The gods of style struggle with abortion

I decided to look in the Reporter’s Holy Book, by which of course I mean the AP Stylebook, to see what those gods of style have to say. The entry for abortion reads: “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.

I guess only one side gets to choose their name. Not fair. Not balanced. . . .

Posted by Stephen A. at 9:05 pm on July 25, 2005


Thanks for jumping back to the question at the heart of the original post. These language issues show up in the press all the time, often with bizarre results.

Right now, the media has two options under the AP bible. Like I said, anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights are imperfect terms, but they are certainly better than the even worse spin that was in place in the 1980s — anti-abortion and pro-choice. Click here to see David Shaw’s classic Los Angeles Times series about that era.

Now, you can take a magazine approach and use pro-life and pro-choice, indicating that these are the terms the groups apply to themselves. This is a fair approach, but still does not unpack the terms in any way. It still leaves us with only two camps.

My point, concerning Jane Roberts, is that at some point — on left and right — the press has to move past the easy labels and discuss what people actually believe. Yes, she is anti-abortion. But that is not all she is. If this topic is going to hit the Hill linked to her husband and the U.S. Supreme Court, the hearings ought to dig beneath the stereotypes, and the MSM will have to cover that. This will require a more nuanced approach to language.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell is not Pope Benedict XVI.

For the matter, the Rev. Jim Wallis is not the Rev. Carter Heyward.

Joe Lieberman is not Barney Frank. And who knows WHAT Hillary Clinton is these days, although I think we know where her heart is.

Registered Democrats who are opposed to abortion on demand are not the same as old-guard Republicans, when it comes to issues related to health care, education, jobs and other issues related to, well, the agenda of a group such as Feminists for Life. The press is going to need to do some stretching.

One gets the impression that, for most MSM journalists, this is the only issue that matters. As that great Catholic theologian Maureen Dowd once quipped, the cultural right is trying to repeal Woodstock. Abortion rights is the ultimate safeguard of the sexual revolution.

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So a rabbi walks into a megachurch . . .

RabbiEcksteinNew York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets has published “The Rabbi Who Loved Evangelicals (and Vice Versa),” in the cross-town competition’s New York Times Magazine.

Chafets’ report of nearly 4,500 words is a deft and wry portrait of Yechiel Eckstein (left), an Orthodox rabbi and founder of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Chafets describes the cultural challenges Eckstein faces in his work. At the Family Christian Center, a megachurch in Munster, Ind., pastor Steve Munson wrongly describes Eckstein as a rabbi who has become a born-again Christian, introduces Eckstein to Munson’s father as “Rabbi Einstein” and pronounces his name as “Yek-eel.”

Chafets captures an even more awkward moment during a regular IFCJ staff meeting. It involves one of Eckstein’s short-lived employees, broadcaster Sandy Rios, formerly of Concerned Women for America:

Throughout this conversation, Rios was clearly eager to join in. And as soon as there was a pause in the discussion, she did. “You know,” she said, “the truth is, Christians do want to convert Jews.”

. . . “Not by some bait-and-switch trick,” she said. “But we believe it’s part of God’s plan.” Eckstein winced the way he had when Pastor Munsey called him a born-again Christian.

“Anyway,” Rios said, “we love Jews, notwithstanding their rudeness and hatred for us.”

Three days later, Eckstein called me in New York. Rios had been fired, but her gaffe, and the impression it made, was still on his mind. “It’s really my fault,” he said. “Hiring staff is a problem. Truthfully, it’s extremely hard to find people who understand exactly what we’re doing here.”

Chafets explores the tensions that arise from his work, including feelings among some of his fellow rabbis that he’s harming Orthodox Judaism by associating with evangelical Protestants, and questions of why evangelicals are generally pro-Israel.

Chafets’ portrait strikes a good balance of witty critique and allowing Eckstein to speak for himself. Here’s another passage that describes how Eckstein, who was working for the Anti-Defamation League during one of the great dramas of the 1970s, came to found his organization:

In 1977, American Nazis threatened to stage a march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a large population of Holocaust survivors. The A.D.L. sent Eckstein from New York to help the local community round up Christian support. What he found surprised him. In his next year in Chicago, he discovered that the evangelicals, more than any other group, were prepared to stand with the Jews.

Eckstein reported back to New York like Marco Polo recalling his adventures in China. There were Christians in the heartland, he said, who took the Bible literally and believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people. They were, he said, a vast untapped reservoir of support for Israel, Soviet Jewry and other Jewish causes. This report was greeted hesitantly. Few A.D.L. people had ever met an evangelical Christian face to face, but they had seen “Elmer Gantry” and “Inherit the Wind,” and they associated Bible Belt Christians with snake charmers, K.K.K. nightriders, toothless fiddlers and flat-earth troglodytes.

In 1980, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Bailey Smith, seemed to confirm this stereotype when he publicly declared that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” The grandees of the Jewish establishment were outraged, but Eckstein saw an opportunity. He contacted Smith and offered to accompany him on a trip to Israel.

In Jerusalem, Smith and Eckstein were given the royal treatment. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, having previously lost seven straight national elections, had few illusions about the efficacy of Jewish prayer. He did, however, have a keen appreciation for Christians like Smith, who believed that the Bible conferred title to the land of Israel on the Jews. Smith enjoyed being appreciated, and he returned home loudly proclaiming Genesis 12:3: God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.

“That was the turning point,” Eckstein says. “From that moment on, I had an open door to the biggest Baptist churches in the country.”

The following year, Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. An editorial in The New York Times called the strike “an act of inexcusable and shortsighted aggression.” Even the normally pro-Israel Reagan administration criticized it. But the evangelicals saw the hand of God and cheered. When Eckstein called this kind of support to the attention of the A.D.L. home office, he was treated like a nudnik. If Menachem Begin wanted to cozy up to Bailey Smith and Jerry Falwell and other such undesirables, well, that was Begin’s problem. Eckstein was told to commune with some respectable Episcopalians.

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Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I wrote my master’s thesis on the struggle in mainstream newsrooms to improve coverage of religion. A short version of that turned into a 1983 cover essay for Quill.

On the 10th anniversary of that cover piece, I did a Quill update on the same topic — with an emphasis on what I believe are the four biases that most influence work on the Godbeat. That shorter essay opened with an anecdote about — GetReligion readers will not be surprised — the language that journalists use to describe competing camps in a major story. Here it is:

Deadline was three hours away and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion protests. I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp “pro-choice,” its chosen label, while we call the other “anti-abortion,” a term it abhors?

The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more neutral terms. I wasn’t fond of “anti-abortion.” It seemed to fit Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as “pro-abortion rights.” This might be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial spin of “pro-choice.”

The assistant editor said “pro-choice” was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use “pro-life.”

The city editor stepped in. Minus a few descriptive words, here’s what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren’t really pro-life. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we’ll call them whatever we want to call them.

I’ve been thinking about that issue ever since, especially when covering the work of people who are politically progressive, yet also opposed to abortion on demand. The basic question: Can the MSM call anyone “pro-life”? Do we need some term — other than “anti-abortion” — to describe people whose views are more complex than those of, let’s say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell?

You have probably guessed where I am going with this — the U.S. Supreme Court. Easily the most interesting story during the Week One coverage of John G. Roberts Jr. focused on a fascinating biographical detail about his wife, Jane. The Los Angeles Times had the scoop and reporter Richard A. Serrano set the tone.

The key: Jane Roberts held “antiabortion” views. And she appears to be a devout Catholic.

A Roman Catholic like her husband, Jane Roberts has been deeply involved in the antiabortion movement. She provides her name, money and professional advice to a small Washington organization — Feminists for Life of America — that offers counseling and educational programs. The group has filed legal briefs before the high court challenging the constitutionality of abortion.

A spouse’s views normally are not considered relevant in weighing someone’s job suitability. But abortion is likely to figure prominently in the Senate debate over John Roberts’ nomination. And with his position on the issue unclear, abortion rights supporters expressed concern Wednesday that his wife’s views might suggest he also embraced efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

The obvious question: What does it mean when a highly educated Catholic lawyer is part of a group called Feminists for Life?

What does this group stand for, other than its opposition to abortion on demand? The title implies that this group is not, let’s say, a kissing cousin of Focus on the Family.

The only hint in this groundbreaking story:

Feminists for Life has sponsored a national advertising campaign aimed at ending abortion in America. One of its mission statements proclaims: “Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Now think back to what my editor said in Denver. The people who call themselves pro-life are not really pro-life. They are the kinds of people who think human rights begin at conception and end at birth. They are pro-unborn child, but anti-woman.

So here is my question for my fellow MSM journalists. What happens if Jane Roberts (and even her husband) holds views that are not easily jammed into a perfect left-right split? What if she was and is some kind of pro-life moderate? Someone who was trying to heed all of the Catholic Church’s teachings? What if she was what some call “consistently pro-life”?

Reporters Lynette Clemetson and Robin Toner of The New York Times chased the original Los Angeles Times story and at least suggested that Jane Roberts might not be a right-wing robot.

Here is a section of that report, which once again included that interesting concept that American society has “failed to meet the needs of women”:

Mrs. Roberts, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was not recruited by Feminists for Life, but sought the group out about a decade ago and offered her services as a lawyer, said its president, Serrin Foster. The group was reorganizing at the time and beginning to focus its work on college campuses. Its mission statement, driven home in advertising in recent years, says: “Abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.”

Mrs. Roberts served on the board of the organization for four years, and later provided legal services. Ms. Foster said that as an adoptive parent, Mrs. Roberts made contributions that included urging the group to focus more on the needs of biological mothers, and adding a biological mother to the board of directors.

Ms. Foster said Feminists for Life was committed not only to ending abortion, but also to making it “unthinkable” by providing every woman with the assistance she needs. Reversing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion, is a goal, she said, “but not enough.”

Read that again — “but not enough.” That might be an interesting concept for further coverage and, might I add, some questions from courageous Democrats. If they ask those questions, people on both sides of the issue will be nervous. That will be good. There is a ghost in there. Trust me.

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Bad day to read a Cormac McCarthy novel

In his latest column for The Times of London, Matthew Parris tries to pick a rock out of his shoe. He chastises his fellow journalists for reporting stories based on the limited facts available and then dropping those stories when they don’t pan out:

The habit is more disliked by listeners and readers than I think editors appreciate. Perhaps the first item on each day’s news agenda should be “matters arising from yesterday’s news.” News editors would then do us the courtesy of explaining where some of those stories went.

In particular, he zeroes in on reports arising from the London bombings and calls into question the thesis that the original effort benefited greatly from foreign influence. But then he turns around and admits,

Some of the scares that grip our headlines and imaginations do later turn out to have been every bit the threat we thought they were. I have not the least idea what may be the size, shape and competence of al-Qaeda and would not dream of suggesting (and do not believe) that they are uninvolved.

Nevertheless, he believes that “When all the pressures are to talk up a lethal characterization of the forces at work, we need to be supercool in the way we look at these reports.” Parris fingers four interested parties in talking up the “foreign links” aspect of the story: the press (easier story); the government (easier target); the intelligence services (mostly vanity and ass-covering); and al Qaeda (duh). He concludes:

From a certain point of view, the journalist, the politician, the police chief and the terrorist can be seen as locked in a macabre waltz of the mind, no less distorting for being unconscious. We should not to join that dance.

Oh, but let’s. The facts on the ground are still being sorted out, and British police are in hot pursuit of those responsible for the second, failed bombings. And now, terrorists in Egypt have decided to jump in with both feet.

Journalists are trying to move as fast as the story and I think most readers and viewers understand that a) some of the leads won’t pan out and b) untangling all of this on the fly would be tedious. Journalism is only the first draft of history, subject to massive revision.

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Any real news about a Third Party?

Regular readers of GetReligion will know that we don’t spend much time blogging about religious media, unless it is a site offering very solid information that is of interest to mainstream Godbeat reporters. The work of Ted Olsen and the CT blog crew leaps to mind. There are valuable sites on all sides of the Anglican Wars, too. And so forth and so on.

But every now and then you can catch a passing reference to an uncovered news item in niche media targeting various religious camps — especially when you are dealing with, let’s say, the Alpha Celebrities who head powerful parachurch groups. It also pays to read between the lines of the denominational press organizations on both sides of the Culture Wars, such as — sort of — Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press.

The politico turned activist/apologist Chuck Colson is just such a person — an evangelical Alpha Male of the highest order. The radio commentaries written by Colson and his team of researchers often deal with political events, which is not surprising. But the current commentary with the title “The Long Run: News Cycles and Nominees” includes a very interesting glimpse into a scene that is predictable, yet interesting nevertheless.

The short script is about the guessing games leading up to the nomination of John G. Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. People on both sides of the church aisle were tense. On the right, people were nervous about Judge Edith Clement being another Justice David Souter. Enough said. Then we find this passing reference:

This concern, while understandable, made three unsupported assumptions: first, that Clement really was a Souter-in-waiting; second, that she was actually the nominee; and third, if activists made enough noise, they could pressure the president.

When speculation shifted to another candidate, many activists breathed a sigh of relief, but during the hours Clement spent as the front-runner, saw more than one meeting regarding a possible third political party — and panicky phone calls to the White House, and alarmist traffic on the Internet, as if we could control events.

Colson goes on to offer some patient words, urging other evangelicals to be patient. I expect he wrote this script himself.

So — WHOA — what was that about multiple meetings to discuss a Third Party? Does anyone have a list of the folks in those meetings? Talk about burying the lead. What was discussed? Who represented the White House, urging calm? Dr. James Dobson makes this threat every few years. So who else was inside the closed doors?

A quick Google of “Third Party” and “Christians” yields no news. Anyone out there seen anything? I am still in dial-up land and I cannot do my usual blitz work.

What’s shaking?

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The other cheek, not turned

So a man repeatedly beat his three-year-old son and shoved him into a box, which induced shaking, vomiting, and, eventually a coma. The boy died this January. The father is claiming that he beat the hell out of the kid in order to keep his son from becoming a “sissy” or going gay.

All of these facts I learned from this article by a reporter for PlanetOut, a repository of “gay and lesbian news.” The report explains that the father is attempting the “gay panic” defense. A spokesman for Equality Florida also explains that it isn’t likely to work, because “Juries in even the most conservative states reject gay panic as a defense for murder.”

Having read the same report that I did, Andrew Sullivan had the following comment:

“He didn’t want him to be a sissy,” Shelton Bostic, the defendant’s Bible-study friend, testified. Yep: the guy was in Bible study. And this is what he learned.

The urge to resort to invective is nearly overwhelming, but let me make a few points:

1) Interesting that juries in even the most conservative states — on which one would assume conservative Christians have a greater representation than elsewhere — are not likely to cut the father some slack. Why would that be? [Hint: it has to do with millstones -- ed.]

2) Sure, the man’s religous formation may have had something to do with the violence he visited on his son, but it might not have. We don’t have enough information from this report to make a determination one way or the other.

3) The fact that Andrew Sullivan is so prone to make these sorts of leaps — not as occasional lapses or mistakes but as as a matter of course — has led an awful lot of people to take him less seriously.

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Memo from Planet Hollywood

JohanssonA film featuring exploding vehicles, men with rippling biceps, lots of gunfire, women of the big bosom — it must be the latest work of Michael Bay film, or a project aimed at “giving succor to the religious right.”

Come again?

Bay’s latest film, The Island, raises questions about cloning, you see, and it engages in the shallow character development that one critic concludes only a right-wing True Believer could applaud. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter explains:

For a while, the dystopian story about human cloning by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci seems more likely to inspire viewer games of Spot the Movie Clone as the filmmakers shuffle through any number of old science-fiction movies for plot points and design ideas. These range from “Coma” to “Logan’s Run.” Since human cloning itself has become such a hot-button topic, the film feels contemporary. Even Kazuo Ishiguro’s recently published novel, “Never Let Me Go,” deals with a similar story minus, of course, the chases.

What’s troubling from a political point of view is that these filmmakers have, perhaps unwittingly, delivered a film certain to give succor to the religious right. In this ethical horror story, scientists experimenting with human genetics to advance medicine and cure illness are cast as Dr. Frankenstein villains. The chief villain, Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), mouths platitudes about curing leukemia but clearly has greed in his heart.

Claudia Parsons of Reuters used the review as the seed for a reasonably informative feature story:

Several of the actors in the film also said they did not see it as a cautionary tale against research.

“I certainly hope we don’t get to the point that we’re cloning whole human beings and harvesting them for body parts but I do believe that stem cell research should be funded and supported and continued,” said [Steve] Buscemi.

“I hope no one would use this film to make the case against stem cell research,” he said. “Of course the technology is probably there. If we can clone an animal we can probably clone a human being,” he added. “Should we? No. But that doesn’t mean we should stop research in trying to cure diseases.”

Paul Levinson, a professor of media and communications at New York’s Fordham University, said historically movie audiences had proved their ability to discern fact from fiction.

“These kind of movies serve a very important public service, which is getting these issues before the public in a vivid and dramatic way,” said Levinson, author of five sci-fi novels. “It’s better than another movie about a cartoon fish that isn’t contributing anything to the intellectual debate.”

British actor Sean Bean’s character provides the most complex insights on the issue. He plays the director of the institute who pioneers the technology for birthing adult human clones, or “products” in the terminology of the movie.

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Catching up on that little court story

Mercy! What a 48 hours or so to disappear into the zoo of I-95 while listening to the latest Harry Potter novel. It seems that I have missed a minor development up here in the greater Washington area.

My work on the blog will be spotty in the days ahead. Verizon will not have the just-moved Mattingly family’s DSL up and running for a week or so. At least that is what the computerized Ms. Darth Vader said in the company’s hellish automated service system. My fair wife was switched around and cut off three times. Also, I don’t start work on the Hill at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities until August 1. My Scripps Howard News Service column this a.m. — the second of two columns (here’s the first) on the mini-media storm involving The New York Times, the popes and evolution — should have opened with this credit line: “Today’s column is brought to you with the assistance of Panera Bread.” Try the Cobblestone.

Anyway, it seems that Newsweek may have nailed the heart of the Supreme Court story this past week. Check here for a refresher. The big idea was that the country-club side of the GOP was worried that “an obsessive focus on abortion and gay marriage will jeopardize what they regard as a once-in-a-generation chance to unshackle commerce from the grip of federal regulators.”

So, crucial to the success of the John Roberts nomination is the media spin that the libertarian side of the yin-yang GOP is happy and that the Religious Right is not too happy. But who is actually happy? How would we know? Who will find out if this guy ever sits in a pew?

Of course, in the age of the blogosphere, the quickest way to catch up on this drama within the drama is to turn to media-hot blogs on both sides. For starters, you turn — naturally — to Andrew Sullivan. Here is a link near the start of his blitz into fretting and praise, as he relaxes for a few months and then rides more tense emails and then repeats the cycle. The bottom line is that if Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and other cultural conservatives believe they have reason to worry, then there is reason for the Lifestyle Left to hope. More than ever, Sullivan is a must read for the next few weeks (and you know the elite reporters are reading him).

Meanwhile, the blog crew at Christianity Today already has a link-happy report online about religion-turf reactions. Enquiring minds want to know, of course, what the human warning siren on the Religious Right thought of the nomination. Here is a piece of Collin Hansen’s report:

The question of judicial philosophy is central because Roberts did not deliver an opinion on the D.C. court about abortion, religious symbolism, gay rights, or many other contentious social issues. For these reasons, Roberts may avoid the combative confirmation process that so many groups have been predicting and promising since Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement July 1. However, this same fact renders him somewhat mysterious, even for supporters.

“To my knowledge Judge Roberts has never talked about abortion and he certainly has no rulings about it, so we don’t know what his private views are,” said James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family. “But we do know that he is what Justice Scalia called an ‘originalist,’ who will interpret the Constitution as written, not dream up his decisions based on some preconceived ideology.”

Ah! But is the good doctor bluffing? Who consulted who? Who winked and who nodded?

I hope the good people here at Panera Bread in Glen Burnie will let me come back in the days ahead and find out.

P.S. Can you believe The New York Times didn’t use “beam me up” in this obituary headline? Others could not resist. Ah, that British culture.

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