op-ed pages

The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

It was nearly 16 years ago that GetReligion.org opened its cyber doors (with our next birthday just ahead on Feb. 2).

That is an eternity in Internet years.

Anyway, one of the things that co-founder Doug LeBlanc and I decided right up front is that — with very few exceptions — we would focus on hard-news coverage of religion in the mainstream press. Even then, there was all kinds of interesting stuff running on op-ed pages and in magazines that offered a mix of news and editorial comment. The World Wide Web was already a pretty wild place.

Over time, we started pushing “think pieces” to the weekend — pointing readers to commentary pieces that directly addressed issues relevant to religion-beat pros and news consumers who focused on religion news, broadly defined. Eventually, we sought out veteran reporters — think Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin — to write memo-style essays addressing where they thought trends in the news were heading.

But something else was happening at the same time. To be blunt, opinion pieces cost way less than news coverage. In recent years, it has become common to see major stories “broken” in commentary pieces. Sometimes, if you want updates on actual news stories, you need to look in the editorial columns.

Lately, I have had some readers send me emails wondering what has happened with the case of Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother in rural Pakistan who was accused of blasphemy. It made headlines when she was found not guilty. Then she went into hiding, as mobs threatened to kill her. Attempts to find asylum in other lands have been futile.

So what’s going on? Where’s the news coverage?

Well, click here for this week’s “think piece” — which actually contains background on the news. The headline, in tis recent opinion piece at The Washington Post: “My client’s death sentence for blasphemy was overturned. She still cannot leave Pakistan.”

My client? The author is Saif ul Malook and here is the description of the editorial process:

Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.

If you want an actual summary of recent events, this is not a bad place to start — even though this is not, of course, a news piece. Here is a sample:

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Seeking a Hanukkah miracle: Why can't the Gray Lady 'get' the Festival of Lights?

Seeking a Hanukkah miracle: Why can't the Gray Lady 'get' the Festival of Lights?

Now here is a headline that a GetReligion scribe has to pass along, pronto: “Why can’t the New York Times get Hanukkah right?”

What we’re talking about is a Religion News Service commentary by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. Consider this a kind of early weekend think piece, since it’s talking about op-ed page work.

However, religion-beat professionals will certainly want to read (and maybe file way) this to get a refresher on some history and facts about the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” which is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that punches way above its weight class for reasons that are quite ironic, to say the least.

The opening is very clever and slightly snarky at the same time.

Every few years, the New York Times runs a contest: “Best Essay About Hanukkah By An Ambivalent Jew.”

That is the only explanation for this past week’s crop of New York Times op-ed pieces about Hanukkah.

“The Gray Lady” is showing signs of advanced Jewish arteriosclerosis.

Take yesterday’s article, “That’s One Alternative Santa.”

The author, a comedy writer, begins with the traditional disavowal of any substantive Jewish connections or affiliations.

In theological terms, there is little love lost between me and Judaism. But culturally — with my unwavering devotion to [Howard] Stern on the radio, [Philip] Roth on the page, [Bob] Dylan on the stereo and kugel in the oven — I am a Hasid.

This self-identification as a Rhett Butler Jew — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — points him in the direction of embracing the “traditional” Hanukkah symbol — Hanukkah Harry — a fictional character on Saturday Night Live.

You get the idea. Somehow, I had missed “Hanukkah Harry.” Just lucky, I guess.

Here’s the big question: What does all of this have to do with Judaism? That leads to a common debate topic this time of year: Are we talking Judaism the religion or Judaism the culture.

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

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Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

I admit that I have been biting my tongue during the post-Synod 2015 firestorm about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and the large army of liberal Catholic academics who have expressed their displeasure that such a theological lightweight has been allowed to comment on the Catholic faith in the world's most influential op-ed space.

Surely readers will join me in being shocked, shocked that a Times columnist has published controversial commentary about the Catholic Church. Can I get an "Amen"?

I mean, this is the same editorial setting in which a columnist named Bill Keller -- a few months after 9/11 -- compared the Catholic leadership, in the era of Pope St. John Paul II, with al-Qaeda. Readers may, or may not, recall the outcry from Catholic progressives in the wake of these words from Keller's May 4, 2002, column entitled "Is the Pope Catholic?"

What reform might mean in the church is something I leave to Catholics who care more than I do. ... But the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance).
The Catholic Church has not, over the centuries, been a stronghold of small-c catholic values, which my dictionary defines as "broad in sympathies, tastes, or understanding; liberal." This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.

So what happened to Keller after that theological outburst? A year later he was named executive editor of the Times.

Back to Douthat and his theological commentary about Pope Francis and the 2015 Synod of Bishops. You see, there is a journalistic issue here that affects reporters covering hard news events and trends, as well as commentary writers who are free to write their own opinions.

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