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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Was Kabul shooting over religion? Shouldn’t someone ask?

Q: What question has no answer? A: The one you don’t ask.

In Thursday’s shooting of several people at a Christian hospital in Kabul, the question would be: Could it have anything to do with their religion?

True, the answer doesn’t rest neatly on the surface. The shooter — horrifically, a policeman assigned to guard the hospital — didn’t shout the usual “Alahu Akbar” before gunning down Dr. Jerry Umanos and two visitors at CURE International Hospital. Nor have any organizations like the Taliban claimed responsibility.

So reporters need to look for clues. And there are a few scattered throughout news stories on the atrocity — clues that, thus far, don’t seem to have drawn journalistic curiosity.

The reports do have some positives, especially from a GetReligion standpoint. Most acknowledge the Christian nature of the hospital, its workers, and the Pennsylvania-based agency that runs it. The stories bring out the good done by the medical missionaries in Afghanistan. And they quote Jan Schuitema, the doctor’s widow, on her grief laced with idealism.

An example from CBS News:

“We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this,” she said speaking outside the family’s home in Chicago Thursday, her son, Ben Umanos, by her side. “We don’t know what his history is.”

She said that Umanos went to Afghanistan because he saw the need there, she said.

“Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

Such eloquent quotes should have set reporters’ cliched “nose for news” tingling. But no, we get other cliches — “foreign,” “foreigners,” “Westerners” — that skirt religious considerations. And we get them with numbing repetition.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest attack on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” says CBS News.

* The latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here,” the  New York Times said.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” reports the New York Daily News.

* “Over the past three months, as Afghanistan is in the midst of electing a new president, 20 foreigners have been killed in separate attacks targeting civilians,” according to an NPR correspondent. “The attacks have occurred at a popular restaurant, an upscale hotel and other venues where foreigners congregate.”

The Los Angeles Times dipped into a think-tanker’s writings about civilians:

“They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit Western governments rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan,” Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote recently.

One quote, two cliches.

Yes, other “foreigners” have been attacked recently. Just since March, four journalists have been shot. But the hospital shooting poses extra questions.

What do Islamist militants reportedly hate about “Western” values, even in secular stories? The welfare of women, for one. Some current articles highlight topics like women in sports, education, law enforcement and Afghanistan’s parliament. And CNN explores the kind of influence that Afghan women could wield on the upcoming national election.

Afghan children, too, take a fair amount of attention in news articles. The stories look sympathetically at child labor, marriage, recreation programs, and child casualties in the ongoing war.

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Got news? Mother Jones on ghosts in FBI’s Hasan probe

Your GetReligionistas normally do not spend much time looking at ideological media outlets, such as National Review or Mother Jones.

But rules are made to be broken. The progressive outlet Mother Jones has a great straight news story right now that many other outlets seem to have downplayed or missed. And it has an important religion angle. The piece reveals how internal documents show that the FBI completely mishandled information that could have helped avoid the Fort Hood massacre perpetrated by Nidal Hasan.

The story is published in the context of increasing revelations about how our intelligence system includes the capability of spying on American citizens. In this case we have a story about how intel agencies have long monitored communications with Muslim clerics with ties to terrorism. And a year prior to the massacre, the FBI intercepted emails between Anwar al-Awlaki and Hasan. They described them as “fairly benign.” Mother Jones‘ reporting questions that assessment. It begins:

Last Thursday, as the jury in the trial of Nidal Hasan was deliberating, outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared on CBS News and discussed a string of emails between the Fort Hood shooter and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic cleric with ties to the 9/11 hijackers. The FBI had intercepted the messages starting almost a year before Hasan’s 2009 shooting rampage, and Mueller was asked whether “the bureau dropped the ball” by failing to act on this information. He didn’t flinch: “No, I think, given the context of the discussions and the situation that the agents and the analysts were looking at, they took appropriate steps.”

In the wake of the Fort Hood attacks, the exchanges between Awlaki and Hasan—who was convicted of murder on Friday—were the subject of intense speculation. But the public was given little information about these messages. While officials claimed that they were “fairly benign,” the FBI blocked then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s efforts to make them public as part of a two-year congressional investigation into Fort Hood. The military judge in the Hasan case also barred the prosecutor from presenting them, saying they would cause “unfair prejudice” and “undue delay.”

As it turns out, the FBI quietly released the emails in an unclassified report on the shooting, which was produced by an investigative commission headed by former FBI director William H. Webster last year. And, far from being “benign,” they offer a chilling glimpse into the psyche of an Islamic radical. The report also shows how badly the FBI bungled its Hasan investigation and suggests that the Army psychiatrist’s deadly rampage could have been prevented.

Much of the story deals with how the FBI bungled its handling of an investigation into a man who was openly asking Awlaki for permission to kill American soldiers. We get specifics about the bureaucratic mis-steps and failures. We learn from the article that “a group of more than 100 Fort Hood victims and victims’ relatives has filed suit claiming that the government’s ‘gross negligence’ and ‘reckless disregard’ for the lives of Fort Hood residents and staff paved the way for the tragedy.”

The emails themselves have some religious components and context that I do wish were further explored:

Meanwhile, Hasan kept writing Awlaki…

The San Diego field office intercepted these missives, too. But the database where the FBI stored intercepted emails didn’t automatically link messages from the same sender, so the staff didn’t realize that Hasan’s early 2009 emails were from the person who had set off alarms the previous December. Meanwhile, the Washington-based DCIS agent assigned to investigate Hasan put off his inquiry for another 90 days, the maximum allowed under joint task force rules, before conducting a cursory investigation. Over the course of four hours on May 27, 2009, he ran Hasan’s name through several databases to see if the psychiatrist had been targeted in previous counterterrorism probes. He also reviewed Hasan’s Pentagon personnel file. Hasan’s officer evaluations were mostly positive, and the chair of psychiatry at Walter Reed had written that Hasan’s research on Islamic beliefs regarding military service had “extraordinary potential to inform national policy and military strategy.”

The Senate investigation later found these reports “bore no resemblance to the real Hasan, a barely competent psychiatrist whose radicalization toward violent Islamist extremism alarmed his colleagues and his superiors.” Nevertheless, the DCIS investigator concluded, based on Hasan’s file, that the Army psychiatrist had contacted Awlaki in connection with his academic research and “was not involved in terrorist activity.” The DCIS investigator and a supervisory agent in the Washington field office debated interviewing Hasan or his superiors. They ultimately decided doing so could jeopardize the Awlaki investigation or harm Hasan’s career.

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Media obsession dangers: Pope and gay priests edition


Ermagerd, everybody! The Pope has renounced all church teaching on everything! Stop the presses! Start them again! Freak out!

That’s my impression of Twitter, online and broadcast and cable news today. From my morning read:

CBSNews: Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge” gay clergy? http://cbsn.ws/14dnXJD

BreakingNews: Pope Francis says he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation – @AP http://apne.ws/17Oyvw2

Raushenbush: Pope Francis on Gays: Who am I to judge them? http://huff.to/12xEA1z

DavidCraryAP: #PopeFrancis reaches out to gays, says he won’t judge gay priests http://bit.ly/16tTmDo  by @AP #LGBT #Catholic

Biggest news story of the day. And why, exactly, is this news? Everyone agrees it’s news, but why? It would be news if he was changing church teaching on whether homosexual acts are sin, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether sexually active gay men should be priests, for instance. It would be news if he were changing church teaching on whether strong homosexual tendencies are a barrier to ordination. And, to be honest, no matter what was said it would be news even if the word “homosexual” or “gay” were uttered by Pope Francis, since that’s all that the media really care about these days. What, specifically, is the news?

I was glad I read the Associated Press story first because, setting aside the headline and lede, it included the minor detail that Pope Francis did not depart from traditional church teaching on sin and homosexuality. That was a detail left absent from most every other report I read:

ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRCRAFT (AP) — Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference as he returned from his first foreign trip.

“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked.

His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.

Could we all pause to agree that this is the best dateline in the history of datelines?

The distinction being suggested here is clear — the Vatican in 2005 said that deep-rooted homosexual tendencies are a barrier to priesthood. Now the Pope says that if you a priest who confesses to sexual sin, you should be forgiven and your sin forgotten. But is this the contradiction or change of policy the media fervently pray it is? I’m not sure. The original document signed by Benedict was about the formation of priests — in no way was it about not forgiving ordained priests who have sinned — sexually or otherwise. Likewise, Francis isn’t referring (at least as far as what’s been published to this point) to the formation of priests but, rather, about forgiving clergy who have sinned sexually.

Anyway, note the last line “gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten.” What you’re seeing here is traditional Christian teaching both in terms of a clear understanding of what sin is and that sin is forgiven and forgotten. You can’t forgive, obviously, something which is not a sin. There would be no need to forgive and wipe away something that should be celebrated, right?

I’ve written before about how poorly the media understand forgiveness as a key Christian teaching. Yes, Christianity has for 2,000 years had an impossibly rigorous moral code that its adherents strive to follow. That these same adherents fail is not exactly news-breaking. It has been said that the life of the Christian is one of repentance. (To repent, by the way, means to turn away from. If one repents from a sin, that means they have turned away from the sin.) That the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about the forgiveness of these sins is — somehow, even after it has changed the hearts of billions of humans — the great under-covered story of those last few thousand years. Again, this forgiveness means something very little in a culture without sin. Thus, I guess, the confused stories coming out today.

One particularly bad story was out of USA Today, built off of an AP story:

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Painful silences in CBS chat on same-sex marriage rulings

OK, follow me carefully here, because it is especially interesting who passed the following item news along.

I read quite a few Catholic blogs, and follow the headlines at New Advent, but I had never heard of the self-proclaimed conservative Catholic blogger/geek who uses “Da Tech Guy” as his cyber-persona. However, this particular blogger recently offered up an interesting analysis of a not-so-shining moment in the long, distinguished career of reporter/anchor Bob Schieffer at CBS News.

More on the content of that post in a moment.

The key, for me, was that I learned about this post by seeing — via Twitter — a post by Deacon Greg Kandra, who runs the excellent “The Deacon’s Bench” blog, which is part of the whole Patheos Catholic blogosphere. The good deacon ran his post under this rather GetReligion-esque headline:

Great Moments in Journalism: Wherein Bob Schieffer Learns a Thing or Two About Gay Marriage

Now that’s a bit snarky, especially as a comment by a Catholic clergyman.

However, at that point it’s crucial to know a little bit about this deacon and his interests in all things journalism. His current online mini-bio hits the basics:

Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic deacon serving the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. A veteran broadcast journalist, Deacon Greg worked for 26 years as a writer and producer for CBS News in both New York and Washington. He now serves as the Multimedia Editor of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), overseeing editorial content for its acclaimed magazine, ONE, and its award-winning blog, ONE-TO-ONE. For his work in broadcasting, Deacon Greg has been honored with every major award in the industry, including two George Foster Peabody Awards, two Emmy Awards, the Christopher Award and four awards from the Writers Guild of America.

In other words, Kandra knows a thing or two about CBS News and what goes on in elite broadcast journalism organizations. Also, he made it clear, as he passed along the Schieffer item, that he was not trying to bash the journalist. Still, he thinks this particular broadcast offered sharp insights into the mindset of elites in this level of newsroom.

Now, Bob Schieffer is one of the most seasoned journalists still plying the trade — the only CBS News Correspondent to have covered the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Congress — and one of the few broadcasters who can claim deep roots in the world of print. (He was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram back in the day.) He’s a reporter’s reporter, with uncanny instincts, a Rolodex full of amazing sources, and a real talent for writing and interviewing.

I speak here from personal experience: he’s also a very nice guy.

This brings us back to the actual Da Tech Guy commentary, as passed along by the deacon. This is long, but includes transcribed material in italics from the Sunday broadcast:

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Media coverage of religious profiling

So tmatt has us all doing this experiment of reading a daily paper. I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper in a very long time. I used to get both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. Fifteen years and 2,000 miles later, I get the Washington Post. The thing that has struck me the most about this go around is how very, very, very thin the papers are. When did that happen? Some days’ editions are barely there!

And then what about what I found on Saturday, when I went to check on my St. Louis Cardinals? Not sure if you can tell in the picture, but the standings listed under “National League” were actually for the American League. Under American League? Also the American League standings!

It led my husband and me into a discussion about how part of the demise of newspapers has to be related to not wanting to pay for such mistakes. At least on the internet, when you come across typos and mistakes, you’re not paying for them!

But what about this mistake, from a recent Washington Post item on one of the early Boston bombing suspects:

The “easy-going, good humored” Saudi Arabian student who briefly became an object of intense suspicion after the Boston bombings broke two months of silence this week, telling The Islamic Monthly that media attention since the attacks “double injured” him.

The date for the story is May 24. The bombings took place April 15, right? So what’s this “two months” we’re talking about? I know it’s not a big deal, but mistakes such as this do affect reader engagement and trust.

The story sums up this interview of Abdulrahman Alharbi by The Islamic Monthly, which barely gets into religion. But I did notice this part:

TIM: In one account that I read it said that somebody saw you running and then they tackled you.

AA: No, no one arrested me, no one tackled me, no. All the people were trying to escape from what happened because they realized that there was something dangerous in the finish line.

I didn’t read that account so much as watch it. Here’s CBS News’ Jim Miller saying as much:

Now, to be fair, both Miller and the anchor emphasize that caution is needed when discussing these reports. But I’d absolutely love a follow-up. Did a citizen tackle this guy or not? If not, as he says, why did the FBI question him? Why did law enforcement remove bags from his apartment? Were they doing religious profiling? Was there more to it?

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Pod people: Forgiveness is such a simple word

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Forgiveness is such a simple word

But it’s so hard to do when you’ve been hurt 

The above lyrics from Kellie Pickler’s “I Wonder” provide a fitting introduction to this post.

On this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss forgiveness and media coverage of it. We focus on two recent GetReligion posts touching on that subject.

The first related to my critique of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story that opened this way:

STOVER, Mo. — Last Sunday, the Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation, speaking to them about forgiveness.

Smith read verses from the Gospel of Matthew that follow the Lord’s Prayer:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” he said.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The second concerned my critique of a CBS News report on someone forgiving someone else for — at least based on the news account — some unknown reason.

As my original post noted, that report contained a major ghost.

Also on the podcast, Wilken and I talk about my critique of a USA Today story on a business marketing its products using an R-rated word.

We recorded the podcast before the tragedy in Connecticut, so I was thinking more clearly than I am now. However, I did forget the question about three or four sentences into one long-winded reply — but please don’t tell Wilken!

Anyway, check out the podcast and hug your children.

Man prays in airplane aisle, for no particular reason

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.

That was my first reaction when I saw several versions of this bizarre little story from the tense world of airline travel, especially in the skies around Washington, D.C.

This is one of those cases in which I really need to ask GetReligion readers to look at the whole story. Trust me, this will not take long. This is all of the CBS News item.

DENVER – A United Airlines flight from Denver landed safely in Washington, D.C. after its crew declared an emergency, reportedly because a passenger began praying in an aisle.

According to KUSA-TV in Denver, the plane was escorted by military jets after the crew declared the emergency. The plane landed Thursday at Dulles International Airport.

The Denver TV station says the crew made the decision because a male passenger started praying in the middle of an aisle.

United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy says a passenger on flight 662 from Denver to Washington wasn’t following flight attendant instructions for landing.

What in the world is going on here?

I mean, it’s pretty easy to figure out what is going on in this incident. Readers are, I assume, supposed to figure out that a man prostrated in the aisle during one of the five periods in the day in which practicing Muslims are supposed to face Mecca and pray. This is not the only possible interpretation of what is going on, but it is the most logical explanation.

The question, for me, is why the reporter didn’t simply provide that information. Have we reached the point where people cannot mention Islam in connection with security-issue stories, even when that is a fact readers need to know to understand an event in the news? Surely Muslims would not be offended to know that this man was trying to pray.

And then there is the issue of the jet fighters. Did anyone else want to know, if the crew had enough time to call for military intervention, how long it took for this incident to unfold? Why not simply provide a few words that give that detail?

As a Baltimore-Washington area flyer, I also know that another factor almost certainly played a role in this case. Was the airplane flying into Reagan International? If so, passengers are required to stay in their seats for the final hour of the approach. Did this man, while trying to pray, violate that law? If so, why did he stay prostrated after finishing his prayers?

Or did he stay prostrated? I suspect that he began to pray in the aisle, then the crew ordered him to return to his seat. He refused to do so and, thus, they called for the fighter jets. It would have been nice to have known if the man voluntarily returned to his seat after completing his prayers.

All of these questions could have been answered in, oh, two sentences. Why not provide the basic details?


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