Nebraska

News analysis articles can provoke valuable awareness of important societal trends

News analysis articles can provoke valuable awareness of important societal trends

GetReligion emphasizes the importance of objective news reporting, and rightly so at a time when journalism’s old ethic is eroding.

Nevertheless, The Religion Guy -- with decades of experience in magazine journalism -- also insists that opinionated long-form articles by newsmakers and analysts have a place. For reporters in particular, they provoke reflection on broad societal trends amid the daily news parade.  

A buzz-worthy example about politics appeared in the “Review” section of The Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) which is always worth perusing. An excerpt from Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla’s new book “The Once and Future Liberal” sought to convince the Democratic Party to shed identity-group fixations and return to FDR’s concept of Americans’ collective solidarity. Lilla pursues the theme in this extensive interview with Rod Dreher.

A different diagnosis comes from U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. His lede: “For a generation, the Democratic Party of which I’m a member has steadily moved away from communities of faith,” which doesn’t “reflect the views of most American voters.” In a previous Christian Century piece, the senator recalled how upset his liberal Yale Law buddies were decades ago when he began simultaneous studies at Yale Divinity School.

Coons’s latest lament appeared at theatlantic.com, which has emerged as a major interpreter of religion’s role. However, a vastly more revealing Atlantic item is the cover story in its September print issue, headlined “How America Lost Its Mind” and excerpted from the new book “Fantasyland.” (Our own tmatt at GetReligion previously noted this item).  

Author Kurt Andersen fits snugly within our cultural establishment: Harvard grad; acclaimed novelist; Hollywood scriptwriter; Off-Broadway playwright; host of National Public Radio’s Peabody Award-winning arts show; and alumnus of Random House, The New York TimesNew YorkerNew York and Time. (The Guy overlapped with Andersen at Time but didn’t work directly with him.) 

Andersen is derisive toward religious faith, thus maintaining fidelity with a Nebraska upbringing by “godless” parents

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Good journalism? Slanted journalism? Readers disagree on story out of Cornhuskers territory

Good journalism? Slanted journalism? Readers disagree on story out of Cornhuskers territory

Your GetReligionistas don't venture into Nebraska Cornhuskers territory all that often.

However, two readers called our attention to a Lincoln Journal Star story on the Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious liberty law group. 

"This is good journalism," one reader said.

The other reader was not as impressed: "Having read the recent post discussing the lack of equal media usage of 'left-wing groups' to match the profligate use of 'right-wing groups,' I was surprised to see the Lincoln Journal Star characterize the critics in this story as 'left-wing.' Further, the criticized group in question is given surprisingly deferential treatment. You may be thinking, 'Midwest paper — of course they skew conservative,' but that would be inaccurate. Lincoln, Neb., is a university town with a well-deserved reputation for sympathy with liberal cultural and political views. But I would concur that there is a substantial enough traditional religious community that a savvy editorial staff is unlikely to indulge in unfettered Kellerism."

Me? I'm going to be contrary and disagree with both readers. More in a moment, but first, the story's opening:

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said Wednesday his attendance at a meeting last month sponsored by a controversial Christian legal advocacy group was by invitation and not paid for with state money. 
Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization, has the stated goal of advocating, training and funding on the issues of religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family. It has been criticized for taking aggressive stands against gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. 
People in left-leaning organizations have said the group's endgame is to have the law and the culture reflect its religious views, including weakening the separation of church and state. 
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the July meeting Peterson attended, but news organizations were not allowed to attend his talk or initially get a written version of his speech. 
It was published several days later, however, on a conservative media outlet, thefederalist.com. In the speech, Sessions talked about religious freedom, saying the "inside-the-beltway crowd has no idea how much good is being done in this country everyday by our faith communities. ... But the cultural climate has become less hospitable to people of faith and to religious belief." 
Sessions said: "Under this administration, religious Americans will be treated neither as an afterthought nor as a problem to be managed."
Peterson said he was asked to serve on a panel on federalism to talk about how specific cases affect states. The panel was moderated by attorney Hugh Hewitt, a conservative and Catholic MSNBC talk show host who comments on society, politics and media bias. 

My assessment:

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Early 2020 contender? Dream #NeverTrump candidate makes political waves with a new book

Early 2020 contender? Dream #NeverTrump candidate makes political waves with a new book

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has a new book out called "The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis — and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance." 

I'll pause for a second so you can catch your breath after that title ...

Yes, that was a childish thing to say. My apologies.

But seriously, Time is pretty certain the book marks a first step toward the Republican senator — whom the magazine dubs "the Anti-Trump" — making a White House run:

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is not yet running for President, and his new book, The Vanishing American Adult, is not about politics, policy or his own life story, all of which someone like him would normally write about if he were thinking about running for President.
"I'm pretty certain the President is never mentioned at any point in this book," Sasse, a Republican, told me when I asked him about Donald Trump as we recently sat outside a café a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. "I want to move upstream from politics to have that conversation about all the things that we should want for our kids."
But jump-starting a postpartisan national conversation about what the nation should want for its children is exactly the sort of thing someone who is looking to run for President might do. And the solutions that Sasse proposes are, in many cases, precisely the opposite of the examples set by Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom Sasse has criticized for failing to behave like "you know ... an adult."
For Sasse, emotional and intellectual maturity is a lockpick for the nation's future. He speaks of an American crisis of loneliness and disconnection; he calls for parents to take back responsibility for their children's upbringing from schools and for children to resist consumerism, travel widely, work hard and "become truly literate," with a reading list that resembles a graduate-seminar syllabus. His personal canon contains unexpected choices for a conservative Republican: books by Aldous Huxley, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Karl Marx, along with Augustine and Alexis de Toqueville.

Way back in August, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly noted that Sasse is "a hero of religious and cultural conservatives" and "was the dream #NeverTrump third-party candidate after Trump's victory in the primaries."

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Weekend think piece: The New York Times offers R.R. Reno's take on America's new cold war

Weekend think piece: The New York Times offers R.R. Reno's take on America's new cold war

If you have been paying attention to gossip about the news industry lately, you may have heard that many New York Times readers were not amused when the leaders of the great Gray Lady's editorial pages decided to add another conservative voice to the mix

Ever since the first column by one Bret Stephens -- a piece criticizing how the cultural left pushes climate change (but he does not reject the reality of climate change) -- large numbers of Times nation citizens have been voicing their wrath about this invasion of a beloved safe space, primarily by canceling their subscriptions.

I have not heard of a similar reaction to the recent Times opinion essay by the Catholic scribe R.R. Reno, who is editor of the conservative interfaith journal First Things. The title: "Republicans Are Now the ‘America First’ Party."

Now, let me stress that this Reno think piece does not contain large chunks of theology or commentary about religion. Instead, it's about how one Donald Trump has moved the ground under the feet of Republicans who had, for a long time, assumed that the GOP orthodoxy of Ronald Reagan would last 1,000 years or so.

The central theme: The new GOP enemy is globalism, not big government.

As I read this Reno piece, I kept waiting for religious material, for cultural and moral material, to show up. After all, I read newspapers through the lens of the great historian Martin Marty, as described in an "On Religion" column I wrote a year after 9/11 (at an event that started the dominoes falling that led to the birth of GetReligion). Here is the top of that 2002 column (this is long, but essential):

It is Martin Marty's custom to rise at 4:44 a.m. for coffee and prayer, while awaiting the familiar thump of four newspapers on his porch. ... America's most famous church historian prepared for a lecture in Nebraska by ripping up enough newsprint to bury his table in headlines and copy slashed with a yellow pen.
A former WorldCom CEO kept teaching his Sunday school class. A researcher sought the lost tribe of Israel. Believers clashed in Sudan. Mormon and evangelical statistics were up – again. A Zambian bishop said he got married to shock the Vatican. U.S. bishops kept wrestling with clergy sexual abuse. Pakistani police continued to study the death of journalist Daniel Pearl.
Marty tore out more pages, connecting the dots. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey feared an Anglican schism. Public-school students prayed at flagpoles. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explored the border between church and state. And there were dozens of stories linked to Sept. 11, 2001.

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Anti-Islamophobia: A nuanced portrayal of Syrian refugees in the heart of red-state America

Anti-Islamophobia: A nuanced portrayal of Syrian refugees in the heart of red-state America

Stereotypes plague so much news coverage of Muslims in Donald Trump's America.

I'm talking about negative pieces that attempt to turn every conservative state into a bastion of hatred toward Islam and its followers.

These are the type of stories that take a single case — or a few random incidents — and scream, "Islamophobia!" See examples here, here, here, here and here. Too often, these articles rely on squishy generalizations when what readers really need — and deserve — are hard facts.

So what's the antidote to such poor journalism?

Well, reporting that focuses on real people — with real context and real nuance — would be a nice place to start.

Speaking of which, the Washington Post (for which I occasionally freelance) featured just such a story on its front page Monday.

Post national writer Robert Samuels both enlightens and surprises — both nice traits for a newspaper story — as he paints a portrait of Syrian refugees in a state where nearly three out of five voters supported Trump:

OMAHA — The rice and chicken were steaming on the stove. The twins chased each other around the apartment and the 2-year-old watched Mickey Mouse on the donated television.
Their mother, Fatema Aljasem, 29, sat at the kitchen table with two women from the local synagogue. Since the Syrian was granted asylum in September, the women had been helping her learn English. She pulled at her hijab and pointed at the words, mouthing ways of conjugating the verb “to go.”
“Shadi goes to school. Ahmad goes to work.”

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Don't write off capital punishment just yet — Tuesday's elections gave death penalty a boost

Don't write off capital punishment just yet — Tuesday's elections gave death penalty a boost

To hear opponents tell it, the death penalty is under fire and losing favor in America.

But is that really true, based on election results in California, Nebraska and my home state of Oklahoma?

And if not, what does religion have to do with it?

We'll get to those questions in a moment. But first, a little background might be helpful: This subject long has interested me, particularly since I spent a few years covering state prisons for The Oklahoman, where I witnessed four executions and wrote a narrative story on a "typical execution day."

More recently, in a freelance piece last month for the French-based global news agency Agence France-Presse, I reported on an Oklahoma referendum on capital punishment:

The ballot measure comes at a time when 36 US states have paused executions, or stopped them altogether, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
This November, a ballot measure in California -- which has 741 death row inmates -- might end the practice in that state. Conversely, Nebraska voters will decide whether to restore the death penalty.
A key factor is the pharmaceutical industry's mounting opposition to supplying lethal injection drugs, causing a supply shortage.

An opponent that I interviewed voiced optimism:

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Hurrah! New York Times spots a religion ghost in Nebraska drive to kill death penalty

Hurrah! New York Times spots a religion ghost in Nebraska drive to kill death penalty

I groaned when I saw the following New York Times headline on yet another story about a political battle -- one that some would call a "culture wars" skirmish -- out in middle America, the land of red zip codes.

The headline said: "Conservative Support Aids Bid in Nebraska to Ban Death Penalty."

I assumed, of course, that the story would focus on the fiscal and legal side of the term "conservative," ignoring the fact that there are conservative people (my hand is raised as a pro-life Democrat) who believe that all human life is sacred, from conception to natural death -- even when a jury assembled by the state approves the killing.

You see, some doctrinally conservative people -- but certainly not all -- don't want to give that kind of power to the state, fearing human error and injustice linked to race and social class. As St. John Paul II once noted:

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made ... for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

This is, in other words, a story with strong religious themes it and that part of the debate must be covered. I kind of assumed the Times would miss that, but I was wrong. This may be evidence that the Times team does a better job covering this kind of moral, religious and cultural issue (a) when it does not involve the Sexual Revolution, (b) when the conservatives involved happen to agree with the Times editorial page and (c) well, I can't think of a good (c) option.

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Nebraska newspaper overdoes it on 'injustice' faced by gay Catholic teacher

Nebraska newspaper overdoes it on 'injustice' faced by gay Catholic teacher

It appears that the Religion Newswriters Association has no members who live and work in the state of Nebraska right now. This might be a good time for a newspaper or two there to try hiring a pro on this beat.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, what he have here is another one of those all-to-common stories that's becoming so prevalent on the LGBT side of the religion beat these days. It's a classic example of the template currently being used over and over in mainstream newsrooms.

Start here: A gay teacher in a Catholic school is losing his job if he marries his partner. Supporters of the teacher are outraged. Articulate defenders of Catholic doctrine are either silent, absent or ignored (it's often hard to tell).

The Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star report is pretty predictable:

Students, parents and alumni of an Omaha Catholic high school have rallied behind a teacher who was told his contract would not be renewed if he marries his same-sex partner.
Supporters of Matthew Eledge, an English teacher and speech coach, took to social media Tuesday and thousands of people signed online petitions asking Skutt Catholic High School to reverse its decision.
Eledge and Elliot Dougherty were engaged in December, according to Kacie Hughes, a petition organizer and Eledge’s assistant speech coach.
When Eledge told school administrators about his marriage plans, Hughes said, Eledge was told he would not be invited back to teach in the fall, and if he told students he would be fired immediately. Eledge asked about the possibility of postponing the wedding so he could continue teaching but was told he would have to end the relationship, Hughes said.
Reached Tuesday, Eledge declined comment, as did the school and the Omaha Diocese.

Nebraska is not alone in this debate, as a similar story is playing out in the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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