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Billy Graham reaped a media harvest through artless charm, more than promotional gambits

Billy Graham reaped a media harvest through artless charm, more than promotional gambits

As a flood of obits is proclaiming, Billy Graham had remarkable impact. He brought revival meetings from the margins back into the cultural mainstream with unprecedented audiences at home and abroad, changed Protestantism’s dynamics by turning much of fighting “fundamentalism” into the palatable and vastly successful “evangelical” movement and, along the way, befriended and counseled an incredible lineup of politicos and celebrities.

Not least among the accomplishments was winning “good press” for his meetings and his movement. Coverage was not only vast but fond -- even from journalists with little regard for his old-fashioned, unwavering beliefs that that personal faith in Jesus Christ is the “one way” to salvation and that the Bible is God’s unique and infallible word to modern humanity.

How did he do it?

Graham’s well-chosen media team certainly knew how to manage all the usual promotional tactics. Its most spectacular feat of organizational moxie occurred in 1995, when his meetings in Puerto Rico were beamed by satellite TV to sites in 175 countries.

However, The Religion Guy would maintain the secret to media appeal was not such benign artifice but the artless charm of the man himself, his evident sincerity, and, above all, his humility. In these times of political narcissism, it is remarkable to reflect that one of the most famous men on the planet managed to carefully leash his ego, not to mention remain free of scandal. Perhaps only prayer could have accomplished such a thing.  

The Guy reported on the preacher’s last revival meeting (New York City, 2005) for The Associated Press, and 39 years before that had first joined the Graham beat for one of his most interesting forays, covering it for Christianity Today (the evangelical magazine made possible by Graham’s connections).

It was his “crusade” in Greenville, S.C., the home of his harshest critics, the leaders at arch-fundamentalist Bob Jones University, which the young Graham had briefly attended.

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Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

The Rev. Billy Graham must have told the turtle story a million times, so surely -- somewhere in the tsunami of analog and digital news ink we will see tomorrow -- there will be journalists who include it in their features marking the great evangelist's death.

Graham, 99, died Wednesday morning at the family's rambling log home in the mountains outside Asheville, N.C. They bought the land 60 years or so ago, when it cost next to nothing and that's where Billy and Ruth stayed. What will happen to it now? Getting to spend part of a day there while interviewing him is certainly one of the highlights of my reporting career.

But I digress. Members of the GetReligion team will start looking at the actual coverage of his life and career tomorrow. With only a few hours before deadline, I wrote my own piece on Graham and you can read it right here (with the permission of my Universal syndicate editors).

Please send us links to the good and the bad. Obviously, there is a massive package already at Christianity Today, which Graham founded long ago, and at The Charlotte Observer (main story here). Here is the  main Associated Press story.

But let's return to the turtle and the fence post. Here is how I retold that story soon after the creation of this blog:

For decades, Graham has been asked -- thousands of times, I am sure -- why he has been so remarkably successful, preaching to more people in person than anyone else in history. Why have so many people, from the earliest days of his career, responded to his call to accept Jesus Christ as Savior? What's so special about Billy Graham?
At this point, Graham almost always offers the following explanation. If you are walking down a road, he says, and you happen to see a turtle sitting on top of a tall fence post, what would you assume? You would, of course, assume that the turtle did not climb up there on his own. You would assume that someone far larger than the turtle picked him up and then placed him atop the tall post for some mysterious reason.
Get the point? Clearly Graham did not get on top by his own merits.

That's a perfect example of Graham being folksy and safe, but there is content there if you think about it.

Obviously, Graham was a skilled media personality, with decades of experience in the trenches facing journalists who knew his life and work inside out as well as general-assignment reporters who, believe it or not, were sent to cover him after reading little more than a sheet of PR material.

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On question of Texas lesbian parents adopting refugee child through Catholic Charities, media coverage skewed

On question of Texas lesbian parents adopting refugee child through Catholic Charities, media coverage skewed

In Texas, a lesbian couple is suing in federal court after being told they "don't mirror the Holy family" and can't foster refugee kids, the Dallas Morning News reports.

Some of the arguments at play mirror those that made headlines last year when the Texas Legislature passed a law to protect the conscience rights of faith-based adoption agencies that receive state funds.

However, the latest case involves federal law since the U.S. government, not state agencies, are involved in the refugee children's placement.

The Dallas paper reports:

AUSTIN — Two Texas women are suing the Trump administration after the couple say they were told they could not foster a refugee child because they don't "mirror the Holy Family." 
Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, both professors at Texas A&M University, said they were turned away by Catholic Charities Fort Worth after they expressed interest in applying to be foster parents to a refugee child. Catholic Charities, which has multiple regional offices, is the only organization in Texas that works with the federal government to resettle unaccompanied refugee children here. 
Catholic Charities' program is overseen by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of two lead agencies that partners with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. With the help of the LGBT legal group Lambda Legal, the couple is suing both the Conference and U.S. Health and Human Services, saying the decision to reject their interest in foster care violated the U.S. Constitution.

The first version of the story that I read didn't include a response from Catholic Charities up high. But the Morning News later added this statement from the Fort Worth bishop:

In a statement, the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth did not comment on the couple's specific allegations but insisted their refugee foster care rules comply with all federal regulations and laws.
"Finding foster parents — and other resources — for refugee children is difficult work," Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson said. "It would be tragic if Catholic Charities were not able to provide this help, in accordance with the Gospel values and family, assistance that is so essential to these children who are vulnerable to being mistreated as meaningless in society."

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As more journalists report on Iceland's circumcision saga, the country gets a rabbi

As more journalists report on Iceland's circumcision saga, the country gets a rabbi

Iceland, pop. 348,580, is smaller than many U.S. counties but it often makes news totally out of proportion to its size. I recently reported on the country’s attempt to become the first nation in the world to ban circumcision.

The post was inundated with a wave of comments from anti-circumcision activists who ignored the journalism question raised in my post. Tmatt says he spiked at least two dozen of these messages. So, before you read any further, please restrict any comments to the quality of news coverage on this issue, not your own views on the legal and religious issue itself.

But do read my article and the lengthy response by Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson on what the true issues are in Iceland about circumcision.

Then I learned a few days later that Chabad Lubavitch, possibly the most outreach oriented Orthodox Jewish group out there, plans to send a rabbi and his family (pictured above) to Reykjavik sometime next fall. Most of the coverage came from Jewish media, such as this piece by the Jewish Telegraph Agency: 

The Chabad movement is sending a rabbi and his wife to Iceland, an island nation with 250 Jews where ritual slaughter of animals is illegal and circumcision is likely to be outlawed as well.
Rabbi Avi Feldman, 27, of Brooklyn, New York, and his Sweden-born wife Mushky, are slated to settle with their two daughters in Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital city, later this year, the couple told JTA last week.
The country is not known to have had a resident rabbi servicing an active Jewish community there since 1918, the year it gained independence from what was then the Kingdom of Denmark.

The piece then updated readers on the circumcision debate in Iceland, then quoted Feldman’s response.

“We hope to bring awareness of the relevance and importance of brit milah,” the rabbi told JTA, using the Hebrew-language word for Jewish ritual circumcision, which is typically performed on boys when they are eight days old. “We hope to bring this awareness to local Icelandic people and especially to lawmakers in their decision on rules, which we hope will have a religious exemption clause.”

Chabad.org has by far the most details on the new rabbi and Iceland’s sparse Jewish history

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Small steps toward clarity: Reuters takes (yet) another look at media-friendly 'weed nuns'

Small steps toward clarity: Reuters takes (yet) another look at media-friendly 'weed nuns'

When it comes to effective public-relations campaigns, California's Sisters of the Valley -- the "weed nuns" -- take the cake.

Well, now that I think about it, that would probably be brownies, not cake.

The problem, of course, is (a) these nuns are not real Catholic nuns and (b) their love of traditional religious garb make them look like nuns. In the past this has been confusing to journalists, especially those looking for a novelty story, as opposed to a piece of fact-based religion coverage.

One of the all-time classic stories stirred up by the PR efforts of the sisters ran at Newsweek (surprise, surprise). That led to a blog piece by Catholic Deacon Greg Kandra, a former CBS News professional who, before moving to the altar and pulpit, won two Emmys and two Peabody Awards. The blunt headline:

Newsweek, Go Home. You’re Drunk. Those Aren’t Nuns.

Now, the lede on the Newsweek did say that the nuns were "self-proclaimed" -- but the visuals probably overwhelmed that one moment of clarity (which wasn't explained very well) for most readers.

So now, Reuters is back with yet another "weed sisters" report, which has been distributed by Religion News Service. In terms of factual clarity, this piece deserves attention. It is a step forward, in terms of "weed sisters" PR materials. Here is the overture:

MERCED, Calif. (Reuters) The Sisters of the Valley, California’s self-ordained “weed nuns,” are on a mission to heal and empower women with their cannabis products.
Based near the town of Merced in the Central Valley, which produces over half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States, the Sisters of the Valley grow and harvest their own cannabis plants.
The sisterhood stresses that its seven members, despite the moniker, do not belong to any order of the Catholic Church.

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Covering Gaza: A journalism tale of two (wildly divergent) Middle East stories

Covering Gaza: A journalism tale of two (wildly divergent) Middle East stories

The news from Gaza is seldom good; last weekend was no exception. It's also generally wildly contradictory. A classic example of this occurred earlier this month that warrants attention.

For journalists and media consumers far from the scene, which is most of us, it merits attention because the contradictory information we receive prompts us to fall back on our preconceived notions about the grinding Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- that is to say, our biases -- to make sense of the situation. And that’s a distinct disadvantage.

Surely, conflicting narratives, or realities, are by no means restricted to Gaza. What makes Gaza a special case, however, is that it's an international flashpoint that could well spark a full-blown and multi-party Middle East war even more far-reaching than the mess that is Syria.

I’ll begin this exercise in contradictory narratives with an opinion piece published online by the conservative British weekly The Spectator. The piece was an attack on the BBC, which the writer and many right-leaning pro-Israel partisans consider an apologist, or worse, for the conflict’s Palestinian side. Topped by this headline, “The good news about Gaza you won’t hear on the BBC,” the piece included this section.

Western media has often focused on this issue [Palestine] to the detriment of many other conflicts or independence movements throughout the world. The BBC, in particular, has devoted an inordinate amount of its budget and staff to covering the West Bank and Gaza in thousands of reports over the years. But you would be hard pressed to learn from the BBC’s coverage that, despite many difficulties, Gaza’s economy is also thriving in all kinds of ways.
To get a glimpse of that you would have to turn instead to this recent Al-Jazeera report from Gaza, showing footage of the bustling, well-stocked glitzy shopping malls, the impressive children’s water park (at 5.25 in the video), the fancy restaurants, the nice hotels, the crowded food markets, the toy shops brimming with the latest plush toys (at 8.39 in the video). (This video was translated into English by the excellent Middle East Media Research Institute).

Within days -- coincidentally, I’m sure; the issue is endless fodder -- this news piece (spiced with analysis, although the piece is not marked as analysis) was published in The New York Times.

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God credited with shrinking figure skater's brain tumor, but otherwise terrific story haunted by ghost

God credited with shrinking figure skater's brain tumor, but otherwise terrific story haunted by ghost

"Scott Hamilton Was Demoted as an Olympic Broadcaster. Don’t Feel Sorry for Him."

That's the headline on a fascinating New York Times sports column on the famous U.S. figure skater and broadcaster.

Why shouldn't we feel sorry for him?

If you really want to know, I'd urge you to click the link and read the full column. 

But basically, the idea is that Hamilton has suffered through a series of cancer battles and has his priorities in the right place. That means, as the Times explains, that the loss of his Olympic broadcasting gig hasn't hit him as hard as it might have otherwise.

The Times even hints that a higher power might be involved:

Hamilton said he had prayed about 12 times a day for it to go away. Doctors treated him with radiation, and the tumor did go away.

And later, there's this mention:

The tumor had shrunk, by about half. Hamilton choked up when describing what happened next.
“Have you ever had one shrink without treatment before?” he said he asked the doctor. “And the doctor said, ‘Nope, never.’”
Hamilton asked, “So how can you explain this?”
The doctor said, “God.”
It floored him. He was in the process of losing three friends to colon cancer, yet he, somehow, someway, was given this miracle? At his latest doctor’s visit, in December, the tumor was even smaller.

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Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

A few days ago, I expressed surprise that more mainstream journalists didn't recognize the poignant ties between the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the ancient Western Christian traditions linked to Ash Wednesday.

The bottom line: How many of the dead and wounded had, earlier that day, attended rites in which a priest marked their foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross? This was done, of course, to remind them of their mortality as they began the great spiritual journey through Lent to Easter. Thus, priest say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

How many of those caught up in the massacre had planned to go to Ash Wednesday services in the hours after school dismissed? Did reporters attend any of those services that evening?

I was assuming, of course, that an ordinary local South Florida newsroom -- or national-level newsrooms -- would include a few Catholics, Episcopalians or Lutherans who would immediately recognize the timing of this tragedy.

A few did. Many more did not.

Now we have a similar Lent-related story from the other side of the world. Here is the top of a typical report, at FoxNews.com:

Five women were killed and several others were injured after a gunman opened fire with a hunting rifle on people leaving a church service in Russia's Dagestan region on Sunday, Russian media outlets reported.
The shooting took place outside a church in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people on the border with Chechnya. ... The gunman was shot dead by police responding to the scene, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news agency. According to Interfax, the gunman has been identified as a local man in his early 20s.

The timing? Well, the report noted that this was an evening service and:

Parishioners were at the church celebrating the end of the Russian festival of Maslenitsa, a holiday which marks the start of Lent for Russian Orthodox Christians, according to RT.

An Orthodox Christian reader sent me this item, which I read within minutes of walking in the door after services at St. Anne Orthodox Parish here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For the reader, this story raised an obvious, powerful question: Did these people die immediately after taking part in Forgiveness Vespers?

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Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Same old song? The Charlotte Observer takes new look at Jim Bakker and his latest gospel

Long ago, The Charlotte Observer won a Pulitzer in 1988 for its groundbreaking reporting on the misuse of funds by the PTL television ministry. Thus, the folks who run that newsroom no doubt feel the need to keep readers updated on the doings of PTL founder Jim Bakker after a 31-year hiatus.

So it’s come out with an anniversary package detailing not only Bakker’s new calling in life but also a sidebar on a new book about PTL and a piece on whatever happened to Tammy Faye Messner, Bakker’s first wife. The main Observer stories on PTL’s problems broke in 1987 (you can our own tmatt about lots of the background on that). One year later in February 1988, Jimmy Swaggart’s empire fell due to his sexual sins.

It would be a whole other post describing what it was like being a religion reporter during those two years. I was at the Houston Chronicle and the Bakker-Swaggart scandals, plus Pope John Paul II’s 1987 swing around North America, ensured members of the religion-beat team got on the front page a number of times.

But that was then. Here’s what the Observer just wrote.

BLUE EYE, MO. -- Three decades after his PTL empire near Charlotte crumbled amid financial and sex scandals, Jim Bakker is back on TV with a different, darker message:
The Apocalypse is coming and you better get ready.
Ready to be judged by God, sure. But the main mission of “The Jim Bakker Show” -- broadcast from a Christian compound deep in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri -- appears to be to sell you fuel-less generators, doomsday guidebooks and freeze-dried food with a shelf-life of up to 30 years.

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