C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors

Here’s a dirty little secret that reporters don’t want you to know. When writing the back story or filler for a news item, we often rely on our knowledge of a topic to flesh out a story.

While some newspapers used to boast that they fact-checked every statement before releasing a story to a waiting world, that degree of rigor has disappeared. Budgets cuts have reduced editorial staff who were once tasked with cleaning up stories, while at the same time more copy is demanded of writers at a faster pace.

Factual errors happen for many reasons. Reporters mishear or misread things, sources are misinformed, story subjects lie and other reporters try to trip you up. I am not as familiar with American media culture as I am with the British — but I have been led astray by my peers and I in turn have been less than helpful to others. And I have produced howlers that still haunt my dreams.

Often a mistake will not be caught — allowing a graceful correction in the next issue buried beneath the candle ads. But there are some topics that most reporters know not to mess with  — items that are part of our collective memory, or items memorized by fanatics. Woe to he who mangles a Star Trek or Monty Python quote.

Religion News Service dropped a brick (several in fact) in its article entitled “Fifty years later, C.S. Lewis’ legacy shines in US, not his homeland”, making mistakes of fact that fans of Lewis would spot in an instant.

The article begins:

When he died on Nov. 22, 1963 hardly a soul blinked in Northern Ireland where he was born or in England where he spent most of his working life as one of the world’s greatest Christian apologists.

Clive Staples Lewis was a week short of 65 when he suffered a heart attack at his home in Oxford. The obituary writers barely noticed his demise, in part because he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

British indifference to Lewis half a century ago will be examined at a one-day seminar at Wheaton College on Nov. 1, co-sponsored by the Marion E. Wade Center, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and Wheaton College’s Faith and Learning program.

Not much to worry about so far — save for the fact the conference was not about “British indifference to Lewis.” The circular for the conference states it will examine the “Oxford don’s influential presence within American culture. ” In other words, the conference will discuss not why Lewis has not caught on in the UK, but why he is so popular in America. There is a difference.

Dropping into the filler of this piece — where RNS gives a biography of Lewis — we see these statements.

Shattered by [his mother's] death, Lewis abandoned his inherited faith at the age of 15 and threw himself into a study of mythology and the occult. …

His conversion to Christianity was slow and laborious. Reluctantly, he fell under the influence of Oxford colleague and friend J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, who met every Tuesday morning at a local public house in Oxford and formed a debating club called ”Inklings.” …

Tolkien and Chesterton were disappointed that their new convert turned towards the Church of England, not Rome. …

C.S. Lewis went on to write acclaimed books about Christianity — “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Space Trilogy,” “Mere Christianity,” “Miracles and The Problem of Pain” — the latter written after he watched his American Jewish wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, die of bone cancer in 1960.

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Got news? The hidden mystery of 60K Christians

Of all the interesting things to consider as a media critic, the most important is probably story choice. We frequently look at individual stories and praise them or criticize them or point out interesting errors or omissions. But such an approach misses that big initial question of how story selection colors our understanding of the world more than anything else.

I’m reminded of the G.K. Chesterton quote about the matter:

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

And this is, typically, how it should be — for the obvious reasons stated above. I might say to myself every time I take a flight, “I’m hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour in a steel tube with wings!” — but I prefer my newspapers to report on crashes as opposed to safe landings. Journalism doesn’t paint anything close to an accurate picture of our modern existence but much obligation is with the reader/viewer to understand why that is.

And yet sometimes this minority view is taken to an extreme. We see failures (of imagination or otherwise) when it comes to covering the holidays religious adherents celebrate. We see that conservative and traditional people are ignored even more than they’re dismissed. Every trend, no matter how weakly substantiated, is feted — for a few months at least — while the consistent practices are hidden.

I think that is part of the explanation for why most mainstream media failed to even notice that some 60,000 young Christians were gathered in Atlanta in recent days for a large evangelical conference called Passion 2013.

It was trending on Twitter every time I checked (also, Carrie Underwood and other celebrities were tweeting about it) and we had more than a few readers ask us to critique the coverage of the event. For instance, here’s reader Joshua Little calling us out on Twitter:

It would be awesome to see a GR piece about the nonexistent coverage of #passion2013 in Atl. Just sayin’

Quite a few evangelical people noticed the absence of any coverage — including prominent folks who emailed us to note it. We discussed this weekend Dan Gilgoff’s view that conservatives are wrong to say that there is an anti-religion bias in the media. I encouraged journalists to think about why people might sense a hostility or ambivalence toward religious adherents. This might be a good example.

OK, with the caveat that it wasn’t entirely nonexistent — WSB Radio, WXIA-TV, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN (blog) joined Christianity Today, Christian Post and Christian Broadcasting Network in noticing the conference — it was remarkably undercovered. You can see the whole gamut of coverage here was limited to Christian and local press.

Surely we can find stories in a crowd of 60,000 college students and young adults. Surely there’s something interesting about what they heard or saw, what they discussed. Surely it would be interesting to look at who critiqued the conference. Surely there’s something worth just noticing about evangelical young adults gathered at this moment.

If this had been 60,000 people gathered under a different banner, we would have coverage, right? Heck, if this had been even close to 60 emergent Christians, or feminist Mormons or LGBQT Methodist clergy we would have seen quite a bit of coverage — if the past is any indication. Now, obviously this all relates back to the Chesterton quote — some things are more newsworthy than others. But just how many evangelicals do you have to get together for it to be worth covering?