Middle East stories: The territory includes religion

Terrorists may have declared a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, but coverage of their actions is all over the map.

Some media fixate on the land or tribal alliances. Some dig into history or listen to Washington. Few look at religious roots of the conflict.

The new angle is that the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has rebranded his jihadist group the Islamic State and declared the birth of a modern-day caliphate, an old-fashioned transnational kingdom ruled by Islamic law. Since the caliphate was run by the Sunni branch of Islam, religious and historical currents clearly underlie the announcement.

Unfortunately, many reports keep those currents way under the surface.

Typical of the brisk-but-shallow approach is that of the Washington Post. Here’s how they styled the new events:

BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.

In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.

The Associated Press, to my surprise, did a little better in their story on the rebranded ISIS. The article spells out the Islamic State’s actions in classic shariac terms:

The showcase of the extremist group’s vision of its Islamic state is Raqqa, a city of 500,000 in northern Syria along the Euphrates River. Since expelling rival rebel groups this spring from the city, the militants have banned music, forced Christians to pay an Islamic tax for protection, and killed violators of its interpretation of Islam in the main square, activists say.

Elsewhere, the story skips a little lightly over facts that would help us understand the violence:

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Mandela the sinner? Mandela the prophet? Yes, cover both

One of the greatest mysteries in life is the moral complexity that is often found in the hearts of great men and women who live truly great lives and, even, in their best moments perform great deeds that can be called blessed, or even holy.

There is no question that the turning points in the life of Nelson Mandela, the times when he went to the mountaintop, required him to make stunningly courageous choices about issues that can only be described in terms of morality and justice, forgiveness and grace, sin and redemption. Where did the content of these decisions — especially his decisions to oppose vengeance and revenge on white oppressors — come from? What was the well from which Mandela was drinking?

Yes, he was a brilliant political figure and a flair for the dramatic. But something else was going on, too.

Meanwhile, what about the many personal valleys along the way?

Out of today’s tsunami of coverage, much of it hagiographic in nature, I thought two pieces stood out in wrestling with this duality. Consider the top of a major news essay at The Daily Beast, which even dares to use the term “sinner,” in large part because the great man himself spoke it.

The headline? “Mandela: The Miracle Maker.”

Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, refused to be thought of as a saint. “I never was one,” he insisted — “even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.”

He wasn’t just being modest. He had a weakness for fine clothes and good-looking women, and he certainly was no pacifist. But a halo was the last thing Mandela needed. He spent half a century wrestling South Africa’s white-minority rulers to the negotiating table, and when he finally got them there, he had to be a hard bargainer, not a holy man.

And yet he worked miracles. … By insisting on looking forward rather than back, Mandela kept the nation from collapsing into a bloody orgy of revenge. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said it unequivocally to Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson: “If this man hadn’t been there, the whole country would have gone up in flames.” No one else — not even Tutu himself — had the moral authority to hold South Africa together.

The question journalists are wrestling with, of course, is this: What was the source and nature of his moral authority?

A sidebar at The Los Angeles Times directly addressed this issue, as well.

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Porn: crack cocaine for Christian men?

No, this post isn’t a totally blatant attempt to drive up pageviews by including “porn” in the title.

It’s only partially about that.

Seriously, The Daily Beast ran a news-feature last week on a Baptist pastor who has launched an Internet campaign to recruit 1 million men to say goodbye to smut.

The lede:

Pornography will destroy your life. It is as addictive as crack cocaine. And your child’s cellphone can be a tool of Satan.

These are among the boldest of claims from a Florida pastor who has launched a campaign to find 1 million men willing to do what many may find unnecessary, if not unthinkable: quit porn. Cold turkey. Forever.

Baptist Pastor Jay Dennis of the Church of the Mall in Lakeland, Florida, never thought he’d find himself taking sexual addiction classes, he told The Daily Beast. But staff members were approaching him with concerns about pornography in the church: wives who’d caught their husbands, moms worried about their sons. He knew it would be an awkward conversation, taking on pornography as a mission, and he knew he’d face critics who would tell him the church is no place to deal with sexual issues, he said. “But my heart believed this is the very place to deal with it.”

So Dennis launched a glossy website, Join 1 Million Men, where he asks men around the world to add their first names to a wall, pledging to say goodbye to smut. There’s an iPhone app with related scripture, tips, and tools. Videos about how to “destroy your porn stashes.” Testimonials from men who’ve found themselves in the clutches of Satan’s ubiquitous tools. And some pretty jarring claims, like this one:

“I believe as many as 80 percent of men in the church are struggling with viewing pornography,” Dennis says in one video, adding that drastic action may be necessary to truly rid yourself of it. “You may even need to destroy your present computer. I realize that can be an expensive move, but it may be necessary if you are serious about living porn-free.”

Now, the idea that Christian men struggle with the temptation of pornography isn’t exactly breaking news. I remember reporting in 2004 about a Dallas-area ministry targeting the “secret sin” of porn with billboards. A few years after that, I wrote an in-depth feature on “A minister’s escape from sexual addiction.”

But when the mainstream media cover Christians and porn, they tend to focus on the “novelty” factor, as opposed to giving serious treatment to the issue.

How’d The Daily Beast fare on that front?

Certainly, there’s a bit of a “gee whiz” element to the story by Winston Ross (no relation to this media critic). But overall, this report impressed me, mixing a small amount of R-rated humor with important context (you’ll have to click the link to read the paragraph that precedes this one):

Yuk, yuk. But sex therapists say the pastor has a point, and along with feminists who object to pornography’s objectification of women, Dennis could become the third in an otherwise unlikely trio of interest groups fighting the same scourge.

The pastor’s rationale for excising porn from your life is rooted in Romans 13:14: “Put on the lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lust.” Porn, Dennis says, “is a place your flesh in a moment of weakness will run to for relief or medication from pain or stress.”

If I have a criticism of the piece, it’s that it relies entirely on this one Baptist pastor to assess how other Christian leaders view the anti-porn movement.

Take this paragraph, for example:

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Daily Beast: Bridezillas vs. old-fashioned ties that bind

And now for something completely different.

Yes, I am about to praise an article published by The Daily Beast.

Yes, I know this is a first-person article, written in a magazine-journalism style.

Yes, I know that it is a work of advocacy journalism, one written by a scribe who describes her point of view as that of the “post-religious Americans.”

Nevertheless, Hannah Seligson’s “The Me, Me, Me Wedding: How America is exporting its Bridezilla culture” contains all kinds of news hooks — for American newsrooms and those elsewhere — and is packed with interesting reporting as well as commentary on what can happen when the credit-card world of American materialism, literally, marries the world of the so called “nones” (that’s the religiously unaffiliated folks in that famous Pew Forum study).

My journalistic question, in this case, is why we are not seeing more hard, factual news coverage of some of these issues. Surely we are past the point where male-dominated newsrooms automatically think of stories involving weddings, families and money as pure “style” pieces?

Seligson opens, as magazine pieces often do, with an anecdote about her own not-so-old-fashioned wedding and her attempts to honor the beliefs of her parents and others:

In the best possible way, our wedding wasn’t about us. … It was about honoring thousands of years of Jewish tradition and providing some nachas, the Yiddish term for parental joy, to our parents, grandparents, and other assorted relatives and guests. The most basic parental dictum we heeded was no shellfish and no meat to meet my parents’ dietary restrictions, even though neither my husband nor I keep kosher or are vegetarians.

Now that’s a personal specific, a symbolic detail. What’s the big theme here, the one I think deserves more news attention? Spot the hot terms in this summary material:

In many pockets of 21st-century America, the idea of the wedding as something communal is anathema — a relic from a bygone era or the realm of the devoutly religious. Nuptials today are defined by your Pinterest board, of which there are a multiplying number of wedding-related ones, three-day destination extravaganzas, and $200 spoons from Michael C. Fina. So, many American weddings have evolved into a fixation with material details, trials of abject devotion by members of the wedding party, and resigned acceptance of bridal crusades for perfection that threaten to crush all in their path. Because, well, you deserve it — it’s your day.

Now we have exported our unique brand of the “me, me, me” consumer-driven wedding-mania outside our borders.

Here come the facts. In China, she notes, the average middle-class wedding costs more than the income grandparents once earned in their lifetimes, something like $12,000 — a year’s disposable income a family in places like Beijing and Shanghai. The average cost of a wedding is up 270 percent in South Korea is about 13 years.

What’s the bottom line in all of this?

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Victoria’s Secret is way sexier than faith details

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At first glance, the current mini-wave of news coverage of former underwear model Kylie Bisutti is nothing more than a chance — in this search-engine-driven world in which we live — to slide the mouse-click friendly terms “God” and “Victoria’s Secret” into the same headline.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On closer inspection (no, honest), this is actually a story that asks journalists the mainstream media to cover three surprisingly serious subjects.

First of all, it’s about a young woman’s second thoughts about the ethics, including moral and health concerns, of working in the racier corners of the fashion industry. Second, it’s about her realization that she was playing a starring role in a mass-media culture that teaches young girls to view their bodies as hot commodities. Third, there is a strong religious component to this story, since she began to worry about the impact of her risque modeling gigs on her marriage and her faith.

All of this led to the publication of an overtly Christian book entitled “I’m No Angel,” by a major evangelical publishing house.

Now, does anyone want to take a guess which of these three subjects seems to be receiving the least attention — in terms of information reported — from the mainstream press? Here is a hint: It’s the “why” in that old-school “who, what, when, where, why and how” journalism formula.


However, God did make it into the lede, and the video feature, in this Huffington Post mini-story. Just to be fair, here is the whole report:

Former Victoria’s Secret model Kylie Bisutti stopped by HuffPost Live Wednesday and opened up about her decision to quit modeling to protect her marriage and her relationship with God.

Bisutti told host Alicia Menendez that while her husband never asked her to stop modeling, she did feel that her flirtatious model persona hurt his feelings.

“He did not [ask me to stop modeling], he was very supportive. He just prayed, and his prayers have been answered,” Bisutti said.

She also said that God spoke to her during her modeling career, telling her to leave the industry because she “wasn’t being the right kind of role model.”

Details? That’s not what this story is about, is it?

Over at The Daily Beast, the first and second subjects received pretty serious attention. Also, it’s significant that the biblical contents of her kiss-off tweet made it — sort of — into the lede:

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