Sexing up Pope Francis

My corner of Florida has been over run by college students on Spring break. While Daytona Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale have lost market share over the past 40-years to Texas, Mexico and points South, there are still enough kids in town this week to make the merchants smile and locals complain about “those kids” and their sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Sounds like a story pitch for a 60′s beach film — Frankie and Annette, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue — maybe Ann-Margret and Elvis? The stories wrote themselves back then.  Sex continues to sell. Where would the tabloids or MTV be with out the Page 3 girls, the Kardashians and the denizens of the Jersey Shore?  And where would the New York Times be without homosexuality? While it is harder and harder to sell religion news stories to the trade — a “naughty vicar” story will always find a buyer.

But sex isn’t what it once was. Its omnipresence has robbed it of its marketing value, mystique (and romance). “Sexed-up” no longer refers solely to hormone drenched teens or blue movies, but in journalism it refers to improving a story to make it more palatable (more salable) to editors who in turn want to attract more readers with stronger stories.

The phrase settled into the media psyche during the second Gulf War. It is commonly believed that a 29 May 2003 report by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan broadcast on Radio 4′s Today program originated the phrase. Gilligan reported that a senior British official told him a dossier prepared by the Blair government to support the war against Saddam Hussein had been “sexed up”. Specifically the government’s “September Dossier” had made the exaggerated claim that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed by the Iraqis within 45 minutes of Saddam Hussein’s order. [Read more...]

Sandra Fluke, Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ and tender stories

Time magazine is doing its annual PR blitz for its “Person of the Year.” After I won the designation in 2006, I stopped paying attention to it. Since then the honor has gone to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Ben Bernanke, Mark Zuckerberg and “the protester.” And yes, if you’re wondering, the tradition of selecting a Man of the Year began in 1927 with Time editors contemplating newsworthy stories possible during a slow news week. We’ve all been there.

Among the nominees this year are Ai Weiwei, Bashar Assad, Felix Baumgartner, Joe Biden (fer real), Bo Xilai, Chris Christie, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Gabrielle Douglas, Roger Goodell, the Higgs boson, E.L. James, Jay-Z, Kim Jong Un, the Mars Rover, Marissa Mayer, Mohamed Morsi, Psy, Pussy Riot, John Roberts, Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, Undocumented Immigrants, Malala Yousafzai.

The winners, no matter how unworthy, tend to be from the United States. But we have a fair number of nominees from other countries. I’m a bit surprised Chen Guangcheng wasn’t on there. I might also note that the religious dimensions of the list are somewhat slight. Readers of our recent post on the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood may appreciate that the write-up for Morsi included this line, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s religiosity is moderate, or at least moderated by pragmatism; its politics are populist and likely the template for a number of other fledgling democracies in the region.”

The entry for Yousafzai was a nice tribute to her devout Muslim father who supports her and her educational goals. The last line is “It is among the tenderest of stories in the world of conservative Islam.”

But I bring all this up because of the write-up for another deserving nominee — Sandra Fluke. While I tend to think the prize is too American-focused, if it goes in that direction again this year, she should definitely win. I only wish she could win it in conjunction with the media that has been so supportive of her during her entire public relations journey. You could say their love for her is among the tenderest of stories in the world of mainstream media. (For more on that, you can see some of our posts on the coverage of Fluke here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. And if/when Fluke does win, I hope she can accept the award with Cecile Richards, Andrea Mitchell and the whole Church of Planned Parenthood. They all had an amazing year and they deserve credit.)

Anyway, here’s the write-up of our Person of the Year:

The daughter of a conservative Christian pastor, Sandra Fluke, 31, became a women’s-rights activist in college and continued her advocacy as a law student at Georgetown. After she complained about being denied a chance to testify at a Republican-run House hearing on insurance coverage for birth control, Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut.” Democrats and many Republicans reacted with outrage, and the left made Limbaugh’s slur Exhibit A in what they called a GOP “war on women.” Fluke, meanwhile, weathered the attention with poise and maturity and emerged as a political celebrity. Democrats gave her a national-convention speaking slot as part of their push to make reproductive rights a central issue in the 2012 presidential campaign — one that helped Barack Obama trounce Mitt Romney among single women on Election Day.

Technically the hearing was on religious liberty, but the media have long decided that the issue is best framed otherwise.

But what I found interesting was that Time has described Fluke’s father as a “conservative Christian pastor.” We learned earlier that “The Rev. Richard Fluke, Sandra’s father, is a part-time licensed local pastor who shares the pulpit at Tatesville United Methodist Church in Everett, Pa., with two other pastors. Both he and his wife, Betty Kay, are proud of their daughter.”

I know enough Methodists to know that some are very conservative and some are very progressive. The leadership of the denomination tends to be liberal but Methodist polity and culture permits some significant variance. I would love to know more about his conservatism or how that descriptor was chosen. What does it mean in this context? Maybe when she wins the award, we’ll get some substantiation about Fluke’s conservative Christian upbringing.