LATimes offers readers a simple, one-sided take on Vatican

Every niche website has a few “big ideas” that drive its work day after day. Any GetReligion reader knows — duh — that one of our big ideas is that the press often doesn’t see crucial religious themes and facts that are at the heart of important news stories. That’s the whole “ghost” concept that is explained in the essay published when we opened for business. If you never stopped to read that one, please do.

Another crucial concept for your GetReligionistas is that we are convinced that the “hotter” the story, the more a topic causes public division and debate, the more journalists should commit themselves to seeking out informed, qualified, representative voices on both sides. Of course, there are two sides or more, in many complex stories. This concept is central to what journalism textbooks would call the “American model of the press,” as opposed to the various forms of advocacy journalism in which the editors of publications openly slant their coverage to favor the editorial viewpoint that defines their newspaper.

That’s why it was so important when Bill Keller, days after he stepped down as New York Times editor, said the following in a public forum when he was asked if his newspaper slanted the news to the left:

“We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So what were the crucial “social” or moral values stories in American life during his tenure? And how about in the news today? Well, any list would have to include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other topics that, for a majority of Americans, are inevitably linked to religion.

That brings me to yet another mainstream journalism story in which editors appear to be totally comfortable publishing a one-side advocacy piece that offers zero content from informed voices on one side of a global debate.

Journalists in the audience: Raise your hands if you know that there are multiple camps in the Catholic Church today on issues related to sexuality? If you are breathing right now, your hand should be raised high.

So what are the editors of The Los Angeles Times trying to do in the piece that ran under this headline: “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions.”

Note the word “debate.” That implies that there are competing voices, correct?

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So divorced man says his new wife says the pope said ….

Well, there is no question that the buzz-worthy story of the day is the further adventures of the modern shepherd who is now being hailed as the Cold Call Pope.

Trust me, it would be easy to jump into the doctrinal implications of this story, because the stakes for the church and the papacy are very high. Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has already gone straight there:

Why is this such a big deal? Because if the pope himself told a Catholic to defy licit Catholic teaching on something as central to the faith as the Eucharist, the implications are enormous. To be sure, there are pastoral reasons why this mercy might be extended to people. “Father Bergoglio,” as the Pope reportedly identified himself on the call, might well have extended them. But the pontiff doing the same thing, and so casually, is potentially explosive. A pope simply can’t say, “Defy the church, don’t worry about it.” Well, he can say it, and he might have done; the papal spokesman declining to talk about it is hardly confidence-inspiring.

Meanwhile, I would like to try to focus on what GetReligion does — which is to look at the journalism element of this story. And what we see there is another side effect, in this 24/7 digital news age, of this pope’s highly personal approach to pastoral care. He wants to deal with people as a pastor — Father Bergoglio, indeed — instead of having to go through the numbing mechanisms of statecraft and lofty papal statements.

The problem, for journalists? This is highly newsworthy material and, well, journalists cannot listen in on these private pastoral calls. It’s like we are seeing white smoke above the Vatican and no one really knows where it came from or what it means.

The top of the CNN story is as good a place to start as any:

(CNN) – Pope Francis called an Argentine woman married to a divorced man and reportedly told her that she could receive the sacrament of Communion, according to the woman’s husband, in an apparent contradiction of Catholic law.

Julio Sabetta, from San Lorenzo in the Pope’s home country, said his wife, Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona, spoke with Francis on Monday.

OK, so the information isn’t even coming from Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona herself, with her offering her take on what she believes that the pope said to her (let’s hope she took careful notes). Instead, this information is coming through a man who is, to say the least, involved in this complicated situation — yet who did not hear the call at all.

That leads us to the alleged content of this call:

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Don’t divorce an NYT article from sharp reporting

It’s especially crucial for journalists to, well, GetReligion when the story is about a “get.”

That religious divorce paper — called a “get” — is important for traditional Jews, especially Jewish women. Without it, they cannot marry someone else under religious law. That gives ex-husbands a whip handle over the women — either to coax money or property out of them, or simply to spite them.

The New York Times made a brave attempt to explore the depths of Jewish law over this issue (this one has been in the GetReligion “guilt” file for a while), and the related question of how to remain faithful to it while serving the obvious needs of women. The newspaper’s in-depth article brings out some lesser-known facts, and it couches the women’s dilemma in wrenching terms. But like such marriages themselves, the story doesn’t end well.

It opens with one of those spiteful husbands, Meir Kin, showing some chutzpah in a Las Vegas wedding, although he never gave previous wife Lonna a religious divorce. He’s holding the get hostage for $500,000 and custody of their son. Observers disparage the event, but the article suggests he just may get away with it:

Jewish law prohibits men from taking multiple wives. But Mr. Kin, according to several rabbis here, apparently relied on a legal loophole, which says that if a man can get the special permission of 100 rabbis to take a second wife, he is able to do so.

The case has become a powerful symbol for what activists say is a deepening crisis among Orthodox Jews — hundreds of women held hostage in a religious marriage, in some cases for years after civil cases have been settled. According to the intricate religious laws dictating marriage and divorce, only the husband has the power to grant a divorce.

“What has happened here is really shameful,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp, who drove from Los Angeles to protest the wedding, along with other rabbis and congregants from Orthodox synagogues there. “Not only is he in clear violation of Jewish law, but he is utilizing and corrupting Jewish law to commit cruel domestic abuse.”

The Times fluidly narrates Mrs. Kin’s efforts to get Meir to sign off on the marriage, even waiting until he filed a civil divorce and made plans to remarry. And as the newspaper explains, there are Jewish courts to resolve such issues, but Meir Kin apparently hasn’t approached one.

Props to the newspaper for getting emotional quotes from Lonna Kin. Comments like “I am chained to a dead marriage” and “He’s basically a bigamist, and basically, I’m just stuck.” It’s also a lesson about shutting out the media: Meir Kin declined comment, allowing Lonna’s quotes to stand unchallenged.

All this happened in Vegas but won’t stay in Vegas. As the Times reports: “Traditionally, Jewish communities relied on the threat of ostracism to persuade a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a divorce, but many say the threat became far less potent as these communities opened and spread out.”

But in documenting the problem, the story starts feeling squishy. The Times tells of a congressional aide who withheld a divorce, and a New Jersey rabbi who is accused of arranging the “kidnap and torture” of such men. But for some reason, in neither case are names, dates or places mentioned. And the newspaper should have tried to find out how many women are affected by men withholding a get: an estimate of “hundreds” of women is awfully vague.

The fuzziness even invades some quotes from authorities:

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Breaking news (again): Bible Belt divorce rates high

News travels fast. Sometimes.

In 1999, The Associated Press reported on Bible Belt states battling the highest divorce rates in the nation.

As religion editor of The Oklahoman in 2002, I wrote a series of stories on Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating’s effort to reduce my home state’s No. 2-in-the-nation divorce rate.

Nearly a decade later, CNN became the latest to report that — surprise, surprise — D-I-V-O-R-C-E is a problem in the red states.

Just last week, I referenced Oklahoma’s high divorce rate again in analyzing coverage of a federal judge striking down the Sooner State’s ban on same-sex marriage. However, I added:

But lest anyone jump to the easy conclusion that there’s no difference between people sitting in the pews and everyone else when it comes to divorce, be sure to read Religion Newswriters Association president Bob Smietana’s recent Facts & Trends piece on “bad stats.”

So why do I bring up all of the above one more time?

Because the Los Angeles Times just published a story on a new study examining the issue:

Divorce is higher among religiously conservative Protestants – and even drives up divorce rates for other people living around them, a new study finds.

The study, slated to be published in the American Journal of Sociology, tackles the “puzzling paradox” of why divorce is more common in religiously conservative “red” states. If religious conservatives believe firmly in the value of marriage, why is divorce especially high in places like Alabama and Arkansas?

To figure that out, researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Iowa analyzed county divorce statistics against information from an earlier study of religious congregations. They categorized Protestant denominations that believe the Bible is literally true as “conservative Protestants.”

Researchers discovered that higher divorce rates among conservative Protestants were tied to earlier marriages and childbearing – factors known to ramp up divorce. Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages, University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer Glass said.

Unfortunately, the Times story is shallow (less than 500 words) and relies on stereotypes:

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Reuters skips a key detail in Israel’s wedding wars — divorce

Everybody loves a wedding, or so culture would have us believe. However, according to a report from the Reuters news agency, not every Israeli likes the wedding options available in that country:

For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married — God’s way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel’s most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licenses in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them. Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

I can’t say, for certain, how long this has been going on. However, I seem to recall that over the past decade, at least, I’ve heard stories from Israelis about booking a flight to Turkey or elsewhere to have a civil wedding, so as not to be under the thumb of the Orthodox hierarchy.

The reasons for avoiding this range from the couple themselves being secular (many, if not most, Israelis are) to not wanting the burden of “proving” their Jewishness to the rabbis’ satisfaction to, well, let’s return to the third potential reason in a moment.

Here’s some more explanation from the Reuters account:

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad — even in a non-religious ceremony — outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

[Secular Pilates instructor Stav] Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

And, Reuters notes, there are entire other communities in Israel for whom an Orthodox-sanctioned marriage is just not possible:

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An ultra-Orthodox case that is anything but

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It’s not about religion.

So said Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Joseph Gribko in a story that USA Today published Friday regarding a divorce sting.

Only, this particular divorce sting was spearheaded by an undercover FBI agent posing as a Jewish Orthodox wife trying to obtain a “get,” or religious divorce decree, from her fictitious and uncooperative husband. And she allegedly was charged up to $100,000 for the brutal means necessary — handcuffs, electric cattle prods — to obtain it. Ten were arrested, including two rabbis.

Yeah, it’s about religion.

Orthodox Judaism is the most conservative of the three major branches of Judaism and strictly adheres to traditional teachings and acceptance of Jewish principles of faith and law. In the matter of divorce, Jewish law requires a husband to present a get to his wife in order to be issued a divorce, citing Deuteronomy 24:1-2:

“When a man marries a woman or possesses her, if she is displeasing to him …, he shall write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thus releasing her from his household. When she thus leaves his household, she may go and marry another man.”

The story also has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Daily NewsCNN’s Belief Blog and The Associated Press, among other outlets. In other words, it’s getting a lot of attention.

Who does the best job of explaining the complexities of the issue and exploring the case?

That depends on whether you’re an expert on Orthodox Judaism (I’m not) or an interested reader (I am).

The Times excels at providing the pertinent facts but also some context and a timeline. It was the only story that layered in enough history to help readers understand why the FBI became involved  after years of claims by those in the ultra-Orthodox community. It also best addressed the clash of religious versus civil law:

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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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What about those prayers for Dwyane Wade’s pains?

Greetings, GetReligion sports fans. Anyone who has been following the news lately knows that the ageless San Antonio Spurs, the heroes of red-zip-code America, face a seventh and deciding NBA Finals game tonight against the Miami Heat, a team symbolizes evil for millions of fans from coast to coast.

While much of the saturation-level media attention focuses — naturally — on superstar LeBron James, people who have actually been following the series closely know that one of the keys to the outcome will be the health of Dwyane Wade.

This brings me to a interesting story in the pre-Finals issue of Sports Illustrated, a feature that ran under the headline, “Dwyane Wade’s Knee Has A Cold.”

At the heart of this fine article are two painful subjects and two sets of prayers.

First of all, the superstar guard’s right knee has been held together for weeks with grit and tape. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Miami tends to win when the knee is functioning.

And the prayer involved in that?

So maybe that’s why no one blinked the first time Dwyane Wade’s mother begged God to heal his right knee. … Last month, after Miami had beaten the Bulls in Wade’s hometown of Chicago to go up 3-1 in their second-round playoff series, he hobbled into the postgame crush of family and friends at the United Center. His knee had collided with the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler during the second quarter, leaving Wade crumpled on the sideline, and retaping it didn’t help much. He finished with six points, hit just three field goals. His mother was in mid-sentence with someone else when she heard him yell.

“Ma!” Wade said. “Come and touch my knee and pray on it.”

Jolinda Wade — 58 years old, a former drug addict who lost her family, went to prison, reformed and is now a minister — walked over to her son, bent down and placed her hand on a knee. She rubbed it and asked for it to be healed. She didn’t think she did a very good job. In truth, Jolinda was surprised Dwyane had even asked. “He had never done that openly, loud, in front of everybody before,” she says.

Now, that is pretty much all readers learn about Wade’s mother and her ministry and I would argue that, “she asked for it to be healed” is a rather poor effort to capture that moment in words. And then there is the statement: “She didn’t think she did a very good job.” Is that what she really said?

It’s pretty easy — takes about five seconds — to find out that Jolinda Wade is actually the Rev. Jolinda Wade, senior pastor of a flock known as the New Creation Binding and Loosing Ministries International of Chicago. It would only have taken a sentence or two to give readers a sense of what she actually said — there are no direct quotes linked to these healing prayers — and what role Christian faith plays in her relationship with her son.

Well, you know, those African-American folks are so spiritual. There’s no content to all of that worth covering, of course. That’s just the way they are, you know?

Readers are given this:

When she was finished, she said he should be prepared to be mystified; God likes confounding man by fixing the unfixable. “You’ve just got to believe that this knee’s going to be healed,” she said. “It’s going to mess you up when it’s healed; it’s going to mess the doctors up; it’s going to mess people up. But you’re fixing to have a supernatural healing on that knee.”

But there’s more. As it turns out, the biggest crisis covered in this article — Dwyane Wade’s tabloid-material divorce — leads straight to another reference to prayer, and they are prayers linked to a subject with more spiritual and cultural significance than his knee.

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