Eight GetReligion comments after eight years

Eight years ago, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc clicked a button with his mouse and GetReligion went live. I wrote the first post on Feb. 1, 2004, but the site actually kicked into gear the next day.

That opening post talked about religion “ghosts” in many mainstream news stories. If you have never read that post, then by all means click here. That top of that what-we-are-doing-here manifesto looks like this:

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Of course, we do more than stalk ghosts.

We also try to spotlight errors in coverage and we strive to praise solid reporting on the beat. We came up with the “Got news?” concept when we kept seeing incredibly interesting stories in blogs and specialty websites that never seem to make it into the mainstream. The 5Q+1 series lets readers hear, every now and then, from interesting professionals who work on the religion-news beat or whose journalism work on other topics often veers into religion news (we’d love to do more of the latter, frankly).

One of the quotes I keep in mind, when looking for material for the site, is that oft-quoted (certainly around here) line from Bill Moyers, the one about the fact that far too many mainstream journalists are “tone deaf” when it comes to hearing the music of faith in public issues. They, yes, just don’t “get religion.” They suffer from a lack of information, or interest, or imagination.

So, this is GetReligion’s eighth birthday. What should we do in order to celebrate, in the midst of another crazy working week?

OK, here are eight observations from moi about what I have learned in eight years of work here. There are many more that could be made. I am trying to stick to basics. I do hope the other GetReligionistas chime in.

* GetReligion is not a blog about religion news. It’s a blog about how the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news. We have roughly 89,000 comments on this site and we would have at least twice that if we allowed readers to shout at each other about the content of religious ISSUES in the news, instead of attempting to steer comments toward discussions about media coverage of those issues.

* Lots of people hate religion and lots of religious people hate journalism (especially when journalists print information that they dislike). GetReligion has tried to stay focused on basic, accurate, balanced mainstream coverage of religion. Yes, there are skilled, experienced professionals out there who sincerely attempt to do that job and they do it well. Yes, there are plenty of examples of train wrecks in mainstream religion coverage. They are too common. But they are not the whole story.

* What we are dealing with is a Blind Spot with two sides. In other words, the two halves of the First Amendment do not get along very well. Plenty of journalists do not seem to respect the powerful and essential role that religious faith plays in this land. Plenty of religious people do not seem to respect the powerful and essential role that a free press plays in this land.

* The bottom line: The state of American journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not by those who hate it. Get with the program.

* No one knows what the word “evangelical” means, including evangelical leaders. It’s like defining fog. At the same time, this is a word that describes a movement of religious believers, not a movement of registered GOP voters. It’s time to stop treating it like a political term. Meanwhile, the word “fundamentalist” has a meaning and it can be found in an accurate reference in the Associated Press Stylebook. Many journalists still need to look that up.

* When in doubt, reporters should accurately quote people — rather than continuing to slap vague and often inaccurate labels on their foreheads.

* When specific flocks of religious believers keep saying, year after year, that journalists are printing inaccurate information about what they believe, journalists should (a) take that seriously and then (b) tell these believers to come down to the local newsroom with stacks of on-the-record reference materials that explain the basics. Then everyone exchanges business cards and promises to return phone calls. It’s journalism, folks.

* At some point in the future, there’s going to be a story that involves Episcopalians, same-sex marriage, Mormons, post-Vatican II liturgical rites and vampires and the server that hosts this blog is going to blow up.

And, one more time, did anyone out there really listen to what Bill Keller said the other day in Austin? I am still depressed.

Onward into year No. 9.

When ultra-Christian French fundamentalists attack

We joke about the overuse of “fundamentalist” to describe people that reporters don’t like, but I think we need a special award for whatever happened in this Associated Press report filed from Paris:

The city of Paris is filing legal complaints against a group of fundamentalist Christians who have been protesting a play currently showing at the municipal theater, claiming it is blasphemous, the mayor said Friday.

Riot police have been called in to chase off demonstrators bearing crosses loudly protesting in front of, and sometimes inside, the Theatre de la Ville since the Oct. 20 opening of the play.

“Sur le Concept du Visage du fils de Dieu” (“On the Concept of the Son of God’s Face”), by Italian Romeo Castellucci is a provocative story centering on a young man caring for his aged and incontinent father. A portrait of the face of Christ looms large onstage throughout and projectiles are ultimately thrown at it.

Each night, police have had to defend the theater from a group of ultra-Christian protesters — organized by the group Renouveau France — who turn up with crucifixes and banners denouncing “Christianophobia,” determined to disrupt the show.

Emphasis mine. We’ve discussed the problems with describing French Catholics as “fundamentalists” already. So by now, any GetReligion reader worth his salt could recite the Associated Press stylebook definition of “fundamentalist,” right? Right:

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.

Way to ignore your own style guidelines, AP. So does the AP story tell us more about which sect of Protestants this “ultra-Christian” group belongs to? Guess what: these ultra-Christian French fundamentalist Protestants called Renouveau France aren’t even Protestants. I’m going to go with Wikipedia here but Renouveau France is described as “a French far-right nationalist political party affiliated with the European National Front, founded in November 2005. Renouveau français politically defines itself as nationalist, Catholic and “counterrevolutionary” — in this case, reactionary opposition to the principles of the French Revolution of 1789.” Like all good fundamentalists, they’ve “warned against the “parliamentary system”, and the “fundamentally Masonic, secular, and cosmopolitan Republic.” Just like George Marsden described, am I right?

Also, what in the world does “ultra-Christian” mean? Is there some use of the phrase with which I should be familiar? It’s almost as if the reporter meant to describe “ultra-Royalists,” which sounds more like what the group is going for. While the mayor is quoted as using the “f” word, the story failed to put the group’s action in the context of a long line of right-wing royalist Catholic groups.

On that note, the protests involve, it seems, a few different far-right Catholic groups. The AP credits Renouveau Francais while The Guardian credits Institut Civitas:

Italian theatre director Romeo Castellucci has responded to Christian protests against his work by offering to “forgive” those who disrupted performances in Paris last week.

On Thursday, members of the Institut Civitas group interrupted a performance of On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God at the Theatre de la Ville, brandishing placards with the slogan “Stop Christianophobia”. The performance resumed after protesters were removed by police.

The following night, despite increased security, audience members were pelted with eggs and oil as they entered the theatre, according to French news agency AFP.

In a statement, Castellucci paraphrased the words of Christ, saying: “I forgive them for they know not what they do … I forgive them because they are ignorant and their ignorance is much more arrogant and damaging because it involves faith.”

This is the same group that, with the Bishop of Avignon, collected some 80,000 signatures to prevent the town council from staging an art exhibit that included Andres Serano’s ‘Piss Christ’. All this would be helpful information to include the next time we read about “ultra-Christian” French “fundamentalists.”

Evangelical? Born again? Fundie? Whatever …

Once more, into the religion-beat word wars (with an emphasis on the often foggy meaning of the word “evangelical”)!

People who paid close attention to The New Yorker piece on Michele Bachmann now have another reason to parse that text again with a critical eye.

Writing for Religion News Service (posted at Huffington Post), the veteran Godbeat specialist (and progressive evangelical) Cathleen Falsani has taken a critical, fact-driven look at some of the terms tossed around in that magnum opus. While she liked the piece quite a bit, some of its loose labels troubled her.

A veteran on the beat, and a Wheaton College graduate (just like Billy Graham), Falsani was compelled to dig a bit deeper — especially about the magazine’s use of the terms “evangelical,” “born-again” and “fundamentalist.”

Thus, we read:

It seemed they were employed interchangeably, as if their definitions were synonymous. In popular culture, those terms are shorthand for “staunchly conservative,” “small-minded,” and “mean-spirited.” It’s a matter of semantics, but it is spiritually significant.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek “evangelion,” meaning “the good news” or “the gospel.” During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther adopted the word to describe his breakaway church; for hundreds of years thereafter, “evangelical” meant, simply, “Protestant.”

That’s a good start. But when dealing with issues of history, it’s always good to have an authoritative voice to back you up.

So, continuing:

Today, in American society the term is used in three ways, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:

– Theologically, it is an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the need for conversion, the command to spread the gospel, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the primacy of Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

– Stylistically, “evangelical” also describes a kind of religious practice as much as a set of doctrines. This is where you really see the diversity of evangelicalism: Mennonites, African-American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Catholic charismatics and Dutch Reformed all fall under the “evangelical-as-a-style” umbrella.

– Politically, “evangelical” describes a coalition of Protestants (including evangelist Billy Graham) who used the term in an attempt to distance themselves from the “Christian fundamentalist” movements of the 1920s and ’30s. Fundamentalism’s hallmarks were (and to a certain extent remain) anti-intellectualism, anti-modernity and a belief that the church should not engage with culture. Mainstream evangelicals, by contrast, sought to actively be a part of culture in order to transform it.

Alas, at that point Falsani goes on to adopt the post-Associated Press Stylebook stance on the meaning of “fundamentalist,” as opposed to using the historic model that she has already applied to “evangelical.”

Still, there is much wisdom to be absorbed in those paragraphs from the Wheaton team.

I would urge reporters to take the same fact-based, as opposed to opinion-based, approach to defining religion terms in general. Look for the history of the terms and see who originated them and who claims them. That is always a wise and prudent place to start.

Those (in newsrooms) who have ears, let them hear.

IMAGE: The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

There goes the F-word LA Times, again


Let’s start with the obvious: There were more than a few believers who could accurately be described as “fundamentalists” at the Gov. Rick Parry’s combination prayer rally and pre-White House campaign trial balloon festival.

Let’s start with something just as obvious: There were plenty of people at the rally (simply based on the official list of those who signed on) who could not accurately be described as “fundamentalists” under the historic — and, thus, Associated Press Stylebook endorsed — definition of the term.

Thus, it is appropriate to ask what in the heckfire the editors of The Los Angeles Times were thinking when they approved this lede for their main hard-news report on this controversial event:

With Rick Perry likely to enter the Republican presidential race within days or weeks, thousands of fundamentalist Christians cheered the Texas governor Saturday at a stadium prayer rally that appeared to boost his standing with religious conservatives, a key GOP voting bloc.

Perry organized the daylong service of prayer and fasting, featuring appearances by prominent figures on the Christian right. Stadium officials said the crowd exceeded 30,000, far more than any event staged by the announced Republican presidential contenders.

I realize that most GetReligion readers who work in journalism almost certainly know the following passage by heart now, but let’s take another look at the AP stylebook’s wise and historically accurate advice on how to handle the term “fundamentalist.”

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.

That stated, a glance at the official national endorsement list (a source tapped in few, if any, news reports) for this event reveals that some true fundamentalists were, in fact, in the house.

At the same time, there were evangelicals present — author Max Lucado leaps to mind — who could never be called a “fundamentalist.” Then again, perhaps the dominant stylistic influence on the event came from charismatic churches and, trust me, there are scores of important and divisive theological differences between Pentecostal believers and true fundamentalists. And what does one do with retired Bishop John Yanta of Texas, Sam Brownback and the few other Catholic leaders (clergy and laity) who dared to endorse the event?

The obvious question: Have we reached the point where any Christian believer whose doctrine of scripture and church tradition is high enough to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin will now be called a “fundamentalist”?

Let me stress that this rally included some fringe folks, for sure. However, instead of accurately quoting these beliefs and, even better, asking the mainstream evangelicals and Catholics to critique them, the Los Angeles Times led the way (correct me if I missed worse, providing URLs) in settling for multiple uses of foggy terms such as “extreme views” — instead of actually citing on-the-record references to those views.

At one point, there was this missed opportunity:

… Perry and other speakers were careful to avoid overt partisan appeals. To applause, the 61-year-old governor expressed his view of a “personal God” whose “agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda.” Chuckling, he added, “He is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party.”

Perry read several Bible verses, including from the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited as the inspiration for the rally.

Uh, “his view” of a “personal God”? The governor has his own view on that basic Christian belief about the nature of the Almighty? Please, Times crew, share the details. Perhaps this newspaper’s inner ring believes that Catholics, for example, do not believe in a “personal God”?

And about those Bible verses read by Perry. I, for one, would like to know what one or two of them were — in case he mangled any of them or used them out of context (Elizabeth Tenety of the “On Faith” site at The Washington Post has many of these details, as usual). The angels (and the demons) are in the details.

I am sure that some readers would question elements of The New York Times report on the event, but at least these editors avoided yet another inaccurate use of the F-word in their short report. This is strong praise, in these times.

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.

When French fundamentalists attack

The photographic image accompanying this post is not the work of Andres Serrano with which newspaper readers would almost certainly be familiar. However, I cannot seem to convince myself that I need to put a copy of that infamous work of modern religious or anti-religious art on this website on Good Friday. Sue me.

However, as you will see, this quiet picture of a nun — entitled “The Church” — is also at the heart of a Guardian story that serves as yet another perfect lesson in how not to use the word “fundamentalist” in a news report.

Here is the top of this hot-button story from the world of art, to provide some context:

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.

Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.

The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year. It also marks a return to an old standoff between Serrano and the religious right that dates back more than 20 years, to Reagan-era Republicanism in the US.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The attack was illegal and, while the work offends a great many people (including me), in a free society the solution to disputes about private (as opposed to tax-payer funded) art is supposed to be more freedom for other artists, not violence. That said, I would say that some protesters at this exhibit — not the attackers — were onto something when they muttered that the museum would not appreciate it if they offered to create a similar work of art by immersing a copy of the Koran or “The Diary of Anne Frank” in a container of urine.

However, the journalistic point for me is, once again, the use of a doctrinal label from Protestantism in the context of a dispute between a liberal, sort-of-Catholic artist (see this 1991 interview with Serrano) and other Catholics who are offended by some of his work. What precisely is a “French Catholic fundamentalist”?

Another point: What do journalists actually know about the doctrinal beliefs of the attackers, as opposed to the Catholic traditionalists behind the other protests? Do we know if there is a organizational link at work here? And if we are dealing with violent Catholics offended by the profaned image of the crucifix, why attack this other image of the nun (other than the identity of its creator)? What, precisely, is the doctrine at work here?

One more time, for the record, here is the Associated Press Stylebook’s wisdom on when to use and when not to use the loaded “fundamentalist” label, which has turned into a meaningless linguistic club with which to pound a wide variety of believers (not just Protestants who hold the doctrines linked to the term):

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.

Then again, perhaps the journalists behind this report simply could control themselves as they did their work. After all, the online version of this article now ends with the following oh-so-sweet correction. Folks, you just can’t make this up:

This article was amended on 19 April 2011. The original referred to the Senator Jesse Helms as Jesse James. This has been corrected.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

IMAGE: Andres Serrano, The Church (Soeur Jeanne Myriam, Paris), 1991

Get Egypt: Vague, vaguer, vaguest

Events in Egypt roll on and, of course, journalists and diplomats are all trying to figure out what is up with the Muslim Brotherhood and it’s potential role in the new secular or Islamic state of Egypt. In other words, will a democratic process lead to an Islamic republic?

Thus, we have the following story in the Washington Post, which ran under the headline, “Muslim Brotherhood eyes comeback in Egypt.” Let’s start at the beginning and walk through parts of this piece in sequence.

Hint: Look for labels, not information.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT – Hamdi Hassan, a senior member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood party, was jailed by Egyptian authorities Jan. 28 during the tensest days of anti-government protests in this coastal city.

But Hassan walked out of jail two days later after protesters commandeered the facility and freed all the inmates. By this weekend, the 51-year-old physician sounded exultant as he held court in a main square, mobbed by his supporters in what has long been a Brotherhood stronghold.

“This is a defining and historic moment because Egyptians from all walks of life are finally free,” Hassan said. He made clear that he had no fear of being arrested again, even as charred police vehicles in the background offered evidence of the turmoil that spread from Cairo to Alexandria at the height of the violence.

Hassan’s own turnabout reflects a reversal that has left the Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic party, poised for the first time to claim a real stake in Egyptian politics in whatever follows three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.

OK, so we have the dreaded f-word used again in a context in which it is, historically speaking, meaningless.

Sadly, the rest of the Post article will be based on this meaningless, vague f-word as a starting point, defining other Egyptians in relationship to the Brotherhood. In reality, we have been told nothing about the Brotherhood and what it believes about the crucial issues facing this diverse land and its cultures (plural).

So, all together now, let’s chant the relevant passage from the Associated Press Stylebook:

“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.”

Do leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood use this term from American Protestantism to describe their group and its work? I would assume that the answer is “no.”

Moving on.

Officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood has long been the target of vicious government crackdowns. But as the oldest, largest and best-organized group in Egypt, the Brotherhood could conceivably become the largest bloc in parliament whenever new elections are held.

Though it was not a driving force behind the demonstrations that began Jan. 25 and grew into a popular uprising, the Brotherhood has wasted no time setting the groundwork for a political resurgence. Its leaders have now claimed their place among those who met Sunday with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president, to discuss constitutional reforms and a transition plan.

The development has left some of the more liberal, secular protesters visibly unnerved.

So, what are the policy ideas that drive the “liberal, secular” protesters? Also, does the word “secular” mean that these protesters are not Muslims or are we dealing with the uniquely “secular” approach used in, oh, Turkey?

Most of all, what is the information that we need to know about these liberals and secularists to understand their take on Egypt’s future? Could we pick one issue and compare these labeled people? How about free speech? Religious liberty? Should Egypt have a blasphemy law?

Moving on.

Some members of the Brotherhood have long aspired to transform Egypt into an Islamic state. But the message that Hassan was delivering Sunday was more moderate, reflecting the group’s vow to cooperate with secular and more-moderate Islamic politicians when Mubarak’s regime ends.

“One of our demands is free and fair elections that really demonstrate the will of the Egyptian people,” Hassan said.

There are members of the Brotherhood who do not want Egypt to be an Islamic state? Tell us more. Now that is news. Meanwhile, what is the best guess — based on history and polling — of the meaning of the phrase “the will of the Egyptian people”?

Moving on.

Just how much power the Brotherhood could attain has been on the minds of U.S. officials in recent days as they have calibrated their policy on transition in Egypt. Israeli leaders and analysts have warned that the Brotherhood could hijack the reformist agenda and emerge as a major force that could seek to undermine the long peace between Egypt and Israel.

Now we have “reformist.” Might we know what elements of Egyptian society need to be reformed? Surely the protesters have some ideas.

Meanwhile, I should not that mentioning the fragile peace between Egypt and Israel is a practical detail. Bravo.

Looking ahead, surely there will be some additional facts in the article’s background materials on the Brotherhood. You think?

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 to promote Islamic values. It became politically influential in Egypt the following decade as it sought to end British colonial rule. Since Egypt’s independence in 1948, a succession of Egyptian rulers have outlawed and suppressed the group.

Mubarak’s government banned it as a party but allowed its members to run for office as independents. When leaders in the West prodded Mubarak to allow greater democratic freedoms, he repeatedly warned that doing so would only empower the likes of the Brotherhood.

Then again, maybe not.

What, pray tell, are “Islamic values”? Is the goal here to avoid mentioning a single specific issue of any kind?

Anyway, you get the idea. Did I miss something specific in the article that tells readers what any of these vague labels actually mean?

Celebrating post No. 6,000 (with Bill Keller)

So here we are at GetReligion post No. 6,000. I might also note that this landmark comes only a few weeks before our seventh birthday, which falls on Feb. 1.

Much has changed in the world of religion-news coverage since the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc (the title is a metaphor) and I opened the cyber-doors at this site. Blogging has gone from being a novelty to, like it or not, becoming a journalistic fact of life. Meanwhile, the state of the economy — national and global — has added to the woes of tree-pulp newspapers and, thus, had a negative impact on religion coverage (since religion remains a subject that gives far too many editors sweaty palms). We have seen some positive developments in religion news coverage in cyberspace, such as the groundbreaking multi-platform CNN Belief Blog. Please list some of your other favorites in our comments pages, but focus on religion news, not on opinion.

In the end, I think it is safe to say that the “blind spot” on religion news remains all too common in the mainstream press.

Thus, your GetReligionistas want to say — once again — that we think it is impossible for journalists to understand how our world really works without taking religion seriously.

We believe that journalists need to focus on facts and clearly attributed information, rather than leaning on vague and often meaningless religious labels. We still believe that religion news is worthy of editorial respect by journalists on a wide variety of beats in today’s newsrooms (that includes television). We believe that the religion beat itself is best covered by skilled journalists who have prepared themselves to handle this stunningly powerful and complicated beat. It helps if they know some history — start here, please — and know enough about the Associated Press Stylebook to grasp the fact that the pope is not a “fundamentalist,” that “Episcopalian” is a noun, not an adjective, etc., etc., etc. World without end. Amen.

So how should we mark this moment?

Let’s pause, once again, and consider a few remarks from Bill Keller, the editor of The New York Times (last time I checked). These are drawn from the final section (The News/Opinion Divide) of his 2005 essay entitled “Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf),” which was written in response to a credibility-committee document called “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust (.pdf).” It might help to click here for another post related to these documents.

The following has been edited a bit in order to focus on themes relevant to this weblog. Please read the whole document, if you have any doubts that issues linked to religion news are this prominent in this famous text.

Even sophisticated readers of The New York Times sometimes find it hard to distinguish between news coverage and commentary in our pages. While The Times is and always will be a forum for opinion and argument as well as a source of impartial news coverage, we should make the distinction as clear as possible. …

We must, as the committee says, be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline. …

“Our paper’s commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable,” the committee writes. “We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it. The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting.”

I embrace this recommendation wholeheartedly. The point is not that we should begin recruiting reporters and editors for their political outlook; it is part of our professional code that we keep our political views out of the paper. The point is that we want a range of experience. … First and foremost we hire the best reporters, editors, photographers and artists in the business. But we will make an extra effort to focus on diversity of religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.

Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. …

I also endorse the committee’s recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live.

This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

And all the readers said: “Amen.”

Also, to all the journalists who cover news related to religion — that would be sports, arts, politics, science, education, etc. — we add another appropriate benediction: “Courage.”


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