Terry Mattingly

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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Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

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Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great religious freedom story? In The New York Times? (Wait for it ... )

Want to read a great story about religious freedom and freedom of conscience?

Want to read a great story about this topic — religious liberty, not “religious liberty” — in The New York Times?

Well, that’s what this post is about. Here’s the headline: “She Wears a Head Scarf. Is Quebec Derailing Her Career?

How did this story happen?

Well, for starters, it’s about a religious liberty linked to the life and beliefs of a Muslim woman. It’s not a story about white evangelical Protestant cake bakers in USA flyover country or traditional Catholics wrestling with liberal Catholics on some issue of marriage and sexuality.

In other words, this is a religious liberty case that — in terms of readers — pulls together the old left-right First Amendment coalition that existed several decades ago, when you could pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the U.S. Senate and only three people would oppose it. It’s the kind of case that brings American religious conservatives together with liberal activists, attempting to — oh — protect the rights of Muslims in U.S. prisons.

It also helps that this drama is set in Canada and the bad guys are “right-leaning.” In other words, zero Donald Trump-era implications. Here is the overture:

MONTREAL — Maha Kassef, 35, an ambitious elementary schoolteacher, aspires to become a principal. But since she wears a Muslim head scarf, she may have to derail her dreams: A proposed bill in Quebec would bar public school principals, and other public employees, from wearing religious symbols.

“How am I supposed to teach about respect, tolerance and diversity to my students, many of whom are immigrant kids, when the government is asking me to give up who I am?” asked Ms. Kassef, the child of Kuwaiti immigrant parents who worked tirelessly to send her and her four siblings to college.

“What right does the Quebec government have to stop my career?” she added.

Religious minorities in Quebec are reeling after the right-leaning government of François Legault proposed the law last week. It would prohibit not just teachers, but other public sector workers in positions of authority, including lawyers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols while working.

What’s the point here? The Times explains that this proposed law is advocating the brand of radical secularism and church-state separation that has its roots in France.

In other words, we are not talking about a First Amendment debate.

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Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Things were looking good for the Episcopal Church in 1966, when its membership hit 3.6 million — an all-time high. Then the numbers began to decline, year after year and decade after decade. At the moment, there are 1.6 million or so Episcopalians.

Why is this happening? Episcopal Church leaders have been asked that question many times, because it’s a valid and important question.

No one has ever given a more concise — bold, even — answer than the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, when she said down for a “State of the Church” chat with the New York Times Magazine soon after her 2006 election as national presiding bishop. Here is the crucial exchange:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children? 

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

In other words, her critics said, Episcopalians are too smart to have lots of babies (unlike Catholics and Latter-day Saints) and, besides, most members of this flock have theological reasons not to procreate.

What we have here is a classic example of the formula that I keep writing about here at GetReligion, which I state this way, offering a third factor to a familiar equation: Doctrine equals demographics equals destiny.

That brings me to this new headline at the Times:

America’s Biggest Economic Challenge May Be Demographic Decline

Slower growth in the working-age population is a problem in much of the country. Could targeted immigration policy help solve it?

Here is the rather sobering overture:

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Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

First, a confession: Which is a good thing during Great Lent.

I totally admit that the following headline caught my eye because, as Eastern Orthodox folks, my family is currently in the middle of the great pre-Pascha (Easter in the West) in which we strive to fast from meat and dairy. It’s a season in which the Orthodox have been known to debate the merits of various tofu brands and ponder the miracle that is apple butter.

Every now and then, people like me end up traveling — which means looking for Lenten options in the rushed, fallen world of fast food. Thus, you can understand why I noticed this headline in the business section of The New York Times: “Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’.” Here’s the overture:

OAKLAND, Calif. — Would you like that Whopper with or without beef?

This week, Burger King is introducing a version of its iconic Whopper sandwich filled with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The Impossible Whopper, as it will be known, is the biggest validation — and expansion opportunity — for a young industry that is looking to mimic and replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

Impossible Foods and its competitors in Silicon Valley have already had some mainstream success. The vegetarian burger made by Beyond Meat has been available at over a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January and the company is now moving toward an initial public offering.

As I dug into this story, I had this thought: I realize that there is a religion angle here for strange people like me. But would the Times team include any kind of reference to the other religion angles linked to lots of other people who avoid beef?

Obviously, there are millions of Hindus in America and many of them avoid beef, for religious reasons. Then there are Buddhists who are vegetarians or vegans. Among Christian flocks, many Seventh-day Adventists strive to be vegetarians.

Then there is the Lent thing. Is there a religion angle to several fast-food empires — even Chick-fil-A, for heaven’s sake — emphasizing fish sandwiches during this Christian penitential season? #DUH

So I wasn’t looking for lots of religion-beat style content in this story. But maybe a paragraph noting the increasingly complex religious landscape in the American food marketplace?

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Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

This may sound simplistic, but here goes. With most news events that involve elections, or votes to settle disputes inside an organization, there will be a winning side and a losing side.

Life is more complex than that, of course, and the “winners” of a single vote may not be the winners over the long haul. But let’s say that the winners keep winning the big votes for a decade or two.

At that point, journalists need to do one of two things. First, journalists can produce a story that, as Job 1, focuses on what the winners plan to do (since they won) and then, as Job 2, covers how the losing side plans to respond. The alternative is to write a major story about the winning group and then, to offer needed balance, to write a second story about how this outcome will affect the losing side.

With that in mind, please consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: “U.S. Methodist leaders lay plans to resist vote against same-sex marriage.” That is one way to state the issue — looking at this from the losing side of the equation.

It would be just as accurate to say that this was a vote — the latest of many — defending the United Methodist Church’s stance in favor of ancient (thinking church history) doctrines on marriage and sex. You could also say that the key votes focused on whether UMC clergy can be required to honor their ordination vows to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline. However, that would be the point of view held by the winners, after that special global UMC general convention held recently in St. Louis.

So the Post team doing? The headline states the editorial approach: This is a feature story built on the reactions on the losing side in St. Louis, the plans of the left-of-center establishment that has long controlled UMC life in the United States. That’s it. That’s what readers get. Thus, the overture:

When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.

In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision.

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Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Having watched the entire social-media era, from beginning up to the current craziness, I have a confession to make. I have been shocked that we have not heard more neo-Luddite sermons from the conservative side of the religious world.

I’m not talking about making a case for a full-on Amish withdrawal from the Internet and from social media.

As someone who has taught mass-comm courses in a traditional Christian content — at a seminary and then in two liberal-part colleges — I realize that we are talking about a classic theological puzzle linked to culture. Traditional Christians believe we live in a creation that is both glorious (as created by God) and fallen (touched by sin and The Fall).

Social media can be wonderful or totally evil — sometimes on the same website in the same thread in material submitted by two different people within seconds of one another. We’re talking about a medium a very high ceiling and a very low floor.

I am starting to hear more debates about the role of smartphones (and addictions to them) in a truly religious home.

However, there is another social-media question that I have expected to read more about; Should pastors be active participants in social media?

That brings me to this weekend’s think piece, care of the progressives at Baptist Global Media. The author — John Jay Alvaro — is a Baptist, in Southern California, with a degree from Duke Divinity School (not a normal Southern Baptist seminary education option, to say the least). Click here to visit his website (yes, he has one) about religion and technology.

The headline on this piece: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” The basic thesis is that pastors need the time to be pastors and that this is, well, an analog, face-to-face calling. This is a pastoral issue, not a theological issue with technology.

Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence. It is as simple as that. Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don’t leave your system peacefully. But it will be worth it.

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When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to life inside the D.C. Beltway, veteran scribe Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard (RIP) has seen a thing or two — to say the least.

So when Barnes describes a political scene as one of his favorite Washington vignettes, that’s saying something. In this case, a classic Barnes anecdote is a great way to introduce readers to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focuses on media coverage — or the lack of coverage — of the persecution of religious believers.

Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up to follow our podcasts.

It’s pretty clear that many journalists, perhaps following the lead of government officials, consider some stories about religious persecution to be more important than others. So why do some stories leap into A1 headlines or the top of evening newscasts, while others receive little or no digital ink at all (other than coverage by the religious press)?

So our symbolic mini-drama takes place in 1994, when President Bill Clinton and his political team was working to improve trade, and thus political ties, with the People’s Republic of China. The strategy was to focus less attention on human rights issues and more attention on communication and, well, bartering. I like the wording in this Slate article, noting that the “Clinton administration made a sudden about-face, declaring it would ‘delink’ Chinese trade policy from human rights.”

One would expect political liberals to protest this heresy. Correct? And one would expect that Republicans would welcome anything that improved the lives of American corporate leaders. Correct?

There was, however, a subject that changed the dynamics in this story — religion.

Many conservatives — that’s the Religious Right, in pressthink — opposed these Clinton moves because of rising concerns about the persecution of China’s growing underground churches (Catholic and Protestant). At the same time, many mainstream liberals were not comfortable clashing with a Democrat in the White House, especially if that meant standing next to religious fanatics.

However, there were still idealists on the cultural far left — think Hollywood, in particular — who stood their ground, due to their fury over China’s treatment of Tibetan Buddhists.

So the setting for this Barnes anecdote was a protest rally near the Clinton White House. On the rally stage, activist Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council approached another speaker — actor Richard “Pretty Woman” Gere.

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What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

In yet another U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion — City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983 — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found herself pondering the potential impact of advanced medical technology on the trimester framework at the heart of Roe v. Wade.

Hang in there with me for a moment. I am bringing this up because the information is highly relevant to news coverage of the bitter debates surrounding efforts to pass a “heartbeat” bill in Georgia. That was the subject of recent post by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., that ran with this headline: “Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'.”

Just to be clear: I agree with Bobby that this particular Atlanta Journal-Constitution article contained a wider than normal range of voices explaining how different groups view that abortion legislation. That’s good. However, there was one crucial, and I mean CRUCIAL, point in the article that confused me. Digging into that topic a bit, I found more confusion — at AJC.com and in some other news outlets, as well.

In the end, I will be asking a journalism question, not a question about law or science.

Let’s walk into this carefully, beginning with this long quote from Justice O’Connor in 1983:

Just as improvements in medical technology inevitably will move forward the point at which the state may regulate for reasons of maternal health, different technological improvements will move backward the point of viability at which the state may proscribe abortions except when necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. … In 1973, viability before 28 weeks was considered unusual. However, recent studies have demonstrated increasingly earlier fetal viability. It is certainly reasonable to believe that fetal viability in the first trimester of pregnancy may be possible in the not too distant future.

The Roe framework, then, is clearly on a collision course with itself.

This is, of course, precisely what is happening. At this point, it is commonly accepted that the viability of unborn children — weight is crucial — has moved back to between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Will science make even more progress there, in terms of helping premies survive outside the womb?

Now, onto the “heartbeat” bill debates. When can scientists detect the heartbeat of an unborn child? That would be six weeks into the pregnancy. Parents can usually hear the heartbeat, with assistance, at nine to 10 weeks. Note this passage in the story that Bobby critiqued:

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