Doing the right (reporting) thing: Washington Post keeps digging on Klanner-turned-priest tale

Doing the right (reporting) thing: Washington Post keeps digging on Klanner-turned-priest tale

The late Phillip Graham, onetime publisher of The Washington Post, is widely credited with saying journalism is "the first rough draft of history." But, as journalist Jack Shafer noted seven years ago, another writer named Alan Barth may have originated it.

Regardless of who said it first, and as Shafer noted in the article linked above, the words ring true. A news story is generally the first take on something that's happened. Many newspapers will stay with an important local (or national) story as events unfold. Conscientious newspapers will flesh out their follow-up reporting with greater detail and insight.

Fortunately for those of us who decry when the media fails to "get" the religion angle, The Washington Post has -- in one recent case -- come through with reporting (and even a first-person commentary) that shows they do "get" it.

I'm speaking of the continuing story of the Rev. William Aitcheson, a Catholic priest who once-upon-a-time wore a very different set of vestments: the robes of an "exalted cyclops" in an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan. The Post, which broke the story in the general media, has stayed with it, From its follow-up story:

The reason behind Aitcheson’s revelation also has been called into question. Maria Santos Bier, a freelance journalist and member of the Arlington Diocese, had contacted the diocese a few days before Aitcheson wrote the essay to ask about Aitcheson’s KKK history -- and told them she might write about it.
In an essay published in The Washington Post, Santos Bier described her experience as a history student of Aitcheson’s while she was home-schooled in the early 2000s in Woodstock, Va. Aitcheson was a “fervent advocate of the Confederacy” who would joke about “Saint Robert E. Lee” in homilies at the church, and seemed so knowledgeable about history, Santos Bier wrote, that “I trusted him when he taught us that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights, not slavery; that the South’s cause was noble and just.”

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Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Every week or two -- either in private emails, on Twitter or perhaps in our comments pages -- I get involved in a debate with a reader about an issue that's at the heart of GetReligion's work. The hook is usually a post in which the press, when covering a controversial issue, has focused almost all of it its attention on the views of one side of the argument while demoting the other side to one or two lines of type, usually shallow, dull information drawn from a website or press release.

The reader, in effect, is defending what we call "Kellerism" -- click here for a refresher on that term -- and says that there is no need to give equal play to the voices on both sides because it is already obvious who is right and who is wrong. The reader says that GetReligion is biased because we still think there is a debate to be covered (think Indiana), while we believe that it's crucial to treat people on both sides of these debates with respect and cover their views as accurately as possible.

My slogan, shared with students down the years: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

This cuts against a popular "New Journalism" theory from the late '60s and the '70s arguing that balance, fairness and professional standards linked to the word "objectivity" are false newsroom gods and that journalists should call the truth the truth and move on. Some may remember a minor dust-up a few years ago when a powerful news consumer seemed to affirm this "false balance" thesis in a New York Times story:

As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. ...
Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

This brings us, believe it or not, to our own Bobby Ross Jr. and his much-discussed (and trolled) post on the state of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's soul.

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The silent swan song of Wojciech Jaruzelski

The silver Swan, who living had no Note,when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat. Leaning her breast against the reedy shore, thus sang her first and last, and sang no more: “Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes! More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Poland’s last communist leader has been laid to rest at Warsaw’s Powazki Cemetery following a funeral Mass, reports The New York Times. Written with a Warsaw dateline, the May 30 story entitled “Walesa Among Ex-Leaders at Funeral of Political Enemy” recounts the political controversy surrounding the funeral of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

But the article omits the religious controversies that animated the Polish press in the week following his May 25 death. And that is a shame. For in focusing on one strand of the protests to the exclusion of all else, the Times has missed a significant element of the story.

Now the New York Times was not alone in omitting the faith element. Reuters and the BBC also reported on the controversy over giving a state funeral to the last Communist president of Poland; the  man who in 1981 imposed martial law to crush the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. It is unlikely the Times reporter in Warsaw was unaware of the religion angle in light of the attention given to the topic by the local media. Was this the right editorial decision, to focus on politics alone?

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Pope Francis on sin, confession and several other things

It was a story that received very little attention in the United States, other than in conservative publications and in the briefs that newsrooms devote to human-interest stories. But here is the top of a longer report in The Daily Mail (with characteristics of British news style intact):

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Fresh take on Yom Kippur

I wish we saw more coverage of liturgical holidays but I get why we don’t. How do you write something fresh and new about something that’s been done … for thousands of years? It’s very difficult to transmit culture or tradition as “news” — since, by definition, they’re not. So that’s why you see news outlets focusing on progressive churches or groups that change, rather than retain, doctrine. It’s actually a fundamental flaw in the transmission-of-information part of the news process … but that’s for a lengthier treatment elsewhere.

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