January 22, 2014

As I type this with my cold fingers (starting at about 12:30 p.m.), the sun is out here in Washington, D.C., but the temperature is still a frosty 14 degrees. Suffice it to say it has been a cold morning after a night of wild weather here in Beltway land.

My office in the District’s Northeast quadrant is only about a 10 minute walk from the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, because I’ve been in class all morning, I have no idea how many people were able to make it into the city for the annual March For Life. I imagine that the crowd is smaller than the usual 300,000 or so, in part because the throngs were much smaller than normal last night and early this morning in Union Station (through which I commute).

There will be the usual, and valid, debates about whether the mainstream media did an adequate job of covering the march. If the march was smaller than normal, will that be seen as a fact of the weather or the political climate? Inquiring minds will want to know.

I do know, however, that there was a major story in Washington last night linked to this event. At least, the pre-march Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception should have been a big story for the mainstream press if reporters and editors are serious about the effect of Pope Francis on the pro-life movement and, specifically, how the Catholic Church expresses its teachings about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

Why? The speaker at last night’s Mass was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Why does that matter so much? More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile here is a sample of the Washington Post story on the pre-march activities:

The March for Life draws mainly high school and college youth groups, many from Catholic schools, and buses from around the country had already poured out thousands who attended a Mass on Tuesday night at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. Through the night, priests there heard confessions as people held a vigil in the Crypt Chapel of the huge basilica.

Thousands of abortion opponents, many from outside the region, were in Catholic Masses on Wednesday morning, praying, receiving confession and listening to music before heading for the Mall, where a concert and rally are scheduled to run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Seventh Street. Marchers, as they do each year, will head up Capitol Hill at 1 p.m. to the Supreme Court, where they hold a prayer vigil and are always met by a handful of abortion rights supporters and inevitable debate and discussion. …

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of the country’s best-known church leaders — he is also Boston’s archbishop and an adviser to Pope Francis — spoke at the Tuesday night Mass. And movement leaders noted that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had rejiggered the schedule of the party’s winter meeting Wednesday morning to allow delegates to attend the march.

First things first. What, pray tell, does it mean for these believers to be “receiving confession” before the march? Penitents will “receive absolution,” but they do not “receive confession.” Might this be a rather obvious typo that made it into the story? Surely this was supposed to have said that these Catholics “received Communion” in numerous settings before the march? Just asking.

Here’s my other question: So Cardinal O’Malley was there, but what did he SAY in this sermon at this highly symbolic Mass? After all, the sermon was on television (which was convenient on such a cold and snowy night). Did editors at the Post actually assign coverage of the event itself?

Now, let’s compare the Post language and factual information about this event with that of veteran Catholic-beat scribe Rocco Palmo at the Whispers in the Loggia website. This is long, but essential:


November 22, 2013

Ten years ago, while working in the Dallas bureau of The Associated Press, I wrote a national package of stories commemorating the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

As the nation paused today — the 50th anniversary — to remember Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, I wondered if any enterprising journalist might produce a compelling religion angle.

Enter Godbeat pro Peter Smith, formerly of the Louisville Courier-Journal and a favorite of your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas.

I say formerly because Smith recently left the Courier-Journal to take over the vacant religion writer post at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As we noted back in September, longtime Post-Gazette journalist Ann Rodgers“Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news” — stepped down to become communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Peter told me he’s still getting settled in Pittsburgh, but that would be difficult to tell based on the quality religion stories he already has produced, including the one on JFK:

They stand among the most eloquent words that John F. Kennedy never said. Instead, they exist in writing only — forming the speech Kennedy was scheduled to deliver at the Trade Mart in Dallas to influential business and research leaders early in the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.

Kennedy was assassinated en route to the gathering, and the words hovered in obscurity amid the panic and devastation that followed.

But over the years, people have taken a fresh look at the Trade Mart speech. The words have inspired a tribute book, choral works and a video tribute in Dallas. They’ve inspired legislation — and litigation — in Kentucky.

For those who continue to ruminate on Kennedy’s truncated legacy, the words have become something of an unintentional last will and testament — a soaring call for progress in space exploration, civil rights, national security, foreign aid and even in critical thinking.

And it quoted freely from the Bible, invoking broad religious sentiments that may seem surprising coming from Kennedy. The nation’s only Roman Catholic president is better known for proclaiming a strict separation of church and state during the 1960 presidential campaign, seeking to allay fears that he would take orders from the Vatican.


September 24, 2013

Here at GetReligion, we don’t generally report the news. We critique media coverage of the news.

But when significant developments occur among Godbeat pros, we try to share that information with our faithful readers. That’s because we believe that it matters who’s covering the religion beat — and who isn’t.

Lately, we’ve had a number of these inside baseball developments to pass along, including the departures of three Godbeat stars: Bob Smietana from The Tennessean, Ann Rodgers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Tim Townsend from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Our posts prompted the Poynter Institute, the  journalism think tank, to report on the state of the Godbeat (including confirming that The Oregonian laid off its religion and ethics writer, Nancy Haught). Poynter’s story, in turn, inspired more reflection at GetReligion, which drew Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher into the discussion over at The American Conservative. And Dreher’s column, of course, gave us a reason to consider that age-old question, “Do religious leaders really want quality religion coverage?”

OK, is everybody caught up now? Because the roller-coaster ride continues.

In a few of the posts mentioned above, we noted that Cathy Lynn Grossman, longtime religion writer for USA Today, took a buyout earlier this year. If USA Today has hired someone to fill Grossman’s post, we don’t know about it. But we can tell you where Grossman landed.

Many thanks to RNS for letting us know personally about Grossman’s new gig:

Meanwhile, another religion writer at a major newspaper — Rose French of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — is leaving the Godbeat.

Poynter reports:

Rose French and Brad Schrade, husband and wife, are leaving for jobs at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Schrade — along with Jeremy Olson and Glenn Howatt — won a 2013 Pulitzer for their series of reports on the increase in infant deaths at daycare homes in Minnesota.

French will join the Atlanta newspaper’s education team as an enterprise reporter. In a memo cited by Poynter, Star-Tribune managing editor Rene Sanchez said:


September 14, 2013

I posted earlier this week on three veteran superstars of the Godbeat — Ann Rodgers, Bob Smietana and Tim Townsend — deciding to leave major daily newspapers.

I noted a tweet in which The New York Times’ religion writer Laurie Goodstein joked, “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Playing off Goodstein’s quip, I suggested that someone — I nominated former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey — should “step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore.”

My choice of terminology, even while typing with my tongue firmly in cheek, was not the best.

My phrasing prompted a gentle pushback from tmatt in the comments section:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

I agree. I nominate Sarah to write a definitive piece for Poynter.org

RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, meanwhile, strapped on a rhetorical holster and came out firing (take cover, fellow GetReligion contributors!):

Or, how about this? Rather than conclude (without any basis in reality) that “no one wants to cover religion anymore,” perhaps it’d be a good idea to ask why these folks are leaving the beat (it’s complicated) and whether these positions will be filled (most likely).

But that’s not the way GR does things. Shoot first and never ask the appropriate questions later. C’mon, guys, you can do better than this. Or at least you should.

You can read my response to Eckstrom (and his response to my response) in the comments section of that original post.

Eckstrom complained that Poynter.org picked up on my question and that I didn’t do the religion beat “any favors with careless irresponsible exaggerations.” 

In fact, this was the headline on Poynter’s follow-up on my post:


September 10, 2013

Speaking of Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

In the last few weeks, we’ve highlighted the departures of two respected journalists from the Godbeat.

First, Bob Smietana left The Tennessean.

Then Ann Rodgers announced plans to leave the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Now, a third religion-writing superstar — Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — has decided to leave the Godbeat.

Townsend revealed his plans on Twitter and even provided dramatic music to go along with the announcement:

Townsend’s tweet prompted this response from religion writer Laurie Goodstein  of The New York Times: 

Smietana. Rodgers. Townsend.

Tim Townsend

In journalism, we all know that three examples make a trend. (Or are we up to six now?)

There’s a legitimate news hook here, people. Who will be the enterprising Godbeat soul (if there’s anyone left) who will step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore? (To anyone out there screaming that I’m overgeneralizing, shhhhhhh. We’ll add context to the piece later, but first we need to inspire someone to take the assignment. The more dramatic, the better.)

My nomination for this assignment: former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, now a rockin’ Godbeat pro herself (at least as of this moment) for Religion News Service.

What say ye, Sarah? You up for it?

In the meantime, kind GetReligion readers, please feel free to leave a comment. If you want, you can reflect on how much you’ll miss Townsend’s excellent journalism with the Post-Dispatch. Or if you prefer, you can speculate on who will be next to leave the Godbeat. No wagering, please.

Update: Sarah just sent the following tweet to RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, so it appears she’s considering the story idea!



August 31, 2013

Please forgive the exclamation points in the title.

But enough already.

On the heels of Bob Smietana leaving The Tennessean, the impending departure of a religion-writing superstar rocked the Godbeat this week.

Ann Rodgers, president of the Religion Newswriters Association, announced that she’s leaving the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after two decades.

In a public posting on her Facebook page, Rodgers wrote:

I will be leaving the Post-Gazette on Sept. 5 to become communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. I haven’t swum the Tiber, but they told me that 33 years of wading in it have saturated me enough to do this job. I am deeply grateful to the Post-Gazette for 20 years of unparalleled support for the religion beat and for me personally. I have the best team of editors anywhere in journalism. But I have covered the beat for 33 years, 25 of them in Pittsburgh, and it’s time for a new challenge. I look forward to a job where I can express my Christian faith, while serving a church that does incredible good in Western Pennsylvania and worldwide. My best to all of you. Stay in touch.

Folks, this is sad news for the religion beat.

Here at GetReligion, we have not critiqued Rodgers’ stories as much as those of some other writers because, quite frankly, there’s only so many different ways to say, “Another fantastic story!”

The Diocese of Pittsburgh reported on Rodgers’ appointment, noting that she is a member of an Anglican church — a fact that didn’t please everyone.

In a 2010 interview with Rodgers, former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey dubbed her “Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news.”

Over at The Deacon’s Bench, Deacon Greg Kandra — reflecting on news of Rodgers’ new position — noted:

She’s one of the best on the beat — and, really, part of a dying breed: a reporter who “gets” religion and has made it her business to understand it from every angle. At a time when the coverage of religion is often sorely wanting, and most writers don’t have a clue what they’re talking about — whether it’s Catholicism or Islam or evangelical Protestantism — Ann Rodgers was in a class by herself.

Rodgers reports that the Post-Gazette is looking to replace her. That will be difficult to do, obviously, but it’s wonderful news — in this age of newsroom cutbacks — that the Pittsburgh newspaper remains committed to religion news.

August 15, 2013

The largest Lutheran group in the United States is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I’m part of the next largest group, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We really don’t have much in common, oddly enough. The ELCA just elected their first female presiding bishop. We retain male-only ordination. We have major differences in confessional subscription and requirements for our clergy and congregational membership. So for non-ELCA Lutherans, we flinch when we see headlines such as this one from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Lutherans elect first female presiding bishop

The story makes clear that it refers only to the ELCA, but the general refrain about “Lutherans” causes all sorts of frustration. I was not surprised to see that the first comment to the piece was:

Could you please correct your headline not all Lutherans, it should either be the ELCA or the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Not all Lutherans or the same sect.

Many reporters have been asking me for my thoughts or help on the background of what this convention all means but I’m as much in the dark as they. Confessional Lutherans in the LCMS are probably more interested in the goings on among Catholics than any mainline Protestant group. So with that apology for not being more up-to-speed on the ELCA, let’s look some of the coverage. First up from the AP News in brief over at the Washington Post:

PITTSBURGH — A Roman Catholic bishop has told the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that differences over homosexuality matter less than the Christian faith that unites them.

Bishop Denis Madden told the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh that Catholics and Lutherans may interpret the Bible differently, but shouldn’t let that drive them apart.

The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination welcomes partnered gay and lesbian clergy and recently elected its first partnered gay bishop.

But Madden said as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches in 2017, Catholics and Lutherans should remain in respectful dialogue, “even when the course ahead presents itself as more rocky than we first imagined.”

Wait, what? Bishop Madden specifically said differences over homosexuality matter less than the Christian faith that unites them? Really? Of the many differences between Roman Catholic and ELCA Lutheran teaching, he picked out homosexuality as the no-big-deal example? And of the many differences in how each group develops doctrine, he picked out “Bible interpretation” as the one to point out? I am really curious what the exact quote is, aren’t you?  Perhaps to be careful, even in a news brief, statements such as this should have quotes around them.

When I hear “Pittsburgh” and “convention” in a religion news story, I want to go to Ann Rodgers. She’s providing updates and I’ve found them most helpful. Her note in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about Bishop Madden was:

The warmest reception given to any bishop — a sustained standing ovation — was for a Catholic, auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, who brought ecumenical greetings. He spoke of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther launched in 1517.

He proposed that Lutherans and Catholics mark it together “as a celebration of our dialogue, even with our differences” and a demonstration of “our mutual respect, our love for each other.”

And Rodgers nails the “so what?” in this election with a separate must-read piece on the new bishop. She explains that Hanson was expected to win re-election, she includes quotes from Presiding Bishop-elect Elizabeth Eaton that reflect her humor, style and theological stances. And she positions the debate within the larger context of mainline Protestantism and Lutheranism. A few snippets:

Bishop Eaton, 58, is considered a centrist, while other finalists were viewed as more theologically liberal. During a brief address before the third ballot, she was the only one of four remaining nominees to directly address concerns of theological conservatives who had remained in the denomination…

She stressed the importance of maintaining Lutheran theological distinctives while reaching beyond a Nordic ethnic base. She also spoke of having a spiritual director to deepen her life of prayer and discernment of God’s guidance…

The Episcopal Church also has a female presiding bishop — Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, elected in 2006 — but that denomination is half the size of the ELCA. The second-largest Lutheran body in the United States, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, doesn’t ordain women. The first female bishop in the ELCA — and the second in the world — was Bishop April Larson, elected in 1992.



August 14, 2013

I recently cataloged about 1,000 of my 1,300 or so vinyl records (the classical music remains to be done), something I’d been meaning to do for many years. For a vinyl obsessive, this means checking liner notes and record quality. It’s fun to see who appears on which albums. You begin to see more clearly those trends across labels, decades, producers. It’s fun.

I’m nowhere near the obsessive of Dawn Eden, who was profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Alexandra Molotkow. The piece has gotten mixed reviews but I rather enjoyed it. I will acknowledge that it’s a weird piece. For instance, it’s a profile of Eden but it doesn’t mention her until you’ve read six paragraphs on Curt Boettcher, a pop-music producer with a distinct sound (think “Cherish” by the Association).

Eden, who I have had the pleasure of reading for many years, used to be a rock historian and journalist. She repopularized Boettcher. And she converted to Christianity and has written about it at length. Molotkow’s piece is an exploration of Molotkow’s interest in Boettcher (and, therefore, Eden since she wrote extensively about him). There is, perhaps, a lack of coherency to the piece but it worked for me. We have the journey of Dawn Eden from a rock historian battling demons to a Christian woman whose latest book is “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints.” And then there’s the journey of Molotkow, a seemingly secular woman trying to relate to someone she has “otherized.” She comes to realize she’s been reductive and unfair.

It all gets a little meta, but I enjoy reading about how someone overcomes prejudgments and learns to deal with a source or subject on their terms. On that note, Ann Rodgers of Religion Newswriters Association has a tremendous piece on just that in the latest RNA newsletter (sorry, not linkable). She gives advice to religion news writers about how to interview subjects whose views you dislike. It’s good advice for all reporters.

Back to the Sunday magazine piece:

When she learned of [Boettcher’s] death, she decided to write his biography. His obscurity seemed like an intolerable injustice, and correcting it gave her a sense of purpose. When she felt suicidal, she told herself she couldn’t die because she had to write his story. And her efforts went a long way toward reviving his music. She wrote the liner notes to several CD reissues of his work, which spread the cult of Boettcher. (She conducted the Gary Usher interview in 1988, quoted above, that is included in the Sagittarius liner notes.) This April, the singer Beth Sorrentino released an album of Boettcher covers, produced by Sean Slade (Radiohead, Hole). But Eden never did write that biography.

What ultimately allayed her depression was not Boettcher, but God. In October 1999, she had a “born-again experience,” and if her name sounds familiar, it’s because she has been very public about it: she has blogged about conservative and religious matters on her site, The Dawn Patrol, since 2002, and was fired from a copy-editing job at The New York Post for inserting pro-life terminology into an article on in vitro fertilization. (She now says she regrets this.) Her first book, published in 2006, was called “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.”

I have read this book; I have pored over The Dawn Patrol. I’ve spent years wondering what kind of person Dawn Eden might be. I was interested in Boettcher myself, and thanks to Eden’s obsession with him, I became interested — and even a little obsessed — with her.

Molotkow’s first interest in Eden was as rock historian:

That was my introduction to Dawn Eden. An Internet search yielded another Eden, a more recent iteration: strident conservative; chastity advocate; favorite target of the Web site Gawker. Initially I hoped to connect with her, this fellow Boettcher obsessive. Now I wondered what on earth we had in common.

I found a contact e-mail for her but sat on it for years. I worried that, because she had renounced her secular past, she would shoot me down in a blaze of hellfire for even asking about her former preoccupations. Finally, I decided to get in touch. She responded right away. She seemed delighted by my interest. Boettcher’s music was still a part of her, she wrote me: “Understand, I am not at all like those ‘born-again’ rockers who adamantly refuse to say anything at all about their pre-Christian days.”

Eden is now studying toward an advanced degree in sacred theology at the Dominican House of Studies, and while she still writes, her tone is milder than in the past. Before our first, lengthy conversation, she suggested to me that I look for the “point of continuity” between her old and new lives. It turned out to be easy to find.

Ah, the old “strident” adjective. So interesting to see when that’s pulled out. I understand it’s only to be used on conservatives or traditionalists, never for progressives or liberals. But it’s really not appropriate for Eden. She’s not loud or harsh or unpleasantly forceful.

But the writer susses out how Eden’s obsession with Boettcher compares to her interest in the lives of saints and what those lives can say to fellow believers.

And it ends:

Eden knows this, too. Boettcher had faults like anyone — he could be a tyrant in the studio — and he had qualities that might not appeal to a practicing Catholic. For starters, he was gay. When I asked Eden if she now felt conflicted about his sexuality, she said she probably did. But she added that she didn’t want her views to affect the way she told his story. She could still relate to him, she said, as a person looking for love; she heard a “longing for God” in his music. While she strained, sometimes, to reconcile her worldview with Boettcher’s, I strained to reconcile mine with hers. At these times I learned more about her than him, and I learned something about myself as well: how badly I wanted to find a bridge between us. She mythologized Boettcher; I mythologized her. We both worked, in our way, to find what we needed in someone else. But you can’t really know someone you don’t really know.

It requires a bit of a circuitous route for a secular writer and news outlet to begin to understand the interest in the lives of saints (or, really, those who are interested in the lives of saints). So be it. I found it edifying in any case. And I look forward to reading Eden’s latest book on what the saints have to offer those who have sexual wounds.

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