Triumph of the stringer in the Nairobi massacre coverage

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African reporters are coming into their own with the stories coming out of Kenya this weekend. If you step back from the reports on the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi — now entering its third day as of the writing of this post — and look not at the content of the news, but how it is being presented, you can see examples the changes taking place in journalism. Advances in technology, newspaper and network business models, and the worldviews brought to the reporting by journalists have resulted in different stories today than would have been written 10 years ago.

Religion is part of the story. In the last week Boko Haram has killed over 150 Nigerians, the Taliban has killed 70 plus churchgoers and the Mall death total is expected to rise.  All of the attacks were undertaken by Muslim terrorist groups, and the initial reports suggest they were targeting non-Muslims.

Twitter and the internet have changed the game. The police, the president of Kenya and the terrorists (if the tweets from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab which claim responsibility are to be trusted) have taken to Twitter or posted statements on the internet to release information that in the past would have come from press conferences or interviews. This story written by AFP and printed in The Australian as “More hostages freed as explosions rock mall complex” draws on on-the-scene reporting from local stringers and staff, statements posted on the web, Twitter tweets and press conferences.

The quantity of information has increased, but has the quality? By this I do not mean discrepancies such as the Red Cross reports 69 dead and the police report 59, as noted in this Reuters report. Twitter provides immediacy, but no context. The Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu reports that al-Shabaab has identified the names and nationalities of the killers.  Three are listed as Americans (two from Minnesota and one from Kansas City), one Briton and one Finn amongst the Somali and Kenyan terrorists.  Major news — “Twin City killers in Nairobi Mall Massacre” — but can we trust it? I have no idea who the Shabelle Media Network is, and their report is drawn from a Twitter post.

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Muhammad marketing mishaps in Sydney

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I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, All over this land, I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning, I’d hammer out love between, My brothers and my sisters, All over this land.

So begins the first stanza of “The Hammer Song”. Written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, the progressive anthem had its first public performance by Seeger in 1949 at a rally in New York on behalf of the leaders of the Communist Party-USA, who were on trial for sedition. It was recorded by The Weavers in 1950 but attracted little popular interest. In 1962 Peter, Paul and Mary recorded their version, which reached the top of the charts in August of that year.  The song has continued to move away from its Communist roots and has been recorded by artists ranging from Luther Vandross to the Von Trapp Family Singers — (never knew they too were secret Communists).

My introduction to the song — and the Peter, Paul & Mary oeuvre — came in summer camp and church youth groups. In the space of 25 years “The Hammer Song”  had been sanitized — homogenized if you will.  Stalinist agitprop rendered into wholesome children’s camp fire music.

As I write this post it is Friday evening. Time for some free association and thoughts of change (and decay all around I see). What I once believed the “The Hammer Song” meant and what it’s authors meant bore no relationship to one another.  For that matter, what did “Puff the Magic Dragon” mean?

The Australian the largest daily newspaper in Australia and a part of the Rupert Murdoch media empire– this week published an expose challenging the cherished beliefs of one religious group. It took a hammer to Mypeace exposing their claims as exaggerations at best or deliberate falsehoods. The Australian press — the Fairfax newspapers The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in particular — are strongly anti-clerical, but I nevertheless was surprised to read this story entitled: “Ads for Islam ‘misquote Shaw from bogus book’”.

The article began:

Anti-”Islamophobia” advertisements due to screen on major free-to-air channels from today rely on a fabricated quote from Irish playwright and avowed atheist George Bernard Shaw, from a book that does not exist, according to the International Shaw Society.

The 30-second ads have been funded by the Sydney-based Mypeace organisation, which says it hopes to “build bridges” between Muslims and other Australians. Animated with voiceovers and with quotations displayed on the screen, they feature major historical figures including Mahatma Gandhi and Shaw praising the prophet Mohammed.

Hows that for a strong opening! And notice the small “p” in prophet in the last sentence. The BBC, to cite one outlet, in deference to Muslim sensibilities always uses a capital “P”. The story reports:

The advertisements quote Shaw proclaiming the prophet Mohammed was “the saviour of humanity” in a book he is supposed to have written entitled ‘The Genuine Islam’. But International Shaw Society treasurer Richard F Dietrich said he had compiled a complete list of Shaw’s works. which did not include the book. “I think ‘The Genuine Islam’ is bogus”, he said.

The Australian does not stop there, but goes for the kill. [Read more...]

Beware of creepy, crooked, cash-flush Pentecostals

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.

I do not love you, Sabidius, and I cannot say why;
All I can say is this, that I do not love you.

Martial, Epigrams, I.32 (circa 86 A.D.)

The Australian, Australia’s largest circulation broadsheet, published a story this week about an Assemblies of God church that has taken a leap across the Pacific and planted a campus in the United States. The article entitled “Eyeing off God’s bounty” does not say that the Rev. Russell Evans is a fraud and a crook and that those who attend worship at Planetshakers City Church are ignorant rubes. However, you may well think so after reading this story.

The article opens on a self-consciously hip note.

JESUS is in the house!” roared pastor Neil Smith above the crash-boom of drums and the wail of electric guitars. You would have thought the Son of God was sitting right there in the packed auditorium, such was the excitement among the youthful crowd at the Rock Church in San Diego, California, in January.

This was a big moment in the history of Planetshakers City Church, once a small local church in Melbourne, now fast becoming an international Christian brand. As if Jesus wasn’t enough, Smith promised to “take it to a whole new level” as he introduced senior pastor Russell Evans, whom he called “the founder and visionary leader”.

Stylistically, this is grating and somewhat ugly in its diction, and derisive in tone. “[A]n international Christian brand”? It gets worse. After recounting Evans’ belief that some in the congregation should come forward for healing, the article states he appears to do quite well out of the business.

Soon Evans was calling out “healings” from the stage to his prospective followers. He announced that God wanted to heal people in the audience. “Wait a sec, wait a sec, God wants to heal some people in this room,” said Evans, as if the deity was whispering in his ear. “Someone’s back is being healed to my left, right there. There is someone here who has a knee injury and God is healing you right now; there is someone here with incredible sinus problems — you’re over in that section over there — God is healing you,” he crooned.

In any other forum, such a claim might spark derision, but in Evans’s world this is called carrying out his “pastoral duties.” His Planetshakers City Church and many of its staff receive generous tax concessions for these duties.

And at this point the article pivots and insinuates bad faith, stating:

 Until now, the government has shown only occasional interest in the activities of churches that receive tax exemptions. But from July 1 the newly formed Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission will bring unprecedented scrutiny. ACNC advisory board member David Crosbie has said the changes would not restrict the activities of legitimate churches, but would help to weed out “fringe religions” that act more like cults. While Planetshakers is regarded as a mainstream church, it too will be subject to the ACNC’s scrutiny. There is no requirement under law that churches comply with specific Christian doctrine, but the ACNC is nominally interested in the form and content of worship, insiders say.

Setting aside the suggestion the government should decide the content of religious faith — what is this, the Church of England? — the snide and derisive comments continue – interspersed with the odd fact here and there.

And Evans, one of the new breed of “pastorpreneurs”, is spreading the word in the US market, where the church could make millions of dollars in tax-free revenue. …  As the Evans brothers build their international ministries, they crisscross the world on their church credit cards.  … He recently tweeted his “fav eating places in the world: 1. Shangri-la (Singapore) 2: (Five star hotel) Langham (Melbourne) 3. Little pasta place in Rome 4. Angelinas Paris 5: mi cocina Dallas (Texas).” …  Under present rules, pastors such as the Evans brothers get to keep all the frequent-flyer points they earn on their corporate credit cards, tax-free. And with almost all church expenses paid on credit cards, that could run to hundreds of thousands of points each year. …  Insiders say Russell and his wife are paid a cash salary of approximately $100,000 each, but that the true value of their total package is closer to $500,000 once all fringe benefits are included. Planetshakers denies this, but declines to provide accurate figures, citing confidentiality.

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