A cry for help

katrinaThe aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is turning into one of the worst domestic episodes in American history. We started with a hurricane that could possibly destroy a major city, but did anyone really believe that could happen? Well, it’s in the process of happening and while it will not be as fast as the collapse of the Twin Towers, we are just beginning to understand the ramifications of the event, from the structural issues in the city to the sociological issues in dealing with people who have essentially become refuges.

Peggy Noonan has a good summary of events through yesterday and Instapundit has become the clearing house for all things Katrina.

Local government officials are reporting a bleak depiction of the state of affairs while federal officials attempt to calm people and assure them that everything that can be done is in fact being done. The sociological factors of the disaster — looters, lack of law and order — are also playing out slowly as a handful of bad people are making a mess of the recovery efforts.

A few observations on the media’s coverage of the tragedy that is Hurricane Katrina:

  • Why no mention of the obvious race and class issues surrounding the recovery efforts and the images we see on our televisions? I saw CNN dance around the issue by reading a letter from a viewer, but so far the issue has largely been ignored.
  • When the federal government stops putting out official announcements on its actions, speculation runs amok among the talking heads as to the feds’ efforts to help the people affected by the disaster.
  • President Bush is likely to be pummeled for not responding faster and more often on television. He will also be criticized for failing to visit the region (I hear that he is likely to drop in Friday). But there is little he himself can do by visiting the region, and saying stuff on TV doesn’t help the situation, other than boosting morale.

Overall this is a huge challenge for President Bush that rivals the situation on Sept. 11, 2001. May God be with him and all those affected by this disaster.

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Angels & demons in a city of sin

Bourbon NitePardon me while I veer into a bit of biography for a second. I have a news-oriented reason for doing so.

I spent my teen years in Port Arthur, Texas, which is right where the state of Texas starts morphing into the alternative state of mind called Louisiana. The horizon was lined with smoking oil refineries, and let’s just say that, back in the ’60s and ’70s, people didn’t care much about what you put in the air and the water. Throw in heat, humidity and mosquitoes that resembled fighter jets and it is easy to understand why the region’s best known cultural leaders were Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter.

Every weekend, there were many young people who would jump into their cars and head over the border to the bars, where they could pretty much get away with murder. As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I was not one of them. Some people would head all the way to New Orleans, which was about as far into sin and depravity as one could go when you lived where I lived. It was not uncommon to walk the halls of our high school and hear people talking about who had wrecks getting home on those dark highways in the swamps. It was not uncommon for someone to get killed.

What’s the point? Let’s just say that there are some people in the Bible Belt who may be watching the hellish scenes we are seeing on TV right now with very mixed feelings. New Orleans is a strange and glorious and corrupt and soulful city, a place where the demons dance right out there in the open and the angels tend to hide in the shadows. It’s where the saints come marching in and lots of them are staggering because they are drunk. Right now, lots of them have guns.

There are people who love New Orleans for highly personal reasons and there are plenty of other people who have always thought that this great city might someday reap what they believe it has sowed. Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard people in Middle America make jokes about Los Angeles and earthquakes? It is kind of like that.

Is there a story in all of this? Will this conflict in the wider region affect the rebuilding effort? Is this a chance for New Orleans to shine and, perhaps, even bond with the rest of America, much in the way that New York City did in the days after Sept. 11?

Perhaps it would help to hear from someone on the other side of the church aisle. Howell Raines, the former (some would say “fallen”) executive editor of The New York Times, wore his heart on his sleeve in a memorial column that appeared — interestingly enough — in the Los Angeles Times. Note the undertow of cultural and religious themes in this chunk of it:

For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy has always been the place to dance — the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America’s best place for the world’s oldest profession and the birthplace of America’s best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism. . . .

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House — will we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalyzed?

Read that passage out loud in a room full of folks down South and more than a few of them are going to roll their eyes and say, “Now that’s the kind of Southern guy who is going to move north and become an editor at The New York Times.”

Then again, behind the scenes, it appears that churches across the Bible Belt — left, right and center (including those Southern Baptists) — are already working overtime to get aid to the region.

This is as it should be. Right now, there are angels and demons on display in New Orleans and that is not going to end soon.

Please let us know when you see them show up in newspapers and on the networks.

UPDATED: A group called Repent America says openly what some people are probably thinking. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.) If the Rev. Pat Robertson chimes in, hang on. Nice touch — adding the link to the classic “Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God” sermon by Jonathan Edwards. However, I am pretty sure this great early American evangelist did not claim that God’s wrath was zip-code-specific. And if you say it is behavior-specific, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

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Trying to avoid abortion questions

62611I was on the road this past weekend in New York City and had some time — while bracing for the Katrina story — to read a long takeout piece in The New York Times Magazine by Jeffrey Rosen titled “Roberts’ Supreme Futurology” (the Web version calls it “Roberts v. the Future”). The first part of the read out on the cover told you what you needed to know about the goal of the piece: “The most divisive issues likely to be argued before the Supreme Court in the coming years have nothing to do with abortion. . . .”

In other words, this piece can be read this way — the Times pitching in to help progressive politicians find a way to dissect John G. Roberts Jr., without appearing to pound away on abortion, a major “Catholic” issue. This is crucial in terms of “pew gap” strategy.

This is not to say that the article is without merit. Far from it! It is a story that covers nearly a dozen complex subjects that could turn into major news hooks, during the hearings and beyond.

But I do find it interesting that the article still ends up running into issues linked to what the late Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” time after time. Then these issues keep getting entangled with the moral logic of, well, to quote the court, liberty being defined as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The “mystery of human life,” indeed.

It seems that journalists and politicos cannot, these days, run away from the big life issues. All the roads keep crossing.

For example, in a section on “Genetic Screening and the Future of Personal Autonomy” Rosen writes:

In order to get a better sense of these coming debates, I turned again to O. Carter Snead, who recently served as general consul to President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, to describe the kinds of developments that might give rise to Roe v. Wade-like controversies. The first issue he mentioned was genetic selection. In the future, he noted, scientists may have analyzed much more of the genetic makeup of embryos created through in vitro fertilization. They might then be able to use that information to help aspiring parents implant in the woman’s womb only those embryos that display a specified range of desired characteristics — including those having to do not only with sex but also, perhaps someday, traits like intelligence, eye color and height. Not all the traits that parents demand will be conventionally desirable: a few years ago in the United States, a deaf lesbian couple attracted attention (and criticism) by deliberately choosing a deaf man as a sperm donor in order to increase their chances of having a deaf child. And if scientists ever learn to identify a genetic predisposition to homosexuality with a high degree of certainty, genetic screening might be used to “weed out these embryos,” as Snead put it, “or to select for them.”

The political response to so-called designer babies might create strange bedfellows. “Feminists are rightly concerned that male embryos will be routinely selected over female embryos,” Snead noted, which is why many feminists say they would oppose the practice. . . . Social conservatives would also oppose these efforts, but out of concern for the right to life of fertilized embryos. Earlier this year, in fact, a Republican state legislator in Maine introduced a bill to ban abortions based on the sexual orientation of the unborn child. Snead imagined that a conservative state might pass a law banning genetic screening “for elective sex selection or sexual-orientation selection not linked to a therapeutic concern.”

Just try to count all of the potential stories in these few lines of a long essay and note how many of them lead right back into the heart of issues linked to faith, family, marriage, sex and, yes, the “culture of life.” Like I said, the roads keep crossing, and they still all seem to lead, well, to Rome. If Democrats want to know what Judge Roberts believes about this stuff they may as well ask him head on.

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Still interested in Pat Robertson?

offeringplateIf there is anyone out there in GetReligion land who really, really wants to work their way through 43 more news stories and editorials about the Rev. Pat Robertson, they can demonstrate their free will — I am not a Calvinist — by clicking here and browsing through (scroll down a screen) the always awesome collection of URLs at the Christianity Today weblog. Then again, the whole subject does raise issues of total depravity.

Let me go on the record and say that I remain stunned at the media reaction to this story, in large part because I have considered Robertson a non issue ever since his fade started in the late 1990s. There is more I could say, but I won’t. The key is that there are so many people within evangelicalism who are — for better and for worse — more interesting and influential than Robertson at this point in his career.

I am not alone in thinking this way. Check out this Cal Thomas column, which is a strong call for people on left and right to stop believing that they can vote in the Kingdom of God (and pay people to push for that). Here is the end of the piece:

If people who bear the label “Christian” want to reduce these embarrassments, which interfere with the proclamation and the hearing of “true religion,” they should refrain from sending money to TV preachers and contribute more to their local church. Local giving not only would allow the giver to better monitor how the money is spent, but also, if the pastor occasionally says something he should not have said, the embarrassment will remain within the walls and not be a rhetorical shot heard around the world.

Pat Robertson eventually apologized for his remarks about assassinating Hugo Chavez. His penance should be to retire and to take his bombastic conservative and liberal colleagues with him.

Believe it or not, this is one Thomas column that even drew praise from Andrew Sullivan. Preach it, brother.

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Revenge of Al Gore’s God: Part II

God spared New Orleans. Sort of.

That means God sent the storm to Mississippi. Maybe.

God is now pouring out his wrath on New Orleans. It just seemed like the city was spared with that final Eastern tweak in the storm path.

It’s a global warming thing. Mother Nature is taking her revenge.

God and/or Mother Nature is also mad about America and all its SUVs that drink so much gas. This is going to show America the error of its ways. Somewhere, Al Gore is laughing.

And so forth and so on. It is hard to watch the Katrina coverage without hearing variations on all of those themes in the back of my mind, a kind of nightmare flashback to the questions of last fall (when I was living in West Palm Beach). Once again, the only God language we are hearing in the coverage right now are the prayers of thanksgiving by the survivors. Another predictable layer of faith language will show up — as it should — as aid pours into the region.

But veteran religion reporter Deborah Caldwell at Beliefnet has plunged into the theological blame game. This is tricky territory, but she has done a fine job of listening to the muttering voices on both sides of the religious aisle.

Was this storm linked to recent events in Israel?

All along the theological and political spectrum, Katrina has crystallized people’s fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago.

At least one New Orleans-area resident believes God created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza. On Sunday evening, Bridgett Magee of Slidell, La., told the Christian website Jerusalem Newswire that she saw the hurricane “as a direct ‘coming back on us’ [for] what we did to Israel: a home for a home.” Stan Goodenough, a website columnist, described Katrina as “the fist of God” in a Monday column. “What America is about to experience is the lifting of God’s hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel,” Goodenough writes. “The Bible talks about Him shaking His fist over bodies of water, and striking them.”

Meanwhile, spiritual and political environmentalists say that massive hurricanes such as Katrina, along with the Asian tsunami, are messages from the earth, letting humanity know of the earth’s pain. These hurricanes are caused by global warming, environmentalists say, which are the result of using too much fossil fuel. They see the catastrophic consequences as a kind of comeuppance.

And then there is this excellent summary quotation (although I also want to know how a professor evolves into an expert on apocalyptic media):

Stephen O’Leary, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert on the media and apocalypticism, says, “God’s got a two-fer here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side it’s sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side it’s conspicuous consumption and Hummers.”

Even The Associated Press has pulled out some of the stops and, Caldwell writes, has started “priming the doomsday pump.” Here is one of those leads:

“When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.”

I tried to wade into this last year in one of the columns that I wrote amid the wreakage in South Florida. The crucial thing, for me, is that these kinds of questions are being asked right now on the ground in the Gulf Coast region. That means they are fair game for the media. My question is this: Who are the sources? Who are the best sources? Who are the untapped sources? Any ideas?

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Religion in Hollywood

hollywoodCan Christianity find a place in Hollywood? Christians in the movie business face a high level of pressure to hide their faith, despite the recent resurgence of Hollywood interest in spirituality. Sarah Price Brown of Religion News Service found an inside-Hollywood story that reminded me of some of the work going on in journalism.

Since the only free link I could find to the story was a truncated version on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s website, I will summarize and provide the money quotes from the article that appeared as a three-quarter-page blowout in The Washington Post Saturday religion section, with three photos and a jump.

LOS ANGELES — It’s hip to be spiritual in Hollywood these days, as long as you’re not religious. The way the fashionable set sees it, Scientology and cabala are in, Christianity is out.

But a new program to train Christians to be film and television executives is trying to reverse the trend.

“We’re not here to fix Hollywood as much as we’re here to fix the church,” said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, which runs a three-month program that places Christians in entertainment internships and hosts lectures by industry professionals.

Hollywood has turned the movie industry away from its roots, Brown writes, when movies were first played in churches a century ago. Today “immorality, sex and violence” dominate and people of faith have turned their backs on the industry.

Now there is a boot camp for Christians who want to work in Hollywood.

Realizing that it would not be enough for Christians to write screenplays if no one made them into movies, Nicolosi launched the executive program to train would-be Hollywood decision-makers.

Out of about 60 applicants, Act One chose 15 students to participate in its first executive seminar in Los Angeles. By day, participants go to work at internships at movie studios, production companies and talent agencies. By night, students learn about story development, finance and budgeting, leadership and ethics from visiting speakers who work in the entertainment industry.

Brown interviewed people in the industry who range from a consultant on the Da Vinci Code film to a former Billy Graham movie producer turned horror moviemaker.

According to those interviewed by Brown, it’s not Hollywood that needs to change itself, but the church that needs to wake up and change Hollywood. Act One raised about $600,000 from a group of foundations, and it hopes to start a program that will teach pastors how to commission good art.

This article gave me a sense of deja vu. You could substitute the words “Hollywood” and “movies” with “journalism” and “the media” respectively and you’d have an article dated sometime ago (tmatt would know the history much better than I) about a handful of groups interested in getting Christians into the field of journalism. I would know because it was one of these groups that gave me my first big boost in writing and reporting (and tmatt was one of the excellent instructors).

Have these groups been successful in journalism and will this group be successful in Hollywood?

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Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please (that BTK guy, too)

tunnel3I was on the road this weekend and, believe it or not, WiFi was a problem at the hotel I visited in New York City. How hard is it to find a Starbucks in that town? Anyway, I wanted to add a quick note about Newsweek’s cover from last week — specifically the poll on what people believe about salvation and heaven.

Now, our friends at Beliefnet have already jumped on this. Click here for the “Who Gets Into Heaven?” package and, more importantly, click here for editor Steven Waldman’s essay, “The Pearly Gates Are Wide Open.”

It seems that more and more Americans are thirsting for religious experience and spiritual depth, of some kind, but they also believe that this has nothing to do with salvation and eternal life. In effect, we are watching the rise of the charismatic universalists.

Here is the crucial information from Waldman’s report.

Traditional Christians will flinch at the word “earn” in the lead, but keep reading.

One of the central tenets of evangelical Christianity is that to be saved — to earn admission into heaven — you must accept Jesus Christ as your savior. Yet 68% of “born again” or “evangelical” Christians say that a “good person who isn’t of your religious faith” can gain salvation, according to a new Newsweek/Beliefnet poll.

This is pretty amazing. Evangelicals are among the most churchgoing and religiously attentive people in the United States, and one of the ideas they’re most likely to hear from the minister at church on a given Sunday is that the path to salvation is through Jesus. Apparently, rank-and-file evangelicals have a different view. . . . Nationally, 79% of those surveyed said the same thing, and the figure is 73% for non-Christians and an astounding 91% among Catholics. The Catholics surveyed seemed more inclined to listen to the Catechism’s precept that those who “seek the truth” may gain salvation — rather than, say, St. Augustine’s view that being “separated from the Church” will damn you to hell “no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living.”

It is interesting that American Catholics now appear to be to the theological left, on salvation issues, of the secular public. That’s another story.

The evangelical numbers are actually not all that surprising for those who have followed the career of sociologist James Davision Hunter. Long before he wrote his famous Culture Wars study, he wrote a book titled Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. He found, in the late 1980s, that a growing number of evangelicals at Christian colleges and universities were drifting away from the traditional Christian belief that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone. This fundamental change in the evangelical world is a major story, even if it is a generation old.

All of this made me think of heaven, hell and Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kan., and thinking about what we can and cannot know about the soul of the BTK murderer made me think about Jeffrey Dahmer. There are people who believe that everyone is going to heaven, no matter what. They get nervous thinking about Rader and Dahmer. There are people who get nervous thinking about Rader and Dahmer repenting and going to heaven.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about this and, in the wake of the Rader case, several people have written me asking for copies. The problem is that this column predates my tmatt.net website. I would like to post it here, so that people using Google can find it on their own. I believe the contents are still newsworthy and point to a story linked to the Rader and Newsweek stories. The original title on the column was this: “Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please.”


Most Americans have a good idea who they want to see go to hell — murderers, dictators, drug dealers and, certainly, anyone who tortures and kills children.

So this week’s bloody news from the Columbia Correctional Center in Wisconsin inspired many to utter a plea to the powers of darkness: Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please.

But it’s hard to ponder the fate of this infamous killer without running into a paradox. While most people in this nominally Christian nation say they believe in hell, their actual beliefs clash with both liberal and conservative versions of Christianity.

“Most people wanted Jeffrey Dahmer to fry,” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, an Episcopal theologian from Summerville, S.C., whose doctoral work at Oxford University covered 20 centuries of teachings about hell. “Now that he’s dead, they’re celebrating and they’re absolutely sure he will burn in hell, because that’s what happens to people like him.”

Dahmer died on Monday after he was attacked while cleaning a prison bathroom. He died while saving the life of another inmate, shielding the body of a man who was under attack. This inmate was critically injured and a third is the prime suspect.

Dahmer was serving 15 consecutive life terms after confessing to killing 17 young males. He also said he dismembered some of his victims, had sex with their corpses and ate parts of their bodies. The blond-haired, blank-faced killer became a national symbol of the demonic. Dahmer confessed his crimes, but no one seemed inclined to forgive him.

Nevertheless, he seemed to find peace through prison Bible studies and, in May, he made a public profession of faith and was baptized. After praying that God would forgive his sins, Dahmer became remarkably calm about his fate — even after an inmate tried to slit his throat during a July chapel service.

Traditional Christians would have to say that Dahmer is heaven bound, if his repentance was sincere.

The problem is that many people seem to believe that there are two kinds of sins, and sinners. First, there are ordinary, good people who commit garden variety sins. They go to heaven, no matter what. Then there are the really bad sinners, especially those whose sins are linked to violence, drugs or sexual perversions. They are doomed to hell, no matter what.

A Gallup poll in 1990 found that 60 percent of Americans believe in hell, while 78 percent believe in heaven. Only 4 percent thought there was any chance that they would go to hell.

This pop theology is “really sad, because all it is is a projection of modern American values onto God,” said Harmon. “You end up with something that in no way resembles Christianity and is actually a vile form of secularism. . . . What most people want is justice, on their terms, or they want mercy, on their terms. What few people acknowledge is that God is in charge and he has set his own terms.”

Ironically, public belief in hell — for really bad people — also can be seen as a rejection of a modern theological trend. Most Christian liberals have embraced one of many forms of “universalism,” the belief that all people are saved, no matter what they believe or what they do. According to universalists, Dahmer had nothing to worry about in the first place.

But it’s hard to escape what the Bible says about eternal judgment. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus claims that he will someday put the “righteous people at his right and the others at his left. . . . Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels!’”

Harmon is convinced that hell matters. The 20th century has seen more than its share of hellish spectacles, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, he said. Meanwhile, 19 centuries of Christian doctrine about hell have faded into fuzzy sentiment about a lowest common denominator heaven.

“This should make us pause and think,” he said. “Is this just a coincidence, or have we begun to take evil less seriously?”

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The New Yorker glances at Planet Hewitt

WizardHughThe August 29 New Yorker includes a six-page profile of über-blogger Hugh Hewitt, calling him the “Most Famous Conservative Journalist Whom Liberals Have Never Heard Of.” A color illustration by Eric Palma depicts Hewitt as a smirking colossus, sitting atop a half-black, half-white globe and doing his radio show while fingering his laptop.

Like many other magazines, The New Yorker releases only some of its pages to the Web — and this Web-centric piece is, oddly, not one of them. Hewitt’s blog, however, provides lots of reading material, including his evaluation of the profile, written by veteran journalist Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s journalism school.

Hewitt’s Christianity does not appear frequently in Lemann’s piece — which focuses more on Hewitt’s efforts to challenge old-media hegemony — but when it does pop up, the details are informative:

Hewitt’s radio employer, Salem Communications, owns a hundred and four radio stations, covering twenty-four of the country’s twenty-five major markets, and purveys the work of eight talk-show hosts, five of them mainly conservative and three mainly Christian. Salem, whose headquarters are in Camarillo, California, is led by two brothers-in-law who are graduates of Bob Jones University; it is publicly held, and growing swiftly enough to have joined the handful of radio-station groups that are bunched together far behind the two national leaders, Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting. . . . Hewitt thinks of himself as the most liberal-friendly of the Salem hosts — he calls his program “National Public Radio for conservatives.”

Much later in the story comes this surprisingly nontheological description of how Hewitt, who grew up Catholic in Warren, Ohio, eventually became a Protestant:

Like many conservative Republicans of his generation, he was increasingly drawn to evangelical Protestantism. And Hewitt had come to dislike the political direction that the Catholic Church had taken. (“They were wrong on the Soviet Union, wrong on nuclear weapons, and wrong on poverty,” he says.)

The profile is fascinating because of Hewitt’s tendency to call out journalists on their cultural and political preferences. Lemann describes Hewitt’s reasons for doing this:

When somebody like [The Washington Post's Dana] Milbank gamely steps up to the plate, Hewitt uses the appearance as an opportunity to pursue one of his cherished goals, what he calls “transparency” in journalism. He has no problem presenting himself as an active, loyal Republican — so why won’t people who work in the mainstream own up to views that surely affect their work?

Lemann mentions early in his piece that Hewitt agreed to speak with him if Lemann would agree to be interviewed for a possible article. Near the conclusion of his article, Lemann explains why he plans to decline any invitation from Hewitt to declare himself:

If Hewitt does write about me, he will surely ask me to reveal whom I voted for in the last Presidential election. I might as well get started with the transparency now. Although I do vote, I’m not going to tell him. Like the house of the Lord, journalism has many mansions, and the one Hewitt inhabits is surely one of them. But in another of the mansions, reportorial journalism, the object is different. One can be curious or not, fair-minded or not, empathetic or not, imprisoned by perspective or not. For a reportorial journalist to announce his voting record is to undermine his work. It dishonors the struggle to do it right.”

About the art: Borgard Blog submitted this witty collage to a vast collection of images (warning: long load time) promoting Hewitt’s Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That’s Changing Your World, which enjoys almost scriptural authority among conservative bloggers.

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