The Miami Herald

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

I have followed the acidic soap operas (timeline here) surrounding Jeffrey Epstein for more than a decade. That may sound strange, but there’s a logical reason — I lived in West Palm Beach from 2001-2005 and taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University, right next to the mini-towers of Trump Plaza.

Yes, that was a long time ago, back when Donald Trump was embracing his good buddies Bill and Hillary Clinton and acting like a rather mainstream Democrat, in terms of moral and social issues. And it was impossible to read the news in the Sixth Borough of New York without bumping into the kingdom of Trump. That included, from time to time, the people being courted — socially speaking — by Epstein and Co.

Life behind the scenes? That, of course, is where everyone who cares about the details of this sordid affair has to dig into the essential “Perversion of Justice” series by Julie Brown of The Miami Herald. Download it into an iPad program of some kind, because you’ll have to read it in painful chunks.

So why bring this up here at GetReligion? To be blunt: I am waiting for some kind of religion shoe to drop, some angle linked to twisted religion or anti-religious convictions. In my experience, great evil almost always involves twisted religion or blunt, demonic rejection of what is good, beautiful and true.

In one recent story, I was struck by an Epstein statement — when he was a young prep-school teacher — that mentioned his use of “spiritual” activities with his students. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see the long lists of people who socialized with Epstein, did “business” with him or both. Some of those names — such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump — are already known.

Will the list contain hypocrites as well as libertines? Of course it will. We live in a sinful and fallen world.

A new Vanity Fair piece on this scandal notes that it’s hard to talk about the mysteries of Epstein’s fortune without getting into the moral dynamics inside his entourage and clients:

In the absence of much other information, the reigning theory on Wall Street currently is that Epstein’s activities with women and girls were central to the building of his fortune, and his relations with some of his investors essentially amounted to blackmail.

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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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Not every Catholic story today is bad news. Here are two positive ones not to be overlooked

Not every Catholic story today is bad news. Here are two positive ones not to be overlooked

The Roman Catholic Church has taken it on the chin lately in nations across the globe. Some of its been richly deserved, as in Australia, Chile, Honduras and the United States, where high-level priestly sex-scandals, and cover-ups, have generated a flood of sadly similar stories.

Yesterday’s post by my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin is a great place to catch up with the latest surrounding ex-Washington archbishop, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the latest high-level American Catholic leader (or former leader) to be outed as a sexual predator. Julia also listed some steps that journalists can take to uncover more of this sordid tale.

Editors, and media consumers, love a juicy sex scandal regardless of who the culprit may be, so I’m sure some reporters -- my bets are on New York Times and Washington Post religion-desk staffers -- are doing just that.

Even the late Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, has prompted some bad press in India. It's not because of a sex scandal but the story is equally bad -- a sister and a staffer secretly selling babies born to women housed at one of the order’s shelters.

It all seems so horrific and terribly bad for the church, from the parish level up to the Vatican, that one wonders whether the church has truly poisoned its well. Where will this end? 

But do not despair, Catholic believers. You may think this an ironic turn on my part, but I’m actually here to praise the church, not bury it, so to speak — and if you’ll allow me to invert the Bard of Avon.

That’s because some of the stories critical of the church are government issue, and they’re of an entirely different sort. The church may be getting slammed in these stories, too. But it's not because of self-generated scandal bubbling up from within; it's for trying to do right.

I’m thinking of the Philippines and Nicaragua in particular. In both nations, the church is locked in fierce opposition to despotic rulers that are not shy about jailing or even physically eliminating their opponents. So it's dangerous for church leaders to be doing what they are.

I’ll say more on the situations in both those nations in a bit.

But first, what’s the journalistic lesson here?

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Scare quotes and factual journalism in Florida: This here is what they call a 'religious liberties' bill

Scare quotes and factual journalism in Florida: This here is what they call a 'religious liberties' bill

Yes, there are scare quotes in the Miami Herald's coverage of a fast-tracked religious liberties bill in the Florida Senate.

As regular GetReligion readers know, that is so often the case when the mainstream press reports on such legislation — but not always.

However, we come today not to dwell on the Sunshine State newspaper's sin (we're in a forgiving mood) but to praise the overall quality of the Herald's reporting.

The lede sets the scene:

TALLAHASSEE — Students and teachers in Florida’s public schools would more explicitly have the right to say the Lord’s Prayer, pray to Allah or worship Satan under a highly polarizing measure that’s being fast-tracked through the Florida Senate as the 2017 session begins this week.
Called a “religious liberties” bill, SB 436 is intended to “clarify First Amendment rights of free speech, specifically as they apply to religious expression,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who’s driving the measure in the Senate.
“I grew up in an America where you were free to express your faith, and there was no intimidation of whether you could say ‘Jesus’ out loud or not,” Baxley said. “This is where we’ve come: The pendulum has swung so far that there’s been a chilling effect on people of faith of just expressing and being who they are.”
While comments before the Senate Education Committee on Monday heavily emphasized a need to protect Christians, Baxley’s bill would shield students, teachers and school staff of all faiths from religious discrimination — protections already guaranteed through the Florida and U.S. Constitutions, as well as U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The phrase "called a 'religious liberties' bill" gives the impression that the concept is new to the Herald, when, in fact, that issue was a factor in Donald Trump's surprise election as president. 

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Citizen Trump in Orlando: Press must note evangelicals who attend and those who do not

Citizen Trump in Orlando: Press must note evangelicals who attend and those who do not

(Cue: audible sigh)

Do we really have to keep writing about Donald Trump and THE evangelicals? It would appear so, since he is headed to Orlando today to talk to a Florida Pastors and Pews event, organized by the American Renewal Project.

Once again, the team behind this story seems to think that we are dealing with Trump efforts to fire up THE evangelicals and THE "religious conservatives." That's kind of like saying a candidate is reaching out to THE Jews, THE Catholics, THE Muslims, etc.

That won't cut it. It's really crucial for journalists, when covering this kind of event, to give readers some of the details on who is taking part and who is not.

This is especially true for an event in Orlando, which is a hub city for evangelical megachurches and parachurch ministries. The Orlando area -- especially the suburbs -- is also a very important region in Florida (and thus national) politics, when it comes to gauging evangelical enthusiasm at the polls.

So let's look at the Bloomberg News report that The Miami Herald picked up about Trump's appearance. He is expected to say more about his opposition to the Johnson Amendment, the IRS rule that prohibits churches from endorsing individual political candidates, as opposed to making faith-driven statements about moral and cultural issues in public life.

I'll comment on that issue once we see the press coverage of what Citizen Trump has to say. However, it's important to stress that -- as is so often the cases -- there is no one evangelical camp on that topic. In fact, some evangelicals would like to see that rule enforced in a more consistent manner, affecting churches on the left as well as the right.

What's the first thing I noticed about how Herald editors handled this Bloomberg News report?

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