Strange case of the missing Orthodox story

One of the strangest things about writing a weekly column is that funny factor called “lead time.” That’s the time that elapses between when you write the column and when it appears in print. This is an even bigger hurdle in magazine work, of course. In some journals your lead time might be six months.

Anyway, I write my “On Religion” columns on Tuesday nights and edit on Wednesday mornings for a noon deadline at the Scripps Howard News Service here in Washington. In most newspapers, the column appears on Saturday. By definition, this means that I rarely get to cover breaking news and I often end up having to frame columns in interesting ways in order to write about events in which there could be major developments during that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday “lead time” between when the column is finished and when dead-tree-pulp readers see it.

Here is why I bring this up. There was a news event last week involving the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and its decision to quit the National Council of Churches. This presented several challenges, not the least of which was that Antioch is my church. I decided to go ahead and write the story in as straightforward a manner as I could, with as little commentary as possible, because I strive to avoid first person if at all possible. I just quoted the key people and let them speak for themselves. With WWW help, I was able to work in a crucial quote from the key figure on the left who was not available — with an attribution to Presbyterian News Service.

But I was worried crazy about “lead time.” What were the odds of no one writing the hard news version of this story during the entire week that transpired between the event and my column appearing?

Thus, I wrote a soft lead that focused on the annual rites of summer conventions, when religious groups talk about all kinds of things and rarely act on them. In this case, the Antiochian Orthodox had — like it or not — done more than talk. If you want to read the column, click here.

Then I sat back and waited for the Associated Press or someone to write the news story. The convention took place near Detroit. Surely the local media would have it. Nope. ’Tis a puzzlement.

I kept Googling the word “Antiochian” in but nobody in the MSM wrote the story until (logically enough) Kevin Eckstrom at Religion News Service covered the hard-news element.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church has decided to pull its membership from the National Council of Churches, a move that some conservatives hope will prompt other churches to leave the liberal-leaning ecumenical body.

The 339,000-member Orthodox church voted to leave the NCC on July 28 during its General Convention in Troy, Mich. The decision to leave the New York-based NCC was supported by its leader, Metropolitan Philip.

Topping a list of grievances, apparently, was the NCC’s liberal drift and actions by its outspoken general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar. “It got to be too much,” church spokesman the Rev. Thomas Zain told Ecumenical News International. “There was no reason to be part of it.”

By the way, the Arab-Americans in this flock would bristle at one mistake in this article, the part that said: “The Antiochian Orthodox Church traces its roots to Arab-speaking immigrants who previously belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Well now. The birth of the Church of Antioch is detailed in the Book of Acts and its first leaders were those saints called Peter and Paul. We love our sisters and brothers in Russian Orthodoxy, but Antioch is the older body. I think what RNS meant to say is that in the 19th century, Russian Orthodox missionaries reached America and there was a time — before that Russian Revolution — when all Orthodox Christians in North America, including the Arabs, were all in one body linked to Russia. Then this united body tragically broke apart as the great Russian era of Communist persecution caused lines of pain and division and then the formation of multiple Orthodox bodies in this new land.

Thus, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church of North America shares some ties in the United States with the Russians and what is today called the Orthodox Church in America. One of the stories linked to the NCC exit is the growing momentum toward a renewal of Orthodox unity in this land.

Isn’t the religion beat complicated?

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Funny, or what?

Congratulations to movie critic Michael Elliott for making his way into Entertainment Weekly‘s feature story on the new movie The Artistocrats. EW quotes producer Paul Provenza on how the documentary is attracting opposition because of its subject matter (a skeleton of a vaudeville joke, onto which comedians add the most vulgar possible premises):

A week before the release date, Provenza is keeping his eye out for possible speed bumps. “We’re on some Christian-enemies website or something,” he reports, “and we actually had a review on a Christian website, which was really fascinating, because while the reviewer quoted verses of Scripture and talked about how we were the decline of everything decent in the world, he also said he laughed his ass off.” Provenza likes it: “That’s at least an honest critique.”

In his review, Michael Elliott of quotes Ephesians: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth.” Reached by phone, he says he’s worried that the boundaries of decency today are being pushed farther than they should be. “I just wonder where all this is going to lead and how far will be too far,” Elliott explains. But did he laugh at the movie? “Oh yeah,” he admits convivially. “It’s undeniably funny.”

Two pieces of further background: Elliott uses the URL, but calls his site Movie Parables; and Elliott writes that he developed “a passion for biblical research, utilizing resources and classes offered by The Way International, a biblical research, teaching, and fellowship ministry.”

The Way International was, for many years, just as volatile a topic among conservative doctrine-watchers as The Aristocrats will be among Christian critics who count the number of vulgar words in every film they review.

In the same issue of Entertainment Weekly comes this tantalizing preview of a book by A.J. Jacobs:

Having conquered the Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Know-It-All author (and ex-EW staffer) A.J. Jacobs is moving on to a lighter tome but a heavier topic in The Year of Living Biblically. “The idea is that I’m going to spend a year of my life obeying the Bible as literally as possible. So, it’s the Ten Commandments, but also the less-publicized rules, like not shaving the beard.”

A laff riot is almost certain to ensue.

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The lawyer for the archbishop said what?

Please follow these instructions. Sit down. Click here. Read the story. Then click here just to confirm that this is not, in fact, a story from The Onion. This is, in fact, a report from the Los Angeles Times. Now read the story again and note that this is the rare opportunity to do what reporter William Lobdell has done — quote outraged Catholic traditionalists and progressives in the same story.

Once you have done all that that, click here. Now, get up off the floor.

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Yes, words mattered to David Shaw

MarchforLife7BIt was, for those of us who study media bias, one of the most famous anecdotal leads in the history of the mainstream media’s awkward attempts to write about itself.

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

“Her message was clear,” Okie recalled recently. “I felt that they were . . . (saying) ‘You’re hurting the cause’ . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line.”

Okie says she was “shocked” by the “disquieting” assumption implicit in the complaint — that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

It was crucial that this appeared in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. It was crucial that it was followed by a stunning wave of feature-length reports that dug into a wide range of topics linked to abortion and the press. It was also crucial that the byline above this story and the ones that followed belonged to David Shaw, one of the small handful of MSM reporters who built a career on stories that probed into the inner workings of the very news industry in which he worked and excelled.

The “nut graphs” that followed that first lead back in 1990 stung many mainstream reporters and editors. But there was no way to deny his conclusions, because of the massive research files that backed them up. Here we are, 15 years later, and rarely a month goes by that I do not see or hear a quote from the Shaw reports on abortion coverage. This series looms in the background of event after event — such as the upcoming Supreme Court wars.

Shaw was low-key but blunt:

But it’s not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employes at many major papers, has officially endorsed “freedom of choice in abortion decisions.”

On an issue as emotional as abortion, some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial.

The whole series was read into the Congressional Record and, quite frankly, I wish someone up on the Hill would stand up and do some kind of tribute speech sooner rather than later. I say this because the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and writer died earlier this week at the age of 62 after a battle with brain cancer.

Shaw wrote about a wide range of topics linked to the press, including, to cite the Times obituary, “movie criticism, best-seller lists, editorial cartooning, the use and abuse of political polls, the perceived influence of editorial endorsements in politics, coverage of the abortion issue, restaurant criticism, the Pulitzer Prize selection process, coverage of the pope and obituary writing.” He also, beginning in the mid-1980s, covered the ongoing struggle of the MSM to, well, get religion.

I know from personal experience that Shaw felt awkward, at times, discussing these topics. It must have been painful to have fierce critics of your industry waving copies of your work during rallies. Shaw wanted his work to be read as journalism, not as punchy polemics painted on protest posters. You could hear this tension in his voice when you asked him questions about the implications of his work — especially the abortion series.

But, let’s face it, this series is the cornerstone of his career. If someone could deal with this hot MSM bias topic, they could deal with just about anything. The Times obituary said as much.

Admirers of his work cite one series in particular that showed Shaw’s eagerness to blaze new ground on a topic. That was the four-part report, published in 1990, on coverage of the abortion issue, which scrutinized journalists’ cherished self-image of impartiality.

For the series, he reviewed print and television coverage of the issue over an 18-month period and interviewed more than 100 journalists, as well as activists on every side of the abortion debate.

He found “scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play.”

Writing in National Journal last week, William Powers noted that the series “dramatically shifted the paradigm of abortion coverage, overnight.”

So if you care about basic values of fairness, balance and accuracy in journalism, take some time this weekend and read this Shaw series once again. And brace yourself for the Supreme Court hearings. Come on, people: It’s journalism.

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Right to religion

girl with bible2The Sunday Telegraph carried a couple of interesting pieces on the growth of Christianity in China, though I think the author missed a few issues. The first article looks at the growth of Christianity as the country’s “new social revolution” and the other looks at the reason Christianity is growing (hint: democracy protests and Western values).

Both subjects are inflammatory for the Chinese people and their government due to the country’s sad history of failed social revolutions and policies against Western values and democracy.

China’s rulers are said to be ambiguous about Christianity’s growth. Some see its emphasis on personal morality as a force for stability. House churches which go along with the authority and theology of the official organisations are often left alone.

But many reject the party’s control over Christian practice and doctrine, and these are seen as a threat. After all, 80 million members would mean there are now more Christians than Communists in China.

Writing from Beijing, Richard Spencer describes the spread of Christianity in rural and urban areas. Converts, as well as those who attempt to promote their religion, face challenges foreign to most in the Western society (another older article addresses the challenges in a bit more detail here). Spencer finds individual examples that do a good job of illustrating this point.

While the article covers the necessary main points, Spencer overlooked a few areas, beginning with the reaction to this growth of China’s other approved religions, Taoism and Islam. Christians now outnumber Muslims in China (as well as members of the Chinese Communist Party), according to the article, and I can’t imagine the rapid growth of Christianity sits too well with them.

According to a friend of mine who recently returned from a summer trip in China, the government does not want the country to become highly religious, though China’s constitution gives citizens the right to practice in a “reasonable” manner. Perhaps Taoists and Muslims keep quiet about the growth of Christianity for fear that conflict between the groups could create a government crackdown? Chinese government officials abhor anything that could hinder the country’s economic development.

The article also fails to examine where Catholicism and Protestantism are growing. From what I know from a friend who is Catholic, Catholicism is growing in areas that are developing economically, but I would like to know where the growth of Protestantism is occurring. Is it right alongside Catholic growth? Or separate areas? China is quite a large place, and its linguistic diversity rivals Europe’s. Also, what Protestant denominations are growing in China?

The third area in which I believe the article fails to inform the reader is in examining the high number of atheists in China and their reaction to the growth of Christianity. Many of the Chinese elite do not take religious people seriously and will laugh if you tell them you believe in God.

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Re: Room to grow

gaffneyFrank J. Gaffney Jr. writes in an op-ed that the Saudi government uses American mosques to promote jihad. In the article I linked to in yesterday’s post on construction of Muslim mosques, the writer mentions deep into the story that the funds for one particular mosque were raised from the local community. But the story explains little about this other than delving into the particular difficulty Muslims have in constructing religious buildings due to the ban on borrowing money in Islam.

Now either the mosque being constructed in the Post piece is fairly unusual, the reporter is being deceived and has not been very thorough or the study isn’t as “superb” as Gaffney states:

A superb study released in January by Freedom House documented that the Saudi government is also using American mosques — by some estimates 80% of which have their mortgages held by Saudi Arabian financial institutions — to promote jihad. Materials officially produced and disseminated to such mosques by the kingdom are filled with calls to hate Christians and Jews. Those who fail to conform are threatened with violent punishment as apostates. Saudi-trained and -selected clerics serve as enforcers in our mosques and in our prisons and military as recruiters for a rabidly anti-American Wahhabi creed.

The point of Gaffney’s column is that the Saudis are not with the United States in fighting terrorism. But that raises the question of why and he does not answer it very well. What would be the motivation of the Saudi leadership to undermine our efforts to neutralize the more radical elements of Islam? In their public statements, they make efforts to show their support, but actions speak louder than words.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of King Fahd (actual or nominal), Saudi Arabia demonstrated that it was possible to be with us and with the terrorists.

Gaffney says that the Saudi leadership believes that promoting attacks outside their country will keep attacks from happening within their country. But that doesn’t answer the economic questions involved in a terrorist attack and its effect on the Saudis ability to sell their oil abroad.

The article also does not examine the lack of common sense in a theory that has the Saudi government directly funding terrorism. If this were true, wouldn’t the American government do something about it? We certainly did not hesitate in invading two large countries, spending billions of dollars in the process. Certainly the terrorist element in Saudi Arabia is alive and well, but that is different from official government endorsement. What gives?

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Partial-truth semantics at the Times

I have a confession to make. From time to time, I have been known to read about a fascinating article that is in some elite publication that does not publish online versions of its articles and then wait to blog about it until somebody, somewhere goes ahead and posts the text anyway. Thus, I can link to it. Bloggers out there: have you ever done this? Come on. Come clean. You see this happen on bulletin boards all the time.

Well, that happened for me the other day when the Catholic superblogger Amy Welborn posted a long and detailed note about an essay in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy by veteran Newsweek Godbeat scribe Kenneth Woodward. He sent her the text, so she posted large chunks of it.

The topic is most provocative, especially in light of our recent GetReligion go-round (or two) about newspaper style issues involving coverage of abortion. Woodward set out to study The New York Times and its refusal, under any circumstances, to publish the term “partial-birth abortion.” Welborn sums up the basic thesis:

(Woodward) begins by noting the difficulties of defining and naming this procedure from 1995, when it first came to public attention and Clinton vetoed a bill banning it. The difficulty is that it’s not a medical term (but then, neither is “heart attack”) and that the medical community had not named it, mostly because it was a procedure not performed by reputable physicians, for the most part. It was an underground procedure. Once names were determined (Intact dilation and extraction), for example, they were too awkward for headline writers. So even though “partial-birth” abortion was the term of choice for pro-life advocates, it became the most popular way to refer to it, in journalism, usually in scare quotes or with “what opponents call” attached to it.

But not . . . Woodward notes . . . in the NYTimes which steadfastly refused to use the term at all, even in scare quotes, even without the modifier.

The Times jumped through row after row of journalistic hoops to avoid the actual words that were being used in this heated public, political and legal debate. Clearly, notes Welborn, this is a matter of journalistic dogma. The newspaper’s point is that “partial-birth abortion” does not exist if the Times does not say it exists. This horrific procedure is, merely, a myth created for political purposes by those who are opposed to abortion on demand.

It is a “metaphor,” a “slogan.” That is all. There is no moral content to the discussion.

Thus, Woodward concludes (with a nod to recent debates about how the Times views the world in general):

This conclusion should not surprise long-time readers of the New York Times. Nor am I under any illusion that the Times will, on this subject, rethink its one-dimensional newsroom practices, much less its constraining newsroom culture. A walk through the Times, as Okrent put it, can indeed make readers feel like “you are traveling in a strange and forbidding world.” It is a strange world where “women” carry “fetuses” but where it is forbidden to ever write that “mothers” carry “babies.”

In the end, it is a battle over words that is more than a battle over words. But in journalism the words matter. As Woodward noted in a Notre Dame forum last March focusing on “objectivity” in the news:

Woodward also said that magazine writers and editors look for a story line and controlling themes.

“Journalism is not a science and not an art, but it is a craft,” he said. “Morality in journalism has much to do with our commitment to the language.”

If anyone sees another source for the complete Woodward essay, please let me know. Perhaps Woodward can post it somewhere himself? I will try to ask him.

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Questions of faith

John G robertsWashington Post columnist E.J. Dionne believes that questions of faith should be asked of Supreme Court nominee Judge John Roberts. His argument is based on the idea that politicians invoke religion only when it benefits them, and for that reason Roberts should answer questions about his faith, just as any other candidate for office.

Conservatives typically praise religious activism on abortion and homosexuality but dismiss liberal clerics who offer theological insights on economics or social spending. Liberals love preachers to speak out for civil rights and economic justice. But they see “a church-state problem” the instant anyone in the clergy speaks out for vouchers or against abortion and stem cell research.

In the case of Roberts, Republicans appreciate the intense lobbying on his behalf by conservative Christian groups and see the nominee’s faith as part of his appealing personality. But when Sen. Richard Durbin took Roberts’s religious commitments seriously enough to ask him how they might affect the judge’s court rulings, the Illinois Democrat was accused of . . . dragging religion into politics.

Dionne believes that conservatives don’t want Roberts questioned on his faith and how it would affect his judicial philosophy because they fear it will impair his path to confirmation. Liberals want the questions asked in the confirmation process for the very same reason.

It’s all so political. Senators want Roberts on the record stating how he will rule on certain issues before they support his nomination, and for obvious reasons. If Roberts turns out to be the key vote overturning Roe, moderate Senators supporting Roberts will have their lunches taken from them in the Democratic primaries. Senators like Clinton and Edwards, people who desperately want to become president in three years, are in a bind.

Since religion plays such a key role in deciding how many people think on issues like abortion, shouldn’t those religious views be put on display for the country to examine? Actually, no, Dionne misses the entire point of having a court system independent of the other branches of government.

As my friend (and the person responsible for my start in blogging two summers ago) Lucas pointed out to me in an email conversation discussing this piece, Dionne and others are forgetting a basic principle governing the nomination of Supreme Court justices. They are not politicians; they are arbitrators of law who are charged by the Constitution to rule on cases on the basis of their legality, not morality, and certainly not for political reasons. On this basis, questions on a potential justice’s faith are out of line in a Senate confirmation hearing.

Appropriate questions would relate to the nominees’ attitudes towards interpreting the Constitution or why type of cases they would hope to bring before the court, giving Senators an idea of nominees’ legal priorities. Supreme Court judges are not policymakers. They are interpreters of the law, and asking questions relating to policy only hurts the Supreme Court through politicization. Roberts must refuse to answer any questions regarding his faith (and how he would rule on individual issues), because as an interpreter of the law, his faith should have no effect on his decisions.

Some would say that Roberts’ Catholicism could make the difference in a case like Roe, but this is also wrong. Roberts could quite easily argue that Roe was wrongly decided as a legal matter, but his convictions on the morality of abortion should have nothing to do with the decision.

Justice Antonin Scalia has said that if the Catholic Church ever required a vote contrary to what he would choose on a matter of legal principle, he would recuse himself from voting or possibly quit. This obviously hasn’t happened, and it is doubtful it would happen for Roberts or any other justice.

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