obits

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

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The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?

If you want a summary of what mainstream news professionals think is important — especially the elite scribes who cover politics — all you need to do is read the obituaries published after the death of a president.

What really matters? What subjects are secondary? It’s all there.

With that in mind, I urge readers to work their way through the stunningly faith-free New York Times obituary covering the life and times of former President George H.W. Bush: “George Bush, 41st President, Dies at 94.”

I would offer some commentary on the religious content in this massive feature — but there isn’t any. It would appear that the “personal” is not the “political.”

The bottom line: If you want to know what is real, what is “news,” then you need to study the political. You can see that by comparing the content of the Times obit with the newspaper’s fine sidebar that ran with this headline: “ ‘I Love You, Too’: George Bush’s Final Days.” Here is the overture to that:

George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.

His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.

Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.

“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.

“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.

“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister.

The minister at the former president’s bedside — Father Russell J. Levenson Jr. — was the pastor of the rather traditional Episcopal parish in which Bush was a leader. The same parish received quite a bit of attention when Barbara Bush died. The Times piece noted:

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Regarding obits, Hefner, Weinstein, Trump, religious hypocrites, 'Cheap Sex' and the death of eros

Regarding obits, Hefner, Weinstein, Trump, religious hypocrites, 'Cheap Sex' and the death of eros

Within the Christian fellowship, the Good Book says, members should “not speak evil against one another” (James 4:11). A societal maxim tells us verbal caution is especially required in one instance: “Do not speak ill of the dead.”

Though journalists have a duty to “speak evil” if it’s both true and  newsworthy, obituaries sometimes obey Johnny Mercer’s sermonic song lyric: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive.” Just before the defenestration of Hollywood bigwig Harvey Weinstein over his sexploits, the death of publisher Hugh Hefner -- a personification of the media maxim that "sex sells, inspired bland, fond farewells, even on “conservative” Fox News.  

Or, given recent events at the New York City headquarters of that news operation, is that especially on Fox News?  

Not so the truly conservative and ever-fascinating New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, an outspoken Catholic, whose sendoff was an invective classic. His Hef was the “grinning pimp of the sexual revolution,” the “father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis,” a “flesh procurement” agent for celebrities, and “lecherous, low-brow Peter Pan” whose career concluded in “sleazy decrepitude.”

In Hefner’s wake it was perhaps inevitable, given the amalgamated contempt for both evangelical Protestants and President Donald Trump across sectors of U.S. high culture, that some journalists would brand believers as hypocrites, e.g. Brandon Ambrosino, a onetime Liberty University student who came out as gay, writing in Religion News Service.

Ambrosino noted that a Facebook post generated dozens of comments “to defend Trump’s sexual history while excoriating Hefner for his.” After rehearsing the president’s moral career in order to castigate preachers who vouched for his character, he concluded: “These evangelicals have lost any moral high ground from which to lecture culture about sexual morality.”

Interesting. So The Religion Guy scanned 95 posted comments about this column.

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God is in the faith details? The messy, complicated lives of Norma 'Jane Roe' McCorvey

God is in the faith details? The messy, complicated lives of Norma 'Jane Roe' McCorvey

If you ever talked with Norma McCorvey, you know that there was one thing that she wanted journalists to do more than anything else: To tell her story, with all of its messy and complicated details.

She had more than her share of regrets. She had deep sorrows and, through the years, crossed an ocean of shame. As "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade she was a footnote in just about every textbook used in an American History class, at any level of education. Yet, from her point of view, she was famous because of a lie at the heart of her own life.

She knew that she could not make her lies go away. But she did want journalists to allow Americans to hear her tell the story of when she lied, why she lied and how she came to regret what legal activists built with the help of her most famous lie. Thus, she told her story over and over and over, while also trying to walk the walk of a conception to natural death Catholic pro-lifer.

The key point: For McCorvey, her adult life begins with lies and ends with attempts to live out the truth. For those on the cultural left, her public life began with truth and then sank into sad confusion and religious sentiment.

Now McCorvey has died, at age 69. That means that almost every newsroom in America will offer some version of her story -- one last time. How many of the scandalous details of her complicated life will make it into print? When looking at the mainstream obits, there is one key detail to examine: How seriously did each news organization take McCorvey's conversion to Roman Catholicism?

Let's start with the Associated Press, since that feature will appear in the vast majority of American newspapers. To its credit, the AP piece puts both halves of the McCorvey journey in the lede, where they belong.

DALLAS (AP) -- Norma McCorvey, whose legal challenge under the pseudonym “Jane Roe” led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision that legalized abortion but who later became an outspoken opponent of the procedure, died Saturday. She was 69.

A few lines later there is this crucial summary of her life -- stated from McCorvey's own point of view, drawn from an autobiography.

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Two final battles for author of 'The Exorcist;' Washington Post buries a key local angle

Two final battles for author of 'The Exorcist;' Washington Post buries a key local angle

Anyone who interviewed William Peter Blatty in the final years of his life knew that there were two major issues that were constantly on his mind.

Both subjects were linked to his Catholic faith and, from his point of view, the reality of evil in the world. Both were linked to his education at Georgetown University.

The first challenge was making sure people really knew what was going on at the end of "The Exorcist," the Hollywood blockbuster that loomed over everything he did in his career as a novelist and screenwriter. This meant tweaking both the movie and the novel, to add a bit of clarity to what was happening between God, a demon and a courageous priest.

The second subject involved Blatty's appeal to the Vatican seeking actions to pull Georgetown into line with the 1990 "apostolic constitution" on the core values of Catholic education issued by St. Pope John Paul II, entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)." If that failed, Blatty wanted his alma mater stripped of its "Catholic" status.

Blatty could understand why the media was still obsessed with "The Exorcist." He couldn't understand why journalists -- especially in Washington, D.C. -- were not digging into the issues behind his intellectual and spiritual wrestling match with Georgetown.

Now Blatty is gone and, as you would expect, "The Exorcist" dominated the mainstream media features about his life and work. But what did The Washington Post do with the other major Blatty story, right there in its own Beltway backyard? This question takes us -- literally -- the the final lines of the Blatty obituary:

In recent years, Mr. Blatty had a public dispute with Georgetown University, charging that it had abandoned its Catholic heritage. He organized a petition that he sent to the Vatican.
But Mr. Blatty remained inescapably linked with the book and movie that brought him the fame he sought for so long.
“I can’t regret ‘The Exorcist,’ ” he said in 2013. “I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere.”

That's all there was to it, apparently. Don't you love the word "but" at the start of transition from the brief mention of the Georgetown dispute, back into Exorcist material?

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