Podcasts

Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Who enjoys reporting and writing stories about abortion?

How about this journalism issue: Who wants to write news stories about abortion that offer information and viewpoints from the many articulate believers on both sides of this issue that has divided America for several decades now? Who wants to write about a subject that so bitterly divides Americans, creating painful puzzles for anyone who studies poll numbers?

Yes, there is a media-bias issue here, one that shows up in any major study of the professionals who work in major newsrooms — especially along the crucial Acela corridor in the bright blue zip codes of the Northeast. The evidence was strong when I did my graduate-school research in the early 1980s. It was still there when the media-beat reporter David Shaw wrote his classic Los Angeles Times series on this topic in 1990 (click here for the whole package). Remember the classic opening of Shaw’s masterwork?

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

"Her message was clear," Okie recalled recently. "I felt that they were . . . (saying) 'You're hurting the cause' . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line."

Okie says she was "shocked" by the "disquieting" assumption implicit in the complaint -- that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

But it's not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed "freedom of choice in abortion decisions."

This was the subject that loomed in the background as we recorded this week’s “Crossroads” podcast that focused — no surprise here — on the chaos on the Democratic Party in Virginia. (Click here to tune that in.)

Does anyone remember where that train wreck started? Here’s how I opened my national “On Religion” column this week, with a long and rather complex equation.

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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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A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

A question that won't fade: Why did Covington Catholic boys instantly become the bad guys?

Stop and ask yourself the following journalism puzzler (I apologize for the length of this thing).

Why did the Covington Catholic High School “smirk” incident with Native American elder Nathan Phillips seize the American media and even cause waves overseas, while the effort by Phillips and his drummers to march into and interrupt a Mass at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (security personnel stopped them) drew a radically mainstream media response (something like this, click here)?

The answer is clear: The gatekeepers in key, elite newsrooms thought the first story was big news and the second one was not.

But why did they feel that way? Why ignore one story and carpet-bomb the other?

That gets us into the media-bias minefield that I have been exploring my entire professional career, starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s (click here for my 1983 cover story for The Quill, a professional journal). But that answer only raises more questions: Why do so many journalists ignore, downplay or even mangle religion stories? What kind of bias is involved? As for that topic, click here for my second cover story at The Quill, in 1993. There is no one bias linked all this — there are four of them.

Welcome to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which — #DUH — returns to the Covington Catholic story. Click here to tune that in.

I want to point readers to a new mini-essay by one of my favorite writers, David French of National Review. He is a Harvard Law School graduate who specializes in religious liberty cases. As an outspoken #NeverTrump #NeverHillary conservative, he has been caught in the middle of many media flash fires in recent years.

The headline on this piece: “We’re Plagued by a Partisan Press. Here’s One Cure.” It focuses on the lack of intellectual and cultural diversity in many newsrooms. This reality affects decisions about what is and what is not news.

But before we get to French, let me remind readers of the following language in the amazing 2005 self-study conducted by the New York Times, during a time of turmoil over journalism ethics. The title: “Preserving Our Readers' Trust.

Our paper's commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.

The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting. We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).

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Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Let’s play a headline-writing game, inspired by the fact that one of the world’s most important newsrooms — BBC — wrote a blunt headline about You. Know. What.

Yes, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) takes another look at the great scandal of the week — that the wife of Vice President Mike Pence returned to her old job teaching at an evangelical Protestant school. This is the kind of small-o orthodox school that has a doctrinal code for teachers, staffers, parents and students that defends ancient Christian teachings that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We’re talking premarital sex, adultery (Hello Donald Trump), cohabitation, sexual harassment, same-sex behavior (not orientation), the whole works.

Thus, the BBC headline: “Vice-president's wife Karen Pence to teach at anti-LGBT school.”

Now, that BBC report didn’t make the common error of saying that this policy “bans” gay students, parents, teachers, etc. There are, after all, gays and lesbians, as well as people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, who accept traditional Christian teachings on these subjects. There are some careful wordings here:

Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of the US vice-president, will return to teaching art at a school that requires employees to oppose LGBT lifestyles.

The school in Springfield, Virginia, bars teachers from engaging in or condoning "homosexual or lesbian sexual activity" and "transgender identity". …

"I understand that the term 'marriage' has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman," the document states.

My question is this: For the journalists that wrote this headline, what does “anti-LGBT” mean?

If that term is accurate in this case, would it have been accurate for BBC to have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at anti-LGBT school for Christian bigots”? Is the judgment the same?

Now that I think about it, in many news reports it certainly appeared that editors assumed that banning homosexual behavior is the same thing as banning LGBT people. If that is accurate, then why not write a headline that says, “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that bans gays”?

Then again, looking at the content of the school policies, journalists could have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that defends Christian orthodoxy.” OK, but that doesn’t get the sex angle in there. So, let’s try this: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that opposes sex outside of marriage.” That’s accurate. Right?

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This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

The body blows just keep coming.

That’s how many Catholics — on both left and right — have to feel right now, after the daily meteor shower of news about falling stars in their church. All of this was, logically enough, the backdrop to the very open-ended, wide-ranging discussions in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast” (click here to tune that in).

One minute, and it’s new revelations linked to the wide, wide world of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. In the latest chapter of this drama, there were revelations at the Catholic News Agency and in the Washington Post that — forget all of his previous denials — Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl did know about the rumors swirling around McCarrick and his abusive relationships with boys and seminarians.

Want to guess which of these newsrooms dared to note that this fact was a key element of the infamous expose letters released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? You got it. It was a branch of the alternative Catholic press (must-read Clemente Lisi post here) connecting those controversial dots — again.

Then, on the other doctrinal side of the fence, there were the revelations about Father C.J. McCloskey, a popular conservative apologist from Opus Dei. Here’s how Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org opened a post entitled “A bad day’s lament.”

Yesterday was “one of those days” — a day that found me hating my work, wishing I had some other sort of job.

The first blow, and by far the worst, came with the news, released by the Washington PostMonday evening, that an old friend, Father C. J. McCloskey, had been disciplined for sexual misconduct involving a married woman, and that Opus Dei, of which I was once a member, had (not to put too fine a point on it) botched the handling of his case. Father McCloskey has done great things for the Catholic Church, drawing many converts to the faith and encouraging many cradle Catholics like myself to deepen their spiritual lives. The charges against him, however, reinforce my fear that every “celebrity priest” is vulnerable to special temptations, and just one misstep away from scandal. …

But long ago I resolved that I want to hear all the truth, good and bad. It will be a painful process, exposing all the rot within our Church. But it’s the only way to begin the necessary process of reform.

All of this left me thinking about a question that I hear — year after year, decade after decade — whenever I have private meetings with clergy and religious leaders.

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Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

On July 16, the New York Times ran a blockbuster story with this headline: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.

The man at the heart of this story was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — now ex-cardinal — long one of the most powerful Catholics in America and, some would say, the world. His spectacular fall led to a tsunami of chatter among religion-beat veterans because of decades of rumors about his private affairs, including beach-house sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians. Click here for a Julia Duin post on that.

There was another layer to all of this. McCarrick’s career was rooted in work in the greater New York City area and in Washington, D.C. He was one of the most important media sources among center-left Catholic leaders, so much so that a cluster of reporters linked to him became known as “Team Ted.”

Then came the brutal letters from the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, claiming that a global network of Catholic powerbrokers — including Pope Francis — had helped hide McCarrick and had profited from his clout and patronage.

In August there was an explosion of news about the release of a hellish seven-decade grand-jury report about abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: 2018 was a year in which there were major developments in two big clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic world. They were, of course, connected.

There was the old, ongoing story of priests abusing teens and children, starting with headlines in the early 1980s. Then there was the issue of how to discipline bishops, archbishops and even cardinals accused of abuse — a story in which all roads lead to Rome and, these days, Pope Francis.

Which story was more important in 2018? Which story centered on new, global developments? These questions are at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our discussion centered on the release of the Religion News Association’s annual list of the Top 10 religion-beat stories — in which the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was No. 1 and McCarrick and Vigano fell near the end of that list.

In my own list, McCarrick and Vigano were No. 1 and the Pennsylvania report was No. 4, in part because 97 percent of its crimes were pre-2002, the year U.S. bishops passed strict anti-abuse policies.

There was another strange — IMHO — twist in this. RNA members selected Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as Newsmaker of the Year, after his long, progressive sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Oddly, McCarrick’s name was not even included on the ballot.

It helps to see the lists.

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

Try to imagine covering a worship service, in a cathedral, using modernized Anglican rites and a river of glorious sacred music and managing to produce news features that focus on (fill in the blank) instead of (fill in the blank).

After this week, you can probably guess what this post is about.

Yes, it’s another post about the mainstream news coverage of the state funeral — and too a lesser extent, the oh-so-Texas funeral in Houston — of former President George H.W. Bush. I’ve writing about that subject a lot this week (click here for a Bobby Ross, Jr., post with lots of links) and now you can listen to a “Crossroads” podcast on that subject, as well. Click here to tune that in.

Frankly, there is still a lot to talk about, especially if you think that that these various rites were about Bush 41, rather than Donald Trump. However, I’d like to signal that this post will end with some good news, a story about the state funeral that actually mixed lots of religion into a report on this topic. Hold that thought.

I’m at home in East Tennessee, these days, not in New York City. Thus, the newspaper in my driveway is the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is owned by the Gannett chain. Thus, I watched the whole funeral and then, the following day, read the following USA Today report in that local paper: “George H.W. Bush state funeral: 'America's last great soldier-statesman'.”

I was, frankly, stunned that this long story was, basically, free of faith-based content. Did the USA Today watch the same rite I did? Here is a long, and very typical, passage:

Ever the diplomat, the elder Bush managed in death to bring together the nation's four living ex-presidents, as well as President Donald Trump, the Republican he and his son George W. Bush refused to support two years ago. The gathering was at times awkward as Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, ignored each other.

The most touching moment came when the younger Bush, delivering the last of four eulogies, choked up recalling "a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have." As the late president's three other sons and daughter looked on tearfully, the audience burst into applause for the only time during the ceremony.

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Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

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