How To Be A Lousy Journalist

Over at Intercollegiate Review, I have a piece with some helpful journalism tips. Here’s how “How to Be a Really Lousy Journalist for Fun and Profit” begins:

There has never been a better time to consider a career in journalism. Newspapers are thriving, magazines are innovating, online journalism listicles are becoming more substantive, and cable-news talking heads are shouting at holograms.

Journalists are living up to our reputation as the country’s most trusted profession (at least compared to IRS agents and American Airlines customer-service representatives). Whether it’s our nuanced and thoughtful analysis of hot-button topics such as gay marriage or our tenacious coverage of the terrorist attack in Benghazi and Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in Philadelphia, people know you can count on us to get the story right.

Would you like to succeed in this environment? As a long-time reporter and media critic, I’m happy to share tips on what to do if you want to make it in modern journalism.

Don’t Sweat the Details

Is there a difference between an Evangelical and an evangelist? Who cares? Don’t know the technical reason why Christians celebrate Easter? Will anyone really notice? Do you confuse the author of Hebrews with Paris booksellers? We all do! Whether you’re reporting on important U.S. Supreme Court decisions or how many people died in a terrorist bombing, what’s most important is getting the story first, not getting the story right, particularly under the pressure of a 24-hour news cycle.

Don’t Question Authority

If the powers-that-be suggest that a terrorist attack on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11 was the spontaneous and direct result of an unseen YouTube video with junior high school production values, who are you to be skeptical?

If these same authority figures suggest that therefore it’s dangerous for Americans to speak freely, share their religious views, and express their artistic sensibilities however they want, you should probably just join them in calling for restrictions on these First Amendment freedoms.

It’s advice you’ve seen me sarcastically give for years, if you’re a GetReligion reader. But the folks here at GetReligion gave me excellent additional tips to include, and they’re sprinkled throughout.

There were dozens more I could have included. What are your tips for how to be a lousy journalist?

 Image of journalist via Shutterstock.

Pod people: Proselytization, blasphemy and Gosnell

On this week’s Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken, we talked media coverage of the Pentagon and proselytization, religious freedom and the Benghazi whistleblowers and the trial of Kermit Gosnell. So yeah, we packed a lot in there.

Partly we discussed the Pentagon because of recent GetReligion posts such as “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize” and “Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny.” I also wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s Houses of Worship column on the matter, which you can read here. For this piece, I had a fairly nuanced point. While many of the claims that generated alarm were exaggerated, taken out of context or wrong, that doesn’t mean that things are totally calm on the religious liberty front. While I think that partisans on either side of the issue may take issue with my middle-of-the-road approach, I received excellent feedback both from folks in the military and traditional religious liberty advocates. So that’s always nice. Also, Joe Carter should like it since not only did he complain about the lack of media coverage given Southern Baptists who expressed concern about the Pentagon’s approach but also because I quoted him in the piece. And, again, major props to The Tennessean for covering this story thoroughly and with exactly the kind of balance that is ideal. One thing I loved about that paper’s approach was that it quoted people without buying into their arguments — on either side. Whereas some conservative outlets just ran with the more alarmist claims, some mainstream outlets responded by just uncritically accepting the view of the military. If this week has taught us anything, perhaps it’s that skepticism of the official line is in good order.

Speaking of, we also talked a little bit about the religion angle to the Benghazi situation. Or angles, I should say. Obviously the religious motivations of the attackers should receive coverage. Some papers have handled that brilliantly in recent months, it’s worth saying. Another religion angle I was thinking of was how the initial false reports that placed blame on a YouTube video may have contributed to a perception that Muslims are irrational and easily led. But an angle I really wish we’d see more coverage of is how the false reports about the YouTube video led some prominent politicians and media types to call for limits on religious expression. It even led to statements from high U.S. officials that we’d get the YouTube video and punish him. Which we did (ostensibly not for the Benghazi killings but you’d be forgiven for thinking so).

Finally, we discussed a bit more about the continued downplaying of the Gosnell trial. If you were a reader of some papers or a watcher of some newscasts, you could very easily know nothing about this trial. I’m not surprised but, as a fan of the mainstream media model, I’m disappointed.

Let’s revisit Benghazi and the 1st Amendment

YouTube Preview ImageIf you didn’t get a chance to watch the Benghazi whistleblowers testify before Congress yesterday, you should. Part of what made it so interesting was how dramatically their testimony contradicted the official line received and published by the media in previous months. It was also just a good lesson in how bureaucracy works and how competing interests can impede the search for truth or justice.

You may recall that “What difference, at this point, does it make?” was a main takeaway from former Sec. of State Hilary Clinton’s fiery testimony on Benghazi.

State Department counterterrorism officer Ed Nordstrom responded to that by saying, as he choked up, “It matters to me personally. It matters to my colleagues, to my colleagues at the Department of State. It matters to the American public for whom we serve. And most importantly, excuse me. It matters to the friends and family of, of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, who were murdered on September 11th, 2012.”

And Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Benghazi, testified that when he heard Obama administration officials say that the Benghazi attack was due to a blasphemous YouTube video, “I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed.”

Now, given who the perpetrators were, the 9/11/12 terrorist attack has serious and complicated religious angles that should be explored. But there was another huge religion angle to this story and I’m disappointed that we didn’t see more or better coverage of that angle.

That religion angle is about freedom of religious expression and government action against blasphemy.

For reference, my posts on the matter from last September (aka “a long time ago”) hold up well: Missing the forest for the YouTube video, The missing anti-Muslim movie stories, and Journalism means never having to say you’re sorry.

I thought about this angle again when reading Reason‘s “Hall of Shame” for people who thought the overarching lesson of Benghazi was that freedom of expression needed to be restricted. It’s frightening how highly placed or influential some of those people are.

Falsely assessing partial blame for the violence on a piece of artistic expression inflicted damage not just on the California resident who made it—Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is currently serving out a one-year sentence for parole violations committed in the process of producing Innocence—but also on the entire American culture of free speech. In the days and weeks after the attacks, academics and foreign policy thinkers fell over themselves dreaming up new ways to either disproportionately punish Nakoula or scale back the very notion of constitutionally protected expression.

I also thought of that angle when reading Rich Lowry’s column in Politico today that began:

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula deserves a place in American history. He is the first person in this country jailed for violating Islamic anti-blasphemy laws.

 

[Read more...]

Benghazi terrorist hiding in plain sight

I know readers prefer us to harsh on stories rather than praise them, but I don’t care. I have to just highlight a great story from David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times. Now, most of what makes the story interesting is outside this blog’s bailiwick. The piece is headlined “Suspect in Libya Attack, in Plain Sight, Scoffs at U.S.” At a time when the White House is being criticized for its handling of events in Libya, the story is probably going to be a bit politically challenging.

But I want to highlight how the reporter weaves religion into the story without seeming clumsy or heavy-handed. Up top we learn that Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the ringleaders of the attack, recently hung out in a crowded luxury hotel, sipping mango juice on the patio and mocking the American government and Libya’s fledgling army. We learn he hasn’t even been questioned about his involvement in the attack. The real story, the reporter suggests, involves all the self-formed militias that provide the only source of social order in the country:

A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Mr. Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya. But also troubling to the United States is the evident tolerance shown by other militias allied with the government, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.

Although Mr. Abu Khattala said he was not a member of Al Qaeda, he declared he would be proud to be associated with Al Qaeda’s puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said that the United States had its own foreign policy to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?” he asked. “Why is it always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”

We get an interesting discussion of some of the political maneuvering in the United States. Then we learn of Abu Khattala’s “spin” — he says, “contradicting the accounts of many witnesses” that it really was just a peaceful protest against a video and that the guards inexplicably fired upon them, provoking them. He goes on to say that they found all the explosives and guns with silencers in the American compound after they took it. While witnesses say he led the fighters, he says he was just breaking up a traffic jam. He says he didn’t notice that the compound had been set ablaze.

But you can tell that even though the reporter doesn’t necessarily buy Abu Khattala’s story, he asks questions in response to it:

He pointedly declined to condemn the idea that the demolition of a diplomatic mission was an appropriate response to such a video. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.

We get some more foreign policy discussion from Abu Khattala:

He also said he opposed democracy as contrary to Islamic law, and he called those who supported secular constitutions “apostates,” using the terminology Islamist radicals apply to fellow Muslims who are said to disqualify themselves from the faith by collaborating with corrupt governments.

He argued that Islamists like those in the Muslim Brotherhood who embraced elections committed a “mix up” of Western and Islamic systems. And he acknowledged that his opposition to elections had been a point of dispute between his followers and the other Libyan militia leaders, most of whom had protected and celebrated the vote…

Witnesses, Benghazi residents and Western news reports, including those in The New York Times, have described Mr. Abu Khattala as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah, whose trucks and fighters were seen attacking the mission. Mr. Abu Khattala praised the group’s members as “good people with good goals, which are trying to implement Islamic law,” and he insisted their network of popular support was vastly underestimated by other brigade leaders who said the group had fewer than 200 fighters.

“It is bigger than a brigade,” he said. “It is a movement.” …

During the revolt, the brigade was accused of killing a top general who had defected to the rebels, Abdul Fattah Younes. Mr. Abu Khatalla acknowledged that the general had died in the brigade headquarters, but declined to discuss it further.

Almost all Libyans are Muslims, alcohol is banned, polygamy is legal, almost every woman wears an Islamic head-covering. But all of that still fell short, he said, of true Islamic law.

It’s obviously not the most important point of the story — indeed these last graphs are the very end — but they are helpful at understanding some of the distinctions in Libya. Sure, everyone’s Muslim, but their conception of Islamic law differs significantly. Showing us some of those distinctions is most helpful as we try to make sense of the muddle there.

Sometimes we’ll look at stories dealing with political Islam and say we wished there were more religious details there. Here we have a story that handled it with an economy of words and it’s worth noting. A great example to follow.

Libya map via Shutterstock.


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