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Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

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New release from Nashville: a timely, thought-provoking dive into 'God and Country Music'

New release from Nashville: a timely, thought-provoking dive into 'God and Country Music'

Holly Meyer’s mama tried to raise her better.

Actually, I think her mother did just fine. That opening was my rather feeble attempt to set the scene (with thanks to Merle Haggard) for this post on “God and Country Music.”

Meyer, The Tennessean’s religion writer, had a big piece on Sunday’s front page about a religious revival in country music.

It turns out that the story idea came from, well, Meyer’s mother.

“And a good story idea is a good story idea, especially when it comes from your mom,” Meyer said.

Amen!

Full disclosure: I love country music. In fact, I wrote a column several years ago exploring country songs as “modern-day parables.” So I was pretty certain I was going to appreciate Meyer’s piece. And I did.

Her timely lede:

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The Catholic matriarch of Creole cooking: Yes, the real Princess Tiana was a Catholic believer

The Catholic matriarch of Creole cooking: Yes, the real Princess Tiana was a Catholic believer

What made Creole chef Leah Chase so unique?

There’s at least two ways to look at that question. You can ask, “What made her famous at the national level?” Fame is important, especially a person’s life and work is connected to A-list personalities in politics, entertainment and culture.

However, in this case I would say that that it was more important to ask, “What was the ‘X’ factor that made her a matriarch in New Orleans culture?” When you focus on that question, the word “Catholic” has to be in the mix somewhere — a core ingredient in the strong gumbo that was her life.

Thus, I was stunned that the NOLA.com tribute to Chase hinted at her faith early on, but then proceeded to ignore the role that Catholicism played in the factual details of her life. Look for the word “Catholic” in this piece: “Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, dead at 96.” You won’t find it, even though the overture opened the door:

Leah Chase, New Orleans’ matriarch of Creole cuisine, who fed civil rights leaders, musicians and presidents in a career spanning seven decades, died Saturday (June 1) surrounded by family. She was 96.

Mrs. Chase, who possessed a beatific smile and a perpetually calm demeanor, presided over the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant until well into her 10th decade, turning out specialties such as lima beans and shrimp over rice, shrimp Clemenceau and fried chicken that was judged the best in the city in a poll by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Every Holy Thursday, hundreds showed up to enjoy gallons of her gumbo z’herbes, a dark, thick concoction that contains the last meat to be eaten before Good Friday.

What, pray tell, is the importance of community life and faith linked to Holy Thursday and Good Friday?

Maybe editors in New Orleans simply assumed that Catholicism is a given in that remarkable city, something that does not need to be explained or, well, even mentioned. (Watch the NOLA.com video at the top of this post.)

In this case, if readers want to learn some facts about the role that Catholic faith played in this Creole queen’s life, they will need — wait for it — to dig into the magesterial obit produced by The New York Times: “Leah Chase, Creole Chef Who Fed Presidents and Freedom Riders, Dies at 96.”

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Tim Conway was a kind soul, with a gentle sense of humor. Maybe his faith played a role in that?

Tim Conway was a kind soul, with a gentle sense of humor. Maybe his faith played a role in that?

If you are of a certain age, then you know that there was a decade or two in which Tim Conway was the funniest man alive. If you looked into the details of his life and personality, then you knew that he was more than that.

Watching The Carol Burnett Show was one of the few pop-culture rituals in the Southern Baptist preacher’s home in which I grew up. Conway was the star of the show, as far as I was concerned. It was interesting, last week, to read the mainstream media obituaries and tributes that followed his death.

The key? It was all about the adjectives — “kind,” “gentle,” “loving,” “impish,” “humble,” etc. — as today’s reporters tried to hint at the style and content of the work done by this master of the semi-improvised variety show skit.

I kept looking for one more crucial word — “Catholic.” Check out the EWTN interview at the top of this post.

As you would expect, scribes made that connection in the Catholic press, but nowhere else that I could find. Here’s the faith-free opening of the tribute at The Hollywood Reporter. Maybe the angel reference in the lede is supposed to be a hint?

Tim Conway, the cherub-faced comedian who became a TV star for playing the bumbling Ensign Parker on McHale's Navy and for cracking up his helpless colleagues on camera on The Carol Burnett Show, has died. He was 85. 

A five-time Emmy Award winner, Conway died Tuesday at 8:45 a.m. at a health care facility in Los Angeles, his rep told The Hollywood Reporter. According to recent reports, he was suffering from dementia and unable to speak after undergoing brain surgery in September.

For four seasons beginning in October 1962, the impish actor provided the heart and a lion's share of the laughs on ABC's McHale's Navy as the sweet, befuddled second-in-command on a PT boat full of connivers and con men led by the show's title character, played by Ernest Borgnine.

When dealing with Hollywood royalty, what really matters is the obituary in The Los Angeles Times.

Of course, Burnett was featured right up top:

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Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Howard Stern gave a remarkable two-part interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. In terms of cultural encounters, that’s interesting in and of itself.

A good many social conservatives — OK, I’ll own this — have usually found it easier to think of Stern as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. If he was not one of the four horsemen, he was the nearly naked drunken guy dancing with abandon somewhere in the end times parade, much to the delight of those citizens who think of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street as the cultural high point of the year.

Writing in “Prophet of All Media” for Tablet, Liel Leibovitz makes an argument that, like Stern, is provocative. Leibovitz repeatedly compares Stern to Judaism’s prophets, and he begins with an earthy tale straight out of the Talmud about a prostitute who breaks wind and delivers a related prophetic word to her client, a rabbi.

“And it’s just the sort of story that makes the seminal text of Jewish life — often introduced to young yeshiva students as an account of God’s own mind — so transcendent,” he writes. “To imbue humans with wisdom, the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud realized, you need more than just a commandment; if you want humans to listen and learn, you have to embrace all the appetites and the oddities that make them human. Try to talk to us about the labors of redemption, and we might scoff at such haughty moralizing or slink away from the effort it demands. Deliver it in a good yarn about a farting prostitute, and we’re bound to laugh, think, and empathize.”

Much of Leibovitz’s argument continues in this vein, leaving the impression that apart from the occasionally unkind or crude remark, Stern surely joins the farting prostitute in having a heart of gold.

In time, however, Leibovitz reaches the mother lode of his case, with a comparison for all Americans who have set NPR as the first station on the audio devices built into their automobile dashboards. Leibovitz goes so far as to compare Stern to Terry Gross — not by mentioning their most recent interview, but by comparing the cultural effects of their respective style of interviews.

This is very long, but essential. Media professionals, let us attend:

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BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

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Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

It was Christmas Eve as Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the town of Godric's Hollow, searching through the snowy church graveyard for the graves of the teen wizard’s parents, Lily and James Potter.

Here’s how the scene is depicted in the final novel — “"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" — of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume set. Christmas carols are drifting out of the church when the duo discovers the tombstone for the family of the late Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The inscription is from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

That’s just the start of the faith content in the Potter-verse rooted in the author’s worldview. Hang in there with me, because this is going to link up with this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) and the national column that I wrote about the God-shaped hole in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Now, about the Potter family tombstone: In a 2007 “On Religion” column on this topic, I noted:

… The Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."

Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

This is another Bible verse — one that Rowling said stated the theme at the heart of her Potter series. It also helps to know that the Harry Potter stories grew out of the author’s grief after the death of her mother. Rowling wanted to make a statement that death is not the end.

It also matters that Rowling has been upfront about the fact that she is active in the Scottish Episcopal Church and, based on her remarks through the years, it’s pretty clear that she is on the left side of Anglicanism. Her academic background in classics (and love of Medieval Catholic symbolism) also shaped the Potter-verse.

So what is the context of the verse on that Potter headstone?

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That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

So, there’s another one of those “Christian” niche-market movies that’s about to come to a theater near you. Maybe you’re heard about it? Or maybe you have even seen the trailer for “Breakthrough” before one of those family friendly movies at your local multiplex?

There’s a good chance that you have been able to see the trailer, as explained in this Religion News Service piece. That fact alone turns this into a somewhat different “Christian movie in the marketplace” story than the one that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I discussed during this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why? Hang in there with me, because this will take some explaining.

Producer DeVon Franklin was “blown away” by the Smiths’ story several years ago when he met Joyce and John Smith and their pastor, Jason Noble, while promoting his film “Miracles From Heaven.” …

The producer said “Breakthrough” builds on the success of the other films he has produced with explicitly Christian messages: “Miracles From Heaven,” which also is based on the true story of a mother holding on to faith as her child faces a health crisis, and “The Star,” an animated film telling the story of Jesus’ birth from the viewpoint of the animals.

And it’s well positioned to reach even more people, he said. Franklin said he was surprised how many movies the trailer has accompanied in theaters since then and by the positive response they have received. He’s seen “unprecedented interest in this type of content,” he said.

Now, if the trailer for this movie is showing in front of lots of mainstream films — like the superheat “Mary Poppins Returns” — and reaching family friendly audiences, then that would mean that “Breakthrough” is rated PG — which it is. The film has also been welcomed, without rancor, into the world of social media.

So how is this different from that other Christian-market movie that is in the news right now? What have you read about “Unplanned” and its attempts to reach the emerging marketplace for faith-driven films?

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How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

The events of the past few days have truly been monumental for the Roman Catholic church.

You may not have noticed — unless you’ve bothered to read the ever-growing list of Catholic news websites on both the right and left. While liberals and conservatives within the church continue to wage a very public war over everything from the future of Christendom in the West to the ongoing clerical abuse crisis, two prominent voices have led the charge when it comes to these two issues.

Again, it was conservative Catholic media that proved to be the preferred mouthpiece for Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Both men — with help from right-leaning news organizations — have been very vocal about the problems plaguing the modern church in our ever-secular world.

It is fitting that these two men — one considered a potential future pope, the other already a pope — are the ones leading the charge as the church continues to become polarized. Under Francis’ papacy, the ideological split has become more pronounced. As the curia continues to polarize itself in public on issues like immigration and homosexuality, church leaders like Sarah and Benedict refuse to be silenced. Once again, it’s those Catholic media voices on the right that are helping to spread their message.

Case in point: this past week. At a time when Christians around the world continue on their Lenten journey, Sarah and Benedict are making a statement about the direction of Catholicism, the legacy of Vatican II and where the church is going. Sarah, who hails from the majority-Muslim nation of Guinea in Africa, contrasted Pope Francis’ statements in telling Christian nations they should open their borders to Islamic refugees.

The 73-year-old cardinal, in his new book” Evening Draws Near” and the “Day is Nearly Over,” argues that it’s wrong to “use the Word of God to promote migration.” Sarah laments the “collapse of the West” and what he calls “migratory processes” that threatens Europe’s Christian identity. As birthrates continue to drop across Europe, and workers from other continents are needed to take jobs, the culture of the continent is changing.

“If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision,” he wrote.It’s worth noting that Sarah has been at odds with Pope Francis and his allies over an array of issues, including liturgical matters and translations of Latin texts.

The excerpt was largely ignored by mainstream news outlets.

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