Cover Story


Issue: "Press coverage uncovered," March 8, 2003

Judaism was the first major religion truly to concentrate on things unseen, and that represents a problem for newspapers that focus on what can be seen and touched. The problem was evident in an Austin American-Statesman article that emphasized the ritual of Torah scrolls being walked from one synagogue building to a new sanctuary. "'It's heavy,' said Diane Radin as she carried one of the larger scrolls," but the reporter provided no sense of the real weight of Scripture. She described each of the six scrolls but mentioned nothing about their contents. Similarly, the American-Statesman article about Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year's Day, did not note that Rosh Hashana is yom ha'din, "the day of judgment," the day Jews believe God decides which names will be in the "book of life" and which in the "book of death" for the coming year. Editors who took such matters seriously might think this was "news you can use," news so significant that it is announced by the blowing of a shofar, a ram's horn. But instead of reporting that news, the American-Statesman covered ... the making of shofars. Readers could learn about how the shofar "needs to be washed, sawed, drilled, sanded, washed again, and varnished." Readers could follow the whole process and then cut out a 350-word sidebar on "How to make your own shofar." Readers would not learn, though, what the blowing of the shofar announced. What they got was the equivalent of a story about the Super Bowl that dealt only with the singing of the National Anthem. The period between Rosh Hashana and the end of Yom Kippur 10 days later is called the Ten Days of Repentance, because the Talmud suggests that a person's behavior during that period might lead God to alter a tough call. An American-Statesman article mentioned that "On Yom Kippur, Jews believe God will pass judgment on them," and then emphasized the performance: "Cantors, like celebrated opera stars, prepare and deliver the prayers wrapped in ancient melodies with an individual style.... It can be an exhausting experience, but they say the meaning of the prayers feeds the soul. Still, the body can become tired." Stories about Yom Kippur in other newspapers were similarly superficial. The San Antonio Express-News headlined one story, "The ancient power of Yom Kippur," and noted that "Synagogues will be full. Before sundown, congregants will listen to the emotional tones of the chanted Kol Nidre.... 'It's an overwhelming experience, coming together with the whole community, all of us bringing our failures with us. When you hear that music, it stirs your soul,' [Cantor David] Silverstein said." Syncretism Some newspapers looked with favor on those trying to syncretize Judaism and Buddhism. Under the headline "'Buddhist translation of biblical Psalms," the San Francisco Chronicle ran a gushing profile of Norman Fischer, who "was born a Jew and grew up chanting the Psalms in Hebrew," but did not like to think of God destroying His enemies. Mr. Fischer became a Buddhist and wrote Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, in which words such as God or Lord are "usually just replaced by the word You, a simple trick that allows the reader to find whatever Higher Power floats his or her boat." The article concluded, "Some conservative Christians or Orthodox Jews might find blasphemy in Opening to You, but Fischer's inspired revision of these ancient poems will enable many others to see old Scripture in a new light." The Chronicle also profiled Jack Kornfeld, another convert from Judaism to Buddhism, and described how he was taking "his 18-year-old daughter to a Yom Kippur service in a San Geronimo Valley community center.... Someone asked her what her religion was and she said, 'Jewish Buddhist Hindu Christian.'" Curiously, those who combined two religions that do have many overlaps, Judaism and Christianity, tended to receive mostly critical attention. The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) headlined one story, "Messianic Jews find faith in blend," but started and ended with the implication that the blend did not work. The story began, "Rabbi Bob Cohen has seen the dirty looks when he shows up at Jewish celebrations. He and other Messianic Jews have heard the barbs from those who call their religion a sham, a disgrace, and a back-door ploy by Christians to convert Jews." After a brief explanation-"Unlike traditional Judaism, Messianic Judaism also follows the teaching of the New Testament and recognizes Jesus Christ as the Messiah"-came the type of scornful quotation that rarely appears in an article about theological liberals: "'People who say "my Judaism is fulfilled by Jesus Christ" are trying to play football with bats,' said Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda of Ponte Vedra Beach, who also denounces Cohen's title of rabbi." After some statistics-"about 250 Messianic synagogues have been established across the country"-came another hostile statement: "'We call them Hebrew Christians,' Jews for Judaism Director Mark Powers said of Messianic Jews. 'It's a fraud. It's Christianity dressed in Jewish clothing.'" The Times-Union did include description of and quotation from adherents: "About 150 people attended a recent Friday service at Beth Jacob. Several men wore yarmulkes; some women wore mesh scarves on their heads. Some carried Bibles titled Complete Jewish Bible that included both testaments.... Arlene Yahre of Orange Park was raised Jewish, but said observing Jewish laws didn't make her feel connected to God. 'I don't feel I need all those rituals. They keep you busy, busy, busy. They cloud things,' said Yahre, who adopted the Messianic faith about two years ago." But the story ended with a quotation whose equivalent is not seen in stories regarding feminist or gay religious adherents: "Yahre said she wishes people would understand Messianic Jews better. 'We're not so far out nutso,' she said." The New York Times gave disproportionate coverage to the activities of theologically liberal groups. For example, the Times in 2001, under the headline "Humanist Jewish Group Reaches New Milestone," reported that "Two years ago, an organization of secular humanist Jews celebrated a milestone, the first ordination of a rabbi trained within their movement. Last night, the group took another step forward, ordaining three more at a temple outside Detroit." The writer later revealed that a not-so-grand total of six other students were being trained by the Society for Humanistic Judaism. How often does the internationally renowned Times deign to spend its highly sought-after space on a tiny organization? Journalists regularly led cheers for the Jewish left even in conservative towns like Salt Lake City, where the Salt Lake Tribune gave little attention to an existing Orthodox synagogue in order to herald what its headline called a "Jewish Blossoming; New Park City rabbi balances progressive thinking with Jewish tradition." The writer told of how "Rabbi Joshua Aaronson goes to work in a golf shirt, but not a yarmulke," and then quoted the rabbi's desire "to establish the most creative, innovative, and open Jewish community in North America.... I want our children to know that whomever they decide to embrace as a life-partner-a Jew, a non-Jew, a person of the same sex or a person of the opposite sex-there will be a place for them in this community." Some newspapers even pretended that the controversy within Judaism about "gay marriage" within Judaism doesn't even exist. The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.) headlined one story, "Reform rabbi weighs uniting same-sex couples," and did not follow the typical newspaper practice of displaying (if not provoking) dispute. The article quoted the rabbi's willingness to officiate at gay weddings, because "Just as the rabbis of old made changes in their understanding of the Bible to meet the knowledge of the day, rabbis of today can do no less." The Ledger did not quote anyone in opposition. We cannot and should not expect newspapers to concentrate on things unseen, but they should report what can readily be seen: the concentration of Orthodox Jews on the state of their souls and not the skill of the shofar player, and the differences between Reform and Orthodox Jews on issues such as homosexuality. The natural American journalistic tendency is to chase controversy; when reporters ignore opportunities for feisty debate, the fix is in. Coverage of Christianity U.S. newspaper coverage of Christianity, even leaving out the Catholic church pedophilia/homosexuality scandals, has generally been negative but uneven. Christians who consider the Bible to be inerrant typically receive hostile coverage. Those who embrace feminism and other fixations of the left often receive positive coverage, even in conservative areas of the country. For example, under a loaded headline-"A call for more equality in Christianity"-The Tulsa World reported the view of a Dallas husband-and-wife speaking team that "The traditional teaching of the Christian church on gender roles subjugates women and hurts churches and marriages." Eddie and Susan Hyatt also proclaimed that "Church fathers were influenced by the ancient Greek belief that women were made of a different, inferior substance than men." The World purportedly turned recitation of their propagandistic statements into objective journalism by the magic words "she said" at the end of a sentence-as in, "'The patriarchal teaching of the traditional church is about 'blame, shame, and tame,' she said." Big gatherings of theological conservatives generally went unreported, but when small liberal groups gathered major city newspapers often provided coverage. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a headline, "Catholics debate purpose of women deacons," but the article reported not a debate but a speech by liberal Phyllis Zagano to a group of 50. The Post-Gazette quoted extravagant statements of hers like this one: "Until the late 18th century, the educated view was that women were a completely different species from men. To refuse to ordain women, for whatever reason, gives the impression that the church has not moved from this belief." The tilt toward liberalism also held true in coverage of Roman Catholics. For example, the Denver Post reported that "at least 35 Colorado Catholics" had signed an advertisement in The New York Times "proclaiming that contraceptives should be easily available and gays and lesbians should have full civil rights." Big deal; the Times runs lots of ads on policy issues, and 35 is not a hugely impressive number, but Catholic liberals could count on coverage that would multiply their efforts and frame issues as they saw them. The Tulsa World also gave a small group big space, beginning a story headlined "Theology war" with the notice that "for the past five Sundays, a new church has been meeting at Helmerich Library formed by Baptists unhappy with the Southern Baptist Convention's conservative stand on the role of women and the autonomy of the local church." The World noted that no other church in the Tulsa metropolitan area had formed in opposition to the SBC position and that only 50 or so people had come to the new church. Nevertheless, it still provided publicity for the nascent effort by amply quoting liberal Baptists' complaints that "the autonomy of the church seems to be fading" as the SBC was exercising "rigid, unyielding control from the top down." The article did not report conservative concerns. The Chicago Daily Herald looked over developments in its vast metropolitan area and saw as crucial a decision by what it acknowledged was only "a handful" of churches. Under the headline, "With open arms 'Affirming' congregations welcome sexual diversity," the Daily Herald lauded those that "have taken steps to welcome gays and lesbians into their church communities and into every aspect of church life-from assisting in services to working with youth." Some congregations also "provide a meeting place for gay and lesbian organizations or set up drop-in centers for gay and lesbian teens to talk about issues, have dances, or hang out." The Daily Herald noted that representatives of these churches planned to march in Chicago's annual Gay Pride Parade a week after the article's appearance, and provided testimonials from gay couples who are "devoted Christians" and now feel accepted at the "affirming" churches. Three of the article's 17 paragraphs presented conservative views and then depicted them as devoid of love, quoting one church member as saying, "How can you not accept the whole person? ... People should be accepted into God's family regardless of their sexual orientation." Although national statistics suggest that churches and denominations that move away from the Bible's opposition to homosexual practice lose members, the Daily Herald emphasized that the handful of "welcoming and affirming congregations have seen a growth in their membership." Two kinds of churches could receive favorable coverage without necessarily being theologically liberal. Predominantly black Protestant churches receive an exemption from the hostility aimed at their predominantly white counterparts. For example, the Houston Chronicle, under the headline "Visions of hope," sweetly covered the opening of a new church building: "Lewis C. and Mary L. Rogers are right back where they started, only blocks away from where they grew up in Acres Homes.... The new sanctuary is just a starting point for a new era of growth and community projects," under a pastor who "preaches on Sunday mornings in a dynamic African-American style." The article continued with quotations from the pastor's son, Lewis Rogers Jr., who is also the church's youth minister: "I don't believe God has given us a vision as large as this one for His house to be empty. There are tons and tons of people walking streets who don't have a church home. I believe if we did evangelism just in this area, this sanctuary would be filled to overflowing." Reporter Richard Vara then continued enthusiastically: "Evangelism is what the church is preparing to do. Lewis Rogers announced to excited congregants at their first Sunday services in the new facility that there would be Saturday night get-togethers involving door-to-door visits and other outreach projects." A predominantly white church that embraced a trendy style could also receive positive coverage. A headline in the San Antonio Express-News designated one church an "oasis of hope" because "First-time visitors to Eagle's Nest Christian Fellowship usually know there's something different about the North Side church the minute they walk into the lobby. On most Sundays, it's hard to miss the rich aroma of coffee wafting from the church-operated espresso bar, which does a steady business.... Entertainers in the spacious lobby before and after Sunday services have included a harp player, bluegrass musicians and mariachis." The service itself did not disappoint: "The band-complete with a horn section-let loose, electrifying the congregation with a sound that certainly had a bit of rock 'n' roll mixed in. Kase Saylor, the band's leader, said they include a mix in their musical selections-from contemporary praise and worship to Latin rhythms. 'We're having fun here. Church is supposed to be fun and exciting,' said Saylor.... For more information on the church and its services, call (210) 402-0565." Typical press coverage of Christianity resembles coverage of Judaism in two ways. First, stories often cut against the journalistic grain by avoiding debate. The San Antonio Express-News under a headline, "Scholar says Bible is true, not literal," presented the view of Marcus Borg of Oregon State: "Modern Christianity must help people see the Bible as true without defining truth as the historical factuality of specific events." The Express-News did not quote the opposite view offered by the Apostle Paul and many more: If the Bible is not factual, it's a lie and Christians are to be pitied for wasting their lives. Second, much as Rosh Hashana coverage emphasized the shofar and not what it signaled, so journalists tended to highlight ritual objects and neglect the beliefs to which they pointed. One Austin article described a locally carved crucifix that "has deepened the spirituality of many who have seen the striking figure. A natural knot in the wood creates the pierce in Jesus' side, and the dark grain at the calves and feet matches how the skin begins to turn color at death." The writer, instead of explaining how viewing the sculpture deepened religious belief, if it did, went on to describe at length Celtic, Greek Orthodox, and other crosses scattered throughout the city. Once again, a journalist was missing the forest and describing the surface of one tree.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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