humanist Association, said he thought it was easier for atheists and agnostics to be public than in previous decades.

“In the 1980s, people were saying we’re part of a great conspiracy, trying to take over the schools and courts.”

The recent spate of best-sellers bearing such titles as The God Delusion, God Is Not Great and The End of Faith suggests a broader public interest in religious skepticism, Edwords said. “But we still feel we’re the last minority group it’s OK to say bad things about.”

The last bit about atheists and agnostics being a minority group is interesting and probably should not have been included in an objective news story without a deeper explanation.

A key element in the definition of a minority group has traditionally been in inherent unchangeable characteristic. Now, I am not saying that people who do not believe in God are spiritually incapable of believing in God. Nor am I saying that they can’t choose to believe in God. That’s a world of messy theological debates that has no place on this blog.

What I am saying is that reporters should be very careful before they use loaded terms such as “minority group” without referencing an accurate definition to support exactly what that term means in this context.

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