The Mosul purge: How good is the media coverage?

The purge of Christians from Mosul in northern Iraq — home to thriving Christian communities almost since biblical times — is a historic human rights abuse. Yet mainstream media have done comparatively little coverage on it, probably because they’re stretched thin with the twin stories of the airline shoot-down in Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Also, of course, the Islamic State is in no mood to allow access to the “kafir” media.

Still, some reports have emerged, and some are brave, sensitive and frank on what the Christians are suffering.

The New York Times is often tone-deaf on religion in the U.S., but the newspaper has distinguished itself in stories like this one. Tim Arango’s newsfeature opens with an anecdote on the loss shared by Iraqi Christians and many Muslims:

BAGHDAD — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

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Immigration: Its not just Eric Cantor’s problem anymore

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: Sure, if the other man is an idiot. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist? Was Bin Laden a freedom fighter?

Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés (2012)

Immigration is the issue of the moment in the United States following Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary defeat this week. But the U.S. is not alone in playing host to illegal immigrants and struggling with sharply divided views over what to do about them.

Yet the coverage of the substance of these issues has been rather thin. The press here and abroad has been resorting to stock phrases and cliches to describe the controversies.

But where would newspapers be without cliches? In trouble most likely — for cliches enable authors to communicate ideological assumptions to their readers thus avoiding having to take the time or space to make an argument. European-style advocacy journalism relies on cliches to set the ideological tone of a story. Stock language lets the initiated know how they should approach an issue before they are presented with the facts.

For the party faithful cliches are a virtue. For the rest of us their use in political and social discourse destroys debate, limiting our autonomy of choice.

The language used by some French papers in their coverage of the trial of Father Gérard Riffard illustrates the methodology of cliche newspaper reporting. The language used at the top of the story sets the moral and ideological tone for the newspapers readers. It saves us the trouble and time of thinking through the issues and coming to our own conclusions.

So who is Riffard and what has he done to merit coverage in all the French dailies? The septuagenarian parish priest is on trial for harboring illegal immigrants (the view from the right) or for sheltering asylum seekers (the view from the left) in his rectory.

The classical liberal school of Anglo-American journalism would lay out his story along these schematic lines.

The opening paragraphs would report the who, what, when, where, why and how — Riffard stood trial last week before a court in Saint-Etienne in the Loire facing charges that he refused to obey the orders of the government ministry charged with overseeing refugees and stateless persons (Ofpra) that he desist from providing accommodation in his rectory and parish hall at the Church of Sainte-Claire in Montreynaud to migrants who had entered France unlawfully or who had overstayed their visas.

The article would have a lede sentence that would give the author’s editorial view of the matter, but then lead into the facts. Quotes from the trial would follow — the prosecutor’s denunciation of Riffard followed by the priest’s statement that he would not comply with the law. The potential penalties should he be found guilty would be presented — fines of almost $2000 a day for each day he is in contempt — followed by third-party commentary. Context would be provided that would ask whether the priest’s actions were representative of the views of the Catholic Church and his reasons and motivation would be spelled out. If space was available, the article would close with statements about immigration issues in France.

How have the French papers responded?

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Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

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Media’s Gosnell reputation isn’t going to fix itself

Days after my quest for answers about why the media downplayed abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s abortion trial went viral, we have seen approximately eleventy billion media analysis pieces about the coverage. Many folks have written mea culpas copping to pro-choice bias, ignorance, or other journalistic failures. Some folks have tried claiming that the coverage was really there, usually pointing to either 2011 or the day the trial began (a curious approach, given what we know about the time-space continuum). Others have said that since conservative outlets didn’t cover it (except, you know, they did), that excuses the lack of mainstream coverage. Some folks just reacted defensively, yelled at me and called me names. It really ran the gamut.

What we haven’t seen terribly much of, however, is good coverage of the trial, the abortion industry, regulation of said industry or the larger issues in play. The New York Times hasn’t run anything in days, after one particularly weak story that barely mentioned the trial.

Or take the Los Angeles Times. Let’s take a trip through its search engine. When birth control activist Sandra Fluke was called a bad name, did it think that a story worth covering? Yes, big time:

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What about that Komen/Planned Parenthood dust-up? The East Coast media flipped out about the decision by a private breast cancer foundation to stop funding the country’s biggest abortion provider. Did the Los Angeles Times? Yep:

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What about that Missouri Representative, Todd Akin, who said something very stupid about rape? Uh, yeah:

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So before we look at how the trial of Kermit Gosnell has been covered by the paper, let’s look at how the paper has covered another distant case, one that hasn’t even gone to trial yet. The case dealing with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Oh boy:

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Which brings us to the Times‘ coverage of Kermit Gosnell.

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Dr. Ben Carson’s faith makes news, this time

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Every now and then, the newspaper that lands in my front yard runs a story about one of the most famous and, for many, most inspirational men currently alive and well and working in Baltimore.

No, this is not another post about coverage of the theological insights of Ray “God’s linebacker” Lewis of the world champion Baltimore Ravens.

I’m talking about Dr. Ben Carson, who is usually, in media reports, described as the “trailblazing black neurosurgeon” at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is also well known as an author, of course.

The most recent Baltimore Sun story about the good doctor is not, repeat, is NOT, haunted by a religion ghost. In fact, the story does a pretty good job of noting that his Seventh-day Adventist faith is a crucial part of what makes him tick — even if the references settles for the usual “devout” label without providing any material that demonstrates that fact, as opposed to simply proclaiming it.

Let me repeat, this particular story does not ignore religion. In fact, the team that produced it made sure to include the doctor’s beliefs as part of his public persona.

So what, in my humble opinion, makes this a story that deserves some GetReligion attention? I was fascinated by the fact that the Sun team clearly took the content of Carson’s faith semi-seriously for a completely and painfully obvious reason, which is that his recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast have stirred up political talk about his future.

The content of his faith is news because it’s political, not because it’s a key element in the life of a major figure in the city. Thus, readers are told right up front:

Dr. Ben Carson says he didn’t anticipate the reaction to what he considered his common-sense remarks as keynote speaker this month at the National Prayer Breakfast. But after video went viral of the trailblazing black neurosurgeon taking jabs at Barack Obama’s health care overhaul a few feet from the president himself, some want the famed doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to parlay the attention into a new career: politics.

“Here you have this guy who has been a celebrity minority for 30 years coming out and making the conservative case better than a lot of conservatives can,” said Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for National Review Online. “Emotionally, that had a really big impact for a lot of people.”

While some objected to Carson raising health care and tax policy at the traditionally nonpolitical Washington breakfast, conservative heavyweights Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter all cheered his address. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial with the headline “Ben Carson for President.”

Trust me on this: How does the Sun team expect their readers to react to all of those names, to this litany of cultural doom, in a news report about a prominent local African-American leader? Click here for the YouTube answer.

So what was Carson actually trying to say at the breakfast? It would have been nice if the piece had actually quoted a chunk or two of the address, but this information made it into the report:

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Is a blasphemous drag show really ‘anti-Catholic’?

Just yesterday Bobby pointed out a practice of double attribution, asking whether it goes beyond attribution into the dreaded scare quote territory. I wonder the same thing in a few stories I’m reading about the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

I started looking around when Michael Brendan Dougherty asked, on Twitter:

Curious why reporters put “anti-Catholic” in scare quotes in their stories.

Jonah Goldberg responded, “because they think the anti-Catholics are right.”

What are they talking about? Well, when Hagel was nominated, some groups mentioned that he’d opposed Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel to be an ambassador because he was “aggressively gay.” Those words might not have been as controversial during the Clinton administration as they are now, but people were upset.

I was surprised to learn the rest of the story today:

Hagel also told the World-Herald he has seen tape of Hormell (sic) at an event by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco-based performance and activist group comprised of gay men in drag as nuns.

“It is very clear on this tape that he’s laughing and enjoying the antics of an anti-Catholic gay group in this gay parade,” Hagel told the paper in the 1998 interview. “I think it’s wise for the president not to go forward with this nomination.”

It is always good to consider the context of any remark. Hagel has apologized for his remarks either way, but knowing that Hagel was upset by Hormel laughing it up at a blasphemous drag show is an important detail. But is the group really blasphemous or anti-Catholic?

Wikipedia explains the group’s activities:

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Is Sandra Fluke a ‘social justice’ advocate?

Conservatives had quite a bit of fun with a Reno Gazette-Journal article that was originally headlined:

Fluke Takes Center Stage In Reno

The caption for the photo of Fluke that ran underneath the headline but before the copy said:

Sandra Fluke, a social justice advocate and campaign surrogate for Democratic President Barack Obama, speaks in Reno on Saturday.

Now, it turns out that taking “center stage” in Reno means that 10 (ten!) people showed up in the parking lot of the Sak ‘N’ Save in North Reno to hear her. Ten. Yes, the star of such puff pieces as the Washington Post‘s recent hagiography (“Sandra Fluke isn’t finished testifying“) drew a crowd of 10 people and the local paper promoted it in advance and headlined it as if to suggest the event was quite successful. This was why so many people noticed the less-than-stellar journalism of the Reno News-Gazette.

I didn’t even bother with the silly Post piece — it ran in their progressive cultural issues advocacy section called “Style.” But my favorite part was that it called the woman, who in her prime time Democratic National Convention speech accused Rep. Paul Ryan of trying to kill women (and I don’t mean figuratively!), “independent.” Isn’t that the word to use to describe Democratic partisans hoping other people will be forced against their religious objections to pay for birth control they oppose? I think it is, obviously, and good on the Washington Post for figuring out the right word in the piece to explain how Fluke was about to embark on this awesome campaign tour for President Barack Obama. Hurray! Journalism! (To be fair, I did learn some things from the praise piece, even religion-related news, such as that Fluke is the daughter of a Methodist minister.)

Anyway, rather than focus on the “takes center stage” part of the headline, which was changed at some point, or the rather tendentious language in the copy of the piece, I want to focus on something someone else picked up on. The Gannett paper there in Reno describes Fluke as a “social justice” advocate.

What does that mean? I mean, she’s known for almost nothing other than advocating for forced birth control subsidies and abortion on demand. How is that “social justice”? And why not just call her an advocate for government mandated birth control subsidies? Why the euphemism? Why the lack of clarity?

But even more than that, “social justice” is a term with specifically Roman Catholic connotations. That it would be used to describe a woman who specifically enrolled at a Jesuit law school with the express purpose of upending the school’s policy against subsidizing students’ birth control is odd, no? Her entire fame is due to her work against Catholic teaching in practice. I think journalists can pick a better term — and hopefully avoid the incorrect euphemism — here.

“Social justice” is a non-neutral term on a good day. It suggests that people who believe in achieving the same means in a different manner are for social “injustice.” We’d be wise to avoid the term in general. But it really should not be used to describe a woman whose entire fame is based on fighting on behalf of the federal government against Catholic charities and other religious groups.

Byzantine accusations, jammed into a bad headline

The Byzantine drama linked to the removal of Metropolitan JONAH as the leader of the Orthodox Church in America continues to unfold online, even though there has been little information revealed that has not been the subject of rumors and debates for quite some time.

It is hard, at this point, for mainstream coverage of the story to provide outsiders with information deeper than a press statement from the OCA hierarchy — in other words, from the players on one side of this ecclesiastical battle. Most importantly, Metropolitan JONAH has either chosen not to speak in his own defense or, perhaps as a condition of ongoing financial settlement talks, has been forbidden to speak. To my knowledge, he has not said a word in public.

At the end of my first post on this topic, I offered the following summary statements about some of the journalistic issues involved in this matter:

At some point, reporters will have to face a crucial question (should ecclesiastical or secular court proceedings come to past): What do the OCA’s own canon laws say about the events, the actual OCA Synod and Metropolitan Council meetings, that led to Metropolitan JONAH’s fall?

Yes, reporters will need to find informed voices on both sides of those questions, too. Good luck with that.

Essentially, this is still where we stand. It is true that the OCA leadership that ousted +JONAH has produced a letter stating many familiar accusations, a letter that — when the events described are put into a timeline — raises just as many, or more, questions than it answers. That letter can be read here (as a .pdf document) or, for those who don’t want to mess with the .pdf format, over here (as an online document with annotations by a pro-JONAH activist involved in the debates).

The passage in this document that will get the most attention is the following, in part because of its handling of rape accusations against a monastic who — here is one of the key factual questions in this matter, and thus a point journalists must probe — either was, or was not, ever brought into the OCA and, thus, under the authority or control of Metropolitan JONAH.

At some point after his enthronement as our Primate, Metropolitan Jonah unilaterally accepted into the OCA a priest known to him and to others to be actively and severely abusing alcohol, which more than once was coupled with episodes of violence and threats toward women. … While under Metropolitan Jonah’s omophorion, this priest is alleged to have committed a rape against a woman in 2010. Metropolitan Jonah was later told of this allegation in February 2012, yet he neither investigated, nor told his brother bishops, nor notified the Church’s lawyers, nor reported the matter to the police, nor in any other way followed the mandatory, non-discretionary PSPs of the OCA. The alleged victim, however, did report the rape to the police. We know, too, that the alleged victim and a relative were encouraged by certain others not to mention the incident, and were told by them that their salvation depended on their silence. …

We have started an investigation into the rape allegation, and cannot assume whether the allegation is true or not.

Journalists will, throughout this document, note that it keeps switching back and forth between making fact statements and then statements of what are alleged as facts — often about the same event or series of events. Also, the crucial issue of whether this priest was ever brought into the OCA and, thus, subject to its church procedures, is mentioned, but never in terms of factual details.

There is much that can be discussed about all of that. However, this controversial monastic has not been tried or convicted, either by the church or the state. At this point, what is the status of the woman’s accusation? Someone will need to debate some of these issues in a public forum or in public documents, that is, if mainstream journalists are going to have any chance to listen to both sides and report their views fairly and accurately in public media.

This brings me, alas, to the following headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Orthodox Church in America dismisses archbishop for failing to remove rapist priest

Also, note the certainty in this lede, which even jumps beyond the language used in accusations aired by the OCA Synod:

Citing the sex-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and at Pennsylvania State University, the Orthodox Church in America has dismissed its presiding archbishop for failing to remove a priest who had raped a woman and been jailed for other violent acts.

The Holy Synod of the church, whose members number about 85,000 in the United States and Canada, announced this week that Metropolitan Jonah, 52, had stepped down Saturday after ignoring the church’s procedures for responding to sexual misconduct.

This is, of course, essentially a rewrite of a press release by one side of a highly contentious, to say the least, debate.

Strangely enough, the same story — only a few lines later — notes that: “Church leaders say they are cooperating with law enforcement and investigating the rape allegation.”

Yes, you read that right. The “rapist priest” (statement of fact) who “had raped a woman” (statement of fact) is now the subject of a church investigation into the “rape allegation.” So which is it, certainty or allegation? And one more thing. Is there, in fact, a police investigation with which the church is cooperating?

Meanwhile, readers will also note that this story does not contain a single quote drawn from a source who backs the fallen metropolitan or who is in any way critical of the OCA leadership. Perhaps there will be a sequel about the views on the other side.

Debates on these topics are raging online and many of the key voices are using their real names (for a change). Meanwhile, the Inquirer story is, as journalism, a major step backwards from the Chicago Tribune story that ran soon after the story broke.

For journalists interested in identifying many of the crucial questions here, I would recommend the following post (read it all) by journalist (and close friend of this weblog) Rod Dreher, an OCA layman whose most recent commentary has been highly critical of Metropolitan JONAH, as well as the OCA Synod. I recommend this essay to journalists, not because I expect everyone to agree with Dreher’s point of view, but because of his relentless, journalistic emphasis on the need for leaders on both sides to take their information public so that it can be evaluated by the laity, OCA clergy, lawyers, journalists, you name it.

The last thing anyone needs right now, in this tragedy or in this news story, is silence and slammed doors. I would assume that all mainstream journalists attempting to cover this story can agree on that.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of a correction at the Inquirer site and no sign of “alleged” in the headline or the lede.


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