Interviews

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Howard Stern gave a remarkable two-part interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. In terms of cultural encounters, that’s interesting in and of itself.

A good many social conservatives — OK, I’ll own this — have usually found it easier to think of Stern as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. If he was not one of the four horsemen, he was the nearly naked drunken guy dancing with abandon somewhere in the end times parade, much to the delight of those citizens who think of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street as the cultural high point of the year.

Writing in “Prophet of All Media” for Tablet, Liel Leibovitz makes an argument that, like Stern, is provocative. Leibovitz repeatedly compares Stern to Judaism’s prophets, and he begins with an earthy tale straight out of the Talmud about a prostitute who breaks wind and delivers a related prophetic word to her client, a rabbi.

“And it’s just the sort of story that makes the seminal text of Jewish life — often introduced to young yeshiva students as an account of God’s own mind — so transcendent,” he writes. “To imbue humans with wisdom, the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud realized, you need more than just a commandment; if you want humans to listen and learn, you have to embrace all the appetites and the oddities that make them human. Try to talk to us about the labors of redemption, and we might scoff at such haughty moralizing or slink away from the effort it demands. Deliver it in a good yarn about a farting prostitute, and we’re bound to laugh, think, and empathize.”

Much of Leibovitz’s argument continues in this vein, leaving the impression that apart from the occasionally unkind or crude remark, Stern surely joins the farting prostitute in having a heart of gold.

In time, however, Leibovitz reaches the mother lode of his case, with a comparison for all Americans who have set NPR as the first station on the audio devices built into their automobile dashboards. Leibovitz goes so far as to compare Stern to Terry Gross — not by mentioning their most recent interview, but by comparing the cultural effects of their respective style of interviews.

This is very long, but essential. Media professionals, let us attend:

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Meet Planned Parenthood's Leana Wen, a mind-reading 'major voice' in fight for bodily autonomy®

Meet Planned Parenthood's Leana Wen, a mind-reading 'major voice' in fight for bodily autonomy®

You may have heard of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It ranked at No. 27 on Forbes magazine’s 100 largest charities in 2018, with a total revenue of $1.46 billion.

Understanding Planned Parenthood primarily as another business — simply another trusted American brand, giving customers what they want, just like a restaurant chain, a bookstore, or a fitness center—might help explain why Dr. Leana Wen appeared in a Corner Office column, in which New York Times business writer David Gelles engages executives in Q&A discussions about their lives and careers.

Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop and inventor James Dyson are among other executives popping up at Corner Office in recent months. Such interviews are most engaging for those of us readers whose eyes glaze over at the first mention of a spreadsheet.

The key difference between these executives and Wen? Only Planned Parenthood will sell you a legal abortion.

Is it unreasonable to expect any mainstream news profile of Planned Parenthood’s chief executive to engage this point directly and to acknowledge major cultural and religious disputes about abortion law? Has abortion now become simply another part of culture’s Muzak, something we all know is a daily reality not discussed among the polite? There are no ethical or moral questions here that divide Americans?

Worse, has it joined the ever-growing list of Settled Topics among journalists, in which there are establishment heroes (abortion-rights advocates), villains (abortion-rights opponents) and color commentators (journalists)?

Wen was the focus of Corner Office on May 2, in conjunction with Planned Parenthood’s announcement that she would be the first physician to lead the organization. Gelles devotes roughly 1,700 to the edited transcript of his interview with Wen. How many times might you see a direct reference to abortion?

The winning answer: two, both from the spoken words of this former president of the American Medical Student Association.

When Wen has stirred herself to this remarkable flash of candor, it is within the context of casting those who oppose unlimited abortion rights in the worst possible light:

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How do sports scribes go 'inside' the epic Chris Davis slump without asking about his faith?

How do sports scribes go 'inside' the epic Chris Davis slump without asking about his faith?

Sometimes, I wish that baseball meant less to me than it does. Can I get an “amen,” Bobby Ross, Jr.?

When judging levels of sports loyalty, it is absolutely crucial to take into account whether fans stick with their favorite teams during bad times, as well as good. In a way, it’s like going to church. True believers are in their pews or stadium seats during the bad times, as well as the good times.

So I am going to write about Chris Davis of my Baltimore Orioles — again — even though many GetReligion readers could care less about this slugger and his historic slump at the plate. I am going to write about this story — again — because there is an important journalism point to be made.

Here it is: When writing about public figures who are religious believers, you cannot write about what is happening in their hearts and heads (and, yes, their souls) without asking questions about religion.

Consider this ESPN headline atop a story that ran when Davis broke his MLB-record slump at the plate: “How Chris Davis snapped, embraced baseball's most epic oh-fer.”

The key word is “embraced,” which implies that he managed to come to terms with the slump and faced the reality of it. In other words, there is more to this story than taking extra batting practice. Something had to be done at the level of head and heart.

Another ESPN headline, on a different feature, captured the agony of all of this: “ 'I hear the people every night': Inside Chris Davis' 0-for-54 streak.” The key word here is “inside,” as in “inside” the head and heart of the man who is enduring this agony.

So did ESPN pros factor in this outspoken Christian believer’s faith? Did they talk to his pastor? The team chaplain? Did they take faith seriously, as a factor in this man and his struggles?

Wait for it.

Here’s the overture in that first ESPN story that I mentioned, the one with “embraced” in the headline:

BOSTON -- When the longest hitless streak in major league history ended and when the Baltimore Orioles wrapped up their sixth victory of the season with a 9-5 victory over the Boston Red Sox, Chris Davis channeled his inner Rocky Balboa and walked into the visitors clubhouse with his fists above his head, a smile streaking across his face. His teammates prepared a hero's welcome too, banging the walls of their lockers, turning the scene into an impromptu "STOMP" performance. Davis looked around at the joy emanating from his teammates and felt a weight lift off his shoulders.

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Fox News follows McCarrick into distant plains of Kansas: Is this story now 'conservative' news?

Fox News follows McCarrick into distant plains of Kansas: Is this story now 'conservative' news?

For several months now, I have wondered when a major news organization was going to send a reporter and photographer out into the vast plains of Western Kansas to visit St. Fidelis Friary, which is next door to the giant Basilica of St. Fidelis — which is better known as the “Cathedral of the Plains.

This small monastic community in Victoria, Kan., consists of five Franciscan Capuchin priests and a brother. At the moment, there is also a Catholic layman living quietly in that facility — the defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

If you’ve ever driven across Kansas, you have seen this church — because it’s hard to miss. I put it this way in an “On Religion” column last fall.

The Cathedral of the Plains can be seen long before Interstate 70 reaches Victoria, with its Romanesque spires rising out of the vast West Kansas horizon.

This is a strange place to put a sanctuary the size of the Basilica of St. Fidelis, but that's a testimony to the Catholic faith of generations of Volga-German farmers. This is also a strange place to house a disgraced ex-cardinal.

However, the friary near the basilica has one obvious virtue, as a home for 88-year-old Theodore McCarrick. It's located 1,315 miles from The Washington Post.

Now, we have a pretty lengthy television report from a Fox News team that made the long journey to try to knock on McCarrick’s door. (If there is a print version of this story, I have not been able to find it.)

I found myself wondering: Is it significant that it was Fox News that ventured out into the Kansas plains to cover this particular story?

Does that, in a strange way, prove that continuing to cover the McCarrick scandal is now officially “conservative” news territory — as in news that is only of interest to conservative Catholics and cultural conservatives in general? If so, why is that?

Here at GetReligion, I have argued that the heart of the latest chapter in the multi-decade Catholic clergy-abuse crisis can be summed up in three questions:

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Covering Nadia Bolz-Weber: It's time for reporters to ditch the public-relations approach

Covering Nadia Bolz-Weber: It's time for reporters to ditch the public-relations approach

I’ve been following a trail of articles about the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber that correspond to cities where she’s doing a book tour for her latest book “Shameless: A Sexual Reformation.”

Surprise. All the reports have been glowing about this brave, tell-it-like-it is pastor who gives the world her middle finger while writing cool books.

I call this drive-by journalism. This is not an insult to the writers, but these pieces are the kind of thing one does when a entertainment celebrity is in town and she grants you an hour or two for an interview and lets you follow her around a bit. One can crank out quite a bit of copy after such an encounter and puffy pieces about Bolz-Weber like this Houston Chronicle article make reporters think they get this woman.

But they don’t. Let’s not pretend these journalistic one-offs are the whole picture. They’re a snapshot at best and remember, the subject of the story is pushing a book. I have found that some religious personalities, like the Rev. Joel Osteen, are ONLY available when they want some book PR.

One article I’m going to dissect is one of the better ones: Eliza Griswold’s recent New Yorker piece, which involved more than one face-to-face with the pastor. It didn’t satisfy me for several reasons that we will get to shortly.

Bolz-Weber had flown in from her home in Denver to promote her book “Shameless,” which was published last week. In it, she calls for a sexual reformation within Christianity, modelled on the arguments of Martin Luther, the theologian who launched the Protestant Reformation by nailing ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in the sixteenth century. (One of the slogans of the church that Bolz-Weber founded in Denver, House for All Sinners and Saints, is “Nailing shit to the church door since 1517.”)

Yes, this pastor has a way with words. I first heard her in 2011 at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, a shindig for the liberal Christian set. The heat that June was awful, but Nadia stood out. She was and is a brilliant quote machine. Her honesty is disarming.

In 2014, I talked More magazine, a glossy for over-40 women that has since gone out of print, into profiling her, so they flew me to Denver that February.

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Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

It’s back to school time, and how’s this for a bracing lineup of campus lectures in just the past four weeks?

At Yale University, distinguished philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who is an atheist, hosted a top theologian, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews to jointly ponder “Living Well in Light of Death.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat visited Ann Arbor to advise University of Michigan students that “Faith Is Not a Sideshow.”

At arch-rival Ohio State, a panel on “Living and Dying Well” consisted of a physician, a biological ethicist, and a specialist who helps patients with end-of-life planning.

Bob Cutillo, a physician working with Colorado’s homeless, spoke at the Mayo Clinic and its medical college on “The Doctor’s Gaze: Some Ancient Opinions on How We See Our Patients.”

Then it was celebrated attorney Rachael Denhollander, leader of the sexual abuse victims in the Michigan State and USA Gymnastics scandals and among Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.” Her double-header this week at New York University, then Columbia University Law School, addressed how justice can be reconciled with religious faith and forgiveness.

So began the season for the Veritas Forum of Cambridge, Mass., which organizes campus lectures to address “life’s hardest questions” from traditional Christian viewpoints that it believes academe neglects. To date there’ve been Veritas events at 185 colleges and universities, including at all but one of America’s top 25 schools in the new Wall Street Journal rankings.

Lecture topics run the gamut, for example “What Does It Mean to be Human?? “Is There Truth Beyond Science?” “Does Science Point to Atheism?” “Is Tolerance Intolerant?” “Contradictions in the Bible?” and “What Makes Us Racist?”

The concept is particularly intriguing due to heavy involvement of conservative or “evangelical” Protestants, often depicted in the media as anti-intellectual or at best mediocre thinkers.

The journalism hook?

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No 'Crossroads' podcast: So tune in a tmatt alternative, talking Catholic wars with Metaxas

No 'Crossroads' podcast: So tune in a tmatt alternative, talking Catholic wars with Metaxas

The long and the short of it: There is no "Crossroads" podcast this week, because one of our key partners at Lutheran Public Radio has this week off.

It happens. Even clergy/radio pros need a break every now and then.

However, the news coverage of the current uptick in the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis rolls on. Recently, I ended up offering a high-altitude overview of that topic in an on-air conversation with author and radio host Eric Metaxas. This took place while I was in New York City for my latest set of journalism classes at The King's College in lower Manhattan.

The key to this discussion is the question that I hear all the time in conversations with readers, friends and even people I bump into everywhere from my church in the Oak Ridge, Tenn., to hole-in-the-wall food joints in New York.

That question: What is this story really all about? The problem is that different crowds of people are shouting different answers to that question.

(1) There are some conservative Catholics who keep shouting, "It's gay priests! It's gay bishops! It's gay cardinals!" That isn't the main issue, when you look at the big picture.

(2) There are Catholics on the other side who are saying: "This is about pedophilia -- period -- and things aren't perfect, but we're getting this horrible problem under control." In other words, it's time for more grief, but no fundamental changes. And don't talk about seminaries!

(3) Lots and lots of people in the press (click here for a rather over-the-top example) who seem convinced that this whole mess is the result of homophobic right-wing Catholics who oppose this pope's efforts to modernize the church and some of its moral theology (see answer No. 1). Hey, I hear that Steve Bannon may even be in the mix.

(4) Many observers say that the real news story right now centers on ex-cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick and the network of associates and disciples who have promoted and protected him for several decades.

Ok, Ok. Yes, that's my take of the current crisis, narrowly defined. And that's what I explained in my conversation with Metaxas. Click here to tune that in.

So why listen, if you have kept up with the hurricane of posts on this topic here at GetReligion?

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For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.

The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.

The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added  years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.

The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.

Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.

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Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

Despite risks in a time of audience skepticism, anonymous sources can be invaluable 

We live in an ethical epoch when editors at BuzzFeed and Politico have no scruples when a reporter sleeps with a prime source on her beat, after which she lands a prized New York Times job, at the very top of the journalism food chain.

Not that flexible conflict-of-interest standards are anything new. Ben Bradlee, as lauded as any journalist of his era, exploited a close friendship with President John F. Kennedy when he was Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, giving fits to his competitors at Time. Bradlee was covering events that, one could argue, that he had helped shape in his conversations with Kennedy.

In 2018, such stuff matters more than ever, given the low esteem of “mainstream media” performance. The latest evidence comes in a survey reported June 11 by the American Press Institute, The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago.

We learn that 35 percent of Americans have a negative view of news organizations, and 42 percent think news coverage veers too far into commentary, while 63 percent want to get mostly facts alongside limited analysis. Importantly, 42 percent don’t understand how the use of anonymous sources works and 68 percent say the media should offer more information about story sources.

President Donald Trump’s frequently fake “fake news” attacks on reporters, of course, continually involve complaints about unnamed sources. For sure, the Washington press corps, which makes such lavish use of anonymous sources in coverage critical of the Trump administration, must do everything possible to maintain accuracy and fairness.

Once upon a time -- in 2005 -- the staff Credibility Group formed in the wake of the horrid Jayson Blair scandal advised New York Times colleagues in a report titled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust [.pdf here].” It warned that the daily should “keep unidentified attribution to a minimum” and “energetically” enforce limits across the board -- in hard news, features, magazine sections, and with copy from the growing number of freelance contributors.

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