Pod people: Talkin’ about the f-word

First of all, my apologies that this Crossroads podcast is arriving several days late. You see, some key members of your GetReligionista team have spend quite a bit of time on airplanes in the past week or so heading hither and yon (seeing snow on the ground as I went through the Denver airport really brought back some high-altitude memories for me).

So this is, truth be told, last week’s podcast — when the events in Egypt were much more fresh.

Still, I hope that you enjoy some additional discussion on the whole “what does fundamentalist actually mean” theme. This really is an important topic, especially when it comes to the interesting and important information in that recent Pew Research Center poll on religious and political attitudes in Arab Spring Egypt. Click here for the GetReligion post that opened that discussion.

Anyway, my interest in the poll led me to seek some clarification from the people behind this survey. As you will see, they chose to use an Arabic term in the survey that they — when jumping to English — translated as “fundamentalist.” It is a term that some Muslims have begun using when referring to “radicals” on the ultraconservative side of Islam.

But what groups fit under this umbrella? What are the doctrines associated with this term? Does anyone know? Not that I can discern.

So here is the end of my Scripps Howard News Service column — Define fundamentalist, please — that followed up on on the overarching issue, which is the cloud of acidic fog that now surrounds the word “fundamentalist.” This long slice focuses on the actual Pew data:

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report.

“About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances meshes easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life – a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for “fundamentalist,” Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of “very conservative Muslims,” according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn’t a “fundamentalist” in the context of Egypt today.

“For our Egypt survey, the term ‘fundamentalist’ was translated into Arabic as ‘usuuli,’ which means close to the root, rule or fundamental,” he explained. “It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. … So that’s the word that we used.”

Oh, one other fun point about that column and this podcast.

In the column, I decided to use a classic quote from the great Reformed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga in which he offers a blunt view of what “fundamentalist” now means in the context of elite academia. For the wire service, this meant warning editors that my column contained the mild curse “sumbitch.” Why? Here’s Plantinga, in a longer version of the quote that I used:

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

On the podcast, enjoy my ex-Southern Baptist preacher’s kid reluctance to mangle the pronunciation of “sumbitch.” It’s not an academic word that I am used to using. Cheers.

Truthiness in that Egypt poll

Let’s be clear about the whole “fundamentalist” thing.

We have already established that an increasing number of mainstream journalists really don’t care what the word “fundamentalist” means and do not care that the Associated Press Stylebook has a fact-based approach to this word, which says (yet again):

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

We have also established that many GetReligion readers agree with these journalists and have taken a kind of “truthiness” option to defining complex and emotional terms such as “fundamentalist.” Hey, words evolve and, in the end, they mean what we say that they mean. We may not know what the new definition of “fundamentalist” is but using it sure as heckfire feels good when we throw it around and that’s what really matters.

The problem, of course, is that news people keep using the term “fundamentalist” as if if has a meaning that can be pinned down. And that leads to journalistic problems.

Consider this Washington Post report about a new Pew poll focusing on the mood in Egypt. The top of the story says:

CAIRO – Egyptians are deeply skeptical about the United States and its role in their country, but they are also divided in their attitudes about Islamic fundamentalists, according a poll released … by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

Most Egyptians distrust the United States and want to renegotiate their peace treaty with Israel, the poll found. But only 31 percent say they sympathize with fundamentalists, while 30 percent say they sympathize with those who disagree with fundamentalists. An additional 26 percent said they had mixed views.

Please note that the story makes absolutely no attempt to define this loaded term. In other words, the poll is asking Egyptians their opinion of “fundamentalists” when Islam, literally, does not include such a concept in its vocabulary.

So does “fundamentalist” mean those pressing for an Islamic state? Apparently not:

Although 75 percent were positive about the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially banned under Mubarak and is now the strongest political organization in the country, almost as many — 70 percent — felt positively about the youth-based April 6 movement that was mostly secular and was one of the key organizers of the protests.

So, does “fundamentalist” mean those who take a strict, literalistic approach to the Koran? What about those who want to base public life on the Koran? Let’s see, in the United States, what would we call people with a strict view of the truth of the Bible?

A majority of the country wants Egypt’s laws to strictly follow the Koran — 62 percent — and even among those who disagree with Islamic fundamentalists, the number only drops to 47 percent.

Go ahead, try to make sense of that sentence without a definition of the word “fundamentalist.”

This is a crucial point, since definitions of words such as “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are often based on just how strictly believers enforce the authority of their scriptures. The Pew talking points for this poll note:

The survey also finds that most Egyptians (62%) believe laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. About a quarter (27%) say laws should follow the values and principles of Islam but should not strictly follow the teachings of the Quran; just 5% say laws should not be influenced by the teachings of the Quran.

So about 32 percent take a so-called “moderate” approach, if you use that horrible, vague label the way most journalists insist on using it. That leaves the 62 percent as the ….

Well, we know they are not “fundamentalists.” I don’t know how we know that, but we do.

AARP Woodstock: Sex & spirituality

So, if you were a college senior and you went to Woodstock, how old would you be today?

It’s hard not to think about questions like that one while reading the Washington Post report about a new AARP sex survey, yet another story that demonstrates that there is nothing about Baby Boomer life that will escape newspaper headlines. Guess what? The boomers still love sex and they still believe that they are bravely going where no generation has gone before. Here’s a sample:

Table 13: Attitudes Toward Sex by Age and Gender.

“I love sex,” said Judy Lear, 66, national chair of the Gray Panthers, the intergenerational advocacy group for social justice and peace, when reached by telephone in New York City. “I thinks it’s fun, I think it’s great. I think it’s a really positive thing. I’m single, divorced; I have a very nice gentleman here in New York City. I don’t want to be married, I don’t want to live together, but I do like to have sex. We have this wonderful relationship.”

Lear could be the liberated-and-loving-it poster lady of a certain age for this new report, titled, “Sex, Romance, and Relationships: AARP Survey of Midlife and Older Adults,” based on a survey taken in August 2009.

So what, if anything, makes this a GetReligion story? Is there a religion ghost in here somewhere? After all, debates about sexual morality in an American context almost always include a religious component. Hold on to that thought.

As you would expect, the AARP survey also revealed that the Baby Boomers are very much a “spiritual” generation. Thus, we read that (gasp) some things are more important than sex:

Across most gender and age categories in the survey, folks actually place “a satisfying sexual relationship” behind other keys to quality of life, including, in descending order of importance: “being healthy,” “financial security,” “close ties to friends and family,” “personal independence,” “spiritual well-being,” “good relationship with spouse/partner” and “being productive and contributing.” One exception is the youngest category of males, of course, age 45 to 49. They place good sex ahead of spiritual well-being.

That’s nice.

No, it was another part of the story that most interested me, when it comes to looking for hard-news content linked to religion. Read between the statistical lines in this passage:

The researchers found that baby boomers, those sons and daughters — also older brothers and sisters — of the sexual revolution have gotten older, and their sexual mores have aged up with them. Key finding: The percentage who think you must be married to have sex has dropped by almost half in 10 years, from 41 percent to 22 percent.

That’s not an endorsement of infidelity. Only one in five men and one in 10 women in this age group admit to cheating on a partner. Rather, it’s an assertion of sexual freedom among widows, widowers, divorced people or folks who never married.

This is interesting for several reasons.

First of all, it has long been an assumption that most people become more conservative/traditional as they get older. Apparently, this does not apply to Boomers.

Second, several decades of reading Gallup, Barna and Pew Forum polls about religion in America have convinced me of the following. About 10 percent of all Americans are consistently liberal, when it comes to matters of culture and religion. Somewhere between 12 and 17 percent (depends on the poll and the questions) are attempting to live in a “conservative” way that, in one form or another, is rooted in a religious tradition.

In between, as I like to say, is OprahAmerica, the world of doctrinal Truthiness, emotions, experiences, feelings and doctrine that is evolving to fit the modern world.

Now, put one other number into that mix. How many Americans say they have been “born again” or give some other indication that they are linked to the vague world of evangelical or charismatic faith? That number tends to be somewhere around 35 percent or maybe a little higher. Once again, this depends on the wording.

This brings us back into “tmatt trio” territory. Remember the three questions that, as a mainstream reporter, I used to ask to find out who is who during battles inside Christian flocks? Here are those questions once again:

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

(2) 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)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, what percent of the AARP seniors said that sex outside of marriage is wrong and, thus, we might say “sinful”? That would be 22 percent.

Now, subtract this 22 percent number from that vague “born-again Christian” statistic of somewhere between 35 and 40 percent. Interesting, huh? Once again, let me argue that the development of a true “evangelical” and/or “charismatic” left in the post-Boomer era is one of the most under-covered religion-news stories in this day and age.

You see, the tmatt trio questions are even relevant when you are hanging out at a dinner for evangelical senior citizens (especially if anyone there went to Woodstock).

Photo: Yes, I confess that I am a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fan (especially of the jazzy acoustic 12-string folk-rock of David Crosby).

Oprah struggles with our ‘spiritual’ age?

If there is any person in American life who symbolizes the whole “spiritual” vs. “religious” storyline, that person would, for me, have to be Oprah Winfrey.

About a decade ago, in an interview with HomeliticsOnline.com, I summed up this whole “feelings and experience trump doctrine and history” trend with the term “OprahAmerica.” Please note that I also included George W. Bush and his nods to “Compassionate Conservativism” in this trend.

If only I had thought of the word “Truthiness“!

Anyway, the Washington Post Style section ran a story the other day reviewing the Oprah interview with Rielle Hunter, the “other woman” in the John Edwards story. This story was about as snarky as mainstream journalism gets, starting with the “Queen of Denial” reference to Hunter in the lede. The story is packed with irony and sarcasm and all kinds of Style section stuff.

I am here to suggest that the Style gods seem to have missed a major irony in this Oprah interview. Pay close attention to this pivotal slice of the whole:

After Rielle had explained to Oprah about a gajillion times that she was a person who was deeply committed to the truth and being authentic, Oprah was finally driven to ask: “So you are a person who is on a spiritual path. You’ve mentioned truth here several times. What part of you could make that okay, then, to be with this married man with children?”

“Because he was available,” Rielle said simply.

And how does God fit into this “spiritual” road map to truth, authenticity, integrity, happiness and a better America? A few lines later we read:

In July 2007, Edwards and his wife renewed their wedding vows, even though he knew he had a bun in someone else’s oven, by Rielle’s account. They had never used birth control, she explained.

Rielle acknowledged that she thought it was a bad thing for Edwards to stand before God and retake vows he knew to be a lie, but she didn’t think less of Edwards for having done that because “I understood where he was in his process,” Rielle said, as she waggled her pink sandal on her big toe. Oprah, to her credit, did not roll her eyes and throw up her hands.

Though he was “gracious” when he found out she was pregnant, he became “very angry when she was photographed by the National Enquirer, while hiding out at Edwards aide Andrew Young’s North Carolina home, Rielle told Oprah. She said Young then brought up the idea to claim he was the baby’s father.

“Why did you, Miss Spirituality in Alignment With the Truth … go along with it?” Oprah asked — a great line.

Rielle capitulated, she said, because she did not want her baby girl to grow up blaming herself for having kept Daddy from being president of the United States.

So, Oprah and the Style gods are saying that what Hunter did was absolutely wrong? By what standard? Might her behavior, and that of the candidate himself, even be called a “sin”? Is it always a sin to have sex with a person who is married to someone else? Where, precisely, does it say that? Who gets to articulate the exceptions to the rule?

Is the problem here that what Hunter did was tasteless and embarrassing? What, precisely, did “Miss Spirituality in Alignment With the Truth” do that was wrong, according to the commandments of OprahAmerica? She was following her own feelings, living out the experiences as they came to her. She was following her own path, right?

She was being “spiritual,” as opposed to being tied down by the ancient rules of “religion.” That’s a good thing. Correct?

What a great story, whether this was the story the Style gods planned to publish or not. In a way, this story “gets religion” in this day and age or, I should say, it “gets” what some people consider to be “spirituality.”

Drawing on religious tolerance

art classA recurring problem with stories about lawsuits is that only one side of the story is presented. Due to understandable hesitations, the party that is being sued is unlikely to comment on the lawsuit until they are able to formally respond to the lawsuit. You generally don’t win lawsuits on the news pages.

This dilemma is prefectly illustrated in this Associated Press report out of Madison on an anonymous student’s lawsuit against his school district after his art teacher told him it violated school policy because his drawing included the words “John 3:16 A sign of peace.” The teacher allegedly told the student that his constitutional rights were signed away at the start of the semester:

The lawsuit alleges other students were allowed to draw “demonic” images and asks a judge to declare a class policy prohibiting religion in art unconstitutional.

“We hear so much today about tolerance,” said David Cortman, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group representing the student. “But where is the tolerance for religious beliefs? The whole purpose of art is to reflect your own personal experience. To tell a student his religious beliefs can legally be censored sends the wrong message.”

Tomah School District Business Manager Greg Gaarder said the district hadn’t seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.

A benefit of relying on papers filed in a lawsuit is that the facts are all probably true. Attorneys stating inaccurate facts in papers filed with a federal court face stiff penalties if they were in anyway negligent in failing to determine their truthiness.

However, what will go unpunished and is even encouraged is the deliberate slanting and careful selection of facts that are intended to put the client in the most favorable light possible. That does not mean the facts should not be used, reporters should just be careful in portraying situations based solely on such documents. There is likely more to the story.

The story also neglects to refer to any controlling legal authority that could give the reader a sense for whether the student in this story has a chance of success. There may not be a clear answer, but if that were the case, we may have a Supreme Court case on our hands. Some quality analysis of the legal cause would be most helpful.

Lastly, the story cites the student in the story by his initials A.P. While this technique is common in legal practice, should it be in journalism? In other words, should a journalist allow the subject of their story to hide behind a cloak of anonymity while the rest of the characters in the story, usually portrayed as the villains, get to have their names in the newspaper?

Yes, this did deserve a correction

colberttruthiness 1 01And this just in, for all of you MZ fans who read this, this, this source material and, perhaps most importantly, this column by Byron Calame who is, at the moment, (still) the public editor of The New York Times.

You may even want to bop over to read what the people have to say at LifeSite.net, to catch their response to this latest wrinkle in the media-bias wars over abortion (which never end).

Editors’ Note

An article in The Times Magazine on April 9 reported on the effects of laws that make all abortions illegal in El Salvador. One case the article described was that of Carmen Climaco, who is serving a 30-year prison sentence in El Salvador.

The article said she was convicted in 2002 of aggravated homicide, and it presented the recollections of the judge who adjudicated Ms. Climaco’s case during the pretrial stage. The judge, Margarita Sanabria, told The Times that she believed that Ms. Climaco had an abortion when she was 18 weeks pregnant, and that she regretted allowing the case to be tried as a homicide. The judge based her legal decision on two reports by doctors.

The first, by a doctor who examined Ms. Climaco after the incident, concluded that she had been 18 weeks pregnant and had an abortion. A second medical report, based on an examination of the body that was found under Ms. Climaco’s bed, concluded that her child was carried to term, was born alive and died in its first minutes of life.

The three-judge panel that received the case from Judge Sanabria concluded that the second report was more credible than the first, and the panel convicted Ms. Climaco of aggravated homicide.

The Times should have obtained the text of the ruling of the three-judge panel before the article was published, but did not vigorously pursue the document until details of the ruling were brought to the attention of editors in late November.

A picture caption with the article also misstated the facts of the ruling. Ms. Climaco was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a case that was initially thought to be an abortion but was later ruled to be a homicide; she was not given 30 years in prison for an abortion that was ruled a homicide.

Ms. Climaco is now preparing to appeal her conviction. The Times is continuing to investigate the case.

And, finally, there are the letters to the editor on this case. Click here to see the ones that the powers that be decided to run, including reaction from some veteran journalists.

And let me end with yet another hat tip to the omnipresent Ted Olsen of Christianity Today‘s weblog, who will, I suspect, jump all over this one.

By the way, I think the GetReligion crew are pretty much done with our Christmas season travels. Once we dig our desks out from under the snail mail, we should be back to normal (whatever that is) in a day or two. Yes, we have been following all of the Episcopal coverage in Northern Virginia. Golly, there is just so much to catch up on!

What, then, deserves a correction?

colberttruthiness 1New York Times public editor Byron Calame has quite the challenging job. The Times is one of the most scrutinized papers in the world and Calame has to separate legitimate and illegitimate gripes over its reportage, story selection and headlines.

I encourage you to read his entire column from Sunday. He digs into a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story from April about women who have been prosecuted for violating El Salvador’s laws against abortion.

The story was written by Jack Hitt, a contributing writer to the Times, Harper’s and Mother Jones, among other publications. He’s written about abortion before for the Times.

Hitt interviewed two women who had been prosecuted under El Salvador’s abortion laws. D.C., who constitutes the bulk of the story, ends up receiving no punishment. But Carmen Climaco, the second and final key anecdote of the story, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Hitt says that she aborted a fetus at 18 weeks but that the abortion was recast as infanticide by strangling:

The truth was certainly — well, not in the “middle” so much as somewhere else entirely. Somewhere like this: She’d had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks, not all that different from D.C.’s, something defined as absolutely legal in the United States. It’s just that she’d had an abortion in El Salvador.

That’s how the story ends — quite dramatically. The only problem is that Hitt’s reporting was less than adequate. Here’s how Calame summarizes the problems:

It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the “recently born.” A three-judge panel found her guilty of “aggravated homicide,” a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel’s findings and ruling, the article’s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the “truth” was different.

Calame eloquently and diplomatically lays out many of the problems with the piece. He interviews Hitt and Times editors about the reporting and editing. He finds out that Hitt never checked the court documents on the case while preparing his story. This is particularly egregious since the Climaco anecdote was the only one supporting Hitt’s claim that women go to prison for 30 years for nothing more than abortions in El Salvador.

Hitt says that no editor or fact-checker ever asked him if he had checked court records. Hitt tells Calame he thought getting the documents would be difficult. Without any difficulty at all, however, Calame got a stringer in El Salvador to walk into the court building without making any prior arrangements and walk out with an official copy of the court ruling.

It turned out the only 18-week estimate mentioned in the court ruling came from a doctor who hadn’t seen any fetus and whose deductions, based on the size of the uterus 17 hours after the birth, were found by the three judges to be flawed, Calame notes. The panel that convicted Climaco used other medical evidence from a physician who conducted an autopsy to determine that the pregnancy had a 38- to 42-week duration. Another autopsy finding showed that the lungs of the victim floated when submerged in water, which indicated the baby had breathed at birth. That means that, unlike what Hitt dramatically said in his final lines, Climaco’s baby didn’t die under circumstances that would be legal in the United States.

Hitt also used an unpaid translator who consults for an abortion advocacy group in El Salvador for his interviews with D.C. and Climaco. That same group later used the Times story for fundraising purposes.

Anyone who has followed the sorry state of abortion coverage is disappointed but not likely to be surprised by all this. We’ve discussed the interesting politics of choosing anecdotes in the past. But what I do find surprising is how Calame’s thorough reporting to unveil — and diplomatic efforts to correct — the errors in the story are completely rebuffed by Times management.

After committing an error, a quick correction is the easiest course of action. Reporters hate getting things wrong, but when you do you just have to admit it and improve your work in the future. Let’s look at how the Times handled its error:

After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.

The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.”

But let’s give the Times the benefit of the doubt. That was before the court documents had been translated into English. Surely after that happened, the paper set about issuing a correction, right?

After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the “third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.

The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”

As accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Let’s see, the court ruling was in 2002. The story was written in 2006. How, then, is the article as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Am I missing some basic logic about the space-time continuum?

NYTmagnifyingglassFurther, the debate isn’t over whether The New York Times, er, El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized. The debate is over whether Hitt accurately portrayed the facts of the case. This is nothing short of a complete breakdown of the standards and editing process at the Times.

Abortion is such a contentious issue. It simply must be handled with extreme carefulness and a diligent checking of facts. Calame seems exasperated by the editors’ steadfast refusal to correct the error. Unfortunately, I think this does quite a bit to further erode any reputation of fairness the Times clings to on this issue.

Another note — a quick Google search on Hitt shows that Mother Jones isn’t the only liberal publication for which he writes. Calculate, for a moment, the probability of the Times sending a Roman Catholic from National Review down to El Salvador to freelance on the issue. I’ll save you the time. It’s zero. Perhaps the Times just wants to make sure that the folks who cover the issue have similar personal views on abortion as Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual” Greenhouse. But after all the criticism Times editors have faced over their abortion reporters this year, you wonder how that’s working out for them. Unless abortion advocacy — and not truthfulness — is the goal of this newspaper.

Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. Anyone out there want to attack Calame’s perspective and defend Times management?

How many Orthodox does it take to get a correction?

picftvcolbert01Here is another one of those situations in which I’ve read something in column A and that connected with something in column B and then that produced questions about some hard-to-define issue over in column C.

Stay with me for a minute.

Did you see Richard Cohen’s “Digital Lynch Mob” column in the Washington Post? In a column on May 4, Cohen wrote that Stephen “Truthiness” Colbert’s routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner wasn’t very funny.

Cohen isn’t a big President Bush fan, but he thought the comic was a bit out of line. Before Cohen knew it, he had 3,506 emails lined up in his computer telling him that he was a brain-dead GOP lapdog, and lots of things worse that than. All of this made Cohen worry that the wacko far left in the Democratic Party was going to scream so loud in the months ahead that it might freak out Middle America and save the GOP’s Congressional neck.

But that is not the point of this post. Here is what got my attention, as a journalist and professor who now spends many hours a day in cyberspace. Cohen writes:

What to make of all this? First, it’s not about Colbert. His show has an audience of about 1 million — not exactly “American Idol” numbers. Second, it marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there’s no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue — seven more since I started writing this column.

But the message in this case truly is the medium.

Now stop right there. I truly believe that the blogosphere has a role to play in helping the MSM learn more about what its customers — they can also be called “citizens” — think about the news and what it all means. I wouldn’t be sitting at a keyboard typing these words into blog software if I didn’t think that. This blog would not exist if I didn’t think it had a small chance to make some difference.

Which brings me back to that Neela Banerjee story in the New York Times about the election to pick a new bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of California. To refresh your memory, this is the report in which she wrote:

The Episcopal Church is a small but rich and powerful member of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members, the second-largest church body in the world, and is presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury.

Too Much MailYes, ’lil ’ole Orthodox me is still a bit miffed about that.

You see, there are 1 billion or so Roman Catholics in the world, with one pope, and there are 70 million or so Anglicans in the Anglican Communion, which has many patriarchs and bishops and is led — symbolically — by the first-among-equals Archbishop of Canterbury. The problem is that there are 250 million believers in the global communion of Eastern Orthdox Christianity, which has many patriarchs and bishops and is led — symbolically — by the first-among-equals Ecumenical Patriarch in the city once known as Constantinople. Facts are such pesky things.

Now, I am sure that the Times has not received 3,528 emails from Orthodox believers (“How many Orthodox people does it take to change a lightbulb? Lightbulb? What is this lightbulb?”) complaining about this error and requesting a correction in the world’s most important newspaper. However, I did go through the Times process — see this page for Banerjee’s work and contact info — and sent email noting the error. I have heard from several other GetReligion readers who have done the same thing.

So what’s the point? People were screaming at Cohen because they disagreed with his opinions and his beliefs. The blogosphere has allowed lots of people to channel their rage in this manner. And, let’s face it, many if not most of the comments deep inside the GetReligion site are full of people arguing with each other about their religious and political beliefs.

That’s OK, I guess, but that is not the purpose of this blog. Our goal is to seek examples of ways in which journalists “get” the religion angle of stories wrong or “get” it right.

If you choose, you may join me in my mini-crusade to see if the Times will correct this error. However, if you do so, please do so because you think this is a fact that needs to be corrected and journalists are supposed to care about things like that. The blogosphere can provide heat and light. We are more interested in the latter.

P.S. I just left a telephone message at the Times national desk.


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