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Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

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The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

Social media went nuts this week — overwhelmingly positive nuts — over the official trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers that will hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving.

As Esquire notes, “The film is based on a profile of Mr. Rogers that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 1998. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized version of the writer, embarking upon the profile of the kids television icon with initial reluctance before forging a friendship with his subject, the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.”

Hmmmm, a movie about the relationship that develops between a journalist and his subject.

Perhaps this formula could work for a future movie about Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a leading evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump.

Except that — when Hollywood tells Jeffress’ story — he’s not likely to be portrayed as “the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.” Instead, think Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

The basis for the Jeffress screenplay? The big screen could do worse than Texas Monthly’s long August cover story on “Trump’s Apostle.”

Writer Michael J. Mooney sets the scene this way:

Here’s Robert Jeffress, talking to the hundreds of thousands of people watching conservative cable news on a typical Friday evening, and he’s defending President Donald Trump against the latest array of accusations in the news this week. And he isn’t simply defending Trump—he’s defending him with one carefully crafted Bible-wrapped barb after another, and with more passion, more preparation, more devotion than anyone else on television.

As Lou Dobbs finishes his opening remarks, Jeffress laughs and nods. It’s early January, about two weeks into what will prove to be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are missing paychecks, worrying about mortgages, car payments, utility bills. Some have started going to food banks. But Dobbs waves his hand up and down and tells Jeffress that he hasn’t heard anyone—“literally no one!”—say they miss the government. The jowly host revels in Trump’s threats that the shutdown could continue “for months, if not years,” if that’s what it takes to get more wall built on America’s border with Mexico.

Jeffress, speaking from a remote studio in downtown Dallas, agrees completely. “Well, he’s doing exactly the right thing in keeping this government shut down until he gets that wall,” he says.

Jeffress is the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, a 13,000-member megachurch that’s one of the most influential in the country, but he’s known best for appearances like this one: he’s often on Fox & Friends or Hannity or any number of sound-bitey segments on Fox News or Fox Business. His own religious show airs six days a week on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has a daily radio program too, broadcast on more than nine hundred Christian stations across the country, though it’s TV he loves best. Dobbs invites Jeffress onto his show nearly every week.

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Yo, Los Angeles Times: Crystal Cathedral's architecture raised all kinds of Catholic questions

Yo, Los Angeles Times: Crystal Cathedral's architecture raised all kinds of Catholic questions

If you have ever been part of a well-researched tour of a great cathedral, then you know one thing — these sanctuaries are packed with symbolism. Almost everything in these buildings has some connection to centuries of Christian tradition.

The biggest symbol is the shape of the cathedral itself. It’s all about processions (think pilgrimages) through the cross to reach the high altar.

This brings me to the Los Angeles Times coverage of the transformation of the iconic Crystal Cathedral — an soaring version of a Protestant megachurch — into Christ Cathedral, the spiritual home of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

Here’s the key: The late Rev. Robert Schuller made an important request when he asked the legendary architect Philip Johnson to design the Crystal Cathedral — build a church that is also a giant television studio.

That’s precisely what Johnson did. Thus, ever since the Orange diocese bought Schuller’s masterwork, I have been waiting to read a Times story explaining how this giant symbol of TV Christianity could be turned into a cruciform Catholic sanctuary. Here is the top of the recent story that ran under this headline: “Crystal Cathedral, the original evangelical megachurch, has a conversion to Catholicism.”

… The former Crystal Cathedral, a Southern California landmark that has long stood at the intersection of kitsch and postmodernism just three miles from Disneyland, was officially rededicated by the most unlikely of saviors: the Catholic Church.

When the soaring Philip Johnson-designed megachurch opened in 1980, the Crystal Cathedral was, strictly speaking, neither crystal (the structure is composed of more than 10,000 rectangular panels of glass) nor a cathedral (it housed a televangelist, not a Catholic bishop).

That televangelist — late pastor Robert Schuller — once called the compound a “22-acre shopping center for God.”

This short feature — there’s no real coverage of the dedication rites — focused on how Schuller symbolized a shiny era of Southern California, offering drive-in church services during the “same year Disneyland opened its doors and Ray Kroc launched his first McDonald’s restaurant.”

The text is snappy and packed with details — about Schuller. The new Christ Cathedral? Not so much.

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Liberal National Catholic Reporter probes a conservative rival, EWTN, in four-part series

Liberal National Catholic Reporter probes a conservative rival, EWTN, in four-part series

I was surprised to see, in the midst of summer vacation time, a four-part series from the National Catholic Reporter about the Eternal Word TV Network, a media empire started in 1981 by a feisty nun and her religious order in the Deep South.

EWTN has become so much a part of the fabric of the Catholic Church, that it’s the broadcaster for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings and the gorilla in the room when it comes to any Catholic news media.

But it’s a gorilla with a political agenda, according to the first part of the series, which I guess is bad, judging from the story’s tone. After some opening paragraphs describing groveling interviews by EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo with Vice President Mike Pence and former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, the story adds:

The segment was clear evidence of how a television outlet once devoted to expressions of Catholic piety and conservative catechesis and apologetics has grown into a truly influential media empire, well connected to Republican politicians and the Trump White House. EWTN, where the "Catholic perspective" is unabashedly partisan, has also become the media star in a web of connections including wealthy conservative Catholic donors and some of the most public anti-Pope Francis forces in the Catholic world. Those connections, traceable through a maze of non-profit organizations, helped fuel EWTN's development. It is a complex tale involving the matchup of a peculiar brand of U.S. style conservative Catholicism with conservative political ideology and economic theory.

One red flag jumped out high up in the story:

NCR made repeated requests over nearly a week for comment from EWTN, but the network said it was unable to produce anyone to answer questions before publication.

The reporter behind the story has probably been working on this series for several months and she only gives EWTN a week to respond? That doesn’t seem fair to me, especially if the response window was during the summer school break, which starts early in southern states.

I wondered why NCR is running this story now, but the reason became clear with the following paragraphs about Arroyo’s sit-down with President Donald Donald Trump less than two weeks before the 2016 election.

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Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

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Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Hey GetReligion readers: Do we have any shock rock music fans out there?

When it comes to music, I am really a fanatic about a wide range of artists — pretty much everything except highly commercialized country, dance music (various kinds with one chord over and over) and most opera. However, I never really got into the whole glam-shock rock genre.

But it’s hard not to know the name Alice Cooper. What a long, strange road that guy has walked.

So what does this have to do with religion-news coverage? If you have read anything about Cooper in the past quarter century of so, you know that — strange as if may sound — he is a born-again evangelical Christian and very vocal about it. He’s an avid golfer, too. Those two facts may not be connected.

Anyway, a GetReligion reader recently spotted this dramatic headline at USA Today: “Alice Cooper clarifies story about 'death pact' with wife Sheryl Goddard: 'We have a LIFE pact'.

So what is this all about? Here’s the top of this short entertainment-beat story:

Alice Cooper would like to clear things up: He and wife Sheryl Goddard don't actually have a death pact.

"We have a LIFE pact. We love life so much," the 71-year-old rocker told USA TODAY in a statement.

Cooper made many a headline over the weekend following an article in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror that quotes him as saying he and his wife plan "to go together" when one of them dies, because there's "no way of surviving without each other."

"What I was meaning was that because we're almost always together, at home and on the road, that if something did happen to either of us, we'd most likely be together at the time," Cooper added to USA TODAY. "But neither of us has a suicide pact. We have a life pact."

OK, we will come back to that Daily Mirror story.

However, something important seems to be missing here, even in the short USA Today report.

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The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

Long, long ago, there was a time when few newspaper editors in Texan could resist an opportunity to put the words “Baylor” and “Playboy” in the same headline. Yes, we are talking ages ago — back in the 1970s and ‘80s when Hugh Hefner was still considered a player.

Baylor, of course, was the state’s most prominent Baptist institution. Playboy was Playboy. Clickbait didn’t exist, but everyone knew that combining “nude” and “Baptist” would draw cheers in secular newsrooms.

Why bring that up? It appears that the Donald Trump-era version of that editorial state of mind is a story that puts “Falwell” and “pool boy” in the same headline. Oh, and don’t forget the hyper-clickable words “nude pictures.” And prison-resident “Michael Cohen.” And alleged comedian “Tom Arnold.”

With those lowbrow ingredients, some New York Times professional showed remarkable self-control when writing this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.”

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — I told host Todd Wilken that you can sense that this headline was supposed to be “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen, oh my!” You know there had to be some Times voices arguing in favor of including “Falwell” and “nude pictures.”

Days later, it’s remarkable how little traction this story has gained. So far, even The Drudge Report has resisted adding a racy headline about it. While liberal Twitter has gone loco (see some of the attached tweets), there hasn’t been a mainstream firestorm — which is what usually happens when a neo-tabloid tale of this kind is baptized into mainstream journalism by the holy New York Times. What’s going on here, in terms of journalism? Here at GetReligion I noted:

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. …

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

In social media, lots of folks have simply led their imaginations run wild.

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