Tears and prayers on camera: Did NBC want the full Oprah?

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Anyone who has watched television coverage of tense, painful events has seen it happen. This is especially true of news events that can, in any way, accurately be described as “disasters.”

Years ago, I had a conversation with the late Peter Jennings about what happens next on camera:

Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence.

“Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’”

In other words, the person caught up in this panful event did not give the kind of answer that was being sought by the interviewer. Often, Jennings said, the person gives an answer that is rooted in religious faith — a factor that many media superstars fail to take seriously.

But, just as often, the person who has experienced pain or some great lose gives a rather straightforward and dignified answer. At that point the interviewer asks another question that, for media critics, has come to live in infamy. If the person on camera continues to hold his or her emotional act together, then the interviewer starts asking, over and over, variations on this basic question: How. Do. You. Feel. Right. Now.

That’s what is being debated right now, of course, in all of the social-media chatter about the media ethics involved in the infamous interview (see the YouTube at the top of this post) with Olympics skier Bode Miller that was conducted by Chirstin Cooper of NBC Sports. At the heart of this grab-the-viewer scene, of course, is the lingering grief caused by the recent death of his 29-year-old brother, snowboarder Chelone “Chilly” Miller. Here’s one transcript of the key moment in this on-air drama:

Miller: “This [medal] was a little different. I think, you know, my brother passing away — I really wanted to come back here and race the way he sensed it. So this was a little different.”

Cooper: “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?”

Miller: “A lot, obviously. Just a long struggle coming in here. Just a though year.”

Cooper: “I know you wanted to be here with Chilly really experiencing these Games. How much does it mean to come with a great performance for him, or was it for him?”

[Miller began to cry.]

Miller: “It’s just a tough year. I don’t know if it’s really for him. I just wanted to come here and, I don’t know, I guess make myself proud.”

Cooper: “When you’re looking up in the sky at the start … it just looks like you’re talking to somebody, what’s going on there?”

As I have already hinted, these push-for-tears questions tend, as a rule, to make me go rather crazy.

However, there is the chance that this is the rare case in which the interviewer was not only pushing for a tear-soaked TV visual, but for a quote that somehow involved (a) God, (b) the skier’s brother, (c) heaven or (d) all of the above.

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Pod people: Stopping in again at the Death Café

Pull thoughts and words from my head and form sentences with them on a screen? No problem.

Speak into the air for those interested to hear? A little more of a challenge.

Yet this week my number came up; it was my first turn at the mic for GetReligion’s “Crossroads” podcast.

I chair-danced while the introductory music played. I tried to answer host Todd Wilken’s questions honestly and succinctly while adding the insight he asked. I prayed silently throughout that my daughter’s small, white pet rabbit sitting next to me wouldn’t start loudly munching on the wicker basket in the corner.

I’m told these things become easier with time and practice — not to mention professional voice coaching, a dialect makeover and a stint living somewhere outside the proverbial Bible Belt.

Pour yourself a cup of coffee first, though, because we’re stopping in again at the Death Café. In summary, I wanted to order up an item that wasn’t on the menu: any real spiritual discussion related to death, the destination of souls or thoughts about the afterlife.

I enjoyed reader FW Ken’s take on the subject and appreciated his thoughts on the journalistic questions I raised:

Finally got around to reading the article, and I’m here to tell you, is hard to take seriously a program called a Death Cafe. It sounds like a Deathmetal eatery. Maybe like that one in Chicago serving unconsecrated hosts on a burger.

Mulling over the critique that the article lacks substantive discussion of the afterlife, I would be fearful of such a discussion going in the circles illustrated in the comments on this thread. I can’t imagine that such a cheerful program would allow such theoretical discussions, but it would be nice to know if they happen, and how they are handled.

We also looked back at a BBC installment in its series on kindness regarding Keshia Thomas, an anti-KKK protester at a KKK rally that took a dangerous turn when a white supremacist was spotted in the anti-KKK section. Thomas said her instinct to shield the supremacist with her body was born of faith, and that she felt like angels were picking her up and placing her across him to protect him. The follow-up questions about her spiritual background and religious convictions were nil, however.

I haven’t seen a retrospective of this 1996 rally that has done Thomas’ story justice, but I’m still looking. I’m sure it will be a good one, if a reporter is willing to really listen to her replies and delve into the answer as to why she kept this man from being harmed that day.

Enjoy the show, and remember I’m the rookie around these parts!

No chat about afterlife inside death cafés?

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We’ve been doing death, so to speak, at my house the last few weeks — working through the aftermath, talking about grief, that sort of thing. So I immediately was drawn to an Associated Press piece highlighting end-of-life discussions taking place in informal settings throughout the U.S. and in major cities worldwide.

Death Cafés, they call them:

It can be tough to get a conversation going if you want to talk about the late stages of dementia, your last will and testament or the recent passing of your mother.

Boy, is it ever, let me tell you. Especially if a heart attack was involved. It makes everyone think twice about eating the cocktail weiners, too

I digress …

“When you’re at a cocktail party and you lead off by saying, ‘What do you think about death?’ it’ll be, ‘C’mon, man, it’s a party! Chill out!’ says Len Belzer, a retired radio host from New York.

Belzer is among a growing number of people around the world who are interested enough in death to gather in small groups in homes, restaurants and churches to talk about it.

The gatherings, known as Death Cafés, provide places where death can be discussed comfortably, without fear of violating taboos or being mocked for bringing up the subject.

Organizers say that there’s no agenda other than getting a conversation started — and that talking about death can help people become more comfortable with it and thereby enrich their lives.

AP takes us inside one such gathering in New York City, where a group of six asks questions, laughs and eats biscotti while chatting about their eventual demises or those of others they’ve known.

This is all well and good. And I imagine the biscotti was homemade and the tea was steamy and the weather was nice and cool. But isn’t there something missing? Oh yes, the afterlife. The hope. The eternal aspect of a soul that continues on. The part that really matters.

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Kleenex alert: Tale of tragedy, irony and Christianity

It’s not every day that an obituary of a non-celebrity appears above the fold on a major daily newspaper’s front page. Rarer still is the mention, nay prominence, of a faith story unfolding within.

Bryan Marquard, veteran obit writer for the Boston Globe, no doubt did a double take when news of a young couple dying within 46 hours of each other crossed his desk. Marquard began making phone calls, and the result is a poignant piece about life, love and mortality — and an admirable incorporation of symbolic details about the couple’s Seventh-day Adventist backgrounds.

The lede sets the tone nicely:

When Neil Carruthers married Tina Nedelcu three years ago, he knew her funeral might arrive sooner than either wanted. She had already been treated for brain cancer, and had learned anew to talk and walk and coax her lovely voice to sing again in church.

For some, illness puts love on hold. Not Neil. “He said, ‘Mom, you don’t marry someone for their pedigree and you don’t marry them for their health history,’” his mother, Rosanne, recalled. “He told me, ‘Mom, whatever time we have, I want to spend with her.’”

As it turned out, Neil Carruthers had two days less to spend with his bride than either might have imagined. The husband/caregiver collapsed after leaving her bedside and died hours later; the cause of death is still pending an autopsy report. Tina Carruthers succumbed to cancer. Their families eulogized both at a joint service Sept. 28 at their congregation, the Stoneham Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church.

In this story, readers are taken on a journey through Neil Carruthers’ early years at what Marquard labeled a Christian primary school and a Christian university (both of which I discovered online were, more precisely, Seventh-day Adventist institutions), his antics at a Seventh-day Adventist summer camp and how they found each other online at an Adventist dating website. We’re given a glimpse of their heartbreak, with Neil Carruthers reading highlighted passages of scripture from Tina Carruthers’ Bible out loud to her after she lost the ability to speak. And there’s this faith gem, too:

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A non-journalistic flight to heaven and back

In the past week of so, I have received a number of requests for a GetReligion news critique of the Newsweek cover story that ran under the grabber headline: “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife.” The problem, of course, is that this cover story by Dr. Eben Alexander is a perfect example of a larger trend, which is the flight of America’s major news magazines away from actual news coverage and into the world of first-person, advocacy, experiential writing.

Please note that this particular feature focuses on a subject that remains highly newsworthy, even after decades of books and chatter about evidence that near-death experiences can in some way be documented and/or investigated. This trend has affected popular culture, pop religion, journalism, etc., etc.

Clearly, millions of Americans are intrigued with this subject, while others merely groan, curse or shake their heads.

I have been reading up on this topic for a quarter of a century or so and, if this subject interests you, please surf around a bit in the contents of this Google search. Pay special attention to references to the stricken “looking down” from above their bodies and retaining information about objects they could not possibly have seen with their own eyes.

So there is news content here. There are voices on both sides of these debates with information and arguments to share. There are theologians and religious/cultural historians who will gladly debate the implications of the experiences that resuscitated people claim to have had during NDE events.

But do not look for this material in the Newsweek cover story. This is a non-journalistic feature that raises all kinds of questions that journalists could investigate — if they have the will to do so.

Instead, readers are given prose such as the following:

Although I still had little language function, at least as we think of it on earth, I began wordlessly putting questions to this wind, and to the divine being that I sensed at work behind or within it.

Where is this place?

Who am I?

Why am I here?

Each time I silently put one of these questions out, the answer came instantly in an explosion of light, color, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave. What was important about these blasts was that they didn’t simply silence my questions by overwhelming them. They answered them, but in a way that bypassed language. Thoughts entered me directly. But it wasn’t thought like we experience on earth. It wasn’t vague, immaterial, or abstract. These thoughts were solid and immediate — hotter than fire and wetter than water — and as I received them I was able to instantly and effortlessly understand concepts that would have taken me years to fully grasp in my earthly life.

I continued moving forward and found myself entering an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting. Pitch-black as it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me. The orb was a kind of “interpreter” between me and this vast presence surrounding me. It was as if I were being born into a larger world, and the universe itself was like a giant cosmic womb, and the orb (which I sensed was somehow connected with, or even identical to, the woman on the butterfly wing) was guiding me through it.

Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself. “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness …”

This is interesting material to quote in a serious cover story on this topic. However, this passage is — in effect — drawn from the “fact paragraph” material in this report. It’s contents cannot be discussed by others or debated. There are no sidebar articles accompanying this feature written by skeptics — secular or religious (such as this reaction piece, predictably, by Sam Harris).

And in the end, what does all of this mean? Well, Dr. Alexander is not shy:

Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself.

But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.

This new picture of reality will take a long time to put together. It won’t be finished in my time, or even, I suspect, my sons’ either. In fact, reality is too vast, too complex, and too irreducibly mysterious for a full picture of it ever to be absolutely complete. But in essence, it will show the universe as evolving, multi-dimensional, and known down to its every last atom by a God who cares for us even more deeply and fiercely than any parent ever loved their child.

How does one critique this kind of material as journalism?


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