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Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Nostalgia for a journalistic golden age has gushed forth from an HBO documentary about New York City tabloid columnists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin, combined with simultaneous obituaries about the era’s wry counterpart at The New York Times, Russell Baker.

It’s a pleasant distraction from current realities.

Pew Research data documents the “hollowing out” of the nation’s newsrooms, as lamented in the Memo last Nov. 15. Further developments require The Religion Guy to revisit the struggles in the news business.

Why? Let me state this sad reality once again: When times are tough, specialized beats like religion get hit first, and worst.

In just the past two weeks, a couple thousand media workers lost their jobs. The ubiquitous Gannett, known for eyeing the bottom line, enacted its latest round of layoffs even while facing a takeover threat from a colder-eyed print piranha. Particularly unnerving are the drawdowns at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and Yahoo, because online operations were supposed to make enough money to offset jobs lost at declining “dead tree” newspapers and magazines.

As Farhad Manjoo commented in a New York Times column (“Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy”), there’s a “market pathology” at work. Digital advertising is simply unable to fund hardly anything except “monopolistic tech giants.” And those big players are “dumping the news” in favor of easier ways to make money. Results: “slow-motion doom” and “a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.”

All this occurs as a U.S. President emits unprecedented public hate toward reporters, with Main Stream Media outlets then taking the bait to become ever more hostile and partisan, thus sullying their stature.

On the MSM facts front, don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s list of the “10 Worst, Most Embarrassing” blunders regarding Donald Trump and Russia. And my goodness did you see those lapses about First Lady Melania in the respected London Telegraph?!

Now along come two important insider accounts of what’s been going on across the industry: “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (Farrar, Straus) by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s The Guardian, and “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” (Simon & Schuster) by Jill Abramson, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the Times. Note that both of their dailies have fared relatively well in online competition.

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Duck and cover: What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history?

Duck and cover: What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history?

THE QUESTION:

Across the ages, what passage in the Bible was the subject of the most heinous misinterpretation and application?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Without doubt, the answer is Genesis 9:18-27.

The use of those verses as biblical support for black slavery was “devastating, and patently false,” says David M. Goldenberg, who wrote the important studies “The Curse of Ham” (2005) and “Black and Slave” (2017). Black History Month is an appropriate season to contemplate a perverse biblical claim long perpetrated by various Christians, Jews and, from a different tradition, Muslims.

This Genesis passage, aptly called “obscure” and “enigmatic” by scholars, records a sordid incident in primeval times. After surviving the great Flood, Noah planted grapes and then (possibly by mistake) became drunk with wine. As Noah lay uncovered in a stupor, his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and reported this to his brothers Shem and Japheth, who then took care to cover Noah without looking upon his naked body.

When Noah awoke and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, saying “a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

So this was not a “curse of Ham” so often spoken of, but upon Noah’s grandson Canaan. We are not told that God cursed Canaan, only that Noah did so. Noah then asked God to bless his sons Shem and Japheth while omitting Ham, but God had previously blessed all three brothers equally (Genesis 9:1).

“The Bible says nothing about skin color in the story of Noah,” Goldenberg observes, and others agree. Analysts differ on the geography and ethnicity that might be indicated in the genealogy that follows in Genesis chapter 10 but do agree on one obvious point. The Bible identified Canaan as the ancestor of the Canaanites, Israel’s pagan rivals. The family line in Genesis 11:10-31 designated another of Noah’s sons, Shem, as the ancestor of Abraham and thus the Israelites, as he was also to be of Ishmael and the Arabs.

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Happy birthday to ... Oh nevermind. Back to critics and supporters of drag-queen story hours

Happy birthday to ... Oh nevermind. Back to critics and supporters of drag-queen story hours

It was on the first day of February in 2004 that GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc clicked a mouse and put the first version of this website online. That post — “What we do, why we do it” — is still up, for those who have never seen it.

That was the day after my birthday, the last day of January. That was a coincidence, back in 2004, and that fact has never been all that relevant.

But now it is, because today is my 65th birthday and, as old folks know who read GetReligion, for many people that starts all kinds of clocks ticking. In my case, that means I am one year away from retirement as editor of GetReligion.

That doesn’t mean that I will vanish. After all, for a decade GetReligion was my part-time work, while I was a full-time professor in West Palm Beach, Fla., and then Washington, D.C., while also writing my “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard and then the Universal syndicate.

But Jan. 31, 2020 will mean changes at GetReligion, of one kind or another. That’s fine with me, since the realities shaping news and commentary work about religion have radically changed, over the past decade and a half. Still, I hope to keep doing some GetReligion-esque work at this site or whatever evolves out of it. I’d like to do more writing, for example, about the religious content of popular culture — one of the topics that pulled me into teaching back in 1991, at Denver Seminary.

But back to the our digital world and the American Model of the Press. Consider, for example, the current mini-wave of coverage of drag queen story hours.

Yes, Julia Duin just wrote a post on this topic: “Drag queens: Reporters can't comprehend why many parents don't want them in kid libraries.” I would urge you to read it. Here’s a key quote:

Just what is the religious case against drag queens, as it would be articulated by people who hold that point of view? Is there one?

Think like an old-school journalist. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could have heard more about what that is, like there was an actual debate taking place?

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Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

In the 200th year of American independence, President Gerald Ford officially established February as national Black History Month. The idea grew out of African-Americans’ longstanding heritage week timed with the February birth dates of the white emancipator Abraham Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, the most powerful black orator and agitator during the campaign to end slavery, is the ideal topic for a religion feature this February. That’s due to a magisterial new biography that enjoys universal acclaim from critics, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (Simon & Schuster).

The Guy recommends the book itself — 888 pages! — and interviews with author David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor who specializes in slavery, abolitionism and the Reconstruction period (Contacts: david.blight@yale.edu or 203-432-8521 or 203-432-3339). Notably, Blight portrays this heroic American with warts-and-all exposure of problematic aspects in public and private life. One example was Douglass’s typically Protestant assertion that Catholic belief in the papacy was a “stupendous and most arrogant lie.”

The touring Douglass moved audiences with addresses, often in churches, that were de facto sermons and made continual use of the Bible. Favorite themes were the Exodus of God’s children from Egypt and the moral denunciations from the Hebrew prophets. This was not a matter of tactical artifice, Blight observes, but an authentic expression of profound spiritual devotion.

In 1831, as a 13-year-old household slave in Baltimore, Douglass experienced a thoroughgoing conversion to — in his own words — “faith in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek him.” He was chiefly influenced by sermons of two white Methodists and especially black lay preacher Charles Johnson. Blight says Douglass quickly developed a hunger for Bible reading, saw the world around him “in a new light,” and gained “new hopes and desire” that laid the foundation of his career.

As is frequently the case for Protestants, his faith was further deepened by a fellow layman, Charles Lawson, a semi-literate black laborer. The two would spend endless hours “singing, praying, and glorifying God,” Blight says.

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Must read on dementia and religion: RNS series offers interesting, informative coverage

Must read on dementia and religion: RNS series offers interesting, informative coverage

What he said.

Once again, Adelle M. Banks has produced a story — actually, make that a series —  that illustrates why she’s one of the best journalists on the Godbeat.

Banks, production editor and national reporter for Religion News Service, is known for her balanced, impartial journalism. Regardless of the subject matter, it’s generally impossible to tell which side Banks favors because she treats everyone so fairly.

Last year, her story on a 75-year-old sanitation worker reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was one of my favorites.

And now — in a world of nonstop hot takes on why 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump — Banks has tackled another fascinating subject off the beaten path.

It’s a series on dementia and religion that is filled with interesting, informative details and respected, knowledgable sources.

And the lede? It’s pretty much perfect:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (RNS) — When geropsychologist Benjamin Mast evaluates dementia clients at his University of Louisville research lab, there’s a question some people of faith ask him:

“What if I forget about God?”

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How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?

How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?

THE QUESTION:

How and why will a new technique for computer analysis of ancient texts affect the New Testaments you’ll be reading?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A revolution now under way will gradually change every future English translation of the New Testament you’ll be reading.

Translations are based upon some 5,800 hand-written manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek that survived from ancient times, whether fragments or complete books. Scholars analyze their numerous variations to get as close as possible to the original 1st Century wordings, a specialty known as “textual criticism.”

Books by Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina tell how such differences turned him from conservative to skeptic regarding Christians’ scriptural tradition. Yet other experts see the opposite, that this unusually large textual trove enhances the New Testament’s credibility and authority, though perplexities persist.

Two years ago, a good friend with a science Ph.D. who closely follows biblical scholarship alerted The Religion Guy to the significance of the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” (CBGM). What a mouthful. The Guy managed only a shaky grasp of CBGM and hesitated to write a Memo explaining it.

But he now takes up the topic, prodded by an overview talk by Peter Gurry, a young Cambridge University Ph.D. who teaches at Phoenix Seminary, video posted here (start at 33 minutes). The Guy won’t attempt a full description, but you can learn details in Gurry’s article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (.pdf here), or his co-authored 2017 book “A New Approach to Textual Criticism.” (Gurry’s doctoral dissertation on CBGM is available in book form but pricey and prolix.)

If it’s any encouragement, Gurry confesses he himself needed a year to comprehend CBGM, which he says “is not widely known or understood, even among New Testament scholars.”

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Just for fun: A look at journalism word games and RIP for The Weekly Standard

Just for fun: A look at journalism word games and RIP for The Weekly Standard

The Religion Guy Memo usually explores religion beat issues, tips of the trade, or stories and sources worth consideration.

But this non-religious item, just for fun, regards word games that journalists enjoy, including a farewell to a verbally clever magazine, The Weekly Standard. Actually, come to think of it, the Standard was a news-and-commentary magazine often paid close attention to religious and cultural trends.

The New Yorker’s obituary proclaimed the Standard to be America’s “most influential, and often the most interesting” conservative periodical. (Yes, The Guy also consumes ample liberal journalism.)

Most coverage blamed the weekly’s demise on its consistent criticisms of President Donald Trump. True, former editor William Kristol was an outspoken #NeverTrump voice. However, it’s more accurate to say TWS was favorable when the president backed its longstanding conservative or hawkish or Republican principles, and hostile on the numerous occasions when he did not.

Politics aside, The Guy hails the magazine’s original reporting alongside the usual thumbsucking, stylish authors, and its Lincoln-esque exploitation of humor, a cherished commodity amid drearily earnest and self-important political journalism.

We’ll miss the back page Parody and occasional Not A Parody, pungent Ramirez cartoons, devilish caricatures on the cover, and the continual ribbing of liberal cant, including squibs up front in The Scrapbook, e.g. the immortal “Articles We Tried Not to Read,” and “Sentences We Didn’t Finish.”

TWS should not vanish without also noting the astute cultural coverage, for instance a Dec. 24 disquisition on the word “schadenfreude.” The Dec. 10 edition served up this gem, an amusing 10-page history of proper word usage per the popular “American Heritage Dictionary” and its advisory panel. Author David Skinner was a panel member before the publisher abolished it “without ceremony” last February.

Back in 1961, elitists were aghast when the unbuttoned third edition of “Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged” radically reduced “slang” labels and abolished “colloquial.”

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Here's the non-news direct from Seattle: An abortion activist video for kiddies

Here's the non-news direct from Seattle: An abortion activist video for kiddies

I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw a feed belonging to Dae Shik Kim Hawkins, Jr., a Seattle writer who specializes in religion and homelessness. That’s an unusual combo.

In one tweet, he was applauding a video he helped produce that aired Dec. 28. It markets abortion to kids; a job he called “the Lord’s work.” Only in Seattle is abortion seen as a kids ministry.

So what is the journalism question here? This is another one of those cases in which we are dealing with a story worthy of mainstream coverage, which GetReligion would then critique. However, that would assume that mainstream newsrooms have produced mainstream news coverage of a topic this hot and, to my eyes, controversial.

So what kind of coverage is out there?

Sure enough, conservative media have been fuming about it all. CBN said:

A YouTube channel for kids is facing controversy after posting a video of a pro-choice activist working to convince children it's ok to have an abortion.

Amelia Bonow, the woman who started the social media hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion, appears in the video talking with children about her abortion experience and sharing her views on the issue.

The popular organization known as HiHo Kids has more than 2 million followers on YouTube. HiHo published the video online on Dec. 28 entitled "Kids Meet Someone Who's Had An Abortion." It's already been seen by more than 200,000 people.

In the eight-minute video, young children squirm as Bonow tries to indoctrinate them with her pro-abortion worldview. She compares having an abortion to a bad dentist appointment and a bodily procedure that's "kind of uncomfortable." She also tells one child that she believes abortion is "all part of God's plan."

HiHo Kids, known as a “children’s brand” produced at the Seattle offices of Cut.com (where Hawkins works), provides edgy programming that features different cuisines kids can try plus the occasional Interesting Person kids can meet. The abortion activist was one of a lineup that included a ventriloquist, a gender non-conforming person, a transgender soldier, a person who’s committed a felony, a ballerina, a hypnotist, a deaf person, a drag queen, a gynecologist, a teen mom and, well, you get the idea.

I guess the idea is that by familiarizing these kids with these various life choices or conditions, the youthful listeners will quickly learn to accept them all. Think they ever get to meet a rabbi, priest, pastor, a nun, imam or Mormon elder? I doubt it. That would not be newsworthy. Then again, the production of this video appears to be “conservative news” — period.

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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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