Breaking the silence on abortion doctors like Gosnell

Sometimes other people do such fine GetReligion-esque media criticism that we just like to point at it and then walk away.

So that’s precisely what I’m going to do with Melinda Henneberger’s piece “Are there more abortion doctors like Kermit Gosnell? And do we want to know?” that ran online at the Washington Post. What I like about her criticism is that she puts the best construction on what her journalistic colleagues are doing while also asking hard questions — she combines nice and tough to great effect.

She begins by noting some of the revelations in the new undercover videos released by pro-life activists this week. (Quick note: you know that the Gosnell media scandal changed media coverage even slightly since these videos received some coverage here and here.) Then she wonders why the National Abortion Federation didn’t report some of what it found when it inspected Kermit Gosnell’s unsanitary clinic (“If what she observed — a padlock on an emergency exit in a part of the clinic where women were left alone overnight, for example — was so far outside the norm, then why didn’t it inspire a single phone call to the state, according to the grand jury report?”).

She criticizes media coverage of abortion clinics:

Other such criminal clinics have only made the news as local stories, while most mainstream abortion coverage details threats to abortion rights rather than to women themselves.

Even when a New York woman died after a third-trimester abortion performed in Maryland in February, the coverage questioned not the care that led to her death, but the breach of privacy she suffered when antiabortion activists publicized the case.

Henneberger notes that there is an egregious double standard:

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That all-but-missing detail about Jeb Bush’s life

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Catholics here in America have a very intense and interesting relationship with the mainstream press.

First of all, there are just so many of them and so many different kinds — with active and inactive, believing and non-believing being the simple points of reference.

Second, their sheer numbers make it impossible to ignore Catholics when it comes to the raw, swing-vote data so often used when talking (journalists may want to cross themselves here) POLITICS.

Third, there are so many Catholic politicians out there that issues of doctrine (does this or that vice president openly attack the teachings of the church) often become entangled with the practice of the faith, especially the Sacraments. Honestly, it often seems that many journalists truly believe that there is a Constitutional right to receive Holy Communion that cannot be denied by weird bishops and priests who think they have something to do with hearing confessions and protecting the Sacraments of the church.

You add all of that up and it’s pretty clear that it is pretty important to take a look at the faith content and status of any Catholic who may or may not be seeking the presidency.

This is especially true if the candidate speaks Spanish.

Yes, this is true even if the candidate’s last name is B-U-S-H. In fact, that fact may make the candidate’s Catholicism even more interesting.

If that is the case, then what is going on in the following Style piece from The Washington Post? I’m talking about the one with the headline, “Hispanic consciousness lends weight to Jeb Bush as GOP eyes 2016 presidential race.”

Marriage and family are at the heart of the story, of course, but so are issues of Latino culture, broadly defined. Here’s the opening:

MIAMI – She was almost like a member of the family. An employee, but almost one of them. For three years, Maria Magdalena Romero had tended to the suburban Miami home of Jeb and Columba Bush, had helped to raise their three children, had twined into the fabric of their lives.

Then, with lurching swiftness, she was yanked away. On a mild winter morning in 1991, two immigration agents appeared at the door of the family home looking for the woman Bush’s younger son and namesake, then just 10 years old, remembers as “a super nice lady.” They carried deportation orders.

It didn’t matter that Bush’s father was president of the United States at the time or that a Secret Service agent had answered the door. Romero, who was in the country illegally but had a work permit, wasn’t getting a reprieve.

“It was a difficult time for all of us, but most of all for Maria,” Jeb Bush said in an e-mail about that day. His son, Jeb Jr., hadn’t even realized she’d been deported. “I thought she just left,” Jeb Jr. said in a recent interview.

That long-ago deportation is one among many inflection points for the elder Bush in what has been a lifetime of intimate proximity to America’s Hispanic community, to its searing pain and its buoyant joy, to its mores and its politics. While Republicans cast about for leaders who can connect with Spanish-speaking voters, this tall Texas native with the Mexican American wife has remarkably come to represent a kind of Hispanic consciousness for the party.

I would not argue with any of that material, in terms of its placement in the story. The Post team had to deal, immediately, with Jeb Bush’s broader contacts with the complex, multifaceted Latino world that is Florida and, especially, South Florida (I say that as someone who was living in West Palm Beach during four years of his time as governor). The man speaks Spanish for a reason — in fact, for multiple reasons.

So how important is this Bush’s faith, especially in an era in which (a) moral/religious concerns continue to frame key political debates about religious liberty and (b) the rising Latino population all but requires additional attention to Catholic institutions?

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Untangling the Tsarnaevs’ Muslim ties, carefully

On Friday we asked readers to send in thoughts on good and bad coverage of religion angles for the Tsarnaev brothers. And we’ve seen quite a bit of good coverage — too much to go into but I hope you’re seeing it in your local and national outlets. We’ve also heard from religion reporters and others who pointed out problems.

One early problem was the attempt to define the brothers as either “devout” or “not devout.” For an example of the former, we have the New York Post:

The Chechen immigrant brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were devout Muslims who appeared to become more radicalized in recent months — posting Islamic “jihad” videos on social-media sites and following the preachings of a firebrand cleric.

I’d argue against using the word even when dealing with someone you think can be described that way without question. I’d avoid it like the plague when dealing with folks you don’t know terribly much about. It’s important when using that word to have a shared understanding of what it means to be devout in a given religion. In what way were they devout, exactly? Tell us more about their fasting, their alms-giving, their prayer lives, their Hajj journeys. Or is that not what the Post meant? What did they mean?

We see similar confusion about devotion at the other end of the spectrum, too. We frequently see reporters equate it with regular corporate worship — no matter if the religion itself holds corporate worship in the same way that, say, the Roman Catholic Church does. An Islamic community center isn’t just a Methodist Church for Muslims. Piety in Islam is not the same as piety in another religion, necessarily.

Still, a good first step in learning more about the suspects’ religious lives does involve finding out if they were part of a worship community. I was glad to see that the folks over at CNN made some calls early on. They reported:

Muslim leaders in Boston tell me they don’t know the suspects. They seem to not have ties to any of the big mosques in the area.

And:

Muslim leaders condemn bombing suspects and no Muslims in Boston seem to know them. http://on.cnn.com/13mRL1j

This Boston Globe story, “Islam might have had secondary role in Boston attacks,” followed a similar theme.

It turns out, though, that the brothers did pray at the local Cambridge mosque. Later stories mentioned that, adding that they exhibited no violent tendencies. Subsequent updates indicated that the older brother had publicly reprimanded a speaker who praised Martin Luther King, Jr. and had been asked to leave. Updates to that story included a different account — that the brother had simply been asked to calm down. This Boston Globe story says that there was more than one outburst. It’s all an evolving story, it seems.

When the news came out that the brothers had worshiped at the local Cambridge mosque, some reporters began calling it the “Islamic Center of Boston,” either in their stories or in tweets. It’s actually the Islamic Society of Boston. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in its story on the shouting incident:

At the Cambridge mosque near where the bombing suspects lived, two worshipers who showed up for Saturday’s prayer service recalled seeing both men.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was thrown out of the mosque — the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center — about three months ago, after he stood up and shouted at the imam during a Friday prayer service, they said. The imam had held up slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of a man to emulate, recalled one worshiper who would give his name only as Muhammad.

Enraged, Tamerlan stood up and began shouting, Muhammad said.

“You cannot mention this guy because he’s not a Muslim!” Muhammad recalled Tamerlan shouting, shocking others in attendance.

“He’s crazy to me,” Muhammad said. “He had an anger inside.… I can’t explain what was in his mind.”

Tamerlan was then kicked out of the prayer service for his outburst, Muhammad recalled. “You can’t do that,” Muhammad said of shouting at the imam.

Still, Tamerlan returned to Friday prayer services and had no further outbursts, Muhammad said.

The other mosque attendee, who identified himself only as Haithen, described Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as nice, friendly and “really laid back.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was different though. “His persona was not really so nice,” this worshiper said.

But it wasn’t the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center! After quite the Twitter campaign led by one of the ISBCC’s imams, the Times corrected the story. Still, there is some tie between the two groups. In a great round-up of the current news, Huffington Post explained:

Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the city’s largest mosque, said in an interview that he had recently heard of the incident. “That’s a sign right there that his views aren’t mainstream,” Webb said.

The Cambridge mosque leaders’ theology is not extremist, he said. Webb’s mosque has the same owners but a separate administration from the Islamic Society of Boston. Webb said he never met the brothers and had not found their names on his mosque’s membership list.

One of the things that might be helpful is learning a bit more about these “same owners” as well as their differing administrations. I mean, I understand that there are certain things that other congregations in my church body share and certain things that are different, but I’d love to know how that plays out among Muslim adherents. The ISBCC is run by the Muslim American Society, a group started by U.S. supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m somewhat surprised by how little journalism we see on the Muslim American Society, but here are some old pieces from the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, both of which are absolutely riveting.

Anyway, early reporting on this story could not have changed more dramatically. I hope we see more genuine interest in what role religion and religious communities played in these brothers’ lives — at home, in the local community and in the larger world.

Net image via Shutterstock.

Power to hype or downplay: On Gosnell and the NYTimes

Many in the media are indicating that they really want to move on from the Gosnell trial that they’ve struggled to cover — or ignored — from the get-go. You’re not seeing much coverage. Earlier this week I came across a small example that demonstrates how media frenzies are fed or squashed. It’s instructive.

Let’s go back to the Winter of 2012. You’ll remember that when a private foundation devoted to fighting breast cancer decided to stop subsidizing the country’s largest abortion provider, all hell broke loose. The media effectively bullied the Komen foundation into reversing its decision under threat of extinction. It led the newscasts. There were unbelievably hostile interviews — praised by media critics — of the breast cancer charity’s founder. The major media got many facts of the case wrong, such as that this decision was “sudden” or that the clinics being funded by the foundation offered mammograms.

OK, so this week, six dozen or so members of Congress signed on to a letter demanding that broadcast networks provide coverage of the murder trial of abortion practitioner Kermit Gosnell. Last year, two dozen senators signed a letter urging the Komen foundation to fund Planned Parenthood.

Let’s compare the media coverage of those two letters. ABC News’ had a story on the Komen letter.

The Senate has added to the pressure on the Susan G. Komen foundation.

Twenty-six Democratic senators today sent a letter to Nancy Brinker, the group’s founder and CEO, urging it to reconsider the decision to cut funding from Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings for the poor.

The Washington Post covered it:

The pressure on the Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation to reverse its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings for poor people — a decision which has caused an uproar among women’s groups and on social media — is about to get significantly more intense. Nearly two dozen Senators are set to enter the fray.

The Los Angeles Times had an article. So did the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, CNN, National Journal, The Hill and Reuters.

That’s just what I found on the first page of Google results for Komen+letter+Senators.

So two dozen lawmakers signing a letter about Komen yielded news coverage from major outlets.

And what does six dozen lawmakers going after broadcast networks for failure to cover Gosnell get you?

Hmm. Well, let’s see. I found two blogs, two pro-life media outlets, and the Washington Times. Further digging brought up an item in the Daily Caller and The Hill. None of these are what you’d call major mainstream media and only one of them qualifies as mainstream media period.

Absolutely fascinating, no?

If you want a story to be big, you can keep feeding it. We know that Gosnell is hot news and that folks have been hungry for updates — and largely denied those updates by the media that control what is and what isn’t a story. This letter-from-members-of-Congress story I’m mentioning is just an update. Just a quick and easy item like the Komen letter was. If it was worth writing breathless reports about the Komen letter, why is this one buried?

I get — I really get — that the media want to just move past this story and hope that people forget. For the sake of the media industry’s credibility and for the sake of civil society, it would be better to just begin covering it rather than leave this dark mark on the record.

And a quick aside. I asked on Twitter about where the Gosnell story was from the New York Times‘ excellent media reporter Brian Stelter. A prolific writer, his most recent headlines include “Robin Roberts Update,” “At Fox News, Less Attention Paid to Gun Debate Than Elsewhere,” “A Pulitzer Prize, but Without a Newsroom to Put It In,” and “A Top Producer Leaves ‘Katie’ for CNN.” I was hoping we’d see him focus on broadcast news’ treatment of Gosnell, since his focus is on broadcast media and that’s a big part of the larger story. So, I tweeted:

Where’s @brianstelter’s look at Gosnell media coverage? He’s had days to work on it, no?

I found his reply just fascinating:

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Is Ephesians 6 really about Thatcher’s strength?

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Whenever my Washington Journalism Center students start covering speeches and major public events, always I tell them that they face three major journalistic challenges. They have to:

(1) Get the words down, whether in professional quality notes, on a recording or, ideally, both.

(2) Understand the words, by which I mean that a reporter has to figure out what people are actually saying. This is not always easy because experts in various fields — from national politics to football, from science to theology — tend to speak in their own professional codes. (Example: You know, when my quarterback saw that their back zone was flooded, he knew I’d be able to take my man on a skinny post and beat him to the flag.)

(3) Translate the words, out of the specialty language and imagery of the event into sidewalk-level language that readers will understand.

Here’s an example: Long ago, I went to a movie theater to see an advance screening, for liberal mainline Protestant clergy, of Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Right up front, I knew that I needed to find someone who knew the subject material behind the movie and could help me evaluate it. As it turned out, the studio had used a National Council of Churches mailing list when preparing the invitations and, thus, the dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral was there. I quickly learned that he had read the original Nikos Kazantzakis novel in the original Greek and he was glad to offer his insights into this rather shallow movie (which left him both amused and furious at the same time).

So what, pray tell, does all of this have to do with the Washington Post coverage of the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?

Well, I am glad that the Post team attempted to capture some of the religious content of the service. Honest.

However, I do wish the professionals who produced the story had found themselves an authoritative voice, or two, to help them understand key moments in this very deep and defining religious rite. There was no reason for the reporter to go it alone when attempting to discern the meaning of some of the language used in these event.

There was no need, quite frankly, to guess at motives, to guess at the deeper meanings of some of the language. Why not find an expert or two and let them help with translation? In particular, it was important — in light of the deep divisions in Great Britain about Thatcher and her legacy — not to slap political templates over the content of this religious service.

Like what? Read on, carefully:

In accordance with Thatcher’s wishes, the service was quintessentially British, including pieces by English composers Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a blessing. Cameron and Thatcher’s American-born granddaughter, Amanda, offered readings.

Amanda Thatcher, 19, drew particular accolades for her composure as she read a New Testament verse that spoke to her grandmother’s strength: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

The Rev. Richard Chartres, a family friend and the bishop of London, told the mourners that Thatcher had requested not a typical eulogy, laced with her political accomplishments, but a more simple and personal address. He delivered just that, reflecting on a young boy who had once written Thatcher asking whether prime ministers, like Jesus Christ, never made mistakes. Thatcher’s life, Chartres acknowledged, had been stormy. But as her remains rested in the church, he said, now “there is a great calm.”

“At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgments which are proper to the politician,” he said. “Instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling.”

So what is the problem there?

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Mysterious deluge of unreported Catholics

I’m on a few of those neighborhood list-servs. One of them is for area parents. One of the members is a local reporter and she asks for interviews with folks for various stories she’s working on.

Well, one of her recent stories was related to the Newtown massacre. Had any parents, she wanted to know, removed toy guns from their home in response to the Sandy Hook massacre? Some time later, she asked again. And again. One mother responded that the reporter should “give up” trying to force a story that wasn’t there.

Now, as someone who has used social media to find sources for stories I’m working on, I’ve given some thought to this. I think the best way to handle such searches for sources is to not constrain them too much to your particular idea of what the story should be. So here’s a great example of how to do it, from the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein:

Discussing Matthew Warren suicide at your church service? Bible study group? I’d love to hear: michelle.boorstein@washpost.com

In general, you want to keep the query as broad as possible so you don’t end up with a story where you’re forcing a few weak anecdotes into a preconceived hook that may or may not be valid.

Which brings us to this NBC News story  headlined “‘It was a sign’: Lapsed Catholics lured back by Pope Francis.” Now that reporters have a pope they like, instead of the last few, whom they clearly didn’t like, we’ll probably see a lot of coverage like this. I sort of imagine it all began with a social media request.

It begins:

Twenty million Americans consider themselves lapsed Catholics, but Pope Francis is convincing many to test the holy waters again with his bold gestures and common touch.

After years of disenchantment with the church’s hierarchy and teachings, former members of the flock say they are willing to give the Vatican a second chance under new leadership.

So of these 20 million, how many other than the three anecdotes in this story are we talking about? Well, it will not surprise you that it’s “unknown.”

What a trend piece!

We have a Dallas Baby Boomer Latina who generally drifted away from the Catholic Church after a divorce and such and switched to an evangelical church three years ago and recently started visiting Catholic Masses again.

We have a priest who says some people told him they’re coming back because of Pope Francis.

The article says that church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, birth control and “treatment” of women are the reason people have left the Catholic Church. Then it admits that Pope Francis “hasn’t given any hint of radical change on those issues.”

But the president of a website for returning Catholics says traffic is way up.

Anyway, here’s a sample anecdote:

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On Sarah Kliff’s mea culpa on Gosnell (a national story)

If you have been on Twitter in the past week or so, you probably know that our own M.Z. Hemingway recently wrote a post that noted:

… Since tmatt has me reading the Washington Post every day, to look at how the paper’s health policy reporter was covering Gosnell. I have critiqued many of her stories on the Susan G. Komen Foundation (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Sandra Fluke controversy (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Todd Akin controversy (you know where this is going). In fact, a site search for that reporter — who is named Sarah Kliff — and stories Akin and Fluke and Komen — yields more than 80 hits. Guess how many stories she’s done on this abortionist’s mass murder trial.

Did you guess zero? You’d be right.

So I asked her about it. Here’s her response:

Hi Molly — I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime, hence why I wrote about all the policy issues you mention.

Yes. She really, really, really said that.

Well, about 120,000 or so social media interactions later, this journalistic discussion achieved that state that I think young people (as opposed to old people like me) call “going viral.” I think that’s the term. Did I get it right?

A whole lot of water has passed under the bridge since late last week and I have asked Mollie to continue to chart the debates with, as always, our emphasis focusing on people who are trying to promote accurate, balanced coverage of the religious, moral, cultural and scientific issues linked to this trial. In other words, we think the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell is a big, national news story and it really doesn’t matter where one stands on abortion rights, or how often one does or does not go to church, to realize that.

If you have not read it already, and you have a strong stomach, let me recommend in particular the Conor Friedersdorf piece in The Atlantic online that ran with this blast of a two-decker headline:

Why Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Trial Should Be a Front-Page Story

The dead babies. The exploited women. The racism. The numerous governmental failures. It is thoroughly newsworthy.

That piece ended with this journalistic shot over the bow:

To sum up, this story has numerous elements any one of which would normally make it a major story. And setting aside conventions, which are flawed, this ought to be a big story on the merits.

The news value is undeniable.

Why isn’t it being covered more? I’ve got my theories. But rather than offer them at the end of an already lengthy item, I’d like to survey some of the editors and writers making coverage decisions.

Now, Friedersdorf is back with that promised follow-up piece that is simply too complex to discuss in this context, as suggested in his similarly massive headline:

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Out front: the stigma of mental illness

In 2011, I traveled to rural Oregon to report on a minister who helped bring healing to his small town after a string of suicides.

As part of that Christian Chronicle story, I noted that 35,000 Americans died by suicide in the most recent year for which statistics were available:

Victims range from teenagers harassed at school to military veterans suffering war trauma to elderly people facing a debilitating illness or loss of a spouse.

However, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center cautions against oversimplifying the causes of suicide.

More than 90 percent of victims have a diagnosable mental illness and/or substance use disorder, according to the center.

“I teach counselors and ministers to recognize warning signs of suicide risk, yet you cannot always predict or prevent every suicide,” said Ed Gray, professor of counseling at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn. “Our compassion and caring involvement are our best responses to individuals who are at risk for suicide.”

Yet suicide remains a taboo subject for many in society — and in the church, where some view it as an unforgivable sin.

“Undoubtedly, some who take their own life do so from a mental state that makes them no longer responsible for their choices,” said Cecil May Jr., dean of the Bible college at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. “The reason God is the final judge of such things, and we are not, is that the heart is involved, not just actions that can be seen. Only God can consider that essential aspect of things.”

When the terrible news broke about the death of pastor Rick Warren’s son, I wondered if the high-profile tragedy might prompt the media to explore how Christians deal with mental illness.

I was pleased to see the Washington Post feature Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein’s story on the subject on Friday’s front page. The top of her 1,300-word report:

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