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You know what? Peter Boyer does have some thoughts on religion news, Trump and the press

You know what? Peter Boyer does have some thoughts on religion news, Trump and the press

I recently wrote a think-piece post about an Esquire piece by Peter Boyer on how Donald Trump has successfully baited many elite mainstream journalists into switching from classic American Model of the Press journalism and into advocacy mode.

If you didn’t see that GetReligion post, please click this link: “Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels.”

Boyer, of course, is best known for his years of work with The New Yorker. I have always thought that he has an incredible ability to write about hot-button topics while showing respect for the beliefs of people on both sides of those emotionally charged issues. Yes, that includes religion. Check out this example from 2005: “Jesus in the Classroom.”

In my earlier post, I wondered how Boyer might apply his thesis about Trump and the press to, well, the whole issue of journalists not “getting” religion. It helps that Boyer started reading GetReligion back in 2005 and that we’ve been in touch over the years.

Now, I have something to share, from Boyer, about that religion-news question. But first, here is a crucial section of my earlier post to help introduce readers to this discussion. In the Esquire piece, a key scene opens with Boyer interviewing Trump:

… Amid those passing controversies was one story that Trump himself remembers clearly still. “Yep, very famous story,” he remarked to me in a recent interview. “It was a very important story...” Trump was referring to a front-page New York Times article published on August 8, 2016, under the headline "The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity." The opening paragraph posed a provocative question:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

Here’s another key statement:

Reporters who considered Trump “potentially dangerous,” [Jim] Rutenberg wrote, would inevitably move closer “to being oppositional” to him in their reporting — “by normal standards, untenable.” Normal standards, the column made clear, no longer applied.

This reminded me, of course, of the famous remarks that Times editor Bill Keller made several days after his retirement — the 2011 remarks that led a GetReligion reader (a D.C. area scholar) to create our “Kellerism” term.

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A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

A string of teen suicides in Utah — might town's Mormon influence offer relevant context?

Certainly, not every national story out of Utah has to include mention of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But given the LDS church’s strong influence in the Beehive State, that faith connection is highly relevant in many cases.

Take the Wall Street Journal’s recent front-page on a string of teen suicides in Herriman, Utah.

Based on the Journal’s powerful lede, it’s not immediately clear whether religion is a crucial factor — or a factor at all:

HERRIMAN, Utah — Eight months to the day after his only son, Chandler, killed himself, Kurt Voutaz was in his kitchen eating lunch.

He and his wife, Catherine, had long since ripped the blood-soaked carpet out of Chandler's bedroom and cleaned the walls and ceiling. It was warm for February, and they had taken the snow tires off the car. They were hoping winter was over.

Suddenly, a police car sped across a footpath in the park behind their house. A couple of teenagers were standing nearby, shouting.

Mr. Voutaz stepped outside to see what was going on. He quickly wished he hadn't. Just a few yards from his house, a body was lying on the ground. It was Chandler's friend, Cooper Nagy. Like Chandler, he had shot himself.

Cooper was the fourth high-school student from Herriman to die by suicide since Chandler's death in June of 2017. Two more would kill themselves by May of 2018, bringing the total to six in less than a year, plus at least one recent graduate.

Keep reading, and the story provides the nut graf — noting that the nation’s suicide rate is rising and that “suicide clusters” involving multiple deaths and almost always adolescents hit roughly five U.S. communities per year.

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Is it me or does this NYT story on anti-abortion movie 'Unplanned' contain a lot of extra qualifiers?

Is it me or does this NYT story on anti-abortion movie 'Unplanned' contain a lot of extra qualifiers?

Regular GetReligion readers are familiar with the concept of scare quotes.

For those new to the term, Dictionary.com defines scare quotes as “marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense.”

Journalists frequently use scare quotes in coverage of “religious liberty,” for example, a sort of journalistic raising of the eyebrow, as we have noted from time to time.

A recent New York Times story on the controversy over the anti-abortion movie “Unplanned” doesn’t rely on scare quotes. But in quoting anti-abortion sources, the piece repeatedly employs what might be characterized as a similar tool.

I’m talking about the Times’ repeated use of qualifiers in the indirect quotations. I’ll elaborate on what I mean in a moment. But first, here’s the top of the story with a few crucial details:

CLIFTON, N.J. — It was a rare packed house for a weeknight in the suburbs, and when the movie was over, the sold-out crowd of about 100 last Wednesday spilled haltingly into the light.

A few — a gaggle of nuns in their habits, at least one collared priest — wore their dispositions on their sleeves. Others communicated in muted gestures, dabbed at tears, or lingered for long stretches in the popcorn-strewn vestibule at the AMC multiplex here, as if still processing the deliberately provocative movie they had just seen.

Since March 29, similar scenes have played out across the country as faith-based groups and many others have gathered en masse to see “Unplanned,” a new movie that paints a scathing portrait of abortion rights in general, and Planned Parenthood in particular.

A few paragraphs later comes the first instance of a qualifier:

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Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.

Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.

The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.

Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)

But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?

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In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

A daily Google email alerts me to headlines about “evangelicals.” Most days, at least one publication delves into some version of this question: Why do most evangelicals support President Donald Trump?

I know, I know: Haven’t we figured that one out yet?

On the flip side, the supposed “rise of the religious left” in response to Trump is a favorite storyline for some journalists and talking heads.

Ho-hum. Isn’t there anything new on the religion and politics beat?

For anyone as tired as I am of the same old, same old, NPR religion and beliefs correspondent Tom Gjelten’s recent feature on a “purple church” in North Carolina was a refreshing change.

What’s a purple church? It’s a congregation that draws members from both sides of America’s vast Grand Canyon between red and blue, as Gjelten explains:

At a time when Americans are moving apart in their political and religious views, worshippers at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., have learned to avoid some subjects for the sake of maintaining congregational harmony.

"You wouldn't run up to a stove and touch a hot burner," says DeLana Anderson, a church deacon. "So, I'm certainly not going to do that here."

White Memorial is thriving, with about 4,000 members, while other mainline Protestant congregations are struggling. Just as impressively, it brings together worshippers with disparate political views, both red and blue.

"Raleigh is a purple city. North Carolina is a purple state," notes Christopher Edmonston, the church's senior pastor. "Many of the people who have come to church here in the last 25 years are from other parts of the country, and they bring their ideas, their politics, their viewpoints, with them. So we almost have to be purple if we're going to continue to be open and welcome to any person that wants to come."

The news peg for the NPR report is a recent Barna Group report on the communication challenges that pastors face in a divided culture.

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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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Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

The news media vs. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump vs. the mainstream news media.

Who will win in this epic life and death steel-cage wrestling match?

Well, you can argue that the media has already lost this battle, in that Trump now resides in the White House.

One could also argue that Trump has successfully rewritten the rules of public discourse in a way that has forced journalists to abandon many of their most important standards linked to fairness, objectivity and even accuracy. The more journalists veer into a Trump-style screaming match, the more they fit into the stereotypes that The Donald has created for them.

This brings us to an important Esquire piece written by magazine-pro Peter Boyer. If you know this work — including his years at The New Yorker — you know that he has a reputation as a reporter with an uncanny knack for covering both sides of tense, angry arguments. (See this classic New Yorker piece on Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.)

So what does this Esquire piece have to do with religion-beat reporting? Read the following and think of former New York Times editor Bill Keller and his statement that the Times was attempting to do balanced, accuracy coverage of the news, “other than” many topics linked to culture, morality and religion.

So the scene opens with Boyer interviewing Trump:

… Amid those passing controversies was one story that Trump himself remembers clearly still. “Yep, very famous story,” he remarked to me in a recent interview. “It was a very important story...” Trump was referring to a front-page New York Times article published on August 8, 2016, under the headline "The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity." The opening paragraph posed a provocative question:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

There is more, of course:

Reporters who considered Trump “potentially dangerous,” [Jim] Rutenberg wrote, would inevitably move closer “to being oppositional” to him in their reporting — “by normal standards, untenable.” Normal standards, the column made clear, no longer applied.

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Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

Buddhist vs. Muslim: Journalists ask why SCOTUS intervened in one death penalty case, not another

“Journalists really need to follow up on this crucial religious-liberty case,” our own tmatt wrote in February after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution of a Muslim inmate. The big issue in that case was Alabama inmate Domineque Ray’s execution without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side.

But last week, the high court granted a rare stay of execution for a Texas inmate as he was waiting in the death chamber. Justices ruled that the refusal of Texas to allow a Buddhist spiritual adviser to be present violated Patrick Murphy’s freedom of religion.

Wait, what gives?

Why let one inmate die and another live in such similar cases?

Such questions sound like perfect pegs for inquisitive journalists.

Speaking of which …

Robert Barnes, the Washington Post’s veteran Supreme Court reporter, points to the court’s newest justice:

It’s difficult to say with certainty why the Supreme Court on Thursday night stopped the execution of a Buddhist inmate in Texas because he was not allowed a spiritual adviser by his side, when last month it approved the execution of a Muslim inmate in Alabama under almost the exact circumstances.

But the obvious place to start is new Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who seemed to have a change of heart.

Kavanaugh on Thursday was the only justice to spell out his reasoning: Texas could not execute Patrick Murphy without his Buddhist adviser in the room because it allows Christian and Muslim inmates to have religious leaders by their sides.

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination,” Kavanaugh wrote.

But Kavanaugh was on the other side last month when Justice Elena Kagan and three other justices declared “profoundly wrong” Alabama’s decision to turn down Muslim Domineque Ray’s request for an imam to be at his execution, making available only a Christian chaplain.

“That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality,” Kagan wrote then.

Keep reading, and the Post notes differences in how the inmates’ attorneys made their arguments:

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