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Relentless 'hollowing out' of newsrooms shapes all beats, and our democracy

Relentless 'hollowing out' of newsrooms shapes all beats, and our democracy

In a break from usual practice, this Religion Guy Memo examines the over-all situation of the American news media.

When times are tough, specialty beats — like religion — become especially vulnerable.

The news biz is transfixed by the mutual rancor between the incumbent American president and the political press corps, which reached another nadir last week. The performance -- on both sides -- hasn’t been this nasty since 1800, when hyper-partisan newspapers manhandled the feuding Adams, Burr, Hamilton and Jefferson. Here’s hoping for a letup 221 or 225 years later when the Donald Trump administration ends.

Meanwhile, media toilers and consumers should be alert to the ongoing broad, bad context within which journalism functions, summarized in this headline: “The Hollowing Out of Newsrooms.” That’s how “Trust,” the Pew Charitable Trusts magazine, upsums data compiled by the Pew Research Center for its latest “State of the News Media” report as of 2017.

One major caveat: As Pew acknowledges, 2017 is a somewhat misleading year for assessing audiences because we’d expect a decline from 2016 with its intense interest in the election. However, Trumpish fascination continued through 2017 and Pew says post-election falloffs usually hit cable news but have little impact on newspapers, network TV or radio. The next report, for 2018, will be significant given fascination with the campaign just past. (Note: These surveys exclude magazine journalism. Non-fiction books are a whole other story.)

Pew’s first such report back in 2004 warned that “most sectors of the news media are losing audience,” therefore “putting pressures on revenues and profits.” According to the latest report, total newsroom employees, whether reporters, editors, copyreaders, photographers or videographers, declined by nearly a fourth between 2008 and 2017, from 114,000 to 88,000

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Oh, those worship wars! Will evangelicals and charismatics ever learn to get along?

Oh, those worship wars! Will evangelicals and charismatics ever learn to get along?

PAUL’S QUESTION:

Can “evangelicals” and “charismatics” worship together?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Ah, those “worship wars” that have so roiled and reshaped U.S. Protestant churches this past half-century. The questioner, a music teacher, has attended “evangelical” churches with relatively “traditional” worship compared with the “contemporary” style associated especially with “charismatic” churches.

“We’ve gone through a monumental shift of style in our lifetime, which has never happened before,” says Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College (Illinois). Music is only part of the ongoing, sweeping evolution toward popular, informal, and “seeker-friendly” worship but it’s right at the center.

Paul posted this some time ago. The Guy decided to address the topic when the New Yorker profiled the late singer-songwriter Larry Norman as the leading “Christian rock” pioneer in the late 1960s. (The writer, Kelefa Sanneh is the son of Lamin Sanneh, professor of world Christianity at Yale Divinity School.)

His article began with a clergyman’s 1958 column declaring traditional church music to be “totally incompatible” with rock. He insisted that “the profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with” rock, which “so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

So believed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly after he led the epochal Montgomery bus boycott. Countless preachers agreed with him during that early phase of rock ‘n roll.

Years later, the onset of Norman and others in the “Christian rock” subculture coincided with the youthful “Jesus movement” and the rise of new “charismatic” congregations that emphasized youth appeal and informal worship. Two churches in southern California, Calvary Chapel and The Vineyard, fostered hundreds of daughter congregations and produced widely-used songs.

The hard rock scene was built around concerts and records as many churches upheld King-style traditionalism.

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Good news and bad news: The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal

Good news and bad news: The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal

“Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.”

Those words by Saint Catherine of Siena appear most fitting this summer as the Catholic Church in the United States grapples with allegations of widespread sex abuse by priests going back several decades.  

In July, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after it was revealed that the 88-year-old former head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had allegedly abused a teenage boy for years starting in 1969. It was also made public that McCarrick had been accused in three other sexual assault cases involving seminarians.  

Last month, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a shocking report filled with decades of allegations regarding sexual abuses by clerics with children and teenagers — and cover-ups by bishops — that reopened a wound within the church regarding pedophilia and homosexuality among the clergy. It also sparked debate for reform regarding whether priests should be allowed to marry like clergy in other Christian denominations.  

The incidents came on the heels of sex-abuse scandals that rocked the church in Chile and Australia.

If that wasn’t enough, a whistleblower named Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter (full text here) on August 25 describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Pope Francis —  had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago.

Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleges Pope Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.” 

Unlike in 2002 — when an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by prelates never reported to civil authorities — accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church these days are mixed with sacred and secular politics.

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Bee advised: Amid religious and political tumult, readers may welcome a good chuckle

Bee advised: Amid religious and political tumult, readers may welcome a good chuckle

Behold this recent "news" item:

DALLAS, TX -- Pastor Robert Jeffress, longtime supporter of President Donald Trump, has publicly accused Jesus of Nazareth of having "Trump Derangement Syndrome" after reading that the Christ condemned adultery in the Sermon on the Mount.

A baffled Jeffress read Jesus's words condemning not only adultery but looking at a woman lustfully and immediately concluded the Rabbi was simply exhibiting symptoms of deranged, unfair hatred of Donald Trump. ...

Here's another one:

WASHINGTON -- In an alarming show of religious extremism and complete disregard for the separation of church and state, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was spotted by news reporters serving food to the homeless.

Kavanaugh performed the frightening display of religious devotion alongside an organized group of radicalized Catholics, whose extremist mission appears to be helping the needy. Local news crews leaped out of the bushes and caught him in the act, asking him, "What do you have to say for yourself, BIGOT?" 

As you surely perceived, this is not real fake news but fake real news, that is to say fictional satire, posted by The Babylon Bee

Hey, in times of political and religious tumult, everyone can use a good chuckle. 

The online Bee, which first hit an unready readership two years ago, is religion’s equivalent of the devoutly secular The Onion, whose recent gibes include an item headlined “Sessions Vows To Protect All Deeply Held Religious Bigotry.”

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Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Let's see: In the Urban Dictionary, the phrase "Waiting for the other shoe to drop" is defined like this (with a joke thrown in for good measure, in the full text): "To await an event that is expected to happen, due to being causally linked to another event that has already been observed."

However, one gets the impression that the words "the other" in that phrase imply the existence of only one other show. It still sounds like the newsroom at Religion News Service contains lots of other shoes and some of them have yet to drop -- following the now infamous meltdown linked to the forced exit of former editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky, after clashes with publisher Tom Gallagher, who is best known for his opinion work on the Catholic left.

Lots of digital ink was spilled during that episode, including two lengthy GetReligion posts by our own Julia Duin. Check out, "RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)" and "RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant."

Now there is this, from columnist and blogger Jonathan Merrett: "Why I am leaving Religion News Service after 5 years."

If you follow Merritt's work, you know that he is one of the most important journalistic voices who has emerged on the evangelical left -- both at RNS and at The Atlantic -- especially on issues linked to LGBTQ debates and women's rights.

Now, some of his critics would say the "post-evangelical" left, but I'm not sure that nuance is justified since it is almost impossible to define what the word "evangelical" means, these days. In terms of heritage, Merritt is best understood as a liberal Baptist. Yes, doctrinally liberal Baptists exist and there's a lot of history there. Ask Bill Clinton.

Anyway, Merritt has posted his take on what happened, at his own website. Here is that text:

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Still talking about it: Chris Pratt zoomed past normal Godtalk in his non-news MTV sermon

Still talking about it: Chris Pratt zoomed past normal Godtalk in his non-news MTV sermon

If you watch a lot of pop-culture award shows (confession: I don't do that anymore), then you know that a certain amount of generic God talk is normal and acceptable.

On sports awards shows, and sometimes the Grammy Awards, you will even hear people offer gratitude to "my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," or similar phrases. 

You will, of course, also hear plenty of political announcements, off-color humor and endorsements of various progressive social causes. Right now, pop superstars seem determined to make statements that will eventually show up in Donald Trump campaign ads, demonstrating what the cultural elites think of lots of folks in flyover country.

This is the wider media context for discussions of Chris Pratt's interesting "Nine Rules For Living" sermonette during the recent MTV Movie & TV awards. You can click here to watch this MTV moment or look at the end of the CNN.com report to read a transcription of what he had to say (or part of it -- hold that thought).

I also wrote a GetReligion post on this topic, focusing on the fact that Pratt's remarks were a red-hot topic on Twitter, but didn't push any "news" buttons in elite newsrooms, especially in the world of print news. Now "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I have done a podcast on this topic and you can click here to tune that in.

* The original GetReligion post on this topic focused on the simple, but hazy, question: Were Pratt's remarks newsworthy. It's clear that if Pratt had (a) discussed Trump, pro or con, or (b) discussed LGBTQ rights (pro or con), then it would have been news. If he had discussed to state of his love life and recent divorce, that would have been news. Instead, he offered remarks linked to his evangelical Christian faith. This is not "news," even in an age when explicit faith is supposed to be private?

* It's interesting to note that Pratt pretty much stated what he was doing, in rule for life No. 4., in which he said: 

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Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

No doubt about it. It's hard to get more Greek than the name "Dimitrios Pagourtzis." So, yes, I was not surprised to receive emails asking me the significance of the Greek Orthodox heritage (and ethnic dancing skills) of America's latest young student with guns and a mission.

Once again, we face questions about the contents of a gunman's head and heart, as journalists (and law officials) try to answer the always painful "Why?" question in the mantra, "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How."

The Orthodox connection is mentioned in most background stories about Pagourtzis. Here is a TMZ reference with a link to video. You will not, when viewing it, be tempted to shout, "Opa!"

The student arrested for gunning down 10 people at his high school appeared to be nothing more than a church-going dancer mere days before the shooting.

TMZ has obtained video of 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis participating in a choreographed dance for his Greek Orthodox church the weekend before he allegedly shot and killed 8 of his peers and 2 teachers.

Sources connected to the event tell us the dance was part of a larger Greek festival in a town about 30 minutes away from Santa Fe, TX where he went to school. 

In traditional, even elite, media this Greek Orthodox information is more likely to look like this -- care of The New York Times.

Investigators, meanwhile, are scouring his journal, a computer and a cellphone that Mr. Abbott said showed the suspect had been planning the attack, and his own death. ... 

In many ways, Mr. Pagourtzis was a part of the Santa Fe community. He made the honor roll. He played defensive tackle on a school football team that was the pride of the town. His family was involved in the Greek Orthodox Church.

As always, in this digital-screens world of ours, what a person does with his or her time in analog life (like dancing in an ethnic dance team) may not be as important as what the person expresses in social media.

It's interesting to note that the Times team did not include the following piece of social-media information about Pagourtzis -- which did make it into print at The Washington Post.

In the Facebook account, he described himself as an atheist and said, “I hate politics.”

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Old news? The New York Times discovers David Brody and CBN's niche-audience power

Old news? The New York Times discovers David Brody and CBN's niche-audience power

Let's ask some basic questions about the journalism world in which we live.

Is it safe to assume that viewers of Fox News are interested in different kinds of issues and news stories than those who watch CNN?

Can we also assume that MSNBC viewers are interested in different kinds of issues and news stories than those who watch Fox? Things get really interesting if you try to discern cultural and political fault lines between CNN and MSNBC.

But the anwser is obvious, in this splintered age in which we all try to make sense of American public discourse.

Some of what is happening centers on changes in technology, as well as what is happening with changes linked to American generations, young and old. If you want to see a nonpolitical take on that, see this new report in the New York Times: "Why Traditional TV Is in Trouble."

Now, this brings me to another Times piece, focusing on the Donald Trump-era work of David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network -- a niche network focusing on the concerns of many (not all) charismatic and evangelical Protestants. Apparently, the Times team is surprised that the interests of this niche audience shape CBN offerings, in a manner similar to those of MSNBC, CNN, Fox, etc. Oh, and The New York Times, too. Here is a typical passage:

Mr. Brody, the chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, was not there to inquire about porn stars. It was the National Day of Prayer, and Mr. Brody asked the vice president whether he was tired of defending his anti-abortion views amid “potshots” from comedians, and whether prayer was “alive and well in the White House.” He inquired whether Mr. Pence would attend the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, scheduled to take place Monday.

Mr. Pence smiled and answered each question. Then he invited Mr. Brody to get coffee.

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