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Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it? 

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became.

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Looking in a journalism mirror again: Lots of atheists will visit Bible Belt city at Easter

Looking in a journalism mirror again: Lots of atheists will visit Bible Belt city at Easter

It's time for another look at a mirror-image question linked to religion reporting.

However, before we get to the story of the day (ignore the nearby art, please), let's start by creating a news-mirror option that turns today's journalism equation on its head.

Let's say that Pride Day is just around the corner in San Francisco and, of course, everywhere else in modern culture. But, obviously, San Francisco is at the heart of LBGTQ culture, so let's focus there. Pride Day is a holiday that approaches holy day status.

So, what would happen at some point in the future if a large convention of religious conservatives -- people who believe that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin -- decided to hold a national convention in San Francisco that coincided with Pride Day? What if this group included people who consider themselves (trigger warning) ex-gays?

This mirror-image scenario raises two questions: (1) How would LGBTQ leaders react? And (2) how would this potential conflict be framed in local media?

Now, what about the real news story that we need to look at? Here is the top of a recent Oklahoman story -- "Christian leaders say they aren't fazed by atheists' metro gathering" -- that inspired a note from a veteran GetReligion reader:

Holy Week and Easter Sunday in the Oklahoma City metro area will not be tarnished by a national gathering of atheists, several Christian leaders said recently.
"We ought not to be threatened by people who don't believe," said the Rev. A. Byron Coleman, senior pastor of Fifth Street Missionary Baptist Church, 801 NE 5. "It doesn't reshape the narrative of the Christian Church to have an atheist convention coming to town. We're still going to have Resurrection Sunday and we're still going to eat ham after church."

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Any religion ghosts? Massive San Francisco homelessness project comes up short

Any religion ghosts? Massive San Francisco homelessness project comes up short

San Francisco is the nation’s 14th largest city but it’s second in the country (after New York) in terms of homeless people per capita. That’s one in 200 people sleeping on the streets.

The situation has become so dire that last month on June 29, dozens of area media outlets coordinated a tsunami of coverage so that anyone logging onto the Internet, turning on the radio or TV or picking up a newspaper would have to hear about one of the country’s most intractable problems.

The media cooperation alone on this project is worth several news posts. But, despite the well-meaning roots of this project, it comes up short. Haunted? You bet.

Why? Let's start with this fascinating overview of the problem as sketched out by the San Francisco Chronicle. We read that the bulk of the street people are chronically homeless and that at least one third are mentally ill. If they pose no threat to anyone, no one can force them to take shelter.

Today, despite the efforts of six mayoral administrations dating back to Dianne Feinstein, homelessness is stamped into the city so deeply it’s become a defining characteristic.
San Francisco initially responded by providing temporary, spartan shelters. Now, it permanently houses thousands of people salvaged from the streets through multimillion-dollar residential and counseling programs. But still, the city remains home to sprawling tent cities, junkies squatting on blankets shooting heroin, and all manner of anguished destitute people and beggars holding out hands.
The city’s last official count, in 2015, put the adult homeless population at 6,686, though many officials and advocates for homeless people say the number is much higher.

When you click here to see the list of stories on homelessness in every outlet from Mother Jones to Buzzfeed, you may notice there’s one thing left out.

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To pee (in public) or not to pee: The Los Angeles Times fudges the question

To pee (in public) or not to pee: The Los Angeles Times fudges the question

Recently, the Los Angeles Times had a news piece about a Christian group that objects to a place for public urination at a San Francisco park. In one of those only-in-San-Francisco (for now) instances, the city went French on everyone, setting up a pissoir (no joke) so that folks who couldn’t make it to a restroom could go with the flow right there, out in the open, in the park.

Being that this place was close to where passersby could see the action, one Christian group has objected to the point of filing a lawsuit. Personally, being that this is San Francisco, I think a lawsuit is/was not going anywhere, but they have the right to give it a try.

But the Times doesn’t seem to think they have standing. Here’s their story:

Apparently, peeing al fresco is not sitting well with everyone.
A religious group and several residents have sued the city and county of San Francisco over the new open-air urinal in Mission Dolores Park, calling it a “shameful” violation of privacy and decency.
The San Francisco Chinese Christian Union, along with several neighbors of the park, filed a 25-page civil suit in San Francisco County Superior Court on Thursday, alleging discrimination based on gender and disability, as well as violations of health and plumbing codes.
The urinal, which city officials call a “pissoir,” opened in January as the city’s latest move to combat public urination. It was part of an extensive park renovation that included new irrigation, playgrounds and restrooms.
The open-air urinal, next to a Muni streetcar stop, consists of a concrete pad with a drain and a circular fence that offers limited privacy. It is near the park’s southwest corner, affectionately dubbed “the gay beach.”

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Back to the Islamic Caitlyn Jenner and the man behind the Planned Parenthood videos

Back to the Islamic Caitlyn Jenner and the man behind the Planned Parenthood videos

On this week's episode of "Crossroads, the GetReligion podcast, " host Todd Wilken and I discussed the Sacramento Bee's less than sparkling coverage of the man behind the Planned Parenthood videos (who grew up in their back yard, making this truly a local-angle story) and the Los Angeles Times's discovery of a Muslim woman who has become a man. Please click here to tune that in.

Not surprisingly, the key figure in the trans Muslim story lives in San Francisco, which is where I -- as I write this -- have been for the past few days attending a conference of journalism professors known as the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). 

Today I moderated a panel of scholars who were discussing how journalists used to put scare quotes about "Islamophobia" and how increasingly they are not.

This is, of course, a sign that they believe such a phobia is real and not something dreamed up by Muslim apologists. It also implies that this is not a subject worth debating. That's how "scare quotes" work, after all. 

One Muslim professor listening in said that no matter what the story, Muslims -- like Mormons -- are always treated as the "other" -- part of a group that's not quite normal.

My problem with the Los Angeles Times story (which hasn't attracted any comments as of yet) wasn't about fear of Muslims, it more had to do with handling a transgender Muslim with such kid gloves that she/he was spared the normal tough questions a reporter should be asking.

Sound familiar?

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Hey, enjoy some pretend journalism on 'a fake church in a real church'

Hey, enjoy some pretend journalism on 'a fake church in a real church'

The lede read likes something straight out of a farcical newspaper:

As the chandeliers dim against the vaulted ceiling of the Chapel in the Mission, women wearing Baptist-size hats fan themselves while men balance heaping plates of eggs and biscuits on their chino-clad knees. A soloist emerges from the be-robed gospel choir and sings:
“When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer.”
The Madonna hit rings through the former funeral parlor and current performance venue: “Just like a prayer; you know I’ll take you there.” The choir and crowd join in.
The “there” is Sunday’s Finest, host, organizer and reverend-for-the-day Mustafa Khan’s “nonreligious” church service. Khan, who previously worked for Facebook in operations and marketing, has developed a loyal following among the new Mission scenesters with his events, including April’s Silicon Valley Fashion Week, San Francisco’s Daybreaker dawn dance parties, and the recently launched Midnight Brunch. For $30 to $40, guests at Sunday’s Finest get a comfort-food buffet, seats to the show/church service and a sense of small-town closeness in the big city.
“Brothers and sisters,” Khan, decked out in a black-and-gold brocade faux vestment with shimmering lamé pants, greets the guests, “Welcome to Sunday’s Finest. We’re a fake church in a real church.”

But the source of this story is not The Onion.

Rather, it's a piece from the San Francisco Chronicle.

As a Christian, I take my faith seriously and try to be respectful of other people's sincere beliefs — even if I don't share their beliefs.

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An Islamic Caitlyn Jenner? Look in the Los Angeles Times

An Islamic Caitlyn Jenner? Look in the Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times is on quite the campaign to push social change, as of late. I'm sure that is shocking to you.

Recently I critiqued a “great reads” piece in that publication about a drag queen in New Mexico who wore a dress to his grandmother’s Catholic funeral. Not even a month later, here’s a San Francisco-based piece about a transgender Muslim man

The general theme of both seems to be that the only truth is that found in human experience, as opposed to religious doctrines and traditions. Journalists simply find a sympathetic character and tell their personal story, which of course runs counter to the beliefs of whatever religion this person holds or used to hold. This person’s life illustrates an evolving, personal truth that is so obvious, dissenting voices are not needed. 

To see what I mean, read here:

He walked unsteadily across the tattered green carpet inside the mosque. Out of habit, he stepped for a moment toward the women's section. Then he made his way to the front, where the men pray.
In one sense, everything felt familiar after a childhood spent in Islamic Sunday school every week: the smell of strong cologne worn by so many of the men, the low murmur of Koran recitations.
"Can they tell?" Alex Bergeron recalls asking himself as he knelt for prayer.

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Crux leaves out crucial details in story on gay activists, Catholic education

Crux leaves out crucial details in story on gay activists, Catholic education

Crux is the Boston Globe site that covers “all things Catholic” with a staff of six. They got everyone’s attention in 2014 when they snared famed Vatican scribe (formerly with the National Catholic Reporter) John L. Allen, Jr., to be their omnipresent front-line reporter, as well as a columnist and blogger.

Many of us who watch this beat were grateful that a large newspaper put time and money into covering a flock that is so dominant in their circulation area. And Boston is a very Catholic place, in many ways the heart of progressive Catholic life in this land.

Anyway, the Crux team just ran a piece about a council of war by five organizations that are concerned that crackdowns by bishops - specifically in San Francisco -- on who may or may not teach in Catholic schools will result in employees being fired.

CHICAGO -- A group of Catholic activists gathered in Chicago over the weekend for a brainstorming session aimed at stopping the firings of gay employees, Crux has learned.
The “Church Worker Justice Strategy Session” was held at the Catholic Theological Union Friday through Sunday.
Representatives from several organizations — Catholics for Choice, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, New Ways Ministry, Dignity USA, and Call to Action — attended the meeting, along with workers from Catholic parishes, dioceses, and schools. About 30 people participated.
Participants discussed “discrimination, at-will employment, morality clauses, and how we might build some power to push for just employment practices in the workplace,” said Ellen Euclide, program director at Call to Action.

First, I think it’d be only fair to mention near the top of this piece that most if not the groups mentioned are not exactly considered Catholic by the leaders of the Catholic church itself. That factoid gives the story a lot less weight -- since the Catholic church remains, to say the least, a hierarchical church.

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San Francisco Chronicle needed more info on nuns who walked out on pro-gay leafletting

San Francisco Chronicle needed more info on nuns who walked out on pro-gay leafletting

The theological tug-of-war between the Archdiocese of San Francisco and gay advocates shows no sign of ending soon, which means there will continue to be news coverage to dig into, naturally.

The latest soldiers in this battle are a group of nuns who staged a walkout when students passed out gay-rights materials at their school. But the nuns engaged in this battle are not old fogeys. They’re savvy 20- and 30-somethings who know what to do with an iPhone and who understand the cultural wars that are unfolding on their turf. Did this crucial information make it into the story?

Listen to how the San Francisco Chronicle described what happened a week ago:

The divisions within the Bay Area’s Catholic community over gay rights hit Marin Catholic High School full force the other day, when a group of nuns walked out of their classes to protest the sponsors of a program intended to protect gay and lesbian teens from bullying.
The five members of the Dominican Sisters of Mary order exited their classrooms Friday as students began handing out flyers at the Kentfield school promoting a nationwide Day of Silence.
Their walkout came one day after 100 prominent local Catholics attracted national attention by taking out a full-page ad in The Chronicle calling on the pope to oust Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, in part for trying to get teachers at Catholic schools to sign off on a morality clause that characterizes homosexual relations as “gravely evil.”

Let's keep reading, because it takes a while to get to these nuns.

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