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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Yes, Pope Francis said: All are ‘redeemed!’ Is that news?

Let’s start with the actual words spoken by Pope Francis, in his much quoted, and often warped, sermon on Mark 9:38-40 and the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming all of creation, including the people in it.

The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. …

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!

OK, here is what that turned into once it reached the cyber-pages of The Huffington Post, with this dramatic headline:

Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed By Jesus As Well As Catholics, Pope Francis Says

Pope Francis has delivered a homily in which he states atheists who do good are redeemed through Jesus.

Speaking at the Wednesday morning Mass in his Rome residence, he told the story of a Catholic who asked a priest if even atheists were saved by Christ.

In the unprepared speech, he emphasized the importance of “doing good” as a principle which unites all humanity.

OK, what we have here is two crucial doctrinal concepts that have been jammed into a journalistic blender.

First of all, the pope is talking about “redemption” and he notes, of course, that Jesus Christ died and was raised and, as the Orthodox like to say, has thus “trampled down death by death.”

So all of creation has been redeemed. The issue whether everyone in that creation manages, through grace, to accept the reality of this redemption. At that point, the key term is not “redemption,” but “salvation.” And who is saved, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ? Those who have embraced that redemption.

For another take on this, consider the following — the blunt take offered by the famous/infamous theologian Stephen Colbert at the end of his classic showdown with scholar Philip Zimbardo, author of “The Lucifer Effect”. By all means, click right here for the full video. Meanwhile, here’s the key exchange:

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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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