Jim Davis

Red and Blue America: Does the New York Times give facts on ground or views from top?

Red and Blue America: Does the New York Times give facts on ground or views from top?

In yet another election postmortem, the New York Times team tried a novel idea -- a street-level view of the thoughts and fears that drove Red and Blue America. The simple goal was to report what ordinary people said.

Or at least readers got to hear what the Times people heard. Some of the 2,600-word piece reveals a viewpoint as skewed as some of those it reports.

The article is broken into segments, each by a different writer, and they vary widely in tone and balance. Some are genuinely sensitive.

There's an almost palpable anguish in Julie Turkewitz' section, on how many people isolate themselves from those who differ with their worldviews:

In some ways, the echo chamber was the winner of this election. Here we are, deeply connected. And yet red America is typing away to red America, and blue America is typing away to blue America. The day after the election, some people said the echo chamber had begun to feel like a prison.

Turkewitz notes that one of her two main sources truly wants to escape her bubble. The woman, who voted for Hillary Clinton for president, has only two or three friends -- both on Facebook -- who supported Trump. The other woman, a fellow Clinton supporter, seems happy to stay in her echo chamber.

Religion is seeded throughout the article, but only one section deals directly with it. Times veteran Laurie Goodstein draws from interviews on the Godbeat this year.

She sounds sympathetic to people on the Right, at first:

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Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Death penalty foes are 'abolitionists,' says the Los Angeles Times -- but does the name fit?

Are death penalty foes modern abolitionists? Some mainstream media are reaching for that innocence by association, seeking the reflected glory of the 19th century anti-slavery movement. In so doing, however, they ignore its religious nature.

Those media include the Los Angeles Times, which uses that word three times -- once in the headline -- in its follow-up on two ballot items that fought for Californians' attention along with whom they wanted for president.

Capital punishment was the focus of two ballot items in California this week. Proposition 62 would have repealed the death penalty; voters defeated it by 53.9 percent. Proposition 66 would "expedite" the penalty, with measures like referring such cases to lower courts instead of the state Supreme Court. That one was narrowly approved, by 50.9 percent.

The issue resounds beyond the borders of the nation's most populous state, as the Los Angeles Times explains:

California had been one of the most significant states to watch regarding its decision on the death penalty, legal experts said. With nearly 750 inmates awaiting execution, almost double the number in Florida, the state has the second-highest death row population in the country.
The ballot race results showed a large divide over capital punishment in keeping with national trends and followed voter decisions in favor of the death penalty in Oklahoma, which became the first to approve state constitutional protections for it, and in Nebraska, where voters overturned bipartisan legislation repealing it.

For crossfire, we hear from District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County, in favor of the death penalty. Following her is former star Mike Farrell of the M*A*S*H TV series, opposing capital punishment.  

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Religious Trump reaction: RNS struggles to find a range of actual human voices

Religious Trump reaction: RNS struggles to find a range of actual human voices

When news spread that Donald Trump won the presidential election, I got the sense that the various elites -- cultural, political, mainstream media -- were reacting like Family Guy's Chris Griffin:  "Whaaaattt??"

The Religion News Service, at least, tried to gather responses from religious leaders, rather than have secular pundits opine about them. But that mechanical approach -- which tmatt likes to call post-Interview Journalism™ -- has weaknesses of its own.

It's not that RNS lacked effort. It compiled a long list of comments. A long, long list. Nearly 2,400 words, with 17 sources.

RNS also attempts some balance, backed up by numbers, as the top shows:

Some celebrated and congratulated the victor. Others prayed and called for unity. It was clear early on that evangelical Christians had been key to Donald Trump’s stunning upset.
Meanwhile, others including atheists and Muslims reacted in shock and vowed to defend against what one group termed “unconstitutional and undemocratic actions.”
According to exit polls, 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians cast their ballots for the reality TV star-turned-Republican presidential candidate.
It was a higher figure than voted for Mitt Romney (79 percent) in 2012, John McCain (73 percent) four years before that or George Bush (79 percent) in 2004.

From there, we get a smorgasbord of quotes. Here's a sample.

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Who is Father Rodgers? San Diego Tribune doesn't ask, even after he pickets a church

Who is Father Rodgers? San Diego Tribune doesn't ask, even after he pickets a church

Father Rodgers, who are you?

He's a Catholic priest, if you go by some of his latest coverage, picketing a church over a voters' guide. But what kind of Catholic? Some media don’t seem to ask further.

And it matters.

Take the San Diego Union Tribune, which wrote up the protest:

A Catholic priest and handful of picketers gathered outside an Old Town Catholic church Saturday to protest church messages linking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to Satan and warning that voting Democrat is a mortal sin.
Father Dermot Rodgers of St. Peter of Rome Roman Catholic Mission in Allied Gardens wore a priest’s robe and held a hand-lettered sign saying, "Separation of Church and State."
He and four like-minded men and women, including two of his parishoners, stood in front of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on San Diego Avenue amid church-goers and puzzled tourists.
They sparked spirited sidewalk debate on whether a flyer inserted in a bulletin at the church last month should have taken a political position that "It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat" and anyone who died in that state would immediately "descend into hell."

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'Down-ballot issues': Religion News Service offers a look, but not balance

'Down-ballot issues': Religion News Service offers a look, but not balance

A quick quiz: How many horses does it take to make a race?

"That's easy," you say; "at least two."

That's right. So you'd want to know about them both.

So it is with the Religion News Service' guide to ballot issues that religious people are watching for the upcoming ballot.

"The nation’s attention may be on the presidential election, but there are a number of down-ballot issues of interest to religious and nonreligious voters," RNS says, and they're right. Their list -- marijuana, gun control, minimum wage, the death penalty, assisted suicide, "public money for religious purposes" --  suggests the range of religious thought in the public sphere.

But in some of the issues, one side seems to enjoy favored status. In some, only one side gets to talk. And in some, only one side is even acknowledged.

Take the death penalty, which is up for review in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma. RNS grants that there are two sides: "In California, almost 30 different religious groups support a death penalty repeal, while in Nebraska, celebrity Christian author Shane Claiborne has spoken in support of retaining a repeal of the death penalty at anti-death penalty events."

But who gets the direct quote?

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Evangelicals, post-Trump: Associated Press -- kind of -- scopes out movement's future

Evangelicals, post-Trump: Associated Press -- kind of -- scopes out movement's future

Oy, another story on the devil's bargain that is Donald Trump and evangelicalism? Well, no, it's better than that. The Associated Press examines the state of the movement after the presidential election -- win or lose. It just doesn't fully explore the questions it raises.

The indepth article shows the knowledge of the territory that a Godbeat pro like Rachel Zoll can impart. It quotes evangelical insiders, including those on each side of the Trump divide. And it adds cooler, more analytical views from scholars -- though still within the movement.

Trump's candidacy "has put a harsh spotlight on the fractures among Christian conservatives, most prominently the rift between old guard religious right leaders who backed the GOP nominee as an ally on abortion, and a comparatively younger generation who considered his personal conduct and rhetoric morally abhorrent," says a summary high in the story.

"This has been a kind of smack in the face, forcing us to ask ourselves, 'What have we become?'" Carolyn Custis James, an author on gender roles in the church, tells AP.

But how intensely are believers doing so?

Here's the evidence AP musters:

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Halloween church show: Washington Post peeks at the trend without passing 'judgment'

Halloween church show: Washington Post peeks at the trend without passing 'judgment'

I don’t usually jump into a story without an intro, but the Washington Post's lede on Judgement House is pretty vivid:

SOUDERTON, Pa. — She stepped into the pitch-dark room, illuminated only by eerie flames, as the sound of moans and shrieks rose over the ominous music. A hooded figure, dressed in black, leapt from the darkness to hiss in her ear.
Shadeilyz Castro burst into tears.
When the shaken 10-year-old left the room, clinging to her aunt, she was not talking about witches or goblins — she was talking about the Bible. "I have to read it more," Shadeilyz said. "With my brother. I have to talk to him. He doesn’t read it much."
Judgement House did its job.

The Post, in turn, does a more-than-decent job of telling the literally torturous story of Judgement House programs -- "all sorts of earthly tortures (kidnapping, child abuse, drug abuse, a hidden pregnancy)" -- through the lens of Immanuel Leidy’s Church, near Philadelphia. It's intense, maybe shocking -- and a bit flawed -- but not cynical.

The last is not unimportant: This topic is ripe for ridicule, if the reporter is so inclined. But WaPo tells the story, quotes the people on their feelings, and rejects the usual "trip to the zoo" contempt of many secular media:

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Atheist ranks aren't solid, even in politics, says an eyebrow-raising RNS piece

Atheist ranks aren't solid, even in politics, says an eyebrow-raising RNS piece

Atheists differ strongly on views of religion, of themselves, even what group to join; Richard Dawkins famously compared organizing atheists to herding cats. But I'll confess that I never thought of political differences also -- not until I read a new story from the Religion News Service.

The article is couched in terms of the presidential race -- as almost every American news story this season seems to be -- but have patience. It's a fresh approach to a little-reported facet of religious (or non-religious) life.

RNS veteran Kimberly Winston starts with the event that may have gotten her attention: a video by atheist blogger Hemant Mehta. He gets pretty strident in his opposition to Trump and to whoever supports him:

"I don’t want a president who couldn’t even explain evolution. I don’t want a president who can’t tell fact from fiction and seems to believe anything someone tells him on Twitter," Mehta says in a recent You Tube video that has garnered a lot of attention in atheist corners.
"If I wanted to hear people whose best evidence for their belief is, ‘Well, some people have said,’ then I’d go to church."
So, Mehta, best known as "The Friendly Atheist"  on his popular blog, will vote for Hillary Clinton — and he spends more than seven minutes trying to persuade other atheists to do the same because, he believes, she — a lifelong Methodist — is the only candidate who shares their core values of separation of church and state, LGBT equality and science-based education.

Winston then reveals what may surprise: Despite their commitment to pluralism and liberal politics, Democrats cannot expect a bloc vote from atheists.  "For some, the choice is not clear," the story says of the 2016 race.

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Gay Muslims: This RNS feature offers one-sided coverage of a retreat in South Africa

Gay Muslims: This RNS feature offers one-sided coverage of a retreat in South Africa

Gay Muslims are media-sexy these days, especially since Omar Mateen opened fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando in June. With its feature on the annual Inner Circle retreat in South Africa, the Religion News Service avidly joins the journalism pack.

Typical of many social-issues articles these days -- as with The Associated Press on Russia's expulsion of a pro-gay missionary -- the piece is written entirely from the viewpoint of the subjects. Not only about what they think, but how they feel, how they perceive non-gay society, how they interpret their holy texts.

In other words, the story covers one side of a debate and one side only. Example:

Cape Town-based Imam Muhsin Hendricks founded The Inner Circle 20 years ago in his garage as a safe space for queer Muslims. He now sees the annual gathering as a refuge for those who feel ostracized by LGBT communities because of their Muslim faith and shunned by Muslim communities because of their sexual orientations or gender identities.
"Tomorrow will be very emotional," Hendricks said before the closing ceremony at the end of a busy week. "People are already suffering withdrawal symptoms and separation anxiety because now they have to go back to these horrible contexts, and here was such a beautiful space of acceptance and love. They’re going to miss that."
The "beautiful space" Hendricks cultivates each year has much to do with the scenery and camaraderie, but also with the legal and social environment in which the retreat is held.

The Inner Circle gathered 125 LGBT Muslims and their allies from around Africa. They talk out anxieties, analyze issues and share ideas for coping. They sprinkle their quotes with terms like Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, patriarchy and "hate agenda." They prefer the term "queer," although the article never really says why.

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