Missing a fact in pews vs. barstools

question mark2Gentrification is a big issue in Washington, D.C. Local journalists have done an adequate job of covering the clash between cultures and minorities being priced out of neighborhoods as property values rise.

Jose Antonio Vargas’ article in Thursday’s Washington Post is a great example, other than a key missing detail:

It was like a scene out of “The People’s Court” — on one side the mostly white supporters of a gay-friendly bar, on the other the parishioners of a black church in Washington’s historic Shaw neighborhood.

They all packed the hearing room of the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration yesterday to make their case for or against the Be Bar, scheduled to open in June on Ninth Street NW.

“A bar? Across from my church?” asked Barbara Campbell, who lives on Georgia Avenue NW and for three decades has gone to Scripture Cathedral in Shaw, where she works as a cook in the church’s day-care center. “Don’t they understand that there is a day-care center in the church?”

She and other parishioners opposed to the bar were seated in the small hearing room, their worries in their faces. Their pastor of more than 40 years, Bishop C.L. Long, was there, too, his staff in tow.

Vargas does a tremendous job painting scenes of the hearing room and the neighborhood. But the missed fact, which should have been in the first three paragraphs, is a critical mistake. I actually didn’t stumble upon it myself and tmatt had to point it out to me. I’ll give you a couple of paragraphs to guess what it is yourself.

FactSheetIn the meantime, I should mention that I am no stranger to alcohol-permit hearings. When I was a stringer for The Indianapolis Star, I covered many an alcohol board meeting. With regularity, a church group would show up with signs and posters demanding the closing of the local bar. It didn’t matter if the bar was up the street, across the street or two blocks away. If enough people showed up and the petition signature list was long enough, the poor bar owner, often closer to the shady side than the typical churchgoer, would have his establishment shut down or curtailed to meet the needs of the church.

Clearly this isn’t the case in D.C. In this particular case, the culture clash is the focus of the article. As a feature section take-out, this is not merely an argument between a church and some bar. It’s a clash of civilizations, and in portraying that clash, Vargas leaves out the crucial detail of distance. How far is the bar from the church?

In describing the row between WiFi-using, vegetarian partygoers and churchgoing, Bible-reading folk, Vargas failed to step back and fill in that critical detail that will ultimately likely play a key role in deciding whether the bar remains open. As Vargas acknowledges, a fight over the location of a bar is an everyday issue, and while the gay/black church issue is compelling and well worth exploring, that doesn’t mean you can leave out key facts like the distance between the bar and the church — since that’s what the law is based on.

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Hume gets God; Howie sort of gets Hume

Brit hume fncBecause I am one of those people — cultural conservatives who go to church all the time — many of my friends in academia and journalism assume that I watch Fox News.

Actually, I don’t like Fox News at all, for many of the same reasons that I don’t like other television news shows in prime time. I am not, as a rule, interested in celebrities, spectacular murder cases, tiny political soundbites and 90-second reports on complex medical issues. I also prefer to get my entertainment news from a wide variety of print sources. I like information.

So I don’t watch Fox News, but I do watch Brit Hume and his Special Report quite a bit, especially the first 40 minutes or so in which he basically covers hard news with that dry style that somehow lets you know that he knows more than he is letting on. It’s a news show, not a star vehicle. I am vaguely aware of his political views, but, frankly, not to the same degree as I am when I am watching most TV news stars. Once he was a liberal, now he’s a conservative, and he’s still a journalist.

I bring this up because the official voice of the Washington media establishment — Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post — did a profile of Hume the other day (there’s an obvious topic that should have been done a long, long time ago, don’t you think?) and discovered that there is a major God role in the anchorman’s story. Read the piece and you will see that this element of the story — a family tragedy and a rebirth of faith — is the turning point.

But Kurtz is not sure what do to with it. It seems to get in the way of his political analysis. Check this out:

Hume, like his network, has clearly become a lightning rod in a polarized media environment. Hume is almost evangelical in his belief that he is fair and balanced while most of the media are not, an argument challenged by several studies showing that his program leans to the right.

Hume is no partisan brawler in the mold of some of Fox’s high-decibel hosts. By virtue of his investigative background, his understated style and his management role, he represents a hybrid strain: conservatives who believe in news, not bloviation, but news that passes through a different lens, filtered through a different set of assumptions.

Note the presence of that interesting word “evangelical” floating around in there. Yes, I know the meaning of that word in that context. But Kurtz always has a way of letting you see what he is thinking. The story goes on to show that Hume is actually very centrist in his news work and quite respected. I think what Howie is trying to say is that Hume believes his work is, in large part, more centrist than the left-leaning mainstream in TV news.

But the heart of the story is linked to the 1998 death of Hume’s 28-year-old son, Sandy, a journalist with The Hill newspaper, Fox and other outlets. Here is that section of Kurtz’s report:

On Feb. 22, Sandy Hume killed himself with a hunting rifle in his Arlington apartment. He had been arrested the night before for driving under the influence, had tried to hang himself in a D.C. jail cell and was released after being evaluated in a psychiatric hospital.

“It’s a moment of truth when you realize what you believe,” Hume says. “I realized I believed in God.” He had been “a fallen Christian,” Hume says, but “it was such a devastating loss I was thinking, ‘How in the world am I going to get through this?’ I had this odd thought that I would get a phone call: ‘Brit, this is God.’ I had this idea that somehow I was going to be okay and God was going to rescue me.”

03 1123 JPGClearly, this is a key part of the story and Kurtz either has to go deeper or simply mention it and then back off. There is a chance, of course, that Hume did not want to discuss this in depth and I think everyone can respect that choice.

Still, as a religion reporter, I was left wanting to know one or two facts that may not have been too private. Kurtz hints at something with the “evangelical” reference and then, later, makes a reference to a specific tradition in Roman Catholicism — Mass cards.

Was Hume racked with parental guilt? “It was a great help to me that I’d had a very good relationship with (his son). I didn’t have to live with a lot of regrets about how we’d gotten along.”

Within six weeks, he had received 973 Mass cards. “I cannot tell you how buoyed I felt,” Hume says. “I thought, this is the face of God. I just got on with my life.” Hume now struggles “with trying to make Washington political journalism consistent with an effort to lead a Christian life.”

Now there is an interesting story, one that could lead in all kinds of different directions.

As an Orthodox Christian who has worked and taught in Washington — to one degree or another — for more than a decade, I know that there are many Christian believers who are committed to journalism careers in this town (no matter what some on the Religious Right think). I also know that some are liberal and some are conservative. I also know that many are, with good reason, hesitant to talk about their faith because they worry that others will say this is a handicap in mainstream journalism.

It is hard to dig into a man’s faith. I know that.

Still, I wonder if we could have learned a few basic facts. Is Hume an evangelical or a Catholic? Is a strong faith community a part of his strategy for staying sane in Washington journalism? Is Kurtz hinting that faith is that “different lens” through which Hume views the news? Would it be possible — without “outing” anyone — to know who some of the other believers are (other than Fred Barnes, obviously) who share his commitment to faith, family and to the craft of the news?

There is a story in there.

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The consumer’s guide to the Bible

extreme teenCathleen Falsani, the Chicago Sun-Times religion reporter — and author of the new book The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People — had an interesting story that ran on (Western) Easter Sunday. Rather than taking the controversy tack used by so many others, she wrote an article about all the different translations and versions of the Bible:

There are literally hundreds of English versions of the Christian Bible on the market, ranging from the traditional to the trendy.

There’s a Bible for brides and another for dads. You can get the Old and New Testament bound in Moroccan leather with gold gilded edges, or download them as MP3 files onto your iPod.

The article has sidebars that give readers helpful info, including a list of websites that readers can use to help them figure out which Bible to get, a list of top-selling Bibles and a comparison of the same verse in different translations. She explains differences in translation philosophies effortlessly and concisely:

There are two basic philosophies of Bible translation: word-for-word and thought-for-thought. In the former, translators begin with the original Greek or Hebrew and try to find the most literal English equivalent.

In thought-for-thought translation, which has been the more popular mode in the last 50 years, scholars also begin with the texts in their original languages but concentrate less on literal accuracy and more on readability by finding corresponding thoughts or phrases in English. The NIV is a thought-for-thought translation.

A third approach begins with an existing English translation to create a new version, resulting in a “paraphrase” rather than a true translation. One wildly popular example of a paraphrase is Eugene Peterson’s The Message. It has sold more than 10 million copies since 1993.

Falsani gives an interesting history of translation battles and discusses the commonalities and differences that match up with the divisions in the church. The article is enjoyable and informative. The only thing that surprised me was that I kept expecting her to get into the “so what?” of the different translations. We get to learn how different translations came to be but little about why it matters. I think it’s because Falsani takes a consumerist approach rather than a doctrinal one.

My church body doesn’t believe there is one true translation, and, in fact, we use several. But even I know that my pastor tends to use the New King James Version and it’s because he has problems with aspects of some other translations. I was eager to learn more about some of the doctrinal issues involved in different translations, but there clearly wasn’t room in her already thorough piece. I vote for her to look into the deeper issues in a follow-up.

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“This” (big pause) “is G-O-D”

1591502241 01 LZZZZZZZThis has to be the laugh-out-loud little story of the greater Easter season.

Newsweek has a short little article by reporter Elise Soukup that starts like this:

It’s hard to find God in Hollywood. Just ask Robi Reed, who’s casting “The Bible Experience,” a 70-hour audio recording of the Old and New Testaments performed by black actors. These are no D-listers, either. Some of the 150 artists who signed on include Blair Underwood as Jesus, Angela Bassett as Esther, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Judas, and Denzel Washington, who’s reading the Songs of Solomon with his wife, Pauletta. But, says Reed, “we’re still looking for God.”

There’s no shortage of stars lining up. Though all participants are paid only the minimum required by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Reed says 98 out of 100 artists she approached signed on. … “This isn’t just a project,” says Louis (Buster) Brown, who’s overseeing music. “This has taken on all the characteristics of a movement.” Even if it is currently a Godless one.

Ah, come on! Let’s see, we need a really majestic, bold, yet mysterious voice that sounds like, well, the Lord Almighty. He’s played the role before, in fact, and we’re not talking about that Lord of the Sith thing.

Now who would that be? Oh, wait, and he’s one of the world’s best-known African American actors and voiceover talents. Let’s see. What’s his name again?

Over at USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman has all kinds of fun angles on this little story. However, the God issue is still there in all its glory. Maybe it’s just me, but it looks like the producers of this project are talking to him but can’t talk about the negotiations. That’s my reading of this:

God? Still not cast.

There’s an offer out, but “God requires a lot of recording time in hours. He had a lot to say,” says casting director and co-producer Robi Reed.

It’s nice that Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta, are going to read the Song of Solomon to each other. I am also sure, as Grossman notes, that the PR department for the project will have fun with Gooding as Judas, with that whole “Show me the money” thing going on between the lines.

But there might be another story hiding in between the lines here, a story about the role of religious faith in modern Hollywood. Here’s the dangerous question:

Another casting question: Should only faithful Christians get roles?

Reed says the producers agreed that the Bible — populated with many unbelievers — would be their guide. “The Bible itself is God’s word. Who are we to judge God’s word? It’s his project, his will and his purpose. If we bring in someone who doesn’t believe or whose faith is not as strong as ours, God’s plan might be that this is a way to bring them into belief.”

Whoa. That was a close one.

For a minute there, I thought the cast list for this project was going to be the official “outing” document for African American Christians in Hollywood. That would be a very controversial piece of paper in the Passion of the Chronicles of Brokeback Mountain era of the cinema wars.

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Breaking the tightrope of objectivity

time on opus deiI guess we’ll never find out whether Opus Dei is a scary “authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise” or merely a “teaching entity,” an “advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation.” In this era of postmodernism, where there is no truth, might both realities be presented as truth?

The cover story on Opus Dei in Time magazine this week was a letdown, but not completely unexpected. In portraying the group, Time presented little not already known. As Time attempted to balance both “truths” on the tightrope of objectivity, the rope broke and the story came crashing to the circus floor.

Time was no doubt inspired to explore the controversial Catholic group by the much-hyped movie The Da Vinci Code. Time based a great deal of its pro-Opus information on John Allen’s recently released book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church (Doubleday). Time says it spoke freely with the organization, but little of the article is attributed to high-level Opus Dei officials.

As a side note, I would like to take issue with the title of the cover piece: “The Opus Dei Code” is quite similar to “Cracking the Opus Dei Code,” which our own Mollie Ziegler wrote in October 2005 for the New York Sun. Go figure. (By the way, Mollie’s piece, which covers a lot of the same ground as the Time article, raises some great issues with Allen’s book that Time failed to address.)

Back to my main complaint. The Time cover piece uses the well-known journalistic trick of taking both sides of an issue and presenting both as meriting equal levels of skepticism and credibility. And it does so unashamedly:

But Opus’ public relations offensive hasn’t quite managed to close the gap between what critics say it is about and its own version of the story. On one side there is “Octopus Dei,” or, as the current issue of Harper’s magazine puts it, “to a great extent … an authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise that manages to infiltrate its indoctrinated technocrats, politicos and administrators into the highest levels of the state.” On the other is the portrait painted by Opus’ U.S. vicar Thomas Bohlin, who sat for several hours with Time at his group’s Manhattan headquarters. Opus, he explained, is just a teaching entity, a kind of advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation with minimal global coordination or input as to how members and sympathizers apply what they learn. “You know Dale Carnegie courses?” he asked. “Businesses send their people there to learn to speak better, to organize — they teach all these kinds of things. People go there because they get something out of it, and then when they graduate, they don’t represent Dale Carnegie.”

ciliceJames Martin, an editor at the Jesuit publication America who has written critically about Opus, offers a middle ground between Dale Carnegie and the octopus: “Opus Dei provides members with an overarching spirituality for their life,” he suggests. “It’s an ongoing relationship that helps buttress and further shape the thought of people who are already conservative Catholics. That’s a powerful symbiosis, and there’s a personal connection between members, whether they’re housewives or politicians. It’s not an evil empire, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues that need to be addressed.”

A first journalistic pass, by Allen or Time, cannot fully resolve all those issues. But it can answer some of the questions that have long dogged the organization, and it may also show how The Da Vinci Code could end up helping Opus Dei.

On seven questions — How did it start? Who are these people? How secretive is Opus? How rich is it? How much power does it have? Do members really whip themselves? What about rumors of mind control? — Time does little more than spew out rumors and attempt to pin down answers.

disciplineFour mini-profiles, two of current “supernumeraries” (here and here) and two of disgruntled former members (here and here), are somewhat compelling because they put a real face on the subject. As a reporter, though, I always add an extra dose of skepticism toward disgruntled former members or employees of any organization. Sometimes what they have to say has real merit, other times the claims turn up bogus. That said, the official line can often carry just as little truth. Digging to the bottom of the story is what journalists are supposed to do, but for profiles, presenting both sides as equally valid is probably the best one can do.

While the Time package fails to live up to its billing, I was able to draw a couple of conclusions from the article. One is that a lot of the initial criticism of the group came from jealous and turf-protecting leaders in the Catholic Church when the group was founded in 1928. The other is that the rest of the criticism comes from disillusioned former members.

Opus Dei’s problem is not that it has encountered turf-protecting priests, or that people leave the group disappointed, but that it has been so secret for so many years. I don’t know the reasons why Opus Dei kept itself in the dark for so long, but if the whole Da Vinci Code drama is indeed responsible for getting Opus to open up to the public, as Time claims is the case, then the end result is good.

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Private schools can write their own rules

gay christianI have waited awhile to do an update on the MSM coverage of Jason Johnson, the gay student who was kicked out of the University of the Cumberlands, a school with Baptist roots. The story is still alive at two levels: (1) Key factual details remain a mystery and (2) there is an interesting church-state issue linked to state funds. More on that later.

GetReligion readers may recall that I stressed that early coverage failed to tell us whether the Cumberlands student handbook contained language forbidding sex outside of marriage at the time Johnson enrolled as a freshman. We know it was not there when the theater major was recruited and that it was in the handbook this past fall, his sophomore year. It appears that we still do not know what the handbook said — in writing — when he enrolled and, most probably, signed documents saying that he willingly agreed to live by the university’s student-life code.

We learn, in a report by Jamie Gumbrecht of the Lexington Herald-Leader, entitled “Gay and Christian“:

Although the 2005-06 student handbook says, “Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw,” Johnson said he was not expecting the expulsion. He was heading to class when he was told to go to the student services building. Caught unaware, he wondered if he was receiving an honor from the school, although it seemed odd to be told to skip class.

“In the back of my mind, I thought what I was doing was probably risky,” Johnson said of his Web postings. “When I’d already told my parents, I had nothing to be afraid of. If something happened at school, now there was no question that my parents would support me.”

Note that Johnson said he did not expect to be expelled, even though he knew about the policy on sex. This is actually an interesting hook in this story, no matter what you think of the policy in question. As noted in comments about the previous post, it is valid to ask if (1) the university has made consistent attempts to advocate or enforce its rules on sexual morality and (2) whether these rules are enforced for homosexuals, but not for heterosexuals.

Yes, there is a story there. The issue, strangely enough, is not whether these schools are being too conservative. The issue may, in fact, be this: Are they being conservative enough on sex? Are they being consistent? A former journalism student of mine, years ago, put it this way: Two gay guys get in trouble if they even look at each other. Meanwhile, we have straight students all but conceiving babies on couches in our dorm lobbies.

Meanwhile, we do know that private schools — left and right — can write their own student-life codes. This is true for liberal schools that want to crack down on “offensive” (usually conservative) speech or on campus evangelism. A liberal school could require on-campus Christian groups to water down traditional Christian doctrines. But here is the key: The school has to state the rules openly and enforce them consistently. (Click here for more information on that.)

HeaderBkgrdwLogoBy the way, it is interesting to note that Johnson grew up in a congregation openly identified (slogan: All are welcomed here — no exceptions) with the left or, in press speak, “moderate” side of the 25-year civil war inside the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock. This is the smaller, “progressive” camp (think Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter). As Gumbrecht reported:

Johnson has lived in Lexington with his parents and two brothers since the early 1990s. He was baptized in 1996 at Central Baptist Church, which split from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

So there is a story in there. How can close can Southern Baptists or former Southern Baptists skate to the edge of the mainline-Protestant ice on social issues without falling through? This is a hot issue among Baptists on the left, who are often afraid to discuss the issue openly.

Journalists can and should cover both sides of these theological debates on sex. But they must also understand that private schools — left and right — have the freedom to make their own rules. It is also legal for government aid to flow to the students in these schools.

But what about state money flowing to the schools themselves? That is another issue and that is the second layer to the Cumberlands story. The Louisville Courier-Journal notes that gay-rights groups are now pouncing on this question, in the wake of the Johnson expulsion. At stake is Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s drive to steer state funds to the Cumberlands administration for a new pharmacy school.

The state budget includes $1 million in pharmacy scholarships and $10 million to build a pharmacy school at the 1,743-student, Baptist-affiliated school in Williamsburg. Fletcher spokesman Brett Hall said the governor has not decided whether to issue any vetoes in the $18 billion budget for 2006-08 that state lawmakers passed this week.

Fletcher issued a statement saying, “My administration does not condone discrimination of any kind.”

As you would expect, this has led to a small effort to protest what happened to Johnson and to attack the possible state grant to the Baptist university. As you would expect, the demonstrators mixed liberal theology into their political views on the funding issue.

A sophomore and dean’s list student, Johnson reached an agreement with the university Tuesday that will allow him to finish his coursework and receive a transcript that will reflect his grades for the semester. His boyfriend, Zac Dreyer, was one of several speakers at the rally.

Some attendees wore T-shirts with such sayings as “Gay and Proud,” “Jesus Loves My Gay Friends, Too,” and “I’m For the Separation of Church and Hate.” Some carried signs that said: “If God Didn’t Make Homosexuals, Why Do They Exist,” “Jesus Wouldn’t Kick Him Out,” “WDJG: Where Did Jason Go” and “God Does Not Condone Hatred.”

That’s all fair game. Free speech is a good thing, for Johnson and for the millions of conservative Baptists who disagree with him.

For journalists, the goal is to cover both sides accurately and fairly while focusing on the bigger issue — the rights of private colleges and the rights of students to attend them or leave them. Perhaps this is a pro-choice story.

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Does God need good PR?

Larry RossSunday’s New York Times Magazine carried a relatively in-depth profile of Larry Ross, dubbed as possibly “the top public relations man for Christian clients in America.” The premise of the article (which goes along the lines of “Why does Jesus Christ need a publicist?”) is thought-provoking, and one that I’m sure came easily to the author, Strawberry Saroyan (author of Girl Walks into a Bar: A Memoir).

In introducing the question, Saroyan compares Mother Teresa’s need for a lawyer with the need of Rick Warren, and the entire Kingdom of God, for the help of public relations. “Why does God need someone to sell him?”

That’s a good question, but is Ross really trying to sell God? How about selling the earthly creation that is the church? I know most reporters have this image of public relations officials, especially the type you can hire for a buck, as sellouts and willing to represent anyone at the price, but this is not always the case.

In the nearly 5,000 words devoted to the subject, Saroyan fails to consider that while Ross has been behind some of the biggest Christian-themed moneymakers in the last few years and has directed big-budget marketing campaigns, the most basic need of those he represents is someone with the time and ability to explain their message to journalists who often have a poor understanding of religion.

If successful Christian leaders, preachers and evangelists are to use the mass media to spread their message, modern PR is necessary for the job. One can argue that, as Christians, they should be humble and not seek the spotlight. However, drawing 30,000 members to a congregation is bound to attract media attention. The following paragraph is a great example of this angle:

But Ross seems to be mostly at peace with his role and described it to me one afternoon this way: after invoking a biblical story about Moses’ engagement in a lengthy battle for the children of Israel, he said: “Moses stood there on top of a cliff, and as long as he held up his arms, the children of Israel won. Well, after a while he got tired, so there were two men that came and held up Moses’ arms so they could win the battle. That’s my job — to hold up the arms of the man of God, like Billy Graham or Rick Warren, in the media.” But his eyes really lighted up when he moved onto another topic — the press reception Graham received during his New York crusade last June. “He ended up doing 15 interviews, including all the major talk shows,” Ross told me. “At the press conference itself we had 250 journalists.”

Saroyan seems to think that pastors should be unwittingly put before the media horde, free to stumble over explanations of ecclesiastical language and possible fire and brimstone. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:

Perhaps the most intensive training that Ross offers is his “media and spokesperson” sessions. These can last as long as two days and usually include several mock interviews, which are taped. Ross encourages his clients to engage the media, but he wants to prepare them for worst-case encounters, so he administers tough questioning. To loosen clients up, he shows them an old “Bob Newhart” episode in which a talk-show host suddenly turns on Newhart. “It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Ross says. He advises clients to avoid ecclesiastical language when addressing the mainstream (“Somebody talks about the Holy Ghost or the Army of God — that sounds like a revolution and it’s coming out of Iran,” says Lawrence Swicegood, who has worked for Ross and [Mark] DeMoss) and to use metaphors because they stick in people’s minds. Toward the end of a session, Ross looses a “bulldog” interrogator, a role played these days by Giles Hudson, a former writer for the Associated Press, who poses questions ranging from financial queries to “Do homosexuals go to hell?” “Obviously not,” Hudson says is a good response to this challenge. “Each person has their own relationship to Christ. People don’t just go to hell because you’re an alcoholic.” Sometimes Ross and Hudson add a separate, ambush interview. After taking a “break” from a session with Promise Keepers, Ross’s team confronted its president in the reception area, camera crew in tow.

So am I in favor of PR consultants walling off their clients and keeping them from the unfriendly media folks? No, not at all. I deal with those types in my day job. The goals Ross seems to have put before him in his job are not blocking information, but rather spreading information about Jesus Christ, which is a core tenet of being a Christian. This message came through clearly in the article, and for that Saroyan deserves praise:

Ross takes pains to distance himself from the more unsavory associations with publicists. Once he playfully asked me, “So, where would a P.R. man fit on the social scale between used-car salesmen, lepers and incurable lepers?” But he also tries to serve his two masters fairly. When he was working with “The Early Show” at CBS during a Graham crusade in 2005, he was approached by “Good Morning America.” He recapped the incident for me: “Their ratings are significantly higher, but I said, ‘I have to tell you, we’re here with CBS, and we have to honor the fact.’ I feel dutybound. It’s not enough to do things right — we have to do the right thing.” Ross also said he is attuned to the spiritual needs of his colleagues in the media. On one occasion he spoke to a producer from a network newsmagazine for six hours, answering her personal questions about Christ. “We have people who come to the crusades to report the story and put down their pens and microphones and commit to God,” he said.

Finally, I believe Saroyan nailed it in explaining Ross’ “near-refusal to acknowledge anything other than the glowingly positive” as a tendency of Christians to not “want to let on to anything negative because they fear it will reflect badly on God.” Sadly, I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. It’s one thing to want to keep the Church from being unfairly criticized in the media, but it’s another thing to attempt to cover up its spots and blemishes.

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The importance of religion stories

whitehousedinner johnrobertsEven though I’m a reporter, I only recently began reading bylines as part of my newspaper experience.

I can credit Robin Givhan for that. She’s a staff writer for the Style section of the Washington Post. I was so aghast at reading a piece of hers years ago that I actually started noticing her byline. She said that Katherine Harris couldn’t be trusted to deal with the 2000 election mess in Florida because of something about the way she applied her mascara. What was this, 1952? High-achieving women are judged not for their degrees from Harvard or being elected to a statewide office but for their makeup?

Of course, it’s not hard to criticize fashion in Washington, where the women look like they’re in an Ann Taylor cult and the men wear Dockers and pennyloafers to work out at the gym.

I love fashion criticism, it’s just that rather than treating good fashion as its own virtue, Givhan extrapolates opinions about aesthetics into moral judgments. Beauty becomes equivalent to political virtue, ugliness to political vice, and Givhan writes it up in a manner that is extremely one-sided. She ridiculed John Roberts’ family for looking too perfect, referred to Condoleezza Rice as a dominatrix and said Dick Cheney dressed horribly for a blizzard.

So when someone said that Givhan won a Pulitzer yesterday, I laughed. I saw a few other references to a Givhan Pulitzer and figured there must have been some joke on Wonkette that people were referencing. A full seven hours later I checked out the official list and saw that Givhan’s name was on it. I turned to my fiance, who fortunately had some smelling salts on hand. When I came to, he explained to me in soothing tones that it was true.

But the Pulitzer committee has made mistakes before. It’s still a prestigious award, even if its biases are pretty obvious.

It got me wondering, though, about the Godbeat. How well are religion reporters represented among the 2006 winners? I had hoped that Stephanie Simon might win for her excellent coverage of religious and moral issues for the Los Angeles Times. Alas, no. I imagine New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and Biloxi-Gulfport’s Sun Herald had some good religion reporting in their Katrina coverage, for which they won awards.

Here’s the full list of awards. Some were given to reporters for stories that have religion ghosts — such as the Jack Abramoff scandal or stories related to counterterrorism efforts. The Rocky Mountain News won two awards for a story and photographic essay about how Marines honor fallen comrades.

I guess I’m surprised that there weren’t more overtly religious stories. Awards are given for stories written in 2005. Terry wrote about the top 10 religious stories for 2005. I see very little overlap between the Pulitzer awards and the Religion Newswriters Association’s list of the year’s biggest stories. What’s more, the Pulitzer list has the same blind spot that Terry noted: the religious dimensions to terrorism.

And that’s probably because the media have done a horrible job of exploring those dimensions. But at least we know all about those scary Roberts children.

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