Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

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In Irish children’s deaths, clarity doesn’t thrive in a septic tank

The accounts of cruelty, neglect and other abuse of children under Catholic Church care in Ireland cannot and must not be ignored. But in their tales about babies buried in septic tanks and such, news media need to be scrupulous with facts and clarity.

A case in point: two articles on St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, both from The New York Times.

In his June 4 article, writer Douglas Dalby mentioned “allegations that a Roman Catholic religious order secretly buried up to 796 babies and toddlers born to unmarried mothers in a septic tank over several decades.”

By this past Monday, he backpedaled a bit. He said his main source, historian Catherine Corless, based part of her allegation on a 48-year-old man who said he’d seen a hole filled with 15-20 small skeletons — back when he was 10:

Where and how the bodies of the children were actually disposed of remains a mystery — and a scandal in tiny Tuam, population 8,200, that has for the moment revealed more about the ways local lore and small-town sleuthing can be distorted in the news media juggernaut than about what actually went on decades ago at the state-funded home for unmarried pregnant women run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Roman Catholic order.

“News media juggernaut” is not too strong a term for what happened in the mainstream press. Our friend and ally Rod Dreher found a clutch of mainstream media outlets — from The Guardian to the Washington Post to Al-Jazeera — alleging that a full 800 children’s corpses were dumped in a scandalous mass grave.

You can see quite a lot of that on YouTube as well, with titles like “Bodies of 800 Babies Found in Septic Tank in Ireland” and, of course, “Another Atrocity from the Catholic Church.”

Who says these media reports are wrong, simplistic or radically blown out of proportion? For one, Corless herself:

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Al Jazeera offers its own take (literally) on SBC sex summit

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

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WPost whoppers about the Muslim Brotherhood

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Claims of bias and inaccurate reporting have dogged the Western press’s coverage of Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. A story in this week’s Washington Post entitled “In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear” will do little to restore confidence.

The article eschews the classical news story format in favor of an impressions and perceptions style. Its lede states:

The charges are often vague. The evidence is elusive. Arrests occur swiftly, and the convictions follow. And there is little transparency in what analysts have called the harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

But many Egyptians say they are all right with that.

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world’s largest country that the best path to stability — after three years of political turmoil — might be to do things the military’s way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions.

The article begins with an opinion as to the mood of the Egyptian people. Is this then a news analysis article or a news article?

If a news article facts and figures should follow to support the claims in the lede. What “evidence”? How many arrests and convictions? Who is being arrested and why? Which analysts claim the army’s rule has led to the “harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades”? Who is being censored and why? These details are mostly absent.

A thematic diagram of this story suggests this is an opinion piece — a commentary offering the author’s view of the meaning of events, rather than a report on events. Following the lede we have a quote from a government spokesman defending the violent crackdown; a man in the street supporting the crackdown and a Washington-based expert explaining popular support for the crackdown.

This all leads to the central argument of the story.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties captured the lion’s share of the vote in Egypt’s first democratic elections two years ago. The Brotherhood had renounced violence decades earlier and gained popularity by establishing a vast network of charitable organizations.

These days, those images of benign Islamist leadership have been erased from many minds by the hyper-nationalist rhetoric promoted by the government, which has portrayed Brotherhood members as bloodthirsty terrorists bent on destroying the nation.

An assortment of disconnected facts are presented to support this argument, coupled with further pro-Brotherhood arguments from the Washington Post. Assertions are piled on assertions and dubious statements presented uncritically.

The government’s crackdown has been so pervasive — and the cult of support for military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi so far-reaching — that the Brotherhood has likened Egypt’s transgression to “fascism,” as have some liberal observers.

Is labeling support for al-Sissi a “cult” fair? Fascism? Is citing a foreign diplomat as a “liberal” observer appropriate? The US embassy and the former ambassador have been denounced for its pro-Brotherhood statements and have little credibility in Egypt — are Western diplomats an appropriate source on this point?

The article closes with a pessimistic quote from an Egypt expert at Harvard. Given six decades of military rule following the overthrow of King Farouk it was foolish to expect Egypt to take to democracy, he argues.

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Americans prejudiced against Al Jazeera?

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The new cable news channel Al Jazeera America is drawing a lot of major media attention.

USA Today asks in a relatively meaty story:

Al Jazeera America: Will U.S. viewers buy it?

A chunk of that report:

While journalists may be eager to join a news outlet that promises to air in-depth coverage, media analysts wonder how excited American viewers will be about a Middle Eastern-owned news operation with a controversial past and a programming approach that avoids shrill partisan voices. The fact that it’s backed by owners who seem to have put profit on the back-burner gives the network’s experiment a better shot, company watchers say.

“Al Jazeera enjoys the best economic model you can possibly have,” says Philip Seib, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, who has written books on Al Jazeera. “They have a lot of money. They want to be a global player. They want Qatar to be a global player. And to be a true global journalistic force, you have to reach the U.S.”

Al Jazeera’s executives aren’t running from “the perception issue” or the fact that its unflinching airing of Osama bin Laden’s tapes is just a few clicks away on YouTube.

Al Shihabi says lingering audience hostility toward the channel will fade as viewers become familiar with its format and focus. “Do we have competitors or those who want to attack us from different angles? Of course,” he says. But, he adds, pointing to its American management and staff, “It is an American channel for the American audience.”

The headline at the New York Times:

Al Jazeera America Promises a More Sober Look at the News

From that story:

The Al Jazeera name still arouses deep suspicion in some Americans, mostly because of the period immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Al Jazeera broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden and was demonized by Bush administration officials as anti-American.

Al Jazeera America officials rebut questions about whether its brand name will hurt its chances on cable by invoking other foreign brands, like Honda, that are now viewed favorably in the United States.

For now, some big sponsors appear to be skittish; Al Jazeera declined to name any major advertisers.

To read both those reports, you get the idea that perhaps there’s a reason why Americans would be suspicious — at least initially — about that network.

But over at Religion News Service, in a story that reads more like an editorial, the reason for the steep climb faced in the U.S. market is clear: “deep-seated prejudices.”

The top of the RNS report:

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A Newtown massacre in Nigeria, with ghosts

Absolutely horrific news out of Nigeria today. From the Associated Press:

POTISKUM, Nigeria — Islamic militants attacked a boarding school in northeastern Nigeria before dawn on Saturday, killing 29 students and a teacher. Survivors said that some pupils were burned alive in the latest school attack said to have been carried out by a radical terrorist group.

It’s a wire report, with all of the limitations you might expect, but read the whole story for details on how the attackers — Boko Haram is suspected — burned children alive. Some bodies were so charred they could not be identified.

The only mention of religion in the story is the first word, not uncommon for recent AP updates of strife in the country. But let’s just take the phrase “Islamic militants.” I think it speaks to the importance of fleshing out the religion angles far more than much reporting has done. For one thing, “Islamic” doesn’t quite identify the particular ideology in play. The children and teachers in this school included both Muslims and Christians. And even in the sphere of Islamic militancy, setting children afire and gunning them down in the back is not exactly de rigueur. There are Islamic militants all over the world fighting for or against any number of things, but when you’re performing weekly Newtown massacres, what, exactly, are you militating against? We need much more information about the particular views of the militants in question.

Usually when I’m going for more details, I find Al Jazeera helpful. In this case, neither this story nor the embedded radio interview provided many helpful details. Instead, much of the interview placed blame for the attack on Christian president Goodluck Jonathan — for general strife in the country and for not stopping the attack despite having three Nigerian states placed under emergency declarations. Instead of discussing religious angles to Boko Haram’s motivation, it pointed out that many of its victims are also Muslim.

But, of course, that’s not different from many other Islamic militants throughout the globe. I know that when children are massacred, reporters frequently try to blame something else — say a nation’s gun laws or political climate. It certainly beats trying to make sense of one evil or sick individual’s motivation. But Boko Haram is a major movement with self-professed religious motivation. Downplaying that in favor of other angles would be bad enough but ignoring it is even worse.

Much more helpful was, unsurprisingly, Reuters.

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Palinphobia hurts journalism

The Washington Post published something yesterday that it shouldn’t have.

Why? Because it was false, as in fake.

Nevertheless, it’s worth highlighting here for the lessons we can learn from it. The piece was headlined:

Sarah Palin’s Plan to Reach Millions of Devoutly Religious People Through al Jazeera

It’s since been completely rewritten — because it was false — but the HTML for the botched item remains “sarah-palins-plan-to-reach-millions-of-devoutly-religious-people-through-al-jazeera.”

Oh, it remained that way when I first wrote this piece last night, but now it’s been redirected to “sarah-palins-when-politics-and-celebrity-meet/.” Interesante.

The entire hook of the piece was proven false, but the item was simply edited and rejiggered and so now the headline is:

Sarah Palin Tries to Stay Relevant

The piece was written by Suzi Parker, “an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of ‘Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.’” It’s the same misogynistic claptrap the media have been feeding us regarding Palin for years.

The item begins: “The Sarah Palin Story is a cautionary tale about what can happen when politics and celebrity meet.”

I’d argue that this whole embarrassing debacle for the Washington Post is actually a cautionary tale about what can happen when unbridled fear and loathing of Palin meets journalism.

It’s been bad for Palin, obviously, but just horrible for journalism. It has destroyed trust with many of its readers. It has turned some journalists and the media outlets that publish them into laughing stocks.

Two thoughts, though. The first is that if you are a media outlet that falls for a fake news item on a satirical website (that in this case published the item about Palin joining al Jazeera) and you run an entire piece about it, the proper correction is not to rewrite the story so that the “point” stays the same but, rather, to simply pull the story. The limp correction (since beefed up slightly) is not sufficient.

Secondly, the item wasn’t just false. It fell short of other journalistic standards as well. It included the old trope of quoting a poly sci professor who happens to agree with the journalist. Isn’t that also something we need to get past? How hard is it, in this country, to find an academic that will back up your hatred for a particular Republican?

That Suzi Parker wrote a false story is bad enough. And I get — believe me I get — how much the media are deranged when it comes to Palin. But certain journalistic standards must be met.

I didn’t go to journalism school but I have some advice I’d like to offer in any case: Don’t run false stories. When false stories are run and then proven to be false, retract them, don’t edit them as if they were “false, but essentially true.” Balance out stories with perspectives that are — wait for it — different from your own rather than those perspectives that reinforce your prejudices. Am I missing anything?

Picture of man whose fear and loathing of Sarah Palin has left him on the brink of insanity via Shutterstock.


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