The curious incident of the Catholic school in the L.A. Times

In one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Silver Blaze, the clue that led to identifying the criminal was a dog that didn’t bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” ask the Chief of Police.

“Yes—to the curious incident of the dog in the night time.”

“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes, “Ah—that was the curious incident.”

In the media’s coverage of religion, we often stumble upon these “curious incidents” when something that should have happened doesn’t happen—and shapes an entire story.

Consider, for example, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times on the “Gay teacher at Glendora Catholic school fired after marrying partner.” The teacher, Ken Bencomo, was fired by the school “after he married his partner of 10 years” and the photos of the ceremony were published in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Bencomo doesn’t comment in the story, but allows his attorney, Patrick McGarrigle, to speak on his behalf.

Take a look at this section and see if you notice anything unusual:

On multiple occasions over the year, McGarrigle said, Bencomo has introduced Persky as his partner to administrators at school events.
In a statement released through an attorney, the school said it is “a community of faith for those who wish to express, practice and adhere to values in education based on the Roman Catholic tradition.”

“While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values,” the statement reads. “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees.”

Bencomo hopes to resolve the situation without legal action, but he has not ruled out filing a lawsuit, McGarrigle said.

“The school went to the draconian measure of firing him without warning and without legal reason,” he said. “They haven’t expressed any interest in finding a way for Ken to return.”

Is there any point, dear reader, to which I would wish to draw your attention? Indeed, to the curious incident of the omission of the reporter in reporting the “contractual obligations.”
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Time out for all California sexual-abuse cases?

It’s time for a quick dip into tmatt’s massive file of GetReligion guilt, the cyber-place in which I stash stories that I really wanted to critique, but other things (papal visits, health issues, my own travel, etc.) jumped in the way.

In this case, we’re talking about a Los Angeles Times report about the ongoing legal wars linked to one of the most painful subjects — ever — on the religion-news beat. I am referring to the waves of scandal in the Catholic church over the past quarter century linked to the sexual abuse of children and, in the vast majority of cases, teen-agers.

This story is, on one crucial point, somewhat better than many mainstream reports (but I’m afraid that isn’t saying much).

It’s a bit better, but I still think that one very crucial piece of information needed to go much higher in the text.

The subject of this report is a familiar one for those who closely follow the scandals. Here’s the all-to-familiar opening of the story:

At the height of the clergy sex-abuse scandal in 2002, Catholic leaders stayed silent as California lawmakers passed a landmark bill that gave hundreds of accusers extra time to file civil lawsuits. The consequences were costly.

California dioceses paid $1.2 billion in settlements and released thousands of confidential documents that showed their leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, had made plans to shield admitted molesters from law enforcement.

Now, state legislators are considering a bill that would give some alleged victims more time to sue. But this time, the church is waging a pitched battle in Sacramento to quash it.

So, this raises an important question: Does the church have a logical reason to fight this particular bill, other than a presumed desire to avoid justice and to save lots of money?

As it turns out, there is a reason and it’s the same reason discussed in other parts of the country over the years. The content of the church’s objections made it into this particular story, which is good since — believe it or not — I have seen news reports that completely ignored that perspective.

So what is the logic? Ah, there is the issue. The information comes rather slowly.

Right up top, readers learn this:

Opponents argue that the bill unfairly opens the church, the Boy Scouts and other private and nonprofit employers to lawsuits over decades-old allegations that are tough to fight in court. Two bishops have visited the Capitol to argue their case to the bill’s chief author.

So, why is the bill called “unfair”?

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Results vary as media follow Rick Warren’s return

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Over the weekend, Rick Warren returned to the pulpit for the first time since his son’s suicide nearly four months ago.

This made national headlines — and rightly so.

The coverage that I saw ranged from weak to adequate to truly exceptional.

On the weak side, the Los Angeles Times did a bare bones report that seemed to scream: “Just going through the motions! Nothing to see here! Move along!”

The full extent of the Times’ coverage from inside Saddleback Church:

Rick Warren, bestselling author and pastor of an evangelical mega church in Orange County, preached for the first time on Sunday after his son’s suicide.

Matthew Warren, 27, shot himself in the head in April following a long struggle with mental illness.

On Sunday, his father appeared in jeans and a black T-shirt in front of an estimated 10,000 congregants at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest and vowed to fight prejudice against people with mental illnesses.

“It’s amazing to me that any other organ in your body can break down and there’s no shame and stigma to it,” Warren said. “But if your brain breaks down you’re supposed to keep it a secret.”

For those paying attention, the “Sunday” in the Times’ lede might seem strange (which is a nice way of saying “downright inaccurate”). Other media, after all, reported that Saddleback has five weekend worship services, and that Warren began preaching at them Saturday afternoon.

On the adequate side, that’s how I’d characterize The Associated Press’ report on Warren’s return to the pulpit.

AP’s story seems to provide all the relevant facts, including this section:

In the sermon, first in a series called “How To Get Through What You’re Going Through,” Rick Warren said he had the perfect role model for his struggles.

“God knows what it’s like to lose a son,” Warren said.

He remained mostly composed, but choked back tears at times, including when he thanked his surviving two children.

Obviously, that direct quote refers to Jesus’ death on the cross. Here’s my question: Should the AP specify that? Or is it OK to assume that most readers know what he’s talking about?

On the truly exceptional side, check out this report from Time magazine writer Elizabeth Dias, whose specialties include religion coverage.

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Zeleny’s questions: 3 on shoes, 3 on catheters, 0 on abortion

Earlier this week, we discussed the six questions that ABC News’ reporter Jeff Zeleny asked of State Sen. Wendy Davis in the interview that aired on “This Week” on Sunday. We’ve been pointing out the problems in this religion ghost-soaked topic for years. Over the past week, those problems have been demonstrated in the softball interviews and coverage of Davis.

Zeleny took a bit of heat for the nature of his questions and inability to ask a single question (much less good question) about abortion, which is what the legislation under debate in Texas relates to, as the pro-choice protesters here demonstrate. That takes work in six questions. But today Zeleny proudly released a lengthier version of the interview.

A longer cut of our Wendy Davis interview, where we ask about her past, future — and yes, her catheter. http://yhoo.it/16LxnJ5 #PowerPlayers

Somehow, it’s even more obsequious than the initial interview. It’s downright shameful, in fact, how unborn children never make an appearance in this interview, much less the views born Texans hold on abortion. You can watch it here, and it could be used unaltered as a campaign or fundraising video. These are things no journalist should ever aim for.

I went ahead and transcribed the portions Jeff Zeleny spoke, which we’ll look at below. He introduced the piece and concluded it and had 18 questions or statements to which Davis responded. Please note the three shoe questions, the three catheter questions and the zero abortion questions:

Welcome to the fine print. I’m Jeff Zeleny Today we’re in Ft. Worth, Texas at the Stage West Theater having a conversation with State Sen. Wendy Davis, rising democratic star at the center of the abortion debate here in Texas.

(1) Senator. Thank you very much for joining us.

(2) So A week ago, no one knew State Sen Wendy Davis outside of Ft. Worth, now you’ve become a national and international name.

(3) Why did you decide to wear your running shoes. Let’s take a look at those. They’ve kind of been rocketing around the internet.

(4) These are the shoes now, probably the most famous shoes in politics. And is this a pink?

(5) But you’re also a runner. These are legitimate running shoes.

(6) How did you handle the personal side of this?

(7) With a catheter, is that right?

(8) I apologize for my rudeness. But I think I read in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram that you came prepared for …

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Media: Remember your filibuster? That was awesome.

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The media gushing over Texas filibusterer Sen. Wendy Davis continues in such a way as to make Chris Farley, above, seem restrained. Davis is the woman who has halted, at least for the time being, a bill that would require Texas abortion clinics to have the same standards other ambulatory surgery centers are required to have. It would also prohibit, with some exceptions, the killing of children who had reached five or more months’ gestation. And the bill would also require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, in case of an emergency.

There are so very many fascinating things to look at, particularly in the context of the tremendous and notorious difficulty the mainstream media has had covering various problems at abortion clinics, including convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell’s abortion “house of horrors,” Texas’ own alleged killer of babies born alive, Douglas Karpen, and clinics around the country.

Let’s go over various media coverage of this religion ghost-haunted, hot-button story. One important thing to keep in mind is that this is not a forum for discussing abortion or doctrinal views on abortion or particular legislation about abortion. You are welcome to have your strongly held opinions on those matters and you are welcome to have those discussions — just not here. We keep discussions focused on media coverage.The goal is to see if the mainstream press can present the views of people on both sides of this debate in an accurate and balanced manner. It’s called journalism.

If you are interested in media coverage, in basic journalism, please join in the discussion.

OK, so first off, the Associated Press’s initial story (or headline), which actually was wrong, framed the debate word-for-word as did the pro-choice activists opposing the bill do.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republicans pass new restrictions expected to close almost every abortion clinic in Texas.

This one-sentence off the wire was updated, of course, but the framing remained the same, if the hyperbole was somewhat softened, throughout mainstream media accounts. Almost invariably we got the pro-choice spin on this story as if it were the news. By “requiring tighter medical standards,” as USA Today put it, the bill would have “effectively close[d] most abortion clinics in Texas.”

But wait. Each of these clinics would be free to meet the same standards that all the other ambulatory surgery clinics in the state meet, so such reporting showed not just bias but particularly childish bias. This pro-choice perspective should be included within the story, of course, but it shouldn’t be adopted as the framing for the entire story, the only perspective offered, lest press releases from Planned Parenthood be indistinguishable from stories presented as news.

Moving on to how the media have treated Davis — I found it interesting that a search of the Los Angeles Times shows that the newspaper has already published 11 staff-written stories about her. By comparison, the Times only got around to three staff-written stories about Kermit Gosnell. One of those Davis stories was literally on the front page yesterday. Kermit Gosnell never made the front page of the Los Angeles Times and it took years after his indictment in the murders of seven children and one woman for the paper to even mention him at all, buried deep within the paper.

When North Dakota pro-life senator Margaret Sitte wrote, sponsored and passed various pro-life bills, did the Los Angeles Times cover her? Not even once. Some women who work on bills related to abortion are vastly more important than other women who work on bills related to abortion. As I joked on Twitter, “It’s almost like there’s a pattern with how the media cover abortion. It’s subtle, but if you look hard, you can almost detect something.” (Have your own fun with the Los Angeles Times search function here.)

Or take the Washington Post. You remember that it wasn’t until some high-profile and sustained media criticism shamed them into it that they finally got around to writing about Kermit Gosnell, after years of complaints. Compare that to this story the Post tweeted out to its 1,741,558 follwers:

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Holy Scouts! Southern Baptists didn’t do what we expected!

So, when push came to shove, what did the Southern Baptist Convention decide to do about the Boy Scouts of America?

To the surprise of the national press, the debate in the national convention ended up featuring a variety of voices making a variety of interesting and valid points about Scouting and its new approach to gay members. In the end, the nation’s largest Protestant flock elected to do something that was more Baptist and congregational than it was political — they left the ultimate decision about supporting or leaving the Boy Scouts of America up to local congregations.

Thus, some news organizations clearly didn’t know how to handle this.

Did The New York Times even do a story? I cannot find one on the site. The lesson? If the story doesn’t go the way you expected, then don’t cover it.

Or, you can take the approach used in The Los Angeles Times. Try to find the key fact — the fact that the SBC said churches should make their own decisions — at the top of this report:

HOUSTON – Members of the Southern Baptist Convention at their annual meeting Wednesday voted to support families who leave the Boy Scouts due to the group’s plans to accept gay Scouts, urged the removal of Boy Scout leaders who championed accepting gays and encouraged former Boy Scouts to join a Southern Baptist youth group instead.

“Homosexuality is directly opposed to everything that Scouting stands for. I am disappointed in Scouting,” said the Rev. Wes Taylor in speaking for the resolution endorsed by the convention. “They are moving away from the principles that it was founded upon. This is an attempt to open the door to broaden the acceptance of homosexuality in that organization. It is an environment that would prove just fertile for young boys to be exposed to something that is ungodly and unacceptable.”

The proposal was submitted by the Southern Baptist Committee on Resolutions.

All valid, but the story totally missed the point of the key debates on the convention floor. In fact, the story does not include a direct reference to the most important element of the decision — the defense of local-church autonomy. It is clear that thousands of SBC churches will continue to be critical (in multiple meanings of that word) participants in Scouting for some time to come.

You can tell that the newspaper’s scribe heard some of the debate. The following information is crucial and hints at the issue lurking in the background — the distinction the Boy Scouts (echoing language used by Catholics and Mormons, to cite two key groups) are drawing between sexual orientation and opposition to sexual activity, gay or straight, by Scouts.

Thus, the story notes:

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Why was Vatican mentioned in Womenpriest story?


The editor will be announced in an LA Daily News board meeting. The printing press, symbolizing publishing, will be made out of lollipops. The staff will agree to follow the direction of “our editor and blackjack dealer.”

But the real departure from Los Angeles Times tradition will be evident when Maria Eitz approaches the computer to write her first story.

Does any of that make sense to you? How about this lede to a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times this week?

SAN FRANCISCO — The priest will be ordained in a purple Lutheran church. The Communion bread, symbolizing the body of Christ, will be gluten-free. The congregation will pray to “our mother our father in heaven.”

But the real departure from Roman Catholic tradition will be evident when Maria Eitz approaches the altar Sunday for the laying on of hands that turns parishioner into priest.

So, according to the logic here, you can deny transubstantiation, get ordained in, literally, a Lutheran church (no, not my kind!), and get all gender-weird about God the Father and that’s totally cool and not even a “real” departure from Roman Catholic “tradition?” In what world? Why is Roman Catholic even mentioned here? Seriously?

Also, these aren’t items of tradition, but doctrine. Someone who doesn’t understand the difference between Christian doctrine and Christian tradition has no business writing a story on non-Catholics getting ordained in non-Catholic ceremonies. Period. When editors and reporters are so unfamiliar with Christian doctrine — and tradition — that they produce stories such as this, we all lose.

These stories have been so bad for so long that I’m beginning to wonder if journalists didn’t, like, sign a pact with some agent of journalism darkness to see how much idiocy could be spread under one story topic. It’s just that bad.

Take the headline:

Women becoming priests without Vatican’s blessing
Small numbers of Catholic women are ignoring the ban on female priests and are ordained without the church’s acknowledgment.

The Roman Catholic church is an organization that sets it’s own rules. This headline makes no more sense than saying:

Auto mechanics becoming professors without UCLA’s blessing
Small numbers of auto mechanics are ignoring the rules on who becomes professors and are given tenure without UCLA’s acknowledgement

or

Golfers becoming infielders without Yankees blessing
Small numbers of golfers are ignoring MLB rules and are being named infielders without the Yankees’ acknowledgment

I’m sure you could do better than me at this game.

The story is riddled with errors and weirdness.

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