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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Media continues to ‘Gosnell’ abortion coverage. Why?

YouTube Preview ImageThis blog played a bit of a role in highlighting Gosnelling, the media practice of ignoring or downplaying politically inconvenient abortion news (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). It wasn’t great prior to that incident, but the mainstream media has an even worse credibility problem when it comes to reporting on abortion news. So I’d hoped we’d see some efforts to improve it.

And we are. There has been, for instance, some media coverage of the abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s trial, which is currently in the phase of jury deliberations. Today the jury requested to have a transcript of one testimony re-read to them and while that’s happening, reporters from Reuters, Fox News, the Wilmington News-Journal and CBS News are present. It’s not where it should be, but it’s a start.

But what about the larger picture? How is that being covered? While abortion rights advocates and many in the media have suggested that Gosnell is an extreme outlier, pro-life media keep uncovering more and more stories that suggest the mainstream media is failing to highlight. It’s not that there’s no coverage, again, there is. Kirsten Powers wrote in a recent USA Today column about the “drumbeat” of clinic closures and links to media coverage are provided:

Last week, Ohio officials shut down an abortion clinic after inspectors found that a medical assistant administered narcotics to five patients, that narcotics and powerful sedatives weren’t properly accounted for, that pharmacy licenses had expired and that four staff members hadn’t been screened for a communicable disease.

This month, a Delaware TV station reported that two Planned Parenthood nurses resigned in protest over conditions at a clinic there. One nurse, Jayne Mitchell-Werbrich, said, “It was just unsafe. I couldn’t tell you how ridiculously unsafe it was.”

Last month, Maryland officials shut down three abortion clinics, two for failings in their equipment and training to deal with life-threatening complications.

Last year, an Associated Press investigation found that Illinois hadn’t inspected some abortion clinics for 10 to 15 years. After state health officials reinvigorated their clinic inspections in the wake of Gosnell, inspectors closed two clinics, including one fined for “failure to perform CPR on a patient who died after a procedure,” according to AP.

But there’s a difference between a prominent media critic connecting the dots here and a news report that does the same. You’ll note the difference between how the media drumbeat is hit for a cause such as, say, gun control and a cause such as abortion clinic control. The disparity is immediately apparent and difficult to explain on journalistic grounds.

Or I pointed out a few weeks ago how no angle was too small to cover when the media obsessed over the Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding the country’s largest abortion provider. Compare that with the media downplaying every fresh angle on the Gosnell coverage, this just being today’s latest example.

Today, the conservative publication National Review has published a harrowing and lengthy expose of abortion clinics in Florida. It is a brutal read, but very important journalism. Here’s how National Review promoted it:

Jillian Kay Melchior exposes the so-called doctors, clinics, and the women affected, at these Florida abortion clinics. This is a must-read article that details the callous lack of humane practices and a brutal alleged infanticide. In Abortion’s Underside:

  • Three Florida clinics with a disturbing history of criminal activity continue to operate — and there’s little the law can do to stop them, raising alarming questions of the safety and standards inside abortion clinics in America.
  • The doctors employed at the clinics have shady malpractice histories, and some were not licensed to practice medicine.  
  • Witnesses say a baby was born alive and then murdered, but no one was ever successfully prosecuted for her death.

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GetReligion turns nine; Newsweek sort of vanishes

So once again, with feeling.

Nine years ago today, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc clicked a mouse and GetReligion went live. As I have noted before, I actually wrote the “What we do, why we do it” post on Feb. 1, 2004, but the site opened its cyber-doors the next day, on Feb. 2, 2004.

This kind of anniversary landmark tends to inspire meditations on the passage of time (and a GetReligionista or two will jump in with anniversary thoughts in the next few days). So what is on my mind this year?

Well, how about this: Newsweek, Newsweek, Newsweek, wherefore art thou Newsweek?

Let’s start with a confession or two.

I was a loyal Newsweek (and Time, as well) subscriber for several decades, until theologian-in-chief Jon Meacham openly and honestly decided to run off a million or more of his readers in order to re-brand his struggling magazine as a more elite and openly progressive advocacy operation. At the time, I observed that this mystified me. I mean, I already subscribed to The New Republic. Why would I want Newsweek to take the same approach to the news?

It was pretty obvious that issues linked to religion and faith were at the heart of this Newsweek lunge to the journalistic left. I wondered, out loud, if Newsweek was simply trying to become the World Magazine of the religious left.

Whatever. It didn’t work. Meacham left and Newsweek drifted into another brief era, one in which editor Tina Brown tried to keep the advocacy thing going, while featuring voices on the right as well as the left. The key, however, was that opinion and heat was more important than journalism, more important than reporting and clearly attributed information.

All I knew was that, with the magazine’s ties to The Daily Beast, I needed to start paying attention to Newsweek once again — because that was where I would find the religion, politics and culture reportage of one of the best journalists on the planet, Peter Boyer (best known for his years of work at The New Yorker). So I bought another subscription.

Well, that didn’t last long.

For me, the key was that Newsweek — along with most of the work published at another Meacham-DNA platform, “On Faith” at The Washington Post — came to symbolize the belief that the best way for journalists to handle religion coverage was to baptize it in emotions, feelings and opinions, as opposed to striving for a journalistic blend of history, factual material and clearly attributed quotations from qualified people on both sides of hot-button issues.

Religion, in other words, was not real.

Religion was not worthy of real journalism. Religion was interesting and powerful, but there was no need to think of it as an issue linked to real life in the real world. It was sort of, well, hazy, vague and foggy. In a GetReligion post about “On Faith” (“On Fog” — A Meditation), I noted:

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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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