Asking questions about Sarah Palin, ‘blood libel’

Americans received a nice little history lesson this week, thanks to Sarah Palin’s video reaction to the shooting in Arizona. We were quickly informed by just about every national news outlet that the “blood libel” is generally used to historically mean the accusations that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals.

Now, I’m the first to say that the media could use more historical context in their work. A more careful study of history would help us understand the actual significance of events and how they play out over time. Perhaps we would then spend less time on the Justin Bieber tweet of the day and consider, for instance, what’s going on in Tunisia, Australia, Haiti and Lebanon this week. (The Onion‘s masterful headline captures this comparison with the headline “Standoff In Ivory Coast Threatens To Boil Over Into Full-Scale News Blurb”)

Back to Sarah Palin and “blood libel,” it’s hard to know how to start a thoughtful discussion. Why don’t we start with the beginning, when reporters thrust Palin and a map into the coverage of the shooting in Arizona. I do not consider myself a defender of Palin, but I wondered whether editors and reporters stopped to consider whether she was, in fact, relevant. And don’t give me headlines like “Twitter abuzz over Palin’s map.” Mainstream media outlets are supposed rise above and attempt to decide what actually matters in the grand scheme of things.

Editors and reporters could have asked similar questions over whether it was relevant to cover Westboro’s earlier announcement to protest 9-year-old Christina Green’s funeral. Now, don’t get me wrong. You could make a case for covering these angles, especially when it led to legislation in Arizona. But few outlets seemed to consider asking questions like “Is this really news? How predictable is this? Does Westboro have any influence without media coverage?” Are we asking these kinds of questions before we hit publish? I’m not suggesting Palin or Westboro don’t deserve any ink, but the level of coverage seemed disproportionate to other issues going on in the world.

Sadly, with diminishing newsrooms and a rush for page views, reporters are increasingly unable to cover all the beats, so why do we need outlets covering the same angles? Part of the problem might include the number of blogs media outlets are creating. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been blogging nearly daily for several years and they definitely have their place. But I worry that reporters are spending their time posting the most minute details instead of allowing for long-term, big-picture, thoughtful coverage.

One of the bigger questions we have to start with is whether the media inserted Palin into the cycle unnecessarily. On Wednesday, though, you might argue that Palin inserted herself into the cycle when she posted a video reaction to the shooting. Most outlets zoned in on her “blood libel” comment, which led to article after article over reactions and outrage. Some of the coverage offered some good historical background, such as Laurie Goodstein’s piece for the New York Times. You could argue that Palin’s “blood libel” comment is worth noting, but how much coverage does it actually need before reporters squeeze every last angle out of it?

All of this brings me to one of the most confusing pieces I’ve seen come out of the Palin coverage. Matthew Cooper, a managing editor of the National Journal, suggests, “‘Blood Libel’ comment was likely used to fire up pro-Israel evangelicals.” Usually editors ask their writers to do some reporting, but it appears this one did very little.

After all, it’s not the first time Palin has aligned herself subtly with Jews. She has noted that after her election as governor in 2006, her childhood pastor suggested that she take the Bible’s Queen Esther as a role model. Esther was a beauty queen who became a fierce protector of the Jewish people. Palin is comfortable in the role of Esther, and many of her evangelical supporters see her in that guise, describing her as Esther-like. The multi-faith website Beliefnet called this phenomenon “Esther-mania.”

By adopting the blood libel language, Palin was most likely trying to pull another Esther–aligning herself with Jews, not denouncing them. It appears to have been a badly miscalculated effort, but it’s unlikely that it was her intention to offend.

“It was a dog whistle,” said one Jewish Republican who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration and declined to be named to avoid becoming enmeshed in the intraparty debate over Palin. The reference was to a device that’s silent to some ears but calls to others. “The media didn’t get it, but Christian activists did,” this source added.

Cooper’s one example to support his theory may not live up to what he’s imagined. For instance, Sarah Posner shoots back that Christians who identify with Esther usually aren’t identifying with Jews or Jewish history. Further, why does Cooper use one anonymous source to back up his theory? One of the first writers to use “blood libel” after the shooting was Glenn Reynolds in the Wall Street Journal. It would be interesting if a pro-gay marriage, pro-choice blogger was signaling evangelicals, wouldn’t it?

Unfortunately, Politico ‘s Jennifer Epstein only furthers this narrative with the headline “Some say ‘blood libel’ signaled base.” Apparently, all you need to do to get yourself in a Politico story is “float an idea” on a blog. Since when did reporters stop calling scholars or first-hand sources? Did anyone think to maybe ask an evangelical whether this might have served as a signal?

Reporters tend to whine about how Palin won’t do interviews with the mainstream media. On the other hand, they seem to wet their pants for every jot or tittle on Twitter. You might argue that she has a popular base, but how is she different from someone like Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck, or someone else who has a media platform? Because she generates clicks? You would think that she was currently an elected official, a candidate for president, or something. Religion reporters especially should rise above the political filter the media generates.

Art: This xtranormal video came out last year teasing Politico’s coverage, but it serves as a nice critique of general media coverage.

Connecting Arizona’s dots

As the media continues to feed us play-by-play updates from Arizona’s shootings, we’re reading about the endless calls to civility, the confusing ties to Sarah Palin and the (predictable?) reaction from Westboro, we’re seeing some further religion coverage within profiles of some of the victims.

The New York Times offers some nice details about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ religious background, though it seems to downplay the impact of faith in her politics.

Ms. Giffords is the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona, a point of pride for many at Congregation Chaverim. She did not attend services every week and rediscovered her Jewish faith only about a decade ago. But she is described as a dedicated member of the temple whose work and compassion embody the best of Jewish practice.

“My Jewish heritage has really instilled in me the importance of education and caring for the community,” she said in a 2006 interview with The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

She called a 2001 visit to Israel a turning point in her life that set off a fresh interest in Judaism. Her faith has never become a major issue in her political campaigns, which, most recently, focused on her opposition to Arizona’s hard-line immigration law and her support of President Obama’s health care overhaul.

I’m not sure how the writers quantifies when faith is a major issue in a campaign, unless he was expecting something like a Jeremiah Wright moment. The Times switches course and plays up religion again towards the end.

Ms. Giffords, a member of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s organization, has said that her religion helped her become a leader.

“If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it,” she said in a 2006 interview. Jewish women, she continued, “have an ability to cut through all the reasons why something should, shouldn’t or can’t be done, and pull people together to be successful.”

In comparison, the brief profile of U.S. District Judge John M. Roll doesn’t even mention his Catholic faith. You would think that it would merit at least a brief inclusion, since he died after just attending daily Mass. On the other hand, a few media outlets like the Wall Street Journal captured more details on the 9-year-old girl who was born on 9/11.

More than two hundred parishioners gathered Sunday at the St. Odilia Catholic Church in [Tucson] for a mass remembering Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year old victim of the Safeway shooting, whose patriotism and passion is being commemorated across the nation.

Miss Green attended the church, a modern building in an affluent part of Tucson, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Santa Catalina Mountains, for four years; she was part of the “Joyful Noise Choir” and last year she took her First Communion here, less than a mile away from the parking lot where she was felled.

Bobby Ross continues to follow the story of Dorwan Stoddard, the Church of Christ member who tried to protect his wife during the rampage. Another victim, Phyllis Schneck, spent much of her time as an active member of Tucson’s Northminster Presbyterian Church.

I like this little snapshot feature from the Associated Press/Los Angeles Times, which seems to mention religion when it seemed especially relevant in the victims lives.

There are still few details surrounding the motive of the alleged gunman, Jared Loughner. As Mollie mentioned earlier, he posted a video suggesting that he was able to control all religion “by being the mind controller.” The Associated Press includes a comment from one of his friends briefly mentions religion, or lack thereof.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Wiens also said Loughner used to speak critically about religion. He also talked about how he liked to smoke pot.

“He wasn’t really too keen on religion it seemed like,” Grant Wiens, 22, told The Associated Press. “I don’t know if floating through life is the right term or whatever, but he was really just into doing his own thing.”

Crying “exclusive,” The New York Daily News reports on a “shrine” that appears in Loughner’s yard.

A sinister shrine reveals a chilling occult dimension in the mind of the deranged gunman accused of shooting a member of Congress and 19 others.

Hidden within a camouflage tent behind Jared Lee Loughner’s home sits an alarming altar with a skull sitting atop a pot filled with shriveled oranges.

A row of ceremonial candles and a bag of potting soil lay nearby, photos reveal.

Experts on Sunday said the elements are featured in the ceremonies of a number of occult groups.

Who, exactly, are these “experts” who are commenting that this structure? Sure, you don’t see that on everyone’s back patio, but since when do reporters jump to such conclusions, using words like “sinister,” “chilling” and “alarming”?

Finally, the political angles are quickly getting old. While I’m still trying to figure out how Politico justifies six links on its home page linking Palin to the shooting (While the NYT has one, the WSJ has one and CNN has zero), I hope further coverage will find some responsible connections to add.

Um, Wallis represents the new Christian right?

Jim Wallis has been calling the religious right dead for a while now. I can’t imagine his surprise when he was included in Newsweek‘s new list on “faces of the Christian right.” It is as if the editors at Newsweek are saying, “Ha ha, you thought it was dead, but you’re actually the leader of it — joke’s on you!”

Perhaps writer David A. Graham didn’t write the headline, but he certainly makes a lot of assumptions in his slideshow attempting to capture the current politically-inclined religious leaders.

My friend Anna sent me this note:

That Newsweek piece is abysmal. My favorite quote? “It’s not as sexy as praying with the president.” [In the bio of Melissa Rogers] Since when is Palin an “evangelical rock star”? [In the bio of Marjorie Dannenfelser] The bit about Cizik is wildly inaccurate -he never backed gay marriage. [In the bio of Jim Wallis]
This guy makes young journalists everywhere look bad. The arrogant sarcasm running throughout this piece is inexcusable; it’s not even appropriate for the op-ed page!

Let’s start with his introduction and move back to the bios in a bit:

Who speaks for the religious right? That used to be an easy question to answer: on matters of faith and politics, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson were towering figures: opinionated, controversial, and vastly influential.

Excuse me? “Who speaks for the religious right” has never been an easy question to answer, in part because of the vague labels and definitions involved. But I just don’t understand Graham’s criteria for “Christian right.” Yes, there is a new generation on the scene, but does the Rev. Billy Graham really not merit any inclusion whatsoever? Anyone can be both opinionated and controversial. Is you-know-who from Westboro Baptist the leader of the religious right? Um, no. Were Falwell, Robertson and Dobson influential? Yes, in their own ways, but it probably depended on who you talked to, at what time of their life and on what issue.

But with Falwell’s death in 2007, Robertson’s outlandish comments about the 2010 earthquake in China and Hurricane Katrina, and Dobson’s gradual retirement, it’s harder to pinpoint a similar council for the second generation of the movement, which is more strategically, denominationally, and ideologically diverse.

Did Falwell’s death and Robertson’s China/Katrina statements really mark the moment of their diminishing influence? You could argue the influence waxed and waned as the media kept their ideas alive. Is there any data to support the idea that the Christian right is more strategically, denominationally and ideologically diverse than it was in the past? Where does this idea stem from?

Here’s Newsweek‘s wish list: Robert George, Jim Daly, Maggie Gallagher, Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, Melissa Rogers, Marjorie Dannenfelser, Tony Perkins, Jim Wallis and Joel Hunter.

If you must create such a list, some of the choices might make sense, and I don’t necessarily want to quibble about who’s in and who’s out. For what it’s worth, though, I wrote a piece last year exploring whether the term “Christian/religious right” is even helpful anymore. Now, one might argue that conservative religious leaders just want to abandon a term because it isn’t very good PR, but others could argue that the label has become so confusing that no one knows how to apply it effectively. But who do these people represent and/or influence? Do their endorsements of a candidate or policy matter and how do you measure that? Do some of them perhaps have more influence in the media than for some congregation or coalition? Can Catholics — representing a very broad agenda on social issues and economic justice — really be slipped comfortably under the Religious Right umbrella?

The author included minor defenses of why each person was on the list. One of the funniest bits was the section on Maggie Gallagher:

“I don’t object to the [Christian right] label, but it’s not how I think of myself,” she tells NEWSWEEK. But her work, which also includes writing for the conservative National Review and others, is informed by her faith, and she’s collaborated closely with black preachers whose congregations strongly oppose gay marriage.

I love how she says “I don’t think of myself that way” and the writer comes back with, “Oh, but she definitely is. Anyone who is informed by their faith are definitely part of the Christian right. And she collaborates with black preachers whose congregations oppose gay marriage. No question about it!” I’m just not following the logic.

Back to Wallis, the author describes him as flying the flag of the “Christian left,” if it exists. In the same section, he describes Brian McLaren as a “moderate evangelical.” I don’t go around slapping on or quibbling over labels, but I would imagine that any reporter would get some raised eyebrows out of that one. So leaders of the Christian left are now part of the Christian right?

What was the process in selecting these particular individuals? What’s the criteria? How do you judge whether someone is a leader or has a following? The author cites little bursts of news he can remember (she was on the presidents faith-based advisory council), but does the same person really influence a large group of followers? What about other influencers like New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the Rev. Franklin Graham, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput or World Vision president Rich Stearns, for instance? You could argue against their inclusion, which is fine, but you could also point to their pretty huge followings or potential for influence. Besides, whatever happened to Lisa Miller’s idea that Sarah Palin could invigorate the religious right? (lol)

I tweeted about Newsweek‘s list yesterday and received this feedback from @chrisblackstone: @spulliam I’d include @albertmohler, @rickwarren, @johnpiper, @billhybels. While they may not be politically influential, they do influence.

That’s a key point. Who is influencing who, and why does that matter? For instance, does a person really influence anyone if he or she appears some council or as leader of some organization? I can tell you that if, for instance, Al Mohler, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, etc. decided to support a particular candidate privately, it could definitely turn some heads. They may not lead politically-focused organizations, but that’s the thing about some religious leaders. These individuals are trusted by some large numbers because of their religious role as pastor/leader of a seminary, not because of who they rub shoulders with in Washington.

Lisa Miller also has a new Newsweek story on what could motivate the religious right in 2012. Miller offers some new reporting — apparently Wallis, Joel Hunter and Tony Campolo met to build a new communications strategy — as well as some historical background. Few reporters are able to incorporate history due to time and space, but Miller makes a concerted effort. Her thesis seems to build around Glenn Beck.

Evangelicals characteristically see themselves as a persecuted group whose values are under assault by the mainstream culture, and Beck has most successfully (and visibly) reframed those values in terms of patriotism. The enemy is no longer “moral relativism,” a term that encompasses sexual promiscuity, divorce, homosexuality, and pornography. It’s socialism, the redistribution of wealth, immigrants–a kind of “global relativism” that makes no moral distinction between America and every other place.

Read that first sentence again. Evangelicals characteristically see themselves as a persecuted group? Funny, I don’t remember that in David Bebbington’s classic description of evangelicals. Also, is there any data to suggest there the “enemy” shifted from “moral relativism” to socialism, immigrants, etc.? I’m not saying that shift did not take place, but haven’t seen this theory before or reflected in any data. History is employed for background purposes, but where’s the current proof?

It’s ironic that Beck, a Mormon, would gain acceptance as a leader of a new Christian coalition: Mormon theology in the 19th century was seen as so heretical–such a threat to the Protestant establishment–that the followers of Joseph Smith were routinely persecuted and killed. But Beck’s gift, and Palin’s, is to articulate God’s special plan for America in such broad strokes that they trample no single creed or doctrine while they move millions with their message. Jerry Falwell had a similar gift, and in 1980 his Moral Majority helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president–and elect Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

It’s ironic that Miller sees Beck as a leader of a new Christian coalition the same week a new Lifeway survey suggests that most Protestant pastors do not see him as a Christian. Ed Stetzer reports that 75% consider former President George W. Bush to be a Christian, while 66% consider the same thing about Palin and 41% about President Barack Obama. In contrast, only 27% think of Glenn Beck as a Christian. There were definitely concerns raised over Beck after his comments on social justice and then concerns about his Mormon faith after his rally. His interest among certain evangelicals (Richard Land, Jonathan Falwell) is interesting, but I don’t see much evidence that he’s the new leader of religious involvement in politics.

Like many outlets, Newsweek is trying to predict 2012 outcome, but it’s unclear how important politically these individuals will become in the coming months. That said, the article raises an interesting idea and doesn’t frustrate me as much as the little slideshow did.

Sometimes reporters throw out a theory or idea, but then they go through this process called reporting. You research background info, you do interviews, you check polls–in other words, you make your theory as rock solid possible. I’m not sure Newsweek‘s list of the Christian right is any more than a gimmick, designed to get clicks on the website. Reporters should definitely watch for future religious leaders, but pigeonholing them into a list like this seems to turn journalism into a little guessing game.

Juan gets cut off short — again

So Juan Williams gave a lecture — on the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall — at the University of Maryland School of Law, where he received a standing ovation from a pack of lawyers from Baltimore. That, my friends, is not a Fox News crowd.

Williams also agreed to an interview with The Baltimore Sun, in which he declined to declare himself a sinner.

What interests your GetReligionistas, of course, is the ongoing issue of what Williams actually said in his now infamous visit with Bill O’Reilly. We are interested in everything he said, especially since Williams was offering a classic “Yes, but” message. I remain convinced that one of the worst sins that journalists can commit is to edit a person’s words so that they end up saying the opposite of what they actually said.

Alas, here is the short Sun summary of the controversy:

NPR announced Williams’ firing last Wednesday for comments made two nights earlier on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox show saying that when he sees passengers in traditional Muslim “garb” on an airplane with him, he feels “nervous.” Within hours of the firing, Fox News expanded his duties at the top-rated cable news channel with a three-year, $2 million contract.

Williams said Tuesday that he remained emotionally “roiled” by the abrupt termination that has earned NPR harsh criticism, and which touched off a firestorm over political correctness and whether the public radio network welcomes divergent political views.

Later, the Sun did allow Williams to throw another dose of gasoline on one of the many hot issues linked to his departure from public radio:

“At NPR … they don’t know this: A third of the audience for Bill O’Reilly’s show is made up of people of color,” Williams said. “At NPR, they think, ‘Oh, these people who watch Fox don’t appreciate diversity of opinion, they’re not smart people. They’re not informed people. Oh, yeah? I’ll tell you what: They’re informed. …

Williams said Tuesday that Fox executives were more enlightened than many on the left give them credit for, especially since the network “allows a black guy with a Hispanic name to sit in the in the big chair and host the big show. Do you see it on CNBC? … Do you [see] it at CNN in prime time?”

So, you can watch William’s controversial statement for yourself or you can read the transcript of his statement in which he reminds viewers of what he said the first time, putting his words back into context. Here’s a sample of that:

The truth is that I worry when I am getting on an airplane and see people dressed in garb that identifies them first and foremost as Muslims. This is not a bigoted statement. It is a statement of my feelings, my fears after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by radical Muslims. In a debate with Bill O’Reilly I revealed my fears to set up the case for not making rash judgments about people of any faith. I pointed out that the Atlanta Olympic bomber — as well as Timothy McVeigh and the people who protest against gay rights at military funerals — are Christians, but we journalists don’t identify them by their religion.

And I made it clear that all Americans have to be careful not to let fears lead to the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be it to build a mosque, carry the Koran or drive a New York cab without the fear of having your throat slashed.

Actually, people do — and rightly so — note that the Westboro Baptist protesters are Christians who keep attacking other Christians. Oh, and Timothy McVeigh went out of his way to distance himself from Christianity in any known form.

Nevertheless, what Williams said went something like: This is what I feel, but we cannot allow our feelings to interfere with the rights of others. We cannot blame all Muslims for the actions of a few.

So, if you are looking for an in-depth look at what started this media storm, from a viewpoint just about as far from Fox as possible, check out William Saletan’s “frame game” piece at, which has many useful links for further research. Here’s a look at some of the key analysis:

The damning video clip of Williams … cuts off the speaker just as he’s about to reverse course. According to the full transcript, immediately after saying, “I don’t think there’s any way to get away from these facts,” Williams continues: “But I think there are people who want to somehow remind us all as President Bush did after 9/11, it’s not a war against Islam.” That continuation has been conveniently snipped from the excerpt.

A few seconds later, Williams challenges O’Reilly’s suggestion that “the Muslims attacked us on 9/11.” … Williams reminds O’Reilly that “there are good Muslims.” A short while later, O’Reilly asks: “Juan, who is posing a problem in Germany? Is it the Muslims who have come there, or the Germans?” Williams refuses to play the group blame game. “See, you did it again,” he tells O’Reilly. “It’s extremists.”

The bottom line for Saletan is that it’s wrong when journalists play this game, turning the meaning of a person’s words upside down. It’s wrong when conservative activists do it, too. It’s wrong when liberal activists do it. It’s even wrong when the high priests of NPR do it.

Why journalists love Westboro Baptist

Actually, the headline on the top of this post should say, “Why so many mainstream journalists are biting their lips and showing reluctant support for the fundamentalists — self proclaimed, fitting Associated Press style — from Westboro Baptist Church.” But that wouldn’t fit very well in our format.

It goes without saying that there is too much coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court sessions about Westboro Baptist (surf this) to deal with in a single GetReligion post, especially one written quickly while I prepare to split town for a speaking gig.

Here is what I can do for you.

Strangely enough, I can point readers once again to an excellent Time piece on the core issues in this case that, sadly, is still not available in its entirety on the magazine’s website. I will continue to watch to see if and when the text is posted.

Ironically, the key element of that article, from my point of view, is its emphasis on secular issues, not religious issues. You cannot understand this case without grasping the fact that the members of the Westboro legal team — once again, a wave of folks related to the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. — have been willing to follow whatever laws local authorities throw at them, in terms of the locations of their protests.

These folks have a modus operandi and they know how to use it. They do legal protests that make a wide variety of people so mad (justifiably so) that they file lawsuits. The church then wins the lawsuits and collects the legal fees. Rinse, wash, blow dry. Repeat.

Phelps and his crew know that they will draw media coverage. For them, that’s the exposure that matters. They get to stand in front of cameras and shout, “God damn America” (as opposed to “God bless America”).

Thus, here is what I want GetReligion readers to do.

Go out in your front yard — literally, or digitally — and grab your local newspaper. Read the Westboro story that you will find there.

Then answer these questions. In addition to telling the story of the grieving family, which is essential, does the report in your local news source tell you (a) that the protests were moved to another location that was not in view of the church at which the funeral was held and that mourners did not need to pass the demonstration? Then, (b) does it note that the grieving father’s only viewing of these hateful, hellish demonstrations took place when he viewed news media reports or read materials posted on the church’s website? Those facts are at the heart of this case, when you are looking at the legal arguments from a secular, legal, even journalistic point of view. This is why so many mainstream news organizations are backing the church.

For my local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, this is literally a local story, for two reasons. The emphasis is, as it should be, on the family of the U.S. Marine from Maryland. Then there is the scene at the Supreme Court.

While members of Westboro Baptist Church waved a sign outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday thanking God for dead soldiers, the nine justices inside tried to define the line at which such public protests become personal attacks during arguments in an emotionally charged case prompted by the picketing of a Maryland Marine’s funeral.

Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was 20 years old when he was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq on March 3, 2006. A week later, publicity-seeking members of the fire-and-brimstone Kansas congregation — all strangers to the Snyders — appeared at his family’s Catholic funeral service in Westminster with posters proclaiming sentiments like “God Hates America” and “Semper Fi Fags.” They later posted online a diatribe blaming Snyder’s death on the sins of the country and his divorced parents.

Snyder’s father sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and initially won, though the multimillion-dollar verdict was overturned on appeal. That series of legal decisions vaulted the Maryland case to the country’s highest court, where it’s testing the boundaries of the First Amendment and putting liberal free-speech advocates in the position of siding with fringe Christians. …

The case put several specific questions before the court — addressing the rights of private versus public figures, whether free speech is more important than freedom of religion and peaceful assembly, and whether a funeral constitutes a captive audience that needs protection from certain communication. But at its heart are issues of intellectual freedom and human decency.

Actually, the church believes that it’s religious freedom is at stake, too. So there are claims of religious liberty on both sides.

The Sun story covers most of the bases that must be covered (although, strangely enough, Pastor Phelps loses “The Rev.” in front of his name somewhere along the way).

Finally, toward the end, readers are offered this description of the actual event at the heart of this case:

Five days after Matthew Snyder was killed, the Phelpses sent out a news release warning his father and the authorities that they planned to picket the Westminster service at the “St. John’s Catholic dog kennel.” The funeral procession was rerouted, a SWAT team brought in, and a team of motorcyclists shielded the funeral-goers from viewing Westboro members.

But Snyder knew they were there, and later saw them on television and read their online diatribe, which the group called an “epic,” against his son.

While it is accurate to note that the “funeral procession was rerouted,” it is also crucial to note that the media-friendly demonstration was moved away from the Catholic church and that the Westboro activists honored that decision by civic officials. The family saw the protesters only in mainstream news reports — a big issue for defenders of freedom of the press.

Thus, there were only two ways to avoid the pain caused by the demonstrators — ban the protests, even on public cites chosen by civic officials, or ban media coverage of the protests. These are high hurdles for any justices who want, literally, to justify the silencing of these very bizarre religious believers.

So, what was in your local news? Did the reports tell you what you needed to know to understand this case? Once again, stick to the journalism issues.

Frustration, from time to Time

Week after week, your GetReligionistas receive mail from people who genuinely distrust or dislike America’s mainstream media.

There is no way to group all of these people into one simplistic camp. Some of them make a lot of sense and some do not.

Some of them, after all, are simply reacting to the fact that the press struggles to cover religion stories, period, and seems to have special problems doing accurate and balanced coverage of hot-button social issues, from abortion to the ordination of women, from gay rights to free speech in an increasingly complex and divided culture.

Many of these writers believe that most journalists are, to be perfectly blunt about it, “liberals” — whatever that word means. Now, it is true that studies keep showing that elite journalists, especially in the powerful corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston, tend to be moral libertarians when it comes to most social issues, taking stands in favor of a kind of radical individualism that is hostile to most traditional forms of religious faith.

Once again, the best writing ever done about one of these issues was the Los Angeles Times series about bias issues in abortion coverage, written by the late David Shaw (who, by the way, was an articulate supporter of abortion rights when describing his own convictions). In part one, Shaw offered this blunt, simple, devastating summary:

Responsible journalists do try to be fair, and many charges of bias in abortion coverage are not valid. But careful examination of stories published and broadcast reveals 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:

* The news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.

* Abortion-rights advocates are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.

* Events and issues favorable to abortion opponents are sometimes ignored or given minimal attention by the media.

* Many news organizations have given more prominent play to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion-rights advocates than to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion rights opponents.

* Columns of commentary favoring abortion rights outnumber those opposing abortion by a margin of more than 2 to 1 on the op-ed pages of most of the nation’s major daily newspapers.

* Newspaper editorial writers and columnists alike, long sensitive to violations of First Amendment rights and other civil liberties in cases involving minority and anti-war protests, have largely ignored these questions when Operation Rescue and other abortion opponents have raised them.

That was published in the mainstream press.

The key, for Shaw, is that this bias is real, but it is not universal. Thus, the goal is to describe these bias issues — yes — as fairly and accurately as possible.

You see, it is simply simplistic to say that the mainstream press is always “liberal.” It’s simplistic to say that the New York Times is always biased, as opposed to offering coverage that is fair and accurate in handling the beliefs involved in debates about religious and cultural disputes in America and around the world. And right now, although it is tempting to say so, it would be simplistic to say that editors at Time have made some kind of conscious decision — similar to the one made by the fallen editorial team at nonNewsweek — to ditch the American model of the press and turn their magazine into an advocacy publication for the moral and cultural left.

I know it feels that way, when you read something like the recent feature on the ordination of women to the priesthood by schismatic groups that are fighting the Catholic Church hierarchy. This piece is still being pushed out front at

But that’s only part of this complex picture.

On the other side, there is “The Price of Free Speech,” a solid news feature by Sean Gregory in the current issue about the U.S. Supreme Court and the rights and wrongs of the anti-gay, anti-America protesters from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

This piece is long, it’s complex, it’s careful, it’s sensitive to viewpoints on both sides. It’s serious. In the end, it’s agonizing, just like the case it describes. Here’s the opening (the only part of the story you can read online, at the moment):

This is Matt’s day, Albert Snyder kept telling himself that March morning in 2006, hours before he laid his only son to rest. This is about Matt. Concentrate on Matt. Ignore them.

Them were the seven protesters he had been warned about who were planning to picket his son’s funeral. They had never met Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. They didn’t know much about him except that he had been killed in Iraq the week before. And yet they had flown more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to brandish signs saying things like “You’re going to hell,” “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9/11.”

If you have access to a copy of Time, please check this out. The full text will go online in a few weeks, under the magazine’s current approach to its new material.

As you read it, please experience the frustration of knowing that this fine piece of American journalism was published in the same magazine that published that complete skewed, unbalanced, advocacy piece on the female priests. Read both pieces. So, which is the real Time? Try to describe this magazine’s current approach to journalism.

Good luck. Frustrating, isn’t it?

5Q+1: Manya Brachear as Chicago’s ‘Seeker’

During my five years in the Chicago suburbs and a summer internship at a Sun-Times-owned paper, I began to understand just how complicated Chicagoland is to cover. Covering religion in the country’s third largest city is no small task, and religion reporter for the Chicago Tribune Manya Brachear tackles it head on.

Manya Brachear joined the Chicago Tribune in June 2003, covering the papal transition from Rome, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Chicago, debates about gay clergy, interfaith dialogue and religion in American politics. We regularly read her work here at GR.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University and masters’ degrees in journalism and religious studies from Columbia University. She also has written for Time magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

You can follow The Seeker blog, her Twitter feed and Facebook page. We’ve asked her to respond to our usual 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I do the same as all my colleagues: read a variety of blogs and reports from other news outlets. But more importantly, I stay in touch with the community and count on them to let me know when news is brewing. The Tribune now has a hyper-local focus. Localizing national stories just isn’t enough. There needs to be a local person who is driven by faith to do something extraordinary–either extraordinarily good, bad or odd to make into the paper. That simply requires keeping my ear close to the ground and pounding the pavement. Yep, all those old-school cliches you learn in J-school are still what work best.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
I don’t think the mainstream media fully grasp the way religion can motivate people to vote a certain way, act a certain way, lead a certain way. I also don’t think they understand the importance of wading into the messiness of religion, evidenced by how easily they move religion writers–trained professionals specifically fitted to wear those waders–to other beats. Powerbrokers get away with nonchalant God talk because reporters either don’t want to offend or don’t want to cover a debate that has no clear right or wrong resolution. We need to hold everyone accountable when they insert God into the equation.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
There’s been so much focus on objections to the Park 51 mosque, but many other faithful people besides Muslims are vying for rights and getting turned away. Religious discrimination on all fronts has become more acceptable but also more debatable. As some non-profits fight for the right to hire on the basis of religion and still receive federal funding, those who are excluded from applying are alleging discrimination. Meanwhile, religion bashing, which often sounds an awful lot like hate speech, seems to have become acceptable. The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story on September 11 about how three Muslim teenagers who barely remember the events of 9/11 have been teased and taunted as terrorists. I can see how one can argue that the story’s timing was or wasn’t appropriate, but those adults who responded by insulting the teens, calling them liars and suggesting they should just accept it, either missed or proved the point of the story. I look forward to watching how society, including official agencies such as the United Nations, law enforcement, FCC, religious institutions and the mainstream media, address the phenomenon.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Religion motivates people whether they know it or not. Doctors, politicians, philanthropists and business leaders often rely on their faith to guide their actions, sometimes more often than they admit or realize. Furthermore, religion also answers the question “why?” for many people. “Why?” is one of our five Ws. If we journalists fail to understand what drives everyone around us, we fail to answer the “why?” and thus fail to do our jobs.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
The atheists’ bus campaign that appeared on the side of Chicago buses cracked me up. Not only did the ads sponsors use the very evangelization methods they scorn, the ads revealed that even atheists are divided along liberal and conservative lines and vary in degrees of fervor. While some secularists simply seek to promote an ethic of goodwill, others want to dish out what they’ve been taking all these years. While doing my High Holiday reporting, I was reminded of the joke in Jewish circles that three Jews need four synagogues. But after seven years on the religion beat, I’m finding that joke applies to every religious denomination, including the atheists.

Burning the ties that bind

It’s the question that I have heard many times over the past week or so.

But, first, let’s state the question a different way.

Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Was this a news story?

Was it protected “symbolic expression” when demonstrators, back in the Reagan White House era, burned the American flag? Should the media have covered this event and the resulting U.S. Supreme Court decision?

Was it acceptable for Muslims to burn copies of “The Satanic Verses,” by Salman Rushdie? Was it acceptable for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to issue a fatwa calling for the novelist’s death? Was that a news story?

Does the Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist crew have a constitutional right to do that thing that they do? Should journalists cover these media-friendly shock-a-thons as he waltzes from sea to shining sea (a frequent subject for debates here at GetReligion)?

And, yes, all of these questions are in some way related to the debates about the rights of Muslims who want to build the proposed Cordoba mosque near Ground Zero.

We face the question yet again: Would the Rev. Terry Jones simply vanish if all of the journalists in America and around the world simply clicked their heels together three times and chanted, “Can’t we all get along?”

Does Jones have a right — in the name of symbolic expression and free speech — to create a small stack of Korans, carefully keeping his mini-bonfire materials within the limits of local laws, and then strike a match?

Yes, it’s stupid. It’s wrong. It’s reckless. It shows disrespect and worse.

Yes, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for U.S. soldiers, for missionaries, for diplomats, for journalists, for Christians and other members of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands. It’s just plain dangerous.

Yes, almost every Christian on the face of the planet — left and right — would agree that this act is truly sinful, for a wide range of reasons. Ditto for the faithful in other flocks.

But, yes, Jones has a right to light that match.

It’s tragic, but that’s the truth. Otherwise, America has decided to enforce what amounts to a blasphemy law. Do journalists really want to see the First Amendment edited in that way?

Yes, other nations are taking steps in that direction. But as my friend Paul Marshall, and his colleague Nina Shea, have written in a commentary for National Review Online:

… (The) United States is an exception, with its strong protections of free speech under the First Amendment. In the United States, neither blasphemy nor hate speech are violations of the law. … At stake are the freedoms of religion and expression that lie at the heart of our liberal democracy. …

If Islam, and Islam alone, were to be protected by the state from critique, an illiberal interpretation of Islam would attain a de facto privileged status in the United States. Conversely, should Christianity, Judaism, and other religions also benefit from such state protection, fundamental individual freedoms would be essentially negated.

Pastor Terry Jones’s Koran-burning spectacle potentially holds the danger of hurting the war effort, General Petraeus has warned. Jones should be criticized, denounced, and urged — but not coerced — to give up his insensitive publicity stunt.

There is one other angle to this story that — for a very specific group of mainstream religious leaders — is as urgent as the last moments before a train wreck.

By far, my favorite quote in mainstream coverage of this story thus far is found in a Washington Post report (look inside the paper, not out front) about evangelical protests of “International Burn a Koran Day.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he decided not to approach Jones because he believes that the pastor would disapprove of Land’s advocacy for the rights of religious minorities and his general engagement with pluralism.

“If I know my boy, he thinks we’re apostate liberals anyway,” Land said. “My guess is my call would be counterproductive. My calling him would just encourage him to do it.”

He’s right, of course. Phelps thinks the Southern Baptists are doctrinal wimps, too. You know that, right?

Yes, once again we are dealing with a sad reality of this post-denominational age, the age in which more and more local congregations have absolutely zero ties that bind them to anything other than whatever stuff is located between the ears of the pastor who calls the shots (and maybe a few donors). As the old saying goes, for many people these days “church history” is defined as whatever has happened since their pastor preached his or her first sermon.

Who has any valid authority over Jones, other than a local police official who manages to find some legal loophole that the preacher has failed to plug while planning his firestorm? No one.

This is truly a subject worthy of a cover story in The Atlantic (please let the great Peter J. Boyer write it). It’s a subject that would require months of research to even dent — the impact of completely independent evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal and, yes, fundamentalist churches on the shape of the Christian faith in American and around the world. But the subject is so, so huge. I am not even sure that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life could assemble a research team to get a handle on it.

Meanwhile, columnist Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel is asking the question that millions of Americans are asking: “What if media had ignored Terry Jones?” Here’s the end of his piece:

I ask you: If a sad little man burns some Qurans in the woods, and the media aren’t there to film it, is it news?

Of course not.

We created the Rev. Terry Jones from dust. And in two weeks, to dust he shall return. Then we’ll move on to the guys who plan to run over the Quran at their monster-truck pull. Whatever it takes to keep your attention. … We could help head off such future nonsense if we folded up the circus tent and left Jones alone with his blowtorch and 30 followers.

Maybe if Gen. Petraeus told the media that it isn’t Rev. Jones who is endangering troops. That it is our coverage of Rev. Jones. That without us, this book burning would be little more than a grainy video on YouTube.

Put the onus on a responsible party and hope it acts responsibly.

Fat chance.

Sadly, Thomas is wrong. But with his column in mind, return to the top of this post and start over. Read through that list again.

Yes, this topic may burn us up. But it’s news.