Monday, June 02, 2008

The foreign country of religion

Some entertaining bumbles from the weekend to suggest how far journalism has to go (this means you, New York Times) before it figures out how to cover this thing called "religion."

First up is Clark Hoyt's public editor column from Sunday, in which Hoyt calls the Times op-ed page to account for a fabricated piece of bilge suggesting that the entire Islamic world was poised for homicidal outrage once it found out that B. Hussein Obama was -- gasp -- technically an apostate! This assertion was noted here last month, when the N&O picked up a syndicated version of the same tale, but that was by an adjunct at an obscure college, whereas the Times's version was by a scholar -- Ed Luttwak -- of some repute.

What's interesting here is not just Hoyt catching the Times playing a little fast-n-loose (he's actually been doing rather well at that), but the justification he gets from the op-ed page for why the piece didn't get a serious fact-check:

David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said.

Uh, right. We had some editors look at the Koran* and read some newspaper articles, but we didn't ask any experts, because we don't ask experts to assess what "experts" (Luttwak, as Hoyt noted, is a military historian; he isn't a scholar of religion) are saying. Let's try looking at it from a different perspective. Suppose you have a stats question involving multiple regression. You can borrow a genuine dog-killer-size regression textbook (Pedhazur, say) and see if you can figure out the answer on your own. Or you could call somebody who teaches regression, studies it, and probably assigns the textbook. Which do you figure is going to get you to a credible answer quicker?

Wow, that was tough. Kudos, anyway, to Hoyt, for calling out an Orientalist fake that appears to have some political weight behind it, no matter the fact-checking policies that appear to obtain on the op-ed side.

Elsewhere, the Times is a little less successful. Alas, when a story appears on the Times wire, all sorts of people will run it without much regard for its accuracy or relevance. Here's the tale as it appeared in one of those papers that won't assemble the front page without seeing the Times's 1A budget:

ST. LOUIS -- Southern Baptists, as a rule, do not drink. But once a month, young congregants of the Journey, a Baptist church here, and their friends get together in the back room of a sprawling brew pub called the Schlafly Bottleworks to talk about the big questions: President Bush, faith and war, the meaning of life, and "what's wrong with religion."

Well, true enough. But since the congregation in question describes itself as "interdenominational" (from other coverage of the Schlafly beerfest, its links with the SBC and MBC are more than a little shaky), what's the point of describing it as Baptist -- particularly if you can't establish some definite link to the non-drinking folks in the lede?

... None of that means younger evangelicals have abandoned the core tenets of their faith, including a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus and the literal truth of the Bible. They think abortion and homosexuality are sins.

Whoa. Particularly when the folks in your lede suggest that they're inerrantists, you think we might be going a bit too far here suggesting that all evangelicals are literalists? Or do you figure that once the Times straps in the pith helmet and ventures south of the turnpike, literalism and inerrancy look like the same thing?

Well and good when the Times does it. Why, though, do newspapers in regions where the Southern Baptist Convention is the "mainline" insist on following the Times's agenda-setting cues? And if we're going to wait for the Times to tell us what to do, why cut out all the parts in which Real People get to speak for themselves? We're left with nothing but "experts" telling us what people think -- coincidentally, one of the core concerns that critics were raising about religion coverage a decade and a half ago.**

There's more writing about religion these days, and it's different. Whether it's any closer to providing a set of reliable clues about how this phenomenon plays out in daily life -- don't hold your breath.

* Draw your own conclusions on NYT transliteration style.
** One of the reasons things were light around here last week was that Language Czarina and I were off at ICA***, meeting a wondrous local ale and catching up with some of the Philosophy School gang. The religion critique is one of the papers that finally got an airing.
*** Want some more free stagecraft advice? Never follow a YouTube paper with a repeated-measures ANOVA.


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