Silence about terrorism and Islam in the Kunming attack


What was it about the murder of 29 men, women and children on Saturday at the Kunming train station that does not qualify make it an act of terrorism? And why is the press so shy about connecting the dots on this incident to the wider campaign being waged by Islamist terrorists? Can the word terrorism no longer be used in polite company?

The first news story I saw came from the state-run Xinhua News Agency which announced that on the night of March 1, 2014 a gang invaded the central waiting room of the Kunming train station in China’s Yunnan province. Armed with knives the attackers attacked people waiting for their trains and police officers, killing 28 and in jured 113 (the numbers were later revised to 29 dead and 143 wounded.)

Police shot five of the assailants dead. The identity of the attackers was not given, but the incident was described as:

an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack, according to the authorities.

The report stated the killers were dressed in black and attacked their victims with knives. Xinhua was able to quote eye witness accounts of the attack. saying:

Chen Guizhen, a 50-year-old woman, told Xinhua at the hospital that her husband Xiong Wenguang, 59, was killed in the attack. “Why are the terrorists so cruel? ” moaned Chen, holding her husband’s ID card in blood with her trembling hands.

So we have a group of black clad knife welding assailants rushing into a busy urban train station and randomly maiming and killing 172 people. The government describes it as a terrorist act and a witness calls the attackers terrorists. Let me go out on a limb and say the attackers were likely to have been terrorists.

Xinhua did not identify who the attackers were, but at the close of their story recounted two recent terrorist attacks. While not naming names, Xinhua implied the attack was the work of militants from northwest China’s Xinjiang province — the Muslim Uighar people.

In the first press reports many western news outlets were reticent in describing the attack as terrorism, or they placed the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” in quotes either in the title or in the body of the story.

The New York Times report described the attack in terms usually reserved for a clash between groups. A “group of assailants wielding knives stormed into a railway station” and proceeded to kill and injure scores of travelers. The NY Times identifies the “assailants” as Uighars, citing local government sources, and states:

The attack, in Yunnan Province, was far from Xinjiang, and if carried out by members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority could imply that the volatile tensions between them and the government might be spilling beyond that restive region.

But the language of the story shifts. “The violence erupted …”;  “the attack would be the worst …”; “The latest attack appears …”; “After the slashing attack, President Xi Jinping of China said …” — why the reticence in using the word terror, terrorism, terrorist?

CNN was equally shy,writing:

Members of a separatist group from Xinjiang, in northwest China, are believed to have carried out the assault, authorities said. The report referred to them as “terrorists.”

The mention of Islam is pushed to the last paragraph of the story while CNN plays the trick of having the Chinese government use the word terrorist.
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So, AP does its part to pin Nazi salute on Trail Life boys?

I doubt that many news consumers who do a quick read of the recent Associated Press news feature about the growth of Trail Life USA — a small, explicitly Christian alternative to the Boy Scouts — will hear loud warning sirens.

But the main photo that accompanied that story? That’s another matter.

You simply must CLICK HERE to see it.

This is a hot-button topic, of course, because it involves centuries of Christian doctrine and America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality, both in terms of orientation and sexual behavior. The Boy Scouts voted to accept openly gay Scouts, but not openly gay leaders, a tricky stance that angered both conservative religious groups and the cultural left. Boy Scout executives stressed that they still expect Scouts to keep sex out of their lives as scouts.

The AP report by Nomaan Merchant does have a bit of that neo-National Geographic tone to it as readers are introduced to this strange tribe of Christians who dare to enroll their sons in a voluntary association that teaches the doctrines affirmed in their homes and churches. But these believers get to defend their beliefs in their own words, which is good.

Let it be noted, however, that this story — for some strange reason — gives zero attention to the views of those who criticize Trail Life USA. Why not include the secular and Christian left in this picture? The story does give a small amount of space to BSA leaders who defend the evolution in their membership guidelines. And there is this concise summary of the conflict at the heart of this story:

Trail Life promotes itself on its website as the “premier national character development organization for young men which produces Godly and responsible husbands, fathers and citizens.” Its official membership standards policy welcomes all boys, but adds, “We grant membership to adults and youth who do not engage in or promote sexual immorality of any kind, or engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the program.”

For over a century, Scouting banned openly gay youth and leaders, fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to defend its right to do so. Leaders who were revealed to be gay were excluded, and some boys were denied Eagle Scout awards by regional councils that were notified of their sexual orientation.

But the Scouts eventually began to face pressure from sponsors and CEOs who serve in Scouting leadership but lead companies with anti-discrimination policies. BSA surveys also showed that youths and parents of Scouting-age children were supportive of allowing openly gay Scouts. Scouting leadership proposed a compromise: Accept openly gay youth, but exclude gay adult volunteers. BSA’s National Council voted in May to enact it.

Readers who have closely followed this story will note, of course, that Trail Life stresses that if will not admit those who “promote sexual immorality of any kind” — note the loaded word “promote.” The Boy Scouts now allow “openly” gay Scouts, while local leaders struggle with the precise meaning of that term.

The story also includes this telling detail:

The boys and their parents are still getting used to a world of new names, new ranks and new uniforms that haven’t arrived yet. They hold up five fingers while reciting their oath, instead of three. Scouts are now “Trailmen,” and troops are now units. There is a new handshake and a new salute.

This brings us to that troubling Associated Press photo that ran with this story. Those who follow Twitter may have noted this tweet (which now appears to have been deleted):

Grossman, to her credit, has apologized for that dashed-off tweet. But this only raises another question: What was going on in that photo? How did this image end up on top of the AP story?

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Religious freedom vs. gay discrimination in Arizona

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Here we go again.

In Arizona, a religious freedom bill has riled gay rights supporters, as The Associated Press puts it. Or, as a Los Angeles Times headline describes it, gay rights activists are in an uproar over the “religious freedom” (scare quotes courtesy of the Times) measure headed to Gov. Jan Brewer.

In Phoenix, readers of The Arizona Republic woke up to this banner front-page headline this morning:

Religion bill OK’d, on way to Brewer

The subhead:

Measure pits freedom against discrimination

The Republic’s big type certainly plays the story down the middle, avoiding the seeming bias of some national media reports.

But what about the local newspaper’s story itself?

Let’s start at the top:

The Arizona Legislature has passed a controversial religion bill that is again thrusting Arizona into the national spotlight in a debate over discrimination.

House Bill 2153, written by the conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit.

The bill, which was introduced last month and has been described by opponents as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, has drawn national media coverage. Discussion of the bill went viral on social media during the House floor debate Thursday.

Opponents have dubbed it the “right to discriminate” bill and say it could prompt an economic backlash against the state, similar to what they say occurred when the state passed the controversial immigration law Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.

So, the bill is controversial. It’s conservative. It’s concerning to gay rights advocates.

Is it just me, or does the Republic story — unlike the headline and subhead — seem tilted up high?

In the fifth paragraph, the Phoenix newspaper finally gets around to explaining the position of the supporters:

Proponents argue that the bill is simply a tweak to existing state religious-freedom laws to ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to do something that goes against their beliefs.

After that rough start, however, the Republic actually does an excellent job of highlighting the debate — pro and con — on the bill:

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‘Deeply religious man’ made a promise to God

Such a moving story.

Such a big ghost.

That was my immediate reaction upon reading an Associated Press feature with this headline:

Family promises a life for son in vegetative state

The top of the story is absolutely gripping:

MURRIETA, Calif. (AP) — Paul Cortez can remember the night 31 years ago as clearly as if it was last week. He had walked into the pediatric intensive care unit of Riverside County Regional Medical Center to find his 7-year-old son, Mikey, barely clinging to life.

Bandages were covering his little body, seemingly from head to toe. Wires and tubes attached to machines were keeping him alive. Doctors told Cortez that Mikey might not make it. A drunken driver had smashed into the car carrying the boy and relatives, sending four of them, including his mother, brother and sister, to other hospitals. Four other relatives, including Mikey’s oldest brother, were dead.

Not knowing what to do, Paul Cortez got down on his knees and, with Mikey’s hand in his, made a promise to God: If his son somehow survived, whatever the condition, he and his family would always be there for him.

It felt strange at first because, although he is a deeply religious man, Cortez had never before asked for any favors from heaven.

“But he was our son,” he recalled.

Mikey would never walk or talk again, but that didn’t matter to his family. For the next 31 years, they would raise him at home, including him in every activity they could. From holidays to family vacations to high school football games, they were by his side until his death last month.

So what we have here is an incredible human drama involving a “deeply religious man” who made a promise to God. Religion angle, anyone?

Unfortunately, the story fails to explore at all the role of faith in this family’s life — outside of those vague mentions about religion and God.

What does “deeply religious” mean in this case? Does the family belong to a church? Do they have a church family? If so, did that church family help support the Cortezes and care for Mikey? These all seem like relevant questions.

I Googled a few key terms from the story and added “faith” to see if any other media had covered that angle. Interestingly enough, I came across a different version of the AP story that did, in fact, hint that the Cortezes are Christians, including this mention:

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A ‘Blue Christmas?’ Stories seek sad holiday angles

So, how are you this Christmas season?

No, really. How are you?

Are you doing all right, in your Christmas of white? Has it been a year filled with blessings and prosperity, with your nearest and dearest gathered around you as you all enjoy a season of remembrance and joy?

Or, like me, are you disovering that the decorations of red on a green Christmas tree just aren’t the same in the wake of a life-altering loss?

For readers not necessarily having a holly jolly Christmas (pause) this year, an Associated Press story headlined “Churches offer ‘Blue Christmas’ for those in need” might grab your attention instead.

That’s a good thing, as this story did justice to the trend of congregations offering more reflective, candlelit services designed for those who have experienced a loss or traumatic event and find all the festivity of the season too much to handle:

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The crowd was small for a Christmastime church service, the atmosphere quiet and solemn. There were no joyous carols, no children dressed as nativity characters, no festive decorations.

About two dozen people gathered Monday night for a “Blue Christmas” service at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. It’s among many nationwide providing a special service aimed directly at those in need of spiritual healing — whether due to divorce, tough economic times, the loss of a loved one or whatever has them feeling down at the holidays.

Charles Brown, 35, is still grieving the loss of his mother, who died in June of congestive heart failure. After Monday’s service, Brown stuck around to be anointed with oil and for private words of healing from one of the pastors.

“He told me God is with me, God will bless me,” Brown said. “I feel like this was a chance to lay my burden down. It gave me comfort.”

The report, though short, did a nice job exploring the psychology behind the need for the services and sharing thoughts from those who organize and had attended. It also represented well different faith groups and traditions:

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Isn’t that special? Satan pays a visit to the Bible Belt (updated)

When the devil issues a press release, the media pay attention.

Satan has stirred a hell of a commotion in my home state of Oklahoma the last week.

The Associated Press produced the first national report on Satanists seeking a spot on the Oklahoma Capitol steps, followed soon by national outlets such as CNN, Religion News Service and Reuters as well as the Tulsa World. (Update: The Journal Record, an Oklahoma City business newspaper, had the original scoop.)

I’m approaching this critique with a bit of trepidation, not out of any fear of the Evil One but because — given my ties to Oklahoma and the religion beat — I know four of the five reporters who handled the stories referenced above. My plan is to make a few constructive criticisms, ask a few pointed questions and pray that no one sticks me with a pitchfork.

Let’s start with AP’s initial scoop:

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse steps.

The Republican-controlled Legislature in this state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorized the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009, and it was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

If I’m the editor, I raise an obvious question about that lede: According to whom? The use of the adjective “unwittingly” particularly seems to cry out for attribution (a named source identifying who provided the information). Otherwise, it comes across as editorialization.

I also wondered about the lowercase “satanist,” particularly since the AP story switched back and forth between lowercase and uppercase versions of the word. In checking my handy dandy AP Stylebook, the journalist’s bible, I found this succinct entry:

Satan — but lowercase devil and satanic

Hmmmm, that doesn’t really answer the Satanists question — or is it satanists?

In reading the AP story, I couldn’t tell if the Satanists/satanists were serious about the monument or engaging in a publicity ploy.

I felt like CNN’s Belief Blog did a much better job of answering that question:

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AP reports he did have sexual relations with that woman

 

“Can a bad person be a good theologian,” asked Mark Oppenheimer in the lede of an October column on the scandals surrounding John Howard Yoder. Should private failings overshadow public achievement?

This question has been asked of prominent figures ranging from T.S. Eliot to Bill Clinton to Mike Tyson. Is the aesthetic value of the Wasteland diminished by Eliot’s anti-Semitism, or the former president’s accomplishments wiped away by his claim he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”? Does biting Evander Holyfield’s ear or being convicted of rape undo sporting achievements? Will Pete Rose ever be inducted into the baseball hall of fame?

Religious leaders are held to a different standard, Oppenheimer wrote:

All of us fall short of our ideals, of course. But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals should try to behave as they counsel others to behave. They may not be perfect, but they should not be louts or jerks.

By that standard, few have failed as egregiously as John Howard Yoder, America’s most influential pacifist theologian. In his teaching at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and in books like “The Politics of Jesus,” published in 1972, Mr. Yoder, a Mennonite Christian, helped thousands formulate their opposition to violence. Yet, as he admitted before his death in 1997, he groped many women or pressured them to have physical contact, although never sexual intercourse.

Oppenheimer does not cast stones, but he pulls no punches in discussing Yoder’s flaws. He does not call him a hypocrite, but asks whether interpretations of his work should be colored by  personal failings. This week MennoMedia, the publishing agency for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, announced it will add a disclaimer to new editions of Yoder’s books that speak to his history of sexual harassment and abuse.

These musings on celebrity right and wrong were prompted by an Associated Press article reporting on the marriage of a former Catholic priest who left the Legion of Christ under a cloud. The article begins:

Thomas Williams, the onetime public face of the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order who left the priesthood after admitting he fathered a child, is getting married this weekend to the child’s mother, The Associated Press has learned. The bride is the daughter of former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers.

The second paragraph notes Glendon’s position as President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and names his wife to be — Elizabeth Lev. It then moves back to Williams.

Williams, a moral theologian, author, lecturer and U.S. television personality, admitted last year that he had fathered a child several years earlier. At the time, Williams apologized for “this grave transgression” against his vows of celibacy and said he had stayed on as a priest because he hoped to move beyond “this sin in my past” to do good work for the church. …

Towards the end of the article the Legion of Christ scandals are recounted and Williams’ fall from grace is placed against the order’s larger problems. The article closes on a curious note, however.

The Legion said the numbers indicate that less than 1 percent of the 1,133 priests ordained in the 72-year history of the order had been found guilty by a church trial of abuse, and less than 4 percent had been abused. A Legion spokesman said he didn’t know what the percentage was for the current number of Legion priests.

One percent of priests are abusers and four percent have been the subject of abuse? And what is the unknown percentage, abusers or victims? Should “abused” in the second clause of the first sentence be “accused”, or is the AP setting the two numbers against each other?

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The Methodist roots of Nelson Mandela

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Comrade. Leader. Prisoner. Negotiator. Statesman.

A giant banner outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — which I visited during a 2009 reporting trip to South Africa — uses those terms to describe Nelson Mandela, although many more certainly could be applied.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Mandela’s life and — from a news perspective — his death Thursday at age 95.

Or, to put the news in a more personal perspective, here’s a tweet from a friend.

Alas, it would be impossible for anyone — not even your brilliant GetReligionistas — to critique all the millions of words written about Mandela just since his passing less than 24 hours ago. But we can take an initial crack at exploring the coverage of the faith angle. First question: What was Mandela’s religious background?

From that United Methodist News Service report:

Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism.

A graduate of a Methodist boarding school where many future African leaders were educated, the anti-apartheid champion was mentored by Methodist preachers and educators and formed a bond with a Methodist chaplain while in prison.

As president of South Africa, he worked with church leaders in shaping a new nation and eventually married Graça Machel, a United Methodist, widow of the former president of Mozambique and an advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

The Gospel Herald suggests that Mandela’s “Christian faith was the bedrock of his extraordinary life legacy.”

Christian Today — not to be confused with Christianity Today, which is mentioned below — reports:

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