Ethics

Think piece from guilt files: The ethics of ambushing Robert Mueller after Easter worship rites

Think piece from guilt files: The ethics of ambushing Robert Mueller after Easter worship rites

It’s one of those surreal scenes that’s hard to imagine ever happened — but it did. More than once.

The setting is a Roman Catholic church in England and the late, great Sir Alec Guinness has just knelt to receive Holy Communion and is quietly returning to his pew. Then someone would do the unthinkable.

To be blunt: Is this the time and place to talk to Guinness about “Star Wars”? The answer is: “No.” As Joseph Pearce, author of "Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief,” once told me:

"All that we really know about Sir Alec Guinness — right down the line — is that he did not consider his life to be public property. ... He was particularly irritated when people would, literally, come up to him after Mass and try to talk to him about his movies."

Ah, but what if it is Easter and all of America is talking about the release of the most important government document in the history of the Republic? What if the person coming out of church is the Special Counsel who millions (OK, it seems that way) of Beltway Talking Heads had designated as the hero who would slay (it’s a metaphor) the evil Donald Trump and allow Blue Zip Code Americans to return to living happy, fulfilled lives free of Twitter insults, other than their own?

This brings us to this weekend’s think piece, which I feel very guilty about because I should have used this earlier. But better late than never. This ran as an “ethics” commentary by Al Tompkins at Poynter.org, with this headline: “Offensive or appropriate? We talked to the reporter who questioned Mueller on Easter.” Here’s the overture:

MSNBC freelance reporter Mike Viqueira was trying to land the interview that nobody else has in close to two years. That’s why he confronted Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he and his wife left a Washington, D.C., church service on Easter Sunday. Viqueira is taking heat on social media for confronting Mueller after church, but some journalists say Mueller is such a high-profile public figure that he is fair game.

There’s a word for this: optics.

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This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.

It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.

With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.

Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.

I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?

This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”

So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?

It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”

So here’s what’s at stake:

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival.

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Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Podcast thinking about our future: Does anyone still believe in old-school, 'objective' journalism?

Anyone who knows anything about human nature knows that everyone — journalists included — have biases that influence how they see the world. Everyone has some kind of lens, or worldview, through which they view life.

Honest people know this. Thus, lots of news consumers tend to chuckle whenever they hear journalists say that “objectivity” is at the heart of their reporting and editing.

Far too many people, when they hear the word “objectivity,” immediately start thinking in philosophical, not professional, terms. They hear journalists saying: Behold. I am a journalist. My super power is that I can be totally neutral and unbiased, even when covering issues that one would need to be brain dead, if the goal is to avoid having beliefs and convictions.

Hang in there with me, please. I am working my way around to issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on my recent post about some of the challenges facing GetReligion and, thus, affecting this website’s evolution in the future.

Truth be told, no one in journalism ever seriously believed that news professionals were supposed to be blank slates when doing their work. No, the word “objectivity” used to point to what has been called a “journalism of verification,” a core of professional standards that reporters and editors would sincerely strive (no one is perfect) to follow.

With that in mind, let me quote the end of that famous 2003 memo that former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll wrote to his staff, after a very slated, even snarky, story appeared in the paper about a complex issue (.pdf here) linked to induced abortions. This passage talks about “bias.” When reading it, pay special attention to the journalistic virtues that Carroll is trying to promote.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

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New York Times on Ginni Thomas: Let our anonymous sources label this religious nut for you

New York Times on Ginni Thomas: Let our anonymous sources label this religious nut for you

Anyone who has followed the work of religious conservatives in Washington, D.C., knows this name — Ginni Thomas.

She is, of course, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She is also a key figure in Republican Party politics, when it comes time to draw a bright red line between ordinary GOP power brokers (think corporate interests and country clubs) and people who are religious conservatives, first, and Republicans, second.

This is not a woman who, under normal circumstances, would hang out with the kinds of people who tend to spiral around Donald Trump, especially in the decades before he needed the approval of some old-guard Religious Right folks.

The key: To some Beltway people, Ginni Thomas represents a brand of conservatism worse than the brew Trump has been trying to sell.

What does this divide look like when it ends up in the New York Times? It certainly looks like the Times has its sources — unnamed, of course — among the cultural libertarians inside this White House. Readers are clubbed over the head during the overture of an alleged news story that ran with this headline: “Trump Meets With Hard-Right Group Led by Ginni Thomas.

WASHINGTON — President Trump met last week with a delegation of hard-right activists led by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, listening quietly as members of the group denounced transgender people and women serving in the military, according to three people with direct knowledge of the events.

For 60 minutes Mr. Trump sat, saying little but appearing taken aback, the three people said, as the group also accused White House aides of blocking Trump supporters from getting jobs in the administration.

It is unusual for the spouse of a sitting Supreme Court justice to have such a meeting with a president, and some close to Mr. Trump said it was inappropriate for Ms. Thomas to have asked to meet with the head of a different branch of government.

A vocal conservative, Ms. Thomas has long been close to what had been the Republican Party’s fringes. …

It gets worse! Later, Times congregants received this terrifying news: Thomas prayed.

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Some sins deserve more secrecy? Compare and contrast cases of McCloskey and McCarrick

Some sins deserve more secrecy? Compare and contrast cases of McCloskey and McCarrick

The tragic (viewed from the right) and spectacular (viewed from the left) fall of Father C. John McCloskey, a popular Catholic apologist, from Opus Dei, continues to get quite a bit of ink.

Let me stress: As it should.

Before I get to a fascinating update at The Washington Post, let me pause and make an observation, or two.

No. 1: Consider this question: Looking at the American Catholic church over the past two or three decades (and at Catholic life in Washington, D.C., in particular), who was the more powerful and significant player — Father McCloskey or former cardinal Theodore McCarrick?

That’s a bit of a slam dunk, isn’t it?

Now, in terms of doing basic journalism, it appears that it has been easier to crack into the heart of the McCloskey case than it has the McCarrick case. Why is that? Is it accurate to state that Catholic officials linked to the McCloskey case have been a bit more forthcoming than those in the powerful networks linked to the former cardinal? Hold that thought.

No. 2: Over and over, people ask me why clergy sexual abuse stories in Protestant settings — evangelical flocks, in particular — receive so much less mainstream ink than Catholic scandals. There are several reasons for this:

— Many mainstream news editors think that Catholic stories are more newsworthy than those in other churches — period. I even ran into that attitude, long ago, in Charlotte, N.C., of all places.

— Catholicism has a clear structure and clear lines of authority. This is comforting to reporters who see the world through a political lens. The largest, most influential forms of Protestantism in our culture are — when it comes to polity — more chaotic and “congregational.” That’s more of a challenge for newsrooms without a skilled, experience religion-beat pro.

— As someone who HAS covered more than a few Protestant/evangelical clergy-sex stories, I think it is safe to say that many of them, if not most, center on sexual relationships and even abuse that are linked to temptations present in face-to-face “pastoral counseling.” Consider the following, from a column I wrote after the death of Dr. Louis McBurney, an evangelical with psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic.

Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be "as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper," McBurney said.

Viewed from this perspective, it appears — so far — that McCloskey got into trouble when he could not control his feelings/actions with women who had sought his help, via “pastoral counseling.”

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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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How much should religious groups pay top leaders?

 How much should religious groups pay top leaders?

THE QUESTION:

How much should local religious congregations, agencies, and charities pay their leaders?

THE GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic is brought to mind by three simultaneous articles published in December. In the first, The New York Times “Ethicist” column responded to an anonymous employee of a non-profit agency that works on consumer rights and economic literacy who’s upset that due to a financial crisis its management cut the staff by a fourth.

This was said to be necessary to protect the long-term future. But the employee is “hurt” and considering a protest after learning top officials’ pay and perks consume a fourth of the budget. The president even gets a company car. The employee thinks top incomes are “seemingly” out of line and an “injustice” to other staffers.

In response, New York University philosophy Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah said non-profits, like for-profit companies, may realistically need to pay the going rate to get talented executives. But high pay is always “worrisome” for a charity, plus this agency might have been wiser to trim executive pay in order to limit layoffs.

Churches also face money questions. The Rev. John Gray of Relentless Church in Greenville, S.C., gave his wife for their wedding anniversary a $220,000 Lambourghini Urus SUV (650 horsepower, 0 to 62 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds, top speed of 190 m.p.h.). She gave Gray a costly Rolex watch. After Christian Websites sizzled with hostile comments, Gray tearfully responded that he spent his own (obviously handsome) income, not church donations, and noted he gets added money from his Oprah Winfrey Network show and a book deal.

A different problem is old-fashioned embezzlement from church accounts diverted to personal use, $80,000 or more in a case just filed against Jerrell Altic, a minister at Houston’s prominent First Baptist Church from 2011 to 2017. This raises obvious questions about this church’s fiscal management and financial transparency with its members.

Misuse of non-profits’ income can get you in a pack of trouble with the Feds.

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Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Newsroom story conferences are impossibly clogged with items in the Donald Trump Era.

This month everybody is sifting through everything in order to figure out the Top Ten events of 2018. The Religion Guy proposes that, without question, first place belongs not to political or economic eruptions but scientists’ onrushing effort to “play God” and re-engineer the human species through genetics.

With all the fear-mongering about animal or vegetable GMOs and “Frankenfood,” how shall we now cope with the similar and serious specter of creating human “designer babies” with desired traits?

Alas, the Guy has seen precious little media input from organized religion and urges reporters to bring those viewpoints to the center of this developing public debate.

The news: He Jiankui, a U.S.-trained biological researcher in China, says he has successfully altered the genes of newly born twins, with a third such birth expected soon. The claim has not been verified through the normal academic reporting process, much to the distress of fellow researchers, Chinese officialdom and the university and hospital where He works.

However, his background makes the claim plausible. There were important advances in such work during 2017. If He’s claim falls through, scientific success elsewhere, with the moral quandaries that result, appears inevitable. If it can be done, some scientists somewhere will do it, and self-regulation by science or government restrictions will be difficult to achieve.

The headline on a New York Times dispatch out of Beijing put matters bluntly: “In China, Sacrificing Ethics for Scientific Glory.” There were immediate hostile reactions from scientists. For one, Francis Collins, head of America’s National Institutes of Health (and a devout evangelical), spoke of “epic scientific misadventures” that will sully valid work on genetic diseases by provoking “outrage, fear, and disgust.”

CRISPR sounds like some newfangled kitchen gadget hawked as a Christmas gift on late-night TV. (“But wait!!”). However, it’s the acronym for a new tool for editing genes, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, using the “CRISPR-associated protein 9” enzyme abbreviated as “Cas9.” Importantly, scientists say this method suddenly makes gene manipulation easy and quite precise.

It’s hard enough for mere journalists to fully comprehend this process, much less explain it to our audiences, but the biological basics and moral implications are crystal clear.

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Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

Is sane political discourse a lost cause? Even a small Himalayan Buddhist nation faces trolls

My fellow Americans, as you well know the 2018 midterm elections are almost upon us. No matter who you support, I recommend sparing yourself additional heartburn by not letting process tie your stomach in a knot (I know, that’s much easier said than done).

It helps to keep in mind something Winston Churchill is credited with saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Democracy also just might be government at its most confusing. Making it far tougher is the enormous amount of misinformation — often just out-and-out lies — purposefully disseminated via the web these days. It’s enough to dissuade me from the notion that that all technical progress correlates with genuine human progress.

No place today seems immune from the havoc that this illiberal nastiness can cause on the left and the right.

Not even once isolated Bhutan, the small Himalayan nation I was fortunate to visit about six years ago, can catch a break. This recent Washington Post story underscores this sad truth. It ran the day of Bhutan’s national election last Thursday.

A small Himalayan nation wedged between India and China, Bhutan is famed for its isolated location, stunning scenery and devotion to the principle of “Gross National Happiness,” which seeks to balance economic growth with other forms of contentment.

But Bhutan’s young democracy, only a decade old, just received a heady dose of the unhappiness that comes with electoral politics. In the months leading up to Thursday’s national elections, the first in five years, politicians traded insults and made extravagant promises. Social media networks lit up with unproved allegations and fear mongering about Bhutan’s role in the world.

It is enough to make some voters express a longing for the previous system — absolute monarchy under a beloved king. “I would love to go back,” said Karma Tenzin, 58, sitting in his apartment in the picturesque capital, Thimphu. “We would be more than happy.”

Bhutan is a devoutly Buddhist nation (more precisely, it adheres to Vajrayana Buddhism, the branch of the faith also found in Tibet). So given the far more deadly social media lies propagated in Myanmar, also a strong Buddhist state, should we assume that there’s something about Buddhism itself that lends itself to this sort of twisted media manipulation?

Of course not. The problem is far more about human limitations than any particular religious constellation.

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