And the Baltimore Hobby Lobby angle is … the Little Sisters

All news is local.

That’s one of the first laws that journalists quote whenever we try to explain what is and what isn’t news to those outside the profession. In other words, when editors rank stories — deciding what goes on A1, for example — one of the main factors that they take into account is whether an event or trend hits close to home for their own readers. What’s the local angle?

With that in mind, it isn’t all that surprising that The Baltimore Sun was the rare newspaper that dedicated a rather sizable chunk of its Hobby Lobby decision story to the Little Sisters of the Poor and to religious liberty issues linked to Obamacare that, apparently, remain to be resolved.

Many newspapers forgot the Sisters altogether, but not the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

Why the stress on the status of doctrinally defined non-profit ministries that are still protesting the Health and Human Services mandate on a variety of contraceptive services? That’s easy to explain.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservatives found that the requirement for contraceptive coverage tied to Obama’s signature health care law ran afoul of a 1993 law expanding religious freedom. The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., could have implications not only for secular companies but also religious organizations that are seeking a more complete exemption from the same requirement, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catonsville-based Catholic charity.

In other words, (all together now): All news is local.

So what is the nature of the HHS mandate objections that remain for many religious ministries? Here is how the Sun took that on:

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NYT: Nuns, birth control and Obamacare

Believe it or not, I come not to bury the Great Gray Lady but to praise her.

Before pushing the button that dropped the famed crystal ball in New York City’s Times Square to ring in 2014, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an eleventh-hour ruling that blocked a requirement of the nation’s new health-care law.

As The New York Times reports:

WASHINGTON — In temporarily blocking enforcement of the part of President Obama’s health care law that requires many employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control or face penalties, Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Tuesday opened a second front in Supreme Court challenges to the provision.

The initial front opened in November, when the justices agreed to hear a pair of cases from for-profit companies challenging that provision. Now Justice Sotomayor has ordered the Obama administration to file a brief by Friday morning responding to a different kind of challenge, this one from groups affiliated with religious organizations.

In the meantime, she issued a temporary injunction barring the administration from enforcing the birth control requirement against an order of Colorado nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and related groups.

The Times piece is labeled “News Analysis,” but — surprise, surprise — it impressed me as solid, down-the-middle journalism that sheds light on complicated issues. I liked it, in other words.

For the casual observer, the story does a nice job of putting Sotomayor’s ruling into context:

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Running the White House spin on HHS regulations

If news is ever going to break on your beat, it will break on Friday afternoon, a few hours before you planned to enjoy your weekend. I don’t know why it’s always true, but it’s always true. Or at least, that’s how it works for me.

On Friday, the White House announced that there’d be another change to its rule requiring groups to provide insurance plans that cover abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization even if they have religious objections. On Twitter, Godbeat pros immediately started complaining about this change happening on a Friday afternoon — like all the other news related to this ruling had happened on Friday afternoons.

Why is this significant? Well, you have an extremely limited time to compose a story and people who might react to the story have a very short time to think through their reaction to this story. Some were able to power through the mandate revisions and respond, but some wanted to take their time and reflect before reacting. Do they have any idea how frustrating this is to a reporter on deadline?

I simply must share Sam Rocha’s hilarious post from elsewhere on Patheos, headlined “BREAKING NEWS: USCCB to Think About HHS Amendment Sanely and Without the Advice of Drudge, Huff Post, or Alike.” Here’s how it begins (though the whole thing is funny):

In a shocking press release, United States Conference of Bishops made several unexpected moves in response to the Obama administration’s proposed modifications to the HHS mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, known by many as Obamacare. In a brief three-sentence memo, Cardinal Timothy Dolan implied a number of cryptic, esoteric, and ridiculous things. Two of the three sentences were particularly disconcerting to American Catholics:

We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.

American journalists and politicians are outraged. An MSNBFOX reporter writing on condition of anonymity e-mailed,

WTF! Seriously? The USCCB is going to READ the whole document before they comment? What is this, the stone age? Clearly the Bishops are again showing how out of touch they are with the times. We reported on this story before we were sure it was real. That’s what we do: we make things real, even if they’re not. And if they are, we sometimes make them unreal by ignoring them. How naive and trite of them to act like this is their role. Ridiculous, really. Know your role, Bishops.

Obviously I love daily journalism, but I’ll take a chance to ruminate on a story any day. So I was impressed with how some reporters were able to get the details out quickly, including some reaction from the affected groups who claim they care about something they call “religious liberty.” (I think that’s how we’re supposed to characterize the parties suing the federal government.) Here’s Christianity Today, for instance.

The White House is claiming that they’ve compromised. Some folks need time to react to the changes and others are already saying that the changes are not a compromise. A lot of what’s been said in response to the mandate changes sounds like spin, too. So should media outlets just run with White House spin?

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Sandra Fluke, Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and tender stories

Time magazine is doing its annual PR blitz for its “Person of the Year.” After I won the designation in 2006, I stopped paying attention to it. Since then the honor has gone to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke, Mark Zuckerberg and “the protester.” And yes, if you’re wondering, the tradition of selecting a Man of the Year began in 1927 with Time editors contemplating newsworthy stories possible during a slow news week. We’ve all been there.

Among the nominees this year are Ai Weiwei, Bashar Assad, Felix Baumgartner, Joe Biden (fer real), Bo Xilai, Chris Christie, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Gabrielle Douglas, Roger Goodell, the Higgs boson, E.L. James, Jay-Z, Kim Jong Un, the Mars Rover, Marissa Mayer, Mohamed Morsi, Psy, Pussy Riot, John Roberts, Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, Undocumented Immigrants, Malala Yousafzai.

The winners, no matter how unworthy, tend to be from the United States. But we have a fair number of nominees from other countries. I’m a bit surprised Chen Guangcheng wasn’t on there. I might also note that the religious dimensions of the list are somewhat slight. Readers of our recent post on the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood may appreciate that the write-up for Morsi included this line, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s religiosity is moderate, or at least moderated by pragmatism; its politics are populist and likely the template for a number of other fledgling democracies in the region.”

The entry for Yousafzai was a nice tribute to her devout Muslim father who supports her and her educational goals. The last line is “It is among the tenderest of stories in the world of conservative Islam.”

But I bring all this up because of the write-up for another deserving nominee — Sandra Fluke. While I tend to think the prize is too American-focused, if it goes in that direction again this year, she should definitely win. I only wish she could win it in conjunction with the media that has been so supportive of her during her entire public relations journey. You could say their love for her is among the tenderest of stories in the world of mainstream media. (For more on that, you can see some of our posts on the coverage of Fluke here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And if/when Fluke does win, I hope she can accept the award with Cecile Richards, Andrea Mitchell and the whole Church of Planned Parenthood. They all had an amazing year and they deserve credit.)

Anyway, here’s the write-up of our Person of the Year:

The daughter of a conservative Christian pastor, Sandra Fluke, 31, became a women’s-rights activist in college and continued her advocacy as a law student at Georgetown. After she complained about being denied a chance to testify at a Republican-run House hearing on insurance coverage for birth control, Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut.” Democrats and many Republicans reacted with outrage, and the left made Limbaugh’s slur Exhibit A in what they called a GOP “war on women.” Fluke, meanwhile, weathered the attention with poise and maturity and emerged as a political celebrity. Democrats gave her a national-convention speaking slot as part of their push to make reproductive rights a central issue in the 2012 presidential campaign — one that helped Barack Obama trounce Mitt Romney among single women on Election Day.

Technically the hearing was on religious liberty, but the media have long decided that the issue is best framed otherwise.

But what I found interesting was that Time has described Fluke’s father as a “conservative Christian pastor.” We learned earlier that “The Rev. Richard Fluke, Sandra’s father, is a part-time licensed local pastor who shares the pulpit at Tatesville United Methodist Church in Everett, Pa., with two other pastors. Both he and his wife, Betty Kay, are proud of their daughter.”

I know enough Methodists to know that some are very conservative and some are very progressive. The leadership of the denomination tends to be liberal but Methodist polity and culture permits some significant variance. I would love to know more about his conservatism or how that descriptor was chosen. What does it mean in this context? Maybe when she wins the award, we’ll get some substantiation about Fluke’s conservative Christian upbringing.


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