The Mosul purge: How good is the media coverage?

The purge of Christians from Mosul in northern Iraq — home to thriving Christian communities almost since biblical times — is a historic human rights abuse. Yet mainstream media have done comparatively little coverage on it, probably because they’re stretched thin with the twin stories of the airline shoot-down in Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Also, of course, the Islamic State is in no mood to allow access to the “kafir” media.

Still, some reports have emerged, and some are brave, sensitive and frank on what the Christians are suffering.

The New York Times is often tone-deaf on religion in the U.S., but the newspaper has distinguished itself in stories like this one. Tim Arango’s newsfeature opens with an anecdote on the loss shared by Iraqi Christians and many Muslims:

BAGHDAD — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

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Concerning the latest (alleged) interview with Pope Francis

So how would you like to be a press officer for the Vatican these days? Honestly, they should be getting combat pay.

Here is the question that I have been asking, during the latest round of the game called, “What did the pope say and who says that he said it?”

In terms of basic journalism craft and ethics, what is an “interview”? Here is the top of a Reuters report that shows why I am asking this:

ROME, July 13 (Reuters) – About 2 percent of Roman Catholic clerics are sexual abusers, an Italian newspaper on Sunday quoted Pope Francis as saying, adding that the pontiff considered the crime “a leprosy in our house”.

But the Vatican issued a statement saying some parts of a long article in the left-leaning La Repubblica were not accurate, including one that quoted the pope as saying that there were cardinals among the abusers.

The article was a reconstruction of an hour-long conversation between the pope and the newspaper’s founder, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who has written about several past encounters with the pope.

And what precisely is a “reconstruction of an hour-long conversation”? Here is some additional information:

The Vatican issued a statement noting Scalfari’s tradition of having long conversations with public figures without taking notes or taping them, and then reconstructing them from memory. Scalfari, 90, is one of Italy’s best known journalists.

While acknowledging that the conversation had taken place, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a statement saying that not all the phrases could be attributed “with certainty” to the pope. Lombardi said that, in particular, a quote attributed to the pope saying cardinals were among the sex abusers was not accurate and accused the paper of trying to “manipulate naive readers.”

So this was a private conversation and the journalist did not — perhaps as an homage to Truman Capote — take notes or use an audio recorder. Instead, he left the hour-long conversation and then, with his razor-sharp (we can only hope) 90-year-old memory, he “reconstructed” the verbatim quotations from this event.

Reuters went out of its way to say, over and over, that Pope Francis “was quoted as saying” these words, thus distancing itself from the precise content. Is that enough?

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For Cologne archbishop, Reuters emits a scent of bias

The new archbishop of Cologne, Germany, is all about gays.

At least it is, according to a Reuters story on the transfer of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki there from Berlin. A full 203 of the story’s 430 words deal with what he thinks, or says, or what Reuters thinks he says, about homosexuality:

But Woekli surprised Berliners by saying he respected all people and would gladly meet with gay activists.

A year later, in 2012, he said: “If two homosexuals take responsibility for each other, if they are loyal to each other over the long term, then one should see this in the same way as heterosexual relations.”

Berlin’s Alliance against Homophobia nominated him for its Respect Prize that year, an honour he politely declined by saying it was normal for a Christian to respect all people so he should not receive an award for it.

Reuters starts with the ostensible theme of Woelki, a relatively young 58, as part of a “new generation” of bishops. Drawing their cue from a newspaper in Berlin, they characterize him as “not grumpy and dogmatic … these men speak of mercy and mean it. They’re open to people, even their critics, to a point and have a heart for the disadvantaged. Still, they’re theologically conservative.”

The newspaper may have especially liked Woelki because it disliked his former mentor, the (cliche alert!) “staunchly conservative” Cardinal Joachim Meisner. Still, the setup is a tantalizing appetizer.

So, where does Cologne’s new leader stand on the environment? Pollution and urbanization? Relations with Jews and Muslims? Clerical sexual abuse? Vatican fiscal reform? The aging ranks of nuns? The secularization of Europe? Refugee movements in Africa and Central America? The looming annihilation of Christianity in the Middle East?

Wellllllll, Reuters doesn’t get around to any of that. They’re too busy reading — perhaps reading into — Woelki’s attitude toward gays, and gays’ attitude toward him:

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Headline writers duck and cover when Francis improvises

It must be very hard to be a headline writer in the age of Pope Francis.

I mean, the man serves up — during his off-the-cuff homilies and chats — a wealth of material that simply screams, “You must put this phrase in a headline because it sounds amazing.”

The only problem is that this pope has a way of using words that have specific doctrinal or legal content, in terms of Catholic tradition, in strange ways. He says words that make HUMAN sense, yet do not precisely say what the pope seems to be saying. Journalists quote the words accurately. Then, later, Vatican officials then have to clean up what the pope SAID, as opposed to what he did not actually mean to have said.

Headline writers get caught in the middle. Consider this case study from Reuters, care of The Washington Post:

Pope Francis lambastes mobsters, says mafiosi ‘are excommunicated’

The key quote holds up at the top of the report. Can you spot the key word?

SIBARI, Italy – Pope Francis on Saturday issued the strongest attack on organized crime groups by a pontiff in two decades, accusing them of practicing “the adoration of evil” and saying mafiosi are excommunicated.

It was the first time a pope had used the word excommunication — a total cutoff from the Catholic Church — in direct reference to members of organized crime.

“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said in impromptu comments at a Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in one of Italy’s most crime-infested areas.

Key word? “Impromptu.”

So what did the pope say, according to the Vatican? Or, to put it another way, what did he not legally say in terms of Catholic canon law?

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What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

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As usual, good Francis and bad Benedict at the BBC


The honeymoon continues for Pope Francis and the press.

Coverage of the pope’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories was rather good. Save for a brief flutter over what language Jesus spoke, the press coverage was sympathetic, balanced and thoughtful, and in marked contrast to the treatment afforded Benedict when he traveled to Germany or England or Mexico.

Yet the visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories also highlighted the shortcomings of the craft of journalism — shortcomings not in the form of errors or omissions, but unexamined assumptions. When should a reporter stop and ask himself if he is repeating the conventional wisdom — taking on trust that something is a fact, when it is an opinion?

A BBC story on Francis and the Middle East entitled “Pope Francis cements reputation for deft diplomacy” repeats the now rather tired conventional wisdom of the good Francis / bad Benedict. While the two popes have very different styles, I do not believe there are facts that would substantiate the good/bad claims.

Benedict has had a tough time of it from the start. While the German press lauded his election, the first German pope in 1000 years, the secular press in Europe seems to have taken against him from the start. There was no honeymoon for Benedict from The Economist in 2005, which saw him as “an unsurprising choice.” And “to many, he will inevitably be a disappointing one.”

While the BBC stated:

Critics have attacked not just his tough conservative stance – speculating that it may alienate churchgoers of the 21st Century who prefer a more flexible doctrine – but also wonder whether the 78-year-old is charismatic enough to engender much affection.

By way of contrast, Francis has been described as a breath of fresh air by the secular press. In choosing Francis as its “person of the year” for 2013, Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

The new pope was a kinder, gentler man, Time believed, who had rejected “church dogma.” He was teaching a softer, more inclusive Catholicism, noting his:

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Pod people: Vatican III? Nicea III? Press blind spot 666?

The questions jumped into Twitter in a flash, which is what one would assume would happen when there is a chance that a once-a-millennium news story could be breaking.

So Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis have proposed a 2025 event to mark the great Council of Nicea.

Line up, religion-news consumers, to ask your big questions. Father James Martin, you go first:

So no Vatican III?

But a proposal for Nicea III?

Slow down. First things first. Was this a proposal for a true Ecumenical Council between the ancient churches of East and West?

It quickly became clear, from Rome and Istanbul, that this was not the case.

But what did it mean, really, to say that this date — so far off in the future — is now on the calendar for an ecumenical gathering to celebrate the great Ecumenical Council of Nicea? That, of course, is the gathering of the church fathers best known because of the Nicene Creed and its proclamation of the Holy Trinity.

Once again, I was amazed that the big guns in the mainstream media didn’t jump in on this story. Amazed.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast chat, host Todd Wilken and I pondered, once again, why journalists concluded that the Pope Francis pilgrimage to the Middle East was primarily a political event about statecraft. It was not, repeat NOT, as the Vatican kept stating, an event that grew out of the highly symbolic invitation by Bartholomew for the pope to meet him in Jerusalem. (Click here to listen in.)

In this case, I had written both a GetReligion post (click here) and a Universal Syndicate column (click here) on this topic. In the column I noted:

The symbolic leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, the successor to the Apostle Andrew, had earlier invited Francis, the successor to the Apostle Peter, to join him in Jerusalem to mark the 50th anniversary of the breakthrough meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. Their embrace ended 900-plus years of mutual excommunication in the wake of the Great Schism of 1054.

So why wasn’t this gathering newsworthy? Why was it missing from the vast majority (kudos to the Associated Press for being a major exception) of the mainstream reports about this trip?

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What was the ‘real’ reason Francis made this pilgrimage?

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It’s time, once again, to face the obvious. There is no subject in the world of religion that matters more to the big-hitters in mainstream journalism than the world travels of a pope. Therefore, we have work to do, after the wave of media coverage of the Middle East trip by media superstar Pope Francis.

The big question for today: Why did Pope Francis go to Jerusalem, with stops in tense locales nearby?

Let’s ask The New York Times:

JERUSALEM – Pope Francis inserted himself directly into the collapsed Middle East peace process on Sunday, issuing an invitation to host the Israeli and Palestinian presidents for a prayer summit meeting at his apartment in the Vatican, in an overture that has again underscored the broad ambitions of his papacy.

Francis took the unexpected step in Bethlehem, where he became the first pontiff ever to fly directly into the West Bank and to refer to the Israeli-occupied territory as the “State of Palestine.” …

Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority accepted the pope’s invitation to pray together; Mr. Abbas’s spokesman said the meeting would take place June 6. … Pope Francis’ actions on Sunday posed a striking example of how, barely a year into his papacy, he is seeking to reassert the Vatican’s ancient role as an arbiter of international diplomacy.

The meeting will primarily be symbolic, but this was the big news.

Let’s ask the same question to The Washington Post, which gave major attention to the invitation to Peres and Abbas, but led with:

JERUSALEM – Pope Francis honored Jews killed in the Holocaust and other attacks and kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors as he capped his three-day Mideast trip with poignant stops Monday at some of the holiest and most haunting sites for Jews.

At Israel’s request, Francis deviated from his whirlwind itinerary to pray at Jerusalem’s Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial, giving the Jewish state his full attention a day after voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause.

Finally, let’s ask The Los Angeles Times:

A day after he threw his moral weight behind the establishment of a Palestinian state, Pope Francis paid tribute Monday at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the man whose dream of a Jewish homeland led to the creation of modern-day Israel.

It was a finely balanced gesture on the last day of the pontiff’s visit to the Holy Land, where even the smallest acts are fraught with political symbolism. … The move is likely to annoy many Palestinians, who blame Zionism for the confiscation and occupation of their ancestral lands. But a day earlier, Israelis were themselves dissatisfied with the pope’s decision to travel directly to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, from Jordan rather than arrive in Israel first, and with the Vatican’s pointed reference to the “state of Palestine.”

So what is the unifying thread that runs through these basic stories on the final events of this high-profile papal trip?

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