Saith the WPost: So what’s really going on in Egypt?

My cellphone chimed at me earlier this afternoon with a news bulletin from CNN that actress Lisa Robin Kelly had died. Millions of Americans would want to know this breaking news, I imagine, because of her work with the television comedy “That ’70s Show.”

I think it is safe to say (tragic but true, in other words), that the typical American newsroom executive can assume that the typical American news consumer will know the name of this woman and that most news consumers will want to know that she has died. Pop culture matters in America. Thus, her death is a news bulletin. We can expect quite a bit of coverage on cable TV tonight.

Pop culture matters. Does Egypt really matter?

There will be quite a bit of coverage tonight about the unfolding events in Egypt, where more people died in the latest clashes between the Muslims who lead that nation’s semi-secular military establishment and those who want to see Egypt evolve — through ballots or bullets — into a true Islamic state.

What can editors assume that Americans know about what is happening in Egypt?

Can the typical American editor assume that the typical American news consumer even wants to know the details?

If the typical American knows the name of Lisa Robin Kelly, how many Americans would know this name — Sayyid Qutb?

Qutb is a very important person in the recent history of the world, even though he was executed by the Egyptian military establishment in 1966. You see, it’s hard to understand what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 without knowing Qutb’s name and its even harder to understand what is currently happening in Egyptian streets, mosques and churches without knowing something about Qutb and his thought, especially when it comes to justifying bloodshed in conflicts within Islam, between Muslims.

Can the American news executive justify coverage that tells consumers about the history of the conflicts in Egypt? What can editors assume Americans know or even what to know?

Well, the Washington Post online team just ran a handy feature that offers quite a window into the thinking behind the coverage of these events. The title: “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.”

It begins with the assumption that many Americans do know even know where Egypt is. Honest. Question No. 1 asks, “What is Egypt?”

Question No. 2 moves closer to the issues that will interest GetReligion readers: “Why are people in Egypt killing each other?”

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The controversial mind and Lebanese soul of Helen Thomas

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As I have mentioned before here at GetReligion, at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks I was a member of a largely Lebanese and Syrian Orthodox parish in West Palm Beach, Fla. Our priest, as an Arab Christian, volunteered to be a grief counselor at the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. A few members of the parish had their grandchildren punched around on school playgrounds because they were Arabs, even with their gold baptism crosses hanging around their necks.

There was quite a bit of pain in that flock and much of it, to one degree or the other, was connected to the relatively recent history of the Middle East. The deacon’s family lost everything in Jerusalem after one round of fighting, including land that had been in the family for generations.

It’s hard for Americans to understand the geography of all of this. Christian Arabs didn’t start the fighting, yet with their neighborhoods so close to Christian holy sites, they were often among the first Arabs to suffer the consequences of war.

There was quite a bit of pain that South Florida flock and, over time, I learned to listen and — to be blunt — to learn some of the key differences between the anger of those who opposed Zionism and others who, in their pain, veered into beliefs that were clearly anti-Semitic. In both cases, the pain had content.

This brings me to the life and times of one of the most controversial members of the establishment press here inside the DC Beltway — Helen Thomas.

Were there any religious ghosts in her blunt opinions and her work? Was the pain and anger in that face linked, in any way, to her roots in the Middle East? I do not know. However, I think that was an angle worth explaining in the wave of coverage following her recent death at age 92.

Consider, for example, this language in The New York Times obituary, right after a reference to President Barack Obama giving her cupcakes on her 89th birthday:

At his first news conference in February 2009, Mr. Obama called on her, saying: “Helen, I’m excited. This is my inaugural moment.”

But 16 months later, Ms. Thomas abruptly announced her retirement from Hearst amid an uproar over her assertion that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back where they belonged, perhaps Germany or Poland. Her remarks, made almost offhandedly days earlier at a White House event, set off a storm when a videotape was posted.

In her retirement announcement, Ms. Thomas, whose parents immigrated to the United States from what is now Lebanon, said that she deeply regretted her remarks and that they did not reflect her “heartfelt belief” that peace would come to the Middle East only when all parties embraced “mutual respect and tolerance.”

“May that day come soon,” she said.

It was her reference to Poland and Germany that pushed this world-famous journalist — a trailblazer for women’s equality in the Washington news market — over the edge into career disaster. As former GetReligionista Brad Greenberg wrote at the time, in a post that sparked fierce arguments in the comments pages:

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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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