Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo

Before dissecting this MSNBC story, let’s pause for a round of Spot the Codewords.

Start at the top left of the screenshot above. There’s “equality,” an oft-cited banner of gay rights and same-sex marriage, as common as the familiar striped gay pride flag.

Now, the headline: “Anti-gay activists.” Who wants to be anti- anything? The subtext is: “These are people you don’t like.”

Next, we have those scare quotes, which can lend a sarcastic taint even to a neutral phrase like “religious freedom.”

Then there’s the lede, saying that Mississippi “quietly” passed its religious freedom law — “quietly” meaning, of course, sneaky, surreptitiously.

Also in the lede: “gay and lesbian rights activists.” If they’re in favor of rights, what about their opponents? Yep: They’re against rights.

We’ve just begun reading and already the sides have been graded.

Pro-gay folks embrace the time-honored American value of equality. Their opponents are against not actions or situations, but people. They’re feigning concern for religious freedom, just to hone one more weapon against their victims. And they’ve pulled it off under the public’s noses.

Now that you’re sufficiently conditioned, you may miss the many signs of slanted reporting thereafter. Like where? Like in the very first paragraphs:

Mississippi quietly passed its “religious freedom” law Tuesday, prompting alarm from gay and lesbian rights activists who say it could be used to justify discrimination in the name of religion.

The Mississippi version is narrowed from the religious freedom proposals championed by religious conservatives across the country, and now largely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“While this is an improvement upon the language that the legislature previously contemplated, it still falls short,” said Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had pushed for specific language that would prevent the bill from being used to protect discrimination in the name of religion.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office, and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” Rho said.

OK, scalpel time. Aside from the gaming of terms, the lede immediately casts the new law as cause for alarm from the good guys. The second paragraph identifies their foes, i.e. the bad guys: religious conservatives.

MSNBC acknowledges that the new Mississippi law closely resembles the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but then musters an ACLU type to throw stones at it. She even raises the specter of litigation … and … more expense to taxpayers! As if other laws, state or national, are never challenged in court.

RFRA was, in fact, passed on the federal level two decades ago to shield individual rights from excess governmental interference. And it was endorsed by both parties and signed into law by President Clinton, as well as a broad religious and civil coalition. MSNBC doesn’t mention that in this article, but it did in another recent piece — which deals with doubts by the original sponsors over how the law is applied nowadays.

The article says that the Mississippi version adds new language to allow business owners to use religious beliefs as a shield from being sued. It also notes that all such efforts have failed in other states, famously in the governor’s recent veto in Arizona. MSNBC sounds almost frustrated: How on earth did the new Mississippi law get past all the “right” people?

MSNBC dutifully (grudgingly?) gives three paragraphs to the opposition, but it sets them up as “religious right activists.” It quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who actually gives two examples of the need for legal protection: “someone like Pastor Telsa DeBerry who was hindered by the Holly Springs city government from building a new church in the downtown area, or a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”

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Do baby elephants dwell on same-sex marriage?

Young Republicans: so stylish and libertarian. So free of cares, except perhaps for weed and gay marriage.

That’s the view, at least, from the New York Times, which highlighted them at the recent conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee. The story purports to unveil differences between the baby elephants and their elders. It succeeds only on an extremely narrow band: the two hot-button issues of marijuana and homosexual relationships.

The Times piece starts out as “color,” with the reporter wandering through the convention hall, apparently picking out young faces. It’s not hard to find the ones he wants to highlight:

It was difficult to miss Ian Jacobson at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Known as Rooster, he was 33, with an ample beard, earrings and a towering orange-and-aqua spiked Mohawk haircut. But he also sported a pinstriped suit, French cuffs and a natty contrast collar.

Mr. Jacobson’s sartorial contradictions matched those of his politics: He is among the young Republicans who are pro-free market on fiscal issues and libertarian on social ones. While his views represent a potential growth wing for a party that is losing among other demographic groups, they also show an emerging tension with the older social conservatives at the core of the party’s base.

“I want us to return to our roots,” Mr. Jacobson said while attending the conference over the weekend. A self-described “libertarian-leaning Republican” from San Antonio, he sketched out his ideal political party as one that freed individuals to chart their own course in their personal and professional lives.

The newspaper also interviews the leader of a libertarian student group, a Wellesley freshman, and an Ohio State junior “who was strolling through CPAC wearing a Russian-style winter hat with ‘Obama’ and the Soviet hammer and sickle emblazoned on it.” Oh yeah: also a junior from Geneva College, which the article hastens to point out as a Christian school — a rare mention of religion here. More on that later.

The Times’ interests are rather obvious in this story. Same-sex marriage comes up seven times, marijuana four times. The economy and “fiscal issues” are mentioned once each. Taxes and the minimum wage come up once each, both in the same paragraph. And getting a job after graduation — surely high on the list of college students — doesn’t show up until the last sentence.

Citing a recent poll the newspaper conducted along with CBS News, the story says that a mere 56 percent of Republicans under 45 support same-sex marriage “rights” (note the code word, BTW), versus 29 percent for older party members. Marijuana drives a shallower wedge between the generations: Half of Republicans “and Republican-leaning independents” under 45 support legalization, versus opposition by two-thirds of older Republicans.

Are those really the main items on young Republican minds? I hope to God not. Especially since God apparently wasn’t among the things they were asked.

The Times sounds disappointed not to find sharp rifts among CPAC chiefs:

The split did not take place among the high-profile presidential candidates, who largely avoided divisive social issues or mentioned them only to praise their party’s big-tent tolerance, but the conversation was easy to find elsewhere.

Interestingly, abortion is not among the fault lines, the story reports, “with young and old opposed in almost equal numbers.” But it still tries to make something of the fact that “younger Republicans are more willing to support a candidate who does not share their position on abortion than those over 45, according to the poll.”

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Do Mormon women lack standing in their own faith?

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The issue of women’s roles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been bubbling for a while, and it’s back in the news this week.

As Religion News Service reported, the Ordain Women advocacy group will be denied access to the Mormons’ all-male general priesthood session next month.

That latest news reminds me that we need to pull an important item out of our GetReligion guilt file — those stories that we want to cover but for whatever reason haven’t.

I’m referring to The New York Times’ 5,000-word, front-page Sunday story from a few weeks ago on the sea change brought by the Mormon church lowering its age requirement for female missionaries to 19 from 21:

DAEJEON, South Korea — Ashley Farr, once Miss North Salt Lake Teen USA, is the first in her family’s long line of Mormon women to become a missionary, and in December she embarked on her new life in this gray corner of Asia. She packed her bag according to the church’s precise instructions: skirts that cover the knee, only one pair of pants, earrings that dangle no longer than one inch, and subtle but flattering makeup, modeled in photos on the church’s website.

Sister Farr, as she now is called, had left behind the student entrepreneurship competitions she was helping to run in Utah and paused her relationship with her boyfriend, far away in the Philippines, as they served his-and-her missions. Ms. Farr, a finance student at Brigham Young University in Utah, believed proselytizing would not only please God but also give her the organizational and persuasive skills to succeed professionally. She rattled off all the things she wants to become: Intern at Goldman Sachs. Wife of a mission president. Chief executive of a fashion or technology company.

“A mother and a businesswoman,” she said in an interview on her first day, neatly summarizing the two worlds, Mormon and secular, in which she hopes to thrive.

On the surface, it’s a fantastic story filled with revealing details about the experiences of the female missionaries featured, and it’s bolstered by an excellent multimedia presentation — including photos and videos.

But while the Times story certainly is an important addition to the national conversation on Mormon women’s roles, the piece seems overly broad and scattered.

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Giving both sides a voice in Methodist same-sex debate

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Maybe you’ve noticed, but your normally friendly GetReligionistas get grumpy when newspapers write one-sided stories.

We might even go so far as to use terms such as “advocacy journalism.”

Three times in the last few weeks — here, here and here — we raised a stink over The Dallas Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote concerning the United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Well, a major story on that same topic broke Monday in The New York Times’ back yard:

The head bishop of the United Methodist Church in New York on Monday committed to ending church trials in his region for ministers who perform same sex-marriages, essentially freeing them to conduct a ceremony still prohibited under his denomination’s laws.

As the first sitting United Methodist bishop to publicly make such a pledge, Bishop Martin D. McLee instantly became a leading figure in a decades-old movement within the United Methodist Church, the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination, to extend equal recognition and rights to gay and lesbian members. Though Bishop McLee said that he hoped his approach would heal the church’s deep divisions over homosexuality, more conservative Methodists warned that his actions would push the denomination closer to an irrevocable split.

Bishop McLee’s pledge came as part of a resolution announced Monday with the Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree, a Methodist minister and retired dean of Yale Divinity School who had faced a church trial after he officiated the wedding of his gay son in 2012. The trial had been scheduled to begin on Monday.

As I kept reading, my question was this: Would the Timesnot always known for its journalistic balance on social issues — allow both sides an opportunity to speak?

To my delight and the Times’ credit, the answer was yes:

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Silence about terrorism and Islam in the Kunming attack


What was it about the murder of 29 men, women and children on Saturday at the Kunming train station that does not qualify make it an act of terrorism? And why is the press so shy about connecting the dots on this incident to the wider campaign being waged by Islamist terrorists? Can the word terrorism no longer be used in polite company?

The first news story I saw came from the state-run Xinhua News Agency which announced that on the night of March 1, 2014 a gang invaded the central waiting room of the Kunming train station in China’s Yunnan province. Armed with knives the attackers attacked people waiting for their trains and police officers, killing 28 and in jured 113 (the numbers were later revised to 29 dead and 143 wounded.)

Police shot five of the assailants dead. The identity of the attackers was not given, but the incident was described as:

an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack, according to the authorities.

The report stated the killers were dressed in black and attacked their victims with knives. Xinhua was able to quote eye witness accounts of the attack. saying:

Chen Guizhen, a 50-year-old woman, told Xinhua at the hospital that her husband Xiong Wenguang, 59, was killed in the attack. “Why are the terrorists so cruel? ” moaned Chen, holding her husband’s ID card in blood with her trembling hands.

So we have a group of black clad knife welding assailants rushing into a busy urban train station and randomly maiming and killing 172 people. The government describes it as a terrorist act and a witness calls the attackers terrorists. Let me go out on a limb and say the attackers were likely to have been terrorists.

Xinhua did not identify who the attackers were, but at the close of their story recounted two recent terrorist attacks. While not naming names, Xinhua implied the attack was the work of militants from northwest China’s Xinjiang province — the Muslim Uighar people.

In the first press reports many western news outlets were reticent in describing the attack as terrorism, or they placed the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” in quotes either in the title or in the body of the story.

The New York Times report described the attack in terms usually reserved for a clash between groups. A “group of assailants wielding knives stormed into a railway station” and proceeded to kill and injure scores of travelers. The NY Times identifies the “assailants” as Uighars, citing local government sources, and states:

The attack, in Yunnan Province, was far from Xinjiang, and if carried out by members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority could imply that the volatile tensions between them and the government might be spilling beyond that restive region.

But the language of the story shifts. “The violence erupted …”;  “the attack would be the worst …”; “The latest attack appears …”; “After the slashing attack, President Xi Jinping of China said …” — why the reticence in using the word terror, terrorism, terrorist?

CNN was equally shy,writing:

Members of a separatist group from Xinjiang, in northwest China, are believed to have carried out the assault, authorities said. The report referred to them as “terrorists.”

The mention of Islam is pushed to the last paragraph of the story while CNN plays the trick of having the Chinese government use the word terrorist.
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Attention NYTimes: Boko Haram has made its goals clear

There is much to commend in the recent New York Times report that ran under the simple, but blunt, headline, “Deadly Attacks Tied to Islamist Militants Shake Nigeria.”

The violence in Nigeria is, alas, a tragically old story. It’s important that the Times team has continued to cover the bloody details. It would be so easy to try to look away at this point.

LAGOS, Nigeria – Dozens were killed, including many children watching a soccer match, in a series of deadly bomb blasts in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri on Saturday, officials said. The Islamist group Boko Haram was blamed for the attacks, which were the deadliest in months in the sect’s birthplace.

Gunmen from the group also struck a nearby village, Mainok, at the same time Saturday evening, a local official said, storming in on trucks, burning houses and killing at least 51. The death toll from the two attacks was more than 100 and rising, officials said.

In the Maiduguri bombings, children bore the brunt of the explosions, according to the health commissioner for Borno State, Dr. Salma Anas-Kolo. The youths had gathered at a makeshift stadium in the Gomari neighborhood to watch a soccer match when a bomb went off in a pickup truck loaded with firewood, she and others said. When people in the densely inhabited neighborhood rushed to help, a second bomb exploded, according to Maikaramba Saddiq, the Maiduguri representative of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization.

And it gets worse:

A hospital official in Maiduguri, who watched as charred corpses were brought in, said: “Most of the bodies we found were very young. Small. I saw a man who lost three children.” The official asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and his position at the hospital.

Boko Haram is the key player in the campaign of terror in northern Nigeria and journalists should, by this time, know quite a bit about this network’s motivations and methods.

You would think so. However, what are readers to make of this rather mysterious section of this news report?

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Mysterious role of religion in Newsweek resurrection?

It’s hard to miss the religious zinger in this passage from a New York Times article about the return of Newsweek to ink-and-paper reality after its quiet existence in cyberspace ever since that famous final cover.

This isn’t very subtle.

Etienne Uzac, 30, and Johnathan Davis, 31, founders of IBT Media, believed they could recreate Newsweek as a vibrant and profitable web-only magazine. But now, having tripled Newsweek’s online traffic, they plan to punctuate the magazine’s comeback by turning on the printing presses again. Hard copies are expected to hit newsstands on Friday.

Break out the banner headline: Newsweek Is Back From the Dead!

Now is that just an over-the-top metaphor or are the editorial troops at the great Gray Lady trying to tell us something?

A former GetReligionista send the URL in the end of the article highlighted. More on that in a minute.

It seems to me, after reading that passage, that there are several GetReligion-related questions implied.

* What kind of religion coverage can readers expect to see in the resurrected newsweekly, both online and in print?

* Will the magazine staff include a trained, talented Godbeat specialist? Lord knows there are plenty of talented folks — young and old — available at the moment.

* Might the religious content of the renewed publication be influenced by the professional and personal backgrounds of the new owners?

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Half-naked dancers and public prayers in Oklahoma City

“Gonna wear my Thunderwear in Times Square.”

My friend Randy Roper, the preaching minister for my home congregation in Oklahoma, came up with that winning slogan in a 2009 contest sponsored by the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a result, Roper earned a free trip to New York for the NBA Draft Lottery. (That was, of course, before the Thunder emerged as one of the league’s top teams.)

At least once a season since then, the Thunder have asked Roper to lead the public prayer that precedes each home game.

I thought of my friend when I read a New York Times sports feature this week headlined “Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City.” The top of the 2,000-word story by NBA writer Andrew Keh:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Before the plumes of smoke and the shimmering pyrotechnics and the two dozen or so dancers gyrating in microscopic shorts and the hip-hop and the hairy mascot on stilts and the sponsorships — “Tonight’s free throws are brought to you by Hooters!” – there is prayer.

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the N.B.A.’s Oklahoma City Thunder, so fully incorporates the complete assortment of flashy sports entertainment tropes that the building has been called Loud City.

But amid the cacophony here, there is one significant difference: preceding each game is a stadiumwide prayer of invocation that on most nights briefly turns a raucous sports event into something resembling a megachurch gathering.

“We feel people’s faith is important to them,” said Dan Mahoney, the Thunder’s vice president for corporate communications and community relations, who noted that the prayers are nondenominational and that those offering them have ranged from Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy to Jewish rabbis to Native American spiritual leaders. “Gathering to support our team, we feel it’s appropriate to build in a time of reflection.”

Actually, I think Keh’s lede nails it.

I’m in the minority in Oklahoma City in that I have not become a devoted Thunder fan. My allegiance remains with baseball and my beloved Texas Rangers, three hours south of the Sooner State’s capital city. But I attend a Thunder game or two a year — usually when I can find a cheap seat up high.

And I can attest to the irony that the Times writer captures: a spiritual leader asking for God’s blessings followed by half-naked dancers gyrating all over the big screen, as this father does his best not to blush with his teenage son and daughter standing on each side of him.

But back to the journalism: Keh does an excellent job of explaining the history behind Oklahoma City’s prayer. In addition, he puts the tradition into the larger context of both the community and the NBA and sports world:

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