Is a global fast for Syria a local news story?

According to Catholic News Agency:

Pope Francis made a global petition on Sept. 1 asking that everyone, regardless of religion or location, to fast and pray during the whole day of Sept. 7 for world peace, particularly in Syria.

I noticed that various friends and acquaintances were participating in a special day of prayer and fasting — some sent the word along to join in, some merely mentioned that they were doing it, some shared how their particular parish was taking up Pope Francis’ call. I had seen a few wire reports leading up to the day of fasting and prayer, but I was curious if this would be considered a local news story.

The answer is, it varied.

The New York Times didn’t consider it a story. Period. If you run a query for “Francis” and “fast” for the last seven days, nothing comes up. Rod Dreher has an absolutely fascinating commentary on what the New York Times decides from its perch is newsworthy and what it doesn’t, using just this week’s coverage as an illustration. Let’s just say that nothing about Christians and Syria registers. But, you know, if you want a touching story about an elderly gay couple reminiscing about lots of public sex or a lengthy look at an all-nude gay resort in the Ozarks — two stories that were featured prominently — that is definitely your paper of record.

What’s particularly odd about the New York Times‘ inability to mention Pope Francis’ call for a day of fasting and prayer against war in Syria is that the paper ran a big story headlined, “Obama Falls Short on Wider Backing for Syria Attack.” I don’t know if the reporters and editors attempted to leave religion angles out of the story but when even a world leader like the Pope doesn’t make the cut, you have to wonder what is going on.

The Washington Post didn’t have anything in the Sunday paper, but it did have an Associated Press report online. Not about the global fast so much as Francis and some pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square. Nothing at all about local Catholics or other religious adherents who joined in.

But while the Post and the Times didn’t think local (or global!) participation in days of fasting and prayer were particularly newsworthy, some news organizations did:

Catholics unite in prayer before Syria vote
News 12 Westchester – 10 hours ago
Pope Francis asked Catholics to fast and pray for the refugees in the civil war-torn nation,and for a quick and peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict. (6:17 PM). WESTCHESTER – Catholics across the Hudson Valley united in prayer during Sunday Masses …

NC residents take part in global day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria
News & Observer – ?Sep 7, 2013?
PEACEMASS0908. Members of the congregation pray the rosary during a special mass led by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge at Sacred Heart Cathedral on Saturday, September 7, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C. The mass was held in observance of Pope Francis’ call to join in a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria. … At Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, dozens of people filled the pews at a Mass for Peace organized quickly after the pope spoke out last week against Western military intervention in Syria.

Actually, This News & Observer piece is worth a quick look:

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Spot the ghost in China’s material girls

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Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they’re O.K.
If they don’t give me proper credit
I just walk away

They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash

Is always Mister Right, ’cause we are

Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl

Material Girl (1984)

Madonna was not always the frightening figure she is today. Once upon a time she seemed to symbolize the enthusiasm and vitality of the 1980s — that golden age of conspicuous consumption, big hair, shoulder pads, Dallas,  and Thatcherism. An article in the Wednesday New York Times film section entitled “A Film-Fueled Culture Clash Over Values in China” brought those memories back (sans Margaret Thatcher), while also reminding me that I view the world through the lens of Christendom. What I assume to be vice can be celebrated as virtue by others.

The article reports that China is grappling with the consequences of the conspicuous consumption of its gilded youth — the vulgar ostentation of the children of the newly rich as captured in two light, but wildly popular films from director Guo Jingmin. The Times reports the films:

have also made an impact beyond the box office. They have become a lightning rod for this nation’s evolving view of its growing youth culture. Many established Chinese cultural commentators are outraged by these works’ overt celebration of materialism, and this anger has spurred a surprisingly robust counterattack by the movies’ many young fans.

Just as Ian Fleming’s sex, sadism and snobbery spy thrillers of the 1950′s captured the imagination of England as it emerged from the grim post-war years, Guo’s books and films speak to the voracious appetite for luxury in post-Maoist China. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (without the sex and drugs) Guo’s work chronicles the void — but he does not condemn, he celebrates. The Times article states:

His books are stuffed with English-language brand names like Chanel and Gucci and choice phrases. (“Economy class kills me!” and “I hate Beijing!”) His films show the actual designer goods and include dialogue that has also riled commentators, like this exchange in “Tiny Times 1” between two star-crossed young lovers:

“I like you,” the young man says, “not because you’ve had a driver since you were little, and not because you have designer bags, and definitely not because you gave me expensive boots. Even if you didn’t have a cent, I would still like you.”

The woman then turns on him: “Let me tell you, love without materialism is just a pile of sand!”

How far China has come. The “love without materialism” line could have been spoken just as easily a Red Guard in the 1960s as by a Shanghai sybarite today. Materialism — the philosophical basis for Marxist thought — has been construed to mean economic materialism — the desire for possessions. The article nicely notes the clash of ideologies between the two materialist cultures — between China’s rural past and its urban present — before returning to a discussion of the film’s place in the contemporary Chinese psyche.

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Was Seamus Heaney a Catholic poet?

Religion’s never mentioned here,’ of course.
‘You know them by their eyes,’ and hold your tongue.
‘One side’s as bad as the other,’ never worse.
Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung
In the great dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable.

So begins Section III of Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever You Say Say Nothing”, found in his 1975 collection of poems North. In a 2000-word 30 Aug 2013obituary entitled “Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet of Soil and Strife, Dies at 74″, The New York Times offered an appraisal of his life and work, noting that:

In 1995, he became the fourth Irishman to win the Nobel in literature, following Yeats, who received it in 1923; George Bernard Shaw (1925); and Samuel Beckett (1969).

In describing Heaney’s place within literature, The Times obituary makes repeated reference to the poet’s Catholic identity and the religious language found in his work.

A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. … Throughout his work, Mr. Heaney was consumed with morality. In his hands, a peat bog is not merely an emblematic feature of the Irish landscape; it is also a spiritual quagmire, evoking the deep ethical conundrums that have long pervaded the place. … Mr. Heaney was enraptured, as he once put it, by “words as bearers of history and mystery.” His poetry, which had an epiphanic quality, was suffused with references to pre-Christian myth — Celtic, of course, but also that of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically dazzling, was nonetheless lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.

The obituary also notes Heaney’s close identification with Catholic Ireland.

Mr. Heaney was deeply self-identified as Irish, and much of his work overtly concerned the Troubles, as the long, violent sectarian conflict in late-20th-century Northern Ireland is known. But though he condemned British dominion in his homeland (he wrote: “Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen”), Mr. Heaney refused to disown British tradition — and especially British literature — altogether.

The Times also quotes a passage from his 1974 lecture, “Feeling into Words to describe his love of language, rhyme and alliteration.
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Does The New York Times hate Timothy Dolan?

”The question is, should this indictment have ever been brought? Which office do I go to to get my reputation back? Who will reimburse my company for the economic jail it has been in for two and a half years?”

So said former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan to The New York Times following his acquittal on state charges of fraud and theft in 1987. Accused by the Bronx DA of attempting to defraud the New York City Transit Authority of $7.4 million on a subway construction project in the late 70′s, before he entered the Reagan Administration, Donovan and his co-defendants were found not guilty on all charges — with one jury telling the Times she believed the prosecution was politically motivated. While rejoicing in the not guilty verdict after his two year ordeal, Donovan lamented that it was not fair that the news of his being a decent man would receive far less publicity than the accusation he was a criminal.

What should a newspaper do in this situation? How can it restore the reputations of those falsely accused? Human nature being what it is, the news of an evil man is far more interesting than that of a good one. Critics often accuse newspapers of printing only bad news — senior church leaders upbraid me from time to time for focusing on scandal, corruption and hypocrisy and downplaying the good works performed by church. It does little good to respond that I dutifully report on the good news, but no one reads it. Stories of church sponsored campaigns to stop child marriage in Africa or of female genital mutilation, for example, are read by only a few, while a naughty vicar story is good for tens of thousands of hits, while an Al Gore in bed with the Church of England will get picked up by Drudge and crash the servers.

In the Donovan case The New York Times acted properly and professionally according to the dictates of the craft. They reported without bias, cant or agenda. To have done more would have been special pleading, engaging in propaganda to sway public opinion to think as our masters tell us.

What then should we make of The Times coverage of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee abuse lawsuit? On 1 July 2013 The Times printed a story entitled “Dolan Sought to Protect Church Assets, Files Show”. This was followed on 3 July 2013 with an editorial entitled “Cardinal Dolan and the Sexual Abuse Scandal” and a 6 July op-ed piece by Frank Bruni entitled “The Church’s Errant Shepherds”. Apart from a correction on 16 July The Times does not appear to have followed up on the story.

Which is curious as the first article starts off with a bang.

Files released by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Monday reveal that in 2007, Cardinal Timothy F. Dolan, then the archbishop there, requested permission from the Vatican to move nearly $57 million into a cemetery trust fund to protect the assets from victims of clergy sexual abuse who were demanding compensation.

Cardinal Dolan, now the archbishop of New York, has emphatically denied seeking to shield church funds as the archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009. He reiterated in a statement Monday that these were “old and discredited attacks.”

However, the files contain a 2007 letter to the Vatican in which he explains that by transferring the assets, “I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.” The Vatican approved the request in five weeks, the files show.

The article continues in this vein, proffering evidence and arguments that while Archbishop of Milwaukee, Cardinal Dolan acted disreputably by moving church assets out of the reach of creditors. The Times editorial doubled-down on this assertion writing:

Tragic as the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has been, it is shocking to discover that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while archbishop of Milwaukee, moved $57 million off the archdiocesan books into a cemetery trust fund six years ago in order to protect the money from damage suits by victims of abuse by priests.

While not labeling him a crook, the editorial board was quite clear in its opinion the archbishop had engaged in shady dealings and had not lived up to the high moral standard The Times expected of the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. The censure of the op-ed pales in comparison to the rage that seethes through Frank Bruni’s piece. The underlying acts of abuse were bad enough, but the institution’s response has been worse.

I mean the evil that an entire institution can do, though it supposedly dedicates itself to good.

I mean the way that a religious organization can behave almost precisely as a corporation does, with fudged words, twisted logic and a transcendent instinct for self-protection that frequently trump the principled handling of a specific grievance or a particular victim.

However, Bruni’s column is a column. A reader may agree with his sentiments or find them unhinged. They are written to provide entertainment based on current events — they are not reporting in and of themselves. The Times‘ op-ed piece is also only the opinion of the editorial board. One either agrees with its sentiments or does not. The underlying news stories however, are what makes or breaks the newspaper’s reputation for reporting. And here the paper disappoints.

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Hurrah: Learning more about Antoinette Tuff’s religion

The other day I was reading an obituary of Tom Christian, descendent of the Bounty mutineer. It was in the New York Times and written by my very favorite obituary writer, Margalit Fox.

So, right up top the obit included this line:

Mr. Christian, who for his services to Pitcairn was named a Member of the British Empire in 1983, was long considered an elder statesman on the island. He served for years on the Island Council, the local governing body, and was a lay elder in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to which most islanders belong.

Thank you! It’s a common refrain here, but oh how frustrating it is to not learn the basics of someone’s religious affiliation. It seems like such a modest expectation, but one that is frequently unmet.

Which gets us to this follow-up about my new favorite person: Antoinette Tuff.

You may remember that she’s the bookkeeper who talked a deranged man out of shooting up any students or faculty at an Atlanta area school. Listening to her 9-1-1 call is wonderfully inspirational. She’s so realistic about the threat but she just manages her fear and speaks to the gunman with love. We talked about some early coverage here.

A long-time GetReligion reader sent in this CNN story that explored some of her religious views, headlined “CNN Exclusive: A hug, then ‘We made it!’ as school bookkeeper, dispatcher reunite.” The story is about Tuff and 9-1-1 dispatcher Kendra McCray:

In their voices, both women sounded calm throughout the call — even as gunshots were ringing out around Tuff, and later when the suspect reached into a bag to reload his AK-47-type assault rifle.

But inside, they now admit, they were terrified.

McCray recalled Thursday how her hands were shaking, though she knew that she couldn’t reveal her fears in her voice. And Tuff said she was trying to incorporate the lessons she’d learned in church to stay strong for herself, the 800-plus elementary school students in the classrooms behind her — and for the gunman whom she came to feel for.

“I was actually praying on the inside,” she recalled. “I was terrified, but I just started praying.”

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762 Messiahs or Why Slow News is good news

You’ve probably heard of some variation of the Slow Movement, a trend which advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. There are subcultures devoted to Slow Food, Slow Gardening, Slow Travel — even Slow Church. But what we really need, especially in religion reporting, is Slow News.

While “slow news” day is generally something to be dreaded by news junkies, I think Slow News could help solve one of the media’s biggest problems: the diminishment of context. As the historian C. John Sommerville wrote in an article titled, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution.

In many ways, information technology has made it faster and easier for reporters put news story into a broader context. Yet the speed at which news is published by most media outlets makes it nearly impossible for journalists to do even the most basic of contextual research. Take, for example, the “Messiah” born in Tennessee story that Bobby Ross mentioned last week.

A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.” The AP was among the first to report on the story on August 12. That article was rather bare-boned, but later that day they put out a more in-depth feature.

A more detailed version, as Bobby pointed out, was produced by Godbeat pro Bob Smietana, who explained that baby Martin is just one of hundreds of Messiahs: 762 were born in 2012. Admittedly, the first AP story noted that “Messiah was No. 4 among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012.” But taking the time, as Smietana did, to actually nail down a number (762!) helps to put the story in a broader context. It also helps to show that the real story is not about unusual religion-themed baby names but about the religious freedom to give your baby such a name.

The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer took an additional four days to weigh-in — an extensive delay in our second-by-second news culture — which seems to have given him the time not only to explore the religious freedom angle in more depth, but to provide some cultural context:
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The New York Times misses battle for Belarus

I would like to draw your attention to a 28 July 2013 piece in the New York Times entitled “Putin in Ukraine to Celebrate a Christian Anniversary”. The article reports on the interplay of religion, politics and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Yet the mention of religion in a story does not necessarily mean the reporter “gets religion.”

The article opens by focusing on what the Times sees as the political significance of the event, and then moves to an appreciation of the interplay of religion with politics.

MOSCOW — In an apparent attempt to use shared history to make a case for closer ties, President Vladimir V. Putin attended religious ceremonies in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday to commemorate the 1,025th anniversary of events that brought Christianity to Ukraine and Russia. At a reception in Kiev, the capital, Mr. Putin spoke of the primacy of the two countries’ spiritual and historical bonds, regardless of political decisions that often divide them. Relations have been rocky in part because of attempts by Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to formalize its political and economic ties with the European Union.

“We are all spiritual heirs of what happened here 1,025 years ago,” Mr. Putin told church hierarchs at the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev, one of the holiest sites of Orthodoxy, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “And in this sense we are, without a doubt, one people.”

Mr. Putin’s trip was also the latest sign of the deepening ties and common agenda of the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. The events last week commemorated Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s decision to convert to Christianity and baptize his subjects in 988, an event known as the Baptism of Rus,  … The attention has also lent apparent endorsement to church criticism of Western democracy and secular culture, particularly homosexuality….

Patriarch Kirill invoked the concept of the Holy Rus, referring to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as a unified spiritual expanse united under the faith. … The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

The article then looks at the church’s illiberal teachings, pulling quotes from Cyril made outside the Kiev celebrations.

The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values. He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia.

“This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything so that sin is never validated by the laws of the state in the lands of Holy Rus, because this would mean that the people are starting on the path of self-destruction,” he said at a Moscow cathedral, according to the Web site of the Moscow Patriarchate. He previously said that such “blasphemous laws” could prove as dangerous to believers as the executioners of the Great Terror during the government of Stalin.

Before I move to an analysis of the distortions to the story caused by the particular worldview of the Times, let me say a word about nomenclature beginning with names. The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is called Kirill in this article and in other outlets is named Kyrill and Cyril. They are all the same name, but coming as I do out of an older style of journalism that anglicizes everything because that is how God intended it to be, I use Cyril — just as I call the pope Francis. And some regions of the world and nations are prefaced by “the” — the Sahara, the Arctic, the Sudan, the Ukraine — less frequently the Lebanon and the Yemen. I am not making a political statement when I call the host nation “the Ukraine”, implying it is a region rather than a nation state, or a mystical idealized place like la France of Charles de Gaulle, rather it is the style in which I was educated. That having been said …

The word “apparent” in the first line is problematic. It begs the question “apparent to whom?” The Times states this is Putin’s political goal and offers extracts from his speeches to illustrate this point, but spends little time in offering other views.

I am not saying the Times was incorrect in stating the trip for Putin was an opportunity to bring the Ukraine closer to Moscow. This theme was noted in the Russian press also. Moskovsky Komsomolets a Moscow-based daily with a circulation of approximately one million, called Putin’s Ukrainian visit “the  second baptism of the Rus”, implying shared spiritual values make Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians “one people”.

The official text of Putin’s 27 July 2013 speech Putin makes this point clear.

The Baptism of Rus was a great event that defined Russia’s and Ukraine’s spiritual and cultural development for the centuries to come. We must remember this brotherhood and preserve our ancestors’ traditions. Together, they built a unique system of Orthodox values and strengthened themselves in their faith …

Putin then moves from spiritual unity to national economic solidarity, arguing the Ukraine’s strategic choice lies with the Eurasian and not the European integration project.

Competition on the global markets is very fierce today. Only by joining forces we can be competitive and stand a chance of winning in this tough environment. We have every reason too, to be confident that we should and can achieve this.

The stress placed on this point by the Times is not misplaced, but it is unbalanced. We are hearing only Putin and Cyril in this story — and what the New York Times thinks about them.

The article does not contrast Putin’s vision to the Ukrainian premier Viktor Yanukovych’s administration’s goal of Kiev assuming a leadership role in bringing not only the Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus closer to Europe. It may well be the Moscow-based reporter’s job to write all-Putin all the time stories, yet the article’s emphasis on Putin clouds the issue.

The content of Putin’s speech is news as is the fact of the celebration of the anniversary of the Baptism of the East Slavs, but the significant event from a political and religious perspective is the boycott of the proceedings by the Premier of Belarus — a fact mentioned only by the omission of his name from the heads of state list given by the Times.

In other words, it is not new news the Russian Orthodox Church believes nationality, or Russianness is born from Orthodoxy. Nor is it news the Orthodox Church is opposed to gay marriage. Nor is it news that Putin is seeking to pull Kiev into Moscow’s orbit. Nor is the Times‘ comments about the rapprochement  between church and state new news. Putin has been moving the state closer to the church for over a decade — and as the article states Putin revealed he had been baptized as an infant in the Leningrad during the Stalinist era. By focusing on the familiar — of how the ceremony relates to Putin, the Times missed in its coverage is the significance of the boycott of the ceremony by the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenka.

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New York Times on the death of an unborn child

You might recall that the New York Times told readers Kermit Gosnell was on trial for killing fetuses rather than newborns. There was a similar problem at USA Today. We noted when a reporter for a different outlet apologized for calling a newborn child a fetus.

So the problems with journalists using “fetus” to describe children even after they born make the old debates on whether it’s appropriate to use the term in stories about children prior to their birth seem quaint. But yesterday the New York Times came in for some criticism over stilted “fetal” language to describe a tragic death of a woman and her unborn child. From “Falling Tree Shatters Lives and Dreams of a Family“:

The Dikov family keeps an album of photos that document the love story of their son, Aleksander, and his wife, Yingyi Li-Dikov. On each page, they beam, always hugging. In one, Ms. Li-Dikov kneels over a heart drawn in the sand, the initials A and Y at its center.

And on another page is a black-and-white photo: the hazy sonogram of the daughter they were expecting in the fall.

There will be no pictures of mother and child. Ms. Li-Dikov, 30, was killed on Sunday when a giant tree toppled in Kissena Park in Queens, shattering the bench she was resting on and killing her. The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.

Emphasis mine. The caption to the accompanying photo reads:

Yingyi Li-Dikov, 30, and the fetus she was carrying died.

Fetus is a Latin term meaning “young one” but most people refer to their unborn children as unborn children or babies. Tmatt had a great post recently about the tension between the language that abortion rights activists and media types use and the language that people in the real world use when talking about pregnancy:

You see, back in the days just before and just after Roe vs. Wade, journalists found themselves caught between two forms of language. On one side, on the moral left, there were people who wanted to use the term “fetus” whenever possible, in order to avoid talking about the selective termination of “babies,” “unborn children,” etc. Since surveys show that most journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, are pro-abortion rights, this can affect coverage.

Meanwhile, real people in the real world tend — when dealing with pregnancies — to use baby language. I mean, surely it is rare for someone to come home from the doctor waving an early ultrasound image and say, “Hey! Look at the first picture of our fetus (or perhaps grandfetus)!”

The New York Times‘ use of fetal language for this young victim struck observers as odd. As RealClearPolitics editor Carl Cannon wrote on Twitter:

Can’t a newspaper be pro-choice without resorting to this? “The 6-month-old fetus did not survive.” http://nyti.ms/187Qeif

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