‘Moderate’ cardinal does some brash media criticism

As always, the annual March For Life has unleashed waves of debate and criticism about the news coverage, or lack of coverage, of this event.

In this case, one of the most interesting quotes this week came from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and it related to the ongoing interest in what Pope Francis meant when he offered that famous — all together now — quotation that said:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. … The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

And, of course, he also said that the church:

“… cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

In the mainstream press, this has evolved into a sound bite in which the pope says Catholics are “obsessed” with abortion and it’s time for Catholics to stop marching, stop counseling at abortion facilities, stop teaching their doctrines to their children in Catholic schools, etc., etc.

Enter Cardinal O’Malley, who is usually seen as one of the more moderate or even progressive voices at the top of the American Catholic hierarchy. He certainly has his share of conservative Catholic critics. Also recall that, as the leader of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Boston prelate also delivered the pre-march homily that annually serves as a kind of state of the union address for the pro-life movement.

Thus, it is interesting that O’Malley, in an interview with The Boston Herald, offered this bit of media criticism about mainstream news coverage of Pope Francis and, in particular, that “obsessed” quotation:

The normal Catholic in the parish might hear a sermon on abortion once a year. They’ll never hear a sermon on homosexuality or gay marriage. They’ll never hear a sermon about contraception. But if you look at the New York Times, in the course of a week, there will be 20 articles on those topics. So who is obsessed?

Yes, there is more:

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NYTimes offers labels-free look at key free-speech fight

Anyone who has read GetReligion for, oh, more than a week knows that we are not pleased when journalists attempt to jam the complex beliefs of large groups of people into the cramped zones defined by simplistic labels.

Obviously, one of the most abused labels in religion news is “fundamentalist.” We like to quote the Associated Press Stylebook at this point, the part where it proclaims:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Another oh so popular and all but meaningless label, these days, is “moderate.” A decade ago, the independent panel assembled by the leaders of The New York Times to study the newsroom’s strengths and weaknesses noted in its public report:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

In effect, mainstream journalists often are tempted to use this f-word to describe religious people that they don’t like, while reserving the gentle m-word for those whose views are found acceptable in newsroom culture.

With that in mind, readers may understand why I was rather skeptical when I dug into the recent New York Times report that ran under the headline, “Where Free Speech Collides With Abortion Rights.” After all, my biases on these issues are well known. I am both a pro-life Democrat (and Eastern Orthodox Christian layman) and a rather fire-breathing defender of the First Amendment. I was worried about what would happen when the open Sexual Revolution advocacy stance of the Times (hello, Bill Keller) collided with the First Amendment rights of believers engaged in politically incorrect protests.

What did I fear?

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Journalists editing Pope Francis: Who are we to judge?

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Sometimes, in this tricky world of media criticism, it’s hard to pay attention to what someone said without focusing too much on which person, from what group, did the alleged media criticism.

So in this case, let’s read some of the words in a specific op-ed essay before we get to the issue of who wrote them.

This is a short piece, so we can actually parse most of the actual contents. Let’s begin at the beginning:

Not a day goes by without a pundit or editorial writer opining on what Pope Francis said about some controversial issue. While every pope, as well as every religious and secular leader, properly has his remarks subjected to scrutiny, Pope Francis is having his words sliced and diced far beyond anything his predecessors were accustomed to. Quite frankly, the goal of many commentators is to make the pope’s statements appear to underscore their own ideological agenda.

Frankly, there is a lot of that going on out there. This is almost as big a problem on the right, when dealing with papal statements on, oh, capitalism (hello, Rush Limbaugh) as it is on the left (hello college of cardinals at The New York Times editorial pages). However, since the Times is much more important than Limbaugh, when talking about mainstream journalism, let’s proceed on that tact.

Nothing excites the passions of those on the left today more than gay rights. Their obsession is shown with Pope Francis’ comment, made over the summer, “Who am I to judge?” …

What Francis said was, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” The difference between what he is quoted as saying, and what he actually said, is not minor. Those who parse his words agree, which is why they parse them. It is important to note that the pope did not offer two sentences: his one sentence was chopped to alter his message.

We will get to the full papal transcript in just a minute. However, based on my own reading of waves of coverage of this pope and this statement in particular, I believe that this is an accurate statement about how this one papal phrase is being yanked out of context.

Yes, the statement is important and, yes, the tone of the statement is important. But so is the content of the full quote.

Here is the paragraph of this op-ed that I thought would most interest GetReligion readers, especially those working in mainstream newsrooms:

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Asking the nasty, logical question about that Utah judge

It’s often like the force of gravity in American politics and it has been gaining power for about a quarter of a century.

We’re talking about the “pew gap,” that mysterious X-factor that keeps showing up in surveys about the most controversial political and social issues in this land of ours. Simply stated, the more often a person sits in a pew inside a religious sanctuary, the more likely they are to vote for morally conservative candidates (in either party, but these days this tends to show up as a GOP bias).

So does his mean (a) that all moral conservatives are Republicans? The answer, of course, is “no,” especially when you start hanging out with Latinos, African-Americans and people in blue-collar jobs and/or labor unions.

Does this mean that (b) all Republicans are moral conservatives? The answer, of course, is “no,” especially when you are dealing with country-club members and people far outside the Bible Belt.

Does this mean that (c) cultural liberals are godless heathens who never go to church? Of course not, but they are a minority of those found in pews and they tend to be active in smaller, doctrinally progressive flocks of all religious brands.

So this brings us to that New York Times story about that judge in Utah — all together now, UTAH! — who has become an instant hero among supporters of gay-rights and same-sex unions.

This story provides lots of relevant information, all focusing on how his decision has shocked Republicans. Let’s look at a slice or two of the text:

DENVER – For a judge who would go on to make same-sex marriage legal in Utah, a deep-red state where streets in the capital are numbered by their distance from the Mormon temple, Robert J. Shelby arrived on the bench with enthusiastic praise from Republican leaders.

He had been a combat engineer in the Persian Gulf conflict and was, according to state voter records, a registered Republican. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a seven-term Utah Republican, recommended him for a federal judgeship, calling him an experienced lawyer “with an unwavering commitment to the law.” Senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican, said that Mr. Shelby was “pre-eminently qualified” and predicted he would be an outstanding judge.

Now, less than two years since he joined the bench, the same-sex marriage case has transformed Judge Shelby into a hero for hundreds of newlywed gay couples and an object of derision for many social conservatives who supported Utah’s 2004 ban on such unions.

OK, so remember point (b) mentioned above?

What is the logical information that readers almost certainly need to know to understand this legal puzzle?

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Clash of absolute truths in WPost coverage of Schaefer trial

And this just in.

The editorial team of The Washington Post has published a direct quotation from an outside voice, a figure of authority, who supports the doctrines and disciplines of the United Methodist Church, which reflect centuries of Christian tradition on marriage and sex. This is the first time that this old-school journalistic device — a throwback to the days in which balance and fairness were journalistic virtues — has been used in the newspaper’s national-level coverage of this local-news story in rural Pennsylvania.

While the Post has done an admirable job of quoting local voices linked to the case of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, a pastor accused of violating his ordination vows by performing his gay son’s wedding rite, the crucial framing material explaining the national context and meaning of this story has consistently been drawn from supporters of efforts to change and modernize United Methodist doctrines. (For a previous GetReligion post on this story, click here.)

First, here is how this local news story opens:

SPRING CITY, Pa. – A jury of clergy Tuesday night suspended for 30 days a pastor who officiated at the wedding of his gay son, telling him he must decide whether he can embrace church rules — or, if not, leave the Methodist ministry.

The dozens of gay and lesbian advocates in the audience threw their folding chairs on the floor in protest after the announcement and began singing hymns and performing Communion in the middle of the gym that had been used as a courtroom. …

Gay advocates across the country lit up Twitter with anger at the ruling, which many saw as a “de facto defrocking,” but the Rev. Frank Schaefer and some members of his congregation, a small country church in Lebanon, said the jury could have removed him immediately. The call for him to follow the rules “in their entirety” might give him a chance to argue again that he believes he is, they suggested.

Once again, it is clear that Schaefer has merely violated some church rules. Also note that the Post team claims that the key question is whether he “can” embrace church rules, which avoids the issue at the heart of the trial — which is that, when ordained, Schaefer had already vowed to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline” of his denomination.

This brings us to the shocking quote from a leader in an unnamed conservative United Methodist group:

Thomas A. Lambrecht, vice president of a traditional group of Methodists who advised the church counsel in this case, said he was pleased with the penalty and did not consider it ambiguous.

“I think it registers how serious the breach of the covenant was that took place. At the same time gives a time of grace for Reverend Schaefer to reconsider and potentially change his mind,” Lambrecht said.

The key word in that quotation is “covenant,” a reference to the ordination vows in Schaefer’s past.

In your typical online dictionary, “covenant” is defined this way:

1. A binding agreement; a compact. …
2. Law
a. A formal sealed agreement or contract. …
3. In the Bible, God’s promise to the human race.

A covenant has two sides. Schaeffer’s ordination vows where part of a covenant to which he consented.

Once again, the Post team does a fine job of showing that there is little or no unity in the United Methodist Church on issues linked to marriage and sex, although — for several decades — liberals in the church have fallen short in their efforts to change the denomination’s doctrines. You can see the same tensions and divisions in this Religion News Service report on the Schaefer trial.

I have been following the United Methodist wars close since the early 1980s, when I began covering the case of the Rev. Julian Rush in the liberal Rocky Mountain Annual conference. With that background, I thought that this passage in the new Post report was especially well done:

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Story envy, courtesy of the New York Times

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I’ll just come out and say it: I wish I had written this story.

Well done, New York Times, from the headline to the ending. Readers, pour yourself a glass of milk, grab a chocolate-chip cookie (trust me, it’s vital to the enjoyment and proper digestion of this piece) and prepare to be satisfied in a way few first-person stories on Christian adoption are able to please.

Back? OK, good. Let’s review good journalism, the craft of complete storytelling and the art of making a long story seem short.

Misty and her husband, Jon, arrived at a house near Denver one day several years ago to pick up the two boys who would become their sons. A dirt yard led to a screen door dangling from its hinges. Inside, grime coated the linoleum steps to the living room, where a kind, if overwhelmed, single foster mother introduced Misty and Jon to Shon, 2 ½ years old, and his 9-month-old brother, Cory. She gave the couple a tiny suitcase with a broken zipper, a few borrowed clothes — some too big, others too small — and a piece of advice: Don’t touch Shon’s head or lift your hands near him. He will cower. Then she handed Jon a huge bag of frozen fish sticks. The kids love them, she said.

In weaving together a story on adoption through foster care, practicality demands that children be the centerpiece. Sensitivity, however, insists on delicacy. The balance is struck in the details, which are so rich and varied that I feel as though I’m walking with the four benevolent parents featured through the peaks and valleys of their journey to fulfill a calling from God.

Yes, the Times says it: A calling from God. And they back it up:

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Got news? Bishops stand on HHS mandate (updated)

What you see at the top of this post is the content of today’s Baltimore Sun report on yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Catholic bishops — or at least, many of them — to continue their high-stakes fight against the White House and its Health and Human Services mandate.

Right. The box is empty.

I am referring, of course, to the mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” There’s more to that mandate, of course. As I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service:

The key is that the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of an employer if it’s a nonprofit that has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.” Critics say this means the government is protecting mere “freedom of worship,” not the “free exercise of religion” found in the First Amendment.

“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic.”

Now, everyone knew — coming into this Baltimore meeting — that there were two big events on the horizon. (1) The election of new officers, including a new president to follow the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. (2) A decision by the bishops, after what would almost certainly be tense closed-door debates, about whether to fight the HHS mandate, a decision affecting thousands of Catholic schools, hospitals, shelters and other ministries from coast to coast.

In other words, there was one event that looked like a political horse race, framed as who is for or against the new spirit of Pope Francis, and another event rooted in a Constitutional clash over religious liberty (oh, right, that would be “religious liberty”), a clash that way too many newsroom professionals think is a figment in the imagination of theocrats (even though White House officials have acknowledged the tensions).

Thus, that empty box offered by the Sun and most other news outlets. To read the Catholic News Service report, click here.

Want to guess which of these two stories in Baltimore drew the attention of editors at the assignment desks in mainstream newsrooms?

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Chuck Smith, fundamentalism and (yes) the AP stylebook

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Readers who have been following this weblog through the years are probably familiar with the following passage in the Associated Press Stylebook. We’ve been dealing with it since the earliest days of GetReligion’s existence (click here for one ancient example).

Yes, we are talking about the “fundamentalist” label. That’s the familiar F-word that philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once explained is a common term of emotional abuse, a semi-curse, among academics (and I would argue, far too many mainstream journalists).

To be blunt, “fundamentalist” means “sonofabitch” or in Southern slang “sumbitch.” A common variation is “fascist sumbitch.”

“(There) is a bit more to the meaning. … In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views,” noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. “That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch.’ … Its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ ”

However, the AP stylebook takes a more cautious and accurate approach to this hot-button historical term. Faithful GetReligion readers should be able to recite this by now:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

Alas, there are competing approaches in other journalism scriptures. This brings us to The New York Times and its recent obituary for the Rev. Chuck Smith, one of the most important figures in the rise of a new brand, a new style of charismatic-Pentecostal Christian faith in the second half of the 20th Century. The appropriate headline: “Chuck Smith, Minister Who Preached to Flower Children, Dies at 86.”

The top of the story, unfortunately, stacks one religious label on top of another, like someone was trying to throw journalistic spaghetti against the wall hoping that something would stick. Some of these labels are accurate and some are not.

The Rev. Chuck Smith, a Southern California minister who shepherded flower children and rock ’n’ roll into the conservative wing of the evangelical movement while building a religious organization that grew to encompass 700 congregations and hundreds of radio stations, died on Oct. 3 at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 86.

The cause was lung cancer, said a spokesman for Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, the flagship church of Mr. Smith’s worldwide Calvary Chapel federation.

Though lesser known than evangelical leaders like the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. James C. Dobson, Mr. Smith was influential for his liturgical innovations, for the cultivation of a new generation of prominent preachers and for the introduction of pop culture into the evangelical movement’s vernacular. His amalgam of fire-and-brimstone theology and avuncular charm made him a successful if unlikely Christian fundamentalist ambassador to the youth culture of the late 1960s. He predicted the end of the world and condemned drug use, sex out of wedlock, abortion and homosexuality while serving as pastor to a hippie tribe known as the Jesus Movement.

Yes, it doesn’t help that the Times — in one of the most common journalism mistakes of the age — turns Dr. James Dobson into an ordained minister. Click here for Douglas LeBlanc’s classic GetReligion post on that subject: “That’s Dr. Dobson to you, punks.”

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