Babies and holy ghosts in Texas surrogate pregnancies story

Give the Austin American-Statesman credit for a couple of things.

First, the Texas newspaper has the start of a potentially fantastic, enlightening trend piece:

AUSTIN — A nurse spread gel on Nicole Benham’s pregnant belly and slowly moved a sonogram wand over it, describing the images on nearby monitors. This scene, in which parents get an early glimpse of baby, is played out many times a day in medical offices across America, but this plot has a twist.

Benham is carrying twins, but they are not her babies. They belong to Sheila and Kevin McWilliams, a New Jersey couple who lost their firstborn and can’t have another child together. They provided the eggs and sperm, and they will bear all costs, which average $75,000 to $100,000 and include fees to the surrogate, the matchmaking surrogacy company and lawyers for both parties, experts said.

Despite such costs, U.S. surrogate births have jumped 250 percent in eight years, and experts expect them to continue rising because of advances in reproductive technology, increasing numbers of same-sex marriages and growing acceptance of surrogacy.

In the vast majority of surrogate births today, the intended parents provide the egg and sperm, minimizing the risk of custody battles. Data suggest that there are fewer multiple births, and, perhaps surprisingly, more surrogates bearing babies for others more than once.

Second, the American-Statesman doesn’t totally ignore religion:

Even so, surrogacy remains controversial. State laws vary widely, with such liberal locales as New York and the District of Columbia banning it outright. The Catholic Church also forbids it, along with in vitro fertilization, the process in which the egg and sperm are combined in a lab before being transferred to the carrier.

“It removes procreation from that intimate act of love and puts it in the realm of science and medicine,” said Marie Cehovin, director of the Office of Pro-life Activities and Chaste Living for the Catholic Diocese of Austin. “The whole idea of creating life in a petri dish is horrendous to us.”

The church also opposes the destruction of embryos and terminating the fetus, which could happen, for example, if a different gender is preferred, she said.

But overall, this story fails to deliver.

Granted, it would be impossible for a newspaper story — particularly in the 1,100 words afforded to this one — to cover every religious and ethical issue associated with surrogate pregnancies. On a basic, Journalism 101 level, however, this piece leaves too many unanswered questions. That’s even before the rather large holy ghosts that — even if those general points were addressed — would cause concern here at GetReligion.

The basic stuff first: Way up high, readers are told:

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Demon ‘deliverance’ in Big D: ‘The Exorcists Next Door’

A burp or a yawn? Either might signal an exiting demon.

So say Larry and Marion Pollard, the subjects of a 4,400-word D Magazine profile with the provocative title “The Exorcists Next Door.”

When Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher proclaimed the piece a must-read, we knew we needed to check it out.

Let’s start at the top:

The trees and rolling hills lend a warm, suburban vibe to Marion and Larry Pollard’s West Arlington neighborhood. Shouts of children from a nearby elementary school waft in on waves of heat as you step inside the foyer of their comfortable ranch home, where you’re surrounded by portraits of the grandkids—eight of them, ranging in age from 5 to 22.

To the right is the Pollards’ office, looking like any pastor’s study, with a desk, a trio of chairs, and bookshelves lined with Bible commentaries. A box of tissues sits discreetly beside one chair. A football-sized terrier named Bella bounces in and nestles behind you when you take a seat.

You won’t hear bland Bible homilies in this place, however. The Pollards are exorcists, practitioners of an ancient specialty mostly lost since the early days of the church, and their job is to cast out demons. The demons come out through gagging and coughing and shaking and yawning, with minimal histrionics, because Larry “binds” the theatrical antics of demons, such as flinging bodies across a room. They call it gentle deliverance.

Pastors and Christian mental-health professionals from all over the country quietly refer clients they just can’t help to the Pollards, after trying everything. In the 15 years or so since the Pollards started their ministry, there has been no shortage of tortured souls.

For the next four hours, I will witness an exorcism—or, as they prefer to call it, “deliverance session”—and it will blow my mind. Not because I haven’t seen a deliverance before. I have, but it was while on Christian church missions in Nigeria and Botswana. I’ve never seen this: the juxtaposition of these plainspoken, ordinary West Texans and the Dantean drama that plays out in front of us, via the soft frame of a 38-year-old suburban mom we’ll call Ruth.

Writer Julie Lyons, whom Dreher describes as “a friend from my Dallas days and a heck of a writer,” approaches her subject with seriousness and respect — and even allows herself to become a part of the story (don’t miss the twist at the end!).

She complements her detailed narrative of what she witnesses inside the Pollards’ house with historical background and modern-day insight from theologians:

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If at first you don’t succeed … find another source

Tis a lesson you should heed:

Try, try again.

If at first you don’t succeed,

Try, try again.

British writer and editor W.E. Hickson popularized this quotation in the 1870s, and I’m dusting it off today for our friends at The Dallas Morning News. Why, you ask? I’m guessing they haven’t thought of applying the concept to sourcing stories, particularly ones that demand a balanced treatment.

On the heels of a federal judge’s ruling striking down Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage, I looked to the Lone Star State’s outstanding collection of newspapers for what I expected to be top-notch coverage. Instead, I came across this news/feature piece, which fell flat on its one-sided backside.

After 53 years, Jack Evans will finally get hitched to his life partner George Harris on Saturday, believed to be the first public same-sex wedding in Dallas officiated by a United Methodist minister.

The union has qualified religious acceptance. There’s open debate in the United Methodist Church, which officially views homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

But the well-known minister celebrating the wedding — the 85-year-old Rev. Bill McElvaney — says “love over law” matters most.

“The Methodist church is on the wrong side of the Gospel on this — and history,” McElvaney said.

In the next paragraph, we expect a quote from someone speaking on behalf of the United Methodist Church. The rules of good journalism would suggest this person be allowed to speak to the denomination’s stance on same-sex marriage, perhaps offer a comment on the news peg of the Texas ruling and what it might mean for the people in Texas pews.

Here’s what we have instead, buried deep in the heart of Texas — er, this story:

The UMC bishop for this region, Bishop Michael McKee, didn’t return messages seeking comment.

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Pod people: Much ado, nothing new, Merry Christmas to you

Santa scored big in Texas schools this week. Free speech, meanwhile, ruled it a tie. And religion paced the sidelines waiting to be put in the game.

The Lone Star state’s “Merry Christmas Law” guarantees the freedom for students, teachers and administrators to wish each other Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah. They can wear sweaters with St. Nick on them to class Christmas parties and hand out dreidel pencils and reindeer antlers. As I said earlier this week, the law was effective this past summer.

Never mind that they could, by law, do all these things before. Now it’s duplicated, so it really must be OK!

The Christian and Jewish holidays lawmakers unanimously voted in June to verbally and visually protect in schools were represented by the most familiar and commercial symbol at a press conference this week: Santa Claus.

Not Mary, Joseph and the infant Christ, along with all the nativity trappings.

Not the menorah or a scroll containing a blessing.

Santa was the main focus of a press conference given to remind Texans that they didn’t have to be politically correct and dance around the words Christmas or Hanukkah in public school settings.

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Santa Claus is coming … to Texas schools

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No more winter parties in Wichita Falls, nor holiday trees in Houston: Schoolchildren in the Lone Star State can now legally wish each other “Merry Christmas” without fear of legal prosecution.

(Actually, the law passed this past summer. But it would have been silly for Santa to Ho-Ho-Ho his way into the state Legislature then for a news conference, not to mention quite hot in that suit of his.)

From Texas lawmakers this week comes much ado about the Merry Christmas law, which in spite of the Christmas reference also protects Hanukkah. Schools may legally display nativity scenes, Christmas trees, menorahs and other “scenes and symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations” as long as more than one religion is referenced, or one religion and one secular symbol (snowman, Santa Claus, candy cane) are present. Students, teachers and guests also may say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Holidays” to one another legally.

Like a large, prettily wrapped box decked out in shiny paper and a big bow, this story could have held all the promise of a nice gift. I was shaking the computer screen, hoping inside the text would emerge a good read that thoughtfully addressed the complexities of the issue, seen as recently as this month in the Dallas suburb of Frisco when a politically correct memo on an elementary school’s winter parties was distributed.

The Associated Press story reads more like a quick-hit piece written on deadline, though, with just the press conference referenced. No background for newcomers, no new updates on  the Frisco fracas, nothing but a repackaging of the facts of the day.

Bah humbug.

“I’m proud to stand in defense of Christmas and I urge other states to stop a needless, stilted overreaction to Christmas and Hanukkah,” the law’s sponsor, Houston Republican Dwayne Bohac, said at a news conference Monday.

Bohac, who has a sign at home that proclaims: “Be Merry and Stay That Way,” said the law was meant to codify the religious freedoms of the First Amendment and keep “censorship of Christmas out of public schools.” He said it will stop “ridiculous” past lawsuits against some Texas schools in the name of excessive political correctness.

“This is a real issue in our country,” said Bohac, who said similar bills have been filed in state Legislatures in Alabama, Mississippi, Indiana and New Jersey, and that one is coming in Oklahoma.

Texas is the only state to so far approve such a law, which some civil libertarians have criticized as unnecessary given the First Amendment.

And now we’ll hear from the civil libertarians. Or someone in Frisco who thought the party planning letter was a good idea, maybe the author? Or anyone else.

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Baylor’s Art Briles: Diehard Texan and what else?

Try to imagine national-level journalists writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Notre Dame University without mentioning Catholicism.

Try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Brigham Young University without mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now try to imagine sportswriters writing about how a coach does or does not fit into the culture of Baylor University without mentioning the fact that it is the largest Baptist academic institution on the world? Without mentioning whether or not the coach is a man of faith?

What if the coach in question was a man whose life pivoted around a tragic, soul-crushing event in which, as a young man, he lost both of his parents in a tragic car crash as they were driving to see him play? What about it, ESPN?

What if the man in question — in the midst of an amazing Big 12 championship season that could make him the national coach of the year — also lost his beloved brother in yet another tragic accident?

Would it be possible for journalists in yet another national-level newsroom to skip the religious element of that story?

Well, Washington Post folks, what about it?

It appears that Briles veered onto the elite radar at the Post, in large part, because of his more-than-a-mentor relationship with Robert Griffin III and a rumor, that lasted for a few days, that the professional football team in Washington, D.C., might want to pull him inside the Beltway as a head coach.

Thus the Post team dedicated nearly 2,300 words to Briles the other day in a long and very ordinary football-coach profile.

That’s a lot of ink.

So what did the Post editors decide is the crucial element of the Briles story, the main reason that he is such a great fit for Baylor and its unique cultural and educational challenges?

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A same-sex marriage story that makes you go hmmmmm …

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Here at GetReligion, we’ve repeatedly highlighted the apparent new normal on mainstream media coverage of same-sex marriage.

I’ve complained (more than once or twice) that The Associated Press seems to have decided to quote only same-sex marriage proponents — and not opponents — in its stories.

So as I was scanning the headlines on the Pew Research Center’s “Religion in the News” page (one of my favorite bookmarks), this one caught my attention:

AP: Gay rights fight comes to Texas, despite ban

A native Texan, I clicked on the story link, curious if the story would conform to the new normal or actually quote key voices on all sides of the reported fight.

Let’s start at the top:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — One couple wants to get married, while the other just wants theirs recognized. A third couple wants a divorce, while the fourth wants theirs finalized. If all win their lawsuits, they could overturn the Texas ban on same-sex marriage.

A federal court in San Antonio will hear arguments next month from the attorneys representing the couples who want to live lawfully wedded. The Texas Supreme Court is considering the cases of the couples who want their out-of-state marriages legally dissolved.

They are challenging a constitutional ban on gay and lesbian marriages approved by 1.7 million Texas voters in 2005. At the time, only Massachusetts allowed gay marriage and conservatives hoped to pass a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Eight years later, 16 states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriages, and New Mexico is allowing marriages pending a decision by that state’s Supreme Court later this year. The U.S. Supreme Court has also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, saying federal authorities cannot deny the rights of couples legally married under state law.

Well, four paragraphs in, the story really hasn’t quoted anyone.

I kept reading, and the entire story — all 660 words of it — reads more like a boring research paper than an actual enlightening piece of journalism.

The couples who sued are never identified. The only actual humans named are U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. But the story — if you want to call it that — contains not a single comment inside quote marks, pro or con.

Yawn.

Attribution — by which quality journalism identifies the source of its information — is just as lacking.

For example, consider this paragraph:

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The return of Baylor football, minus all that Baptist stuff

Way back when I was in college, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, the always confident folks at the University of Texas (rivals in the region would use a different adjective) fired an interesting salvo at a key rival.

The marketers for the Tea Sippers created a burnt orange and white car window decal that simply said “The University.”

The message was clearly targeted at the humble Aggies over at Texas A&M University in their semi-military fortress. There was, you see, only one university of Texas and it was in Austin, not in College Station.

And in Waco?

While that hubbub lingered, someone at my alma mater had an interesting idea. They created a green-and-gold decal for the much smaller university on I-35 that said “Thee University.”

In other words, Baylor University answered to an authority even higher than the folks who ran higher education in the Lone Star State. That “thee” move was clever, since there was no way for Baylor people to deny that the school’s image was completely dominated by the fact that it was the world’s largest Baptist school. There was a reason that people liked to call Baylor — as a tribute, or with a touch of venom — “Jerusalem on the Brazos.”

After all, it’s hard to play truly Texas-worthy football when you’re a rather bookish Baptist school, the kind of place where just as many players, or more, frequent Bible studies as often as they do the local watering holes (ask for a Big O). Right?

Maybe not. Right now, the Baylor Bears are on a bit of a multi-year roll, riding the waves still rippling from that remarkable Heisman Trophy run (and pass) by Robert Griffin III, a church-going do-gooder who was as skilled in the classroom as on the gridiron.

So, how does anyone try to tell the Baylor story without mentioning the whole “Jerusalem on the Brazos” angle?

Ask the folks at ESPN.

To my shock, the world’s most powerful multi-media sports empire recently ran a lengthy piece on Baylor, Griffin and head football coach Art Briles without mentioning the word “Baptist” or the word “church.” How about “Christian”? How about “faith”? That would be “no” and “no.”

But what about the history and identity of the program?

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