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Where religion and politics intersect, where satire and journalism don't

By Ben L. Kaufman · June 11th, 2008 · On Second Thought

For a man whose courage under extreme duress is legendary, Sen. John McCain is quailing before politically correct 21st Century Know-Nothings and baying collaborators in the news media.

First, he turns his back on local GOP favorite Bill Cunningham after national news media hear Willie�s highly partisan remarks to a Republican crowd in Cincinnati. Willie is never politically correct unless community standards do a 180 while his mouth is open.

Then McCain renounces the endorsement of Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee, who invokes the historic Protestant epithet of �whore of Babylon� for the Roman Catholic Church. Hagee also says God sent Hitler to help the Jews reach the Promised Land.

This is one of the religious counselors to whom the senator turned in his search for conservative bona fides.

It took a while for the national media to catch on to Hagee�s hardly sotto voce pronouncements. Sort of like the Road to Damascus moment when reporters realized that Jimmy Carter not only went to church but taught a Sunday School class.

As with Hagee, it was a religious commitment hidden in plain view from reporters unschooled in such phenomena and hardly news to Hagee�s huge congregation and thousands of potential campaign donors, workers and voters.

McCain apparently was clueless about the potential for offense in Hagee�s religio-historical eruptions. Who was the brave man or woman who managed to explain the religious baggage and political implications of those remarks to the willfully ignorant senator ... or why his staff didn�t know or tell him sooner?

McCain also is trying to undo his conservative anointing by Ohio Protestant megachurch pastor Rod Parsley. Ohio reporters have written about Parsley�s clout and allies, but if local journalists dug into Parsley�s teachings, I missed it. So did national news media.

Now, however, national news media are reporting that Parsley wants American Christians to destroy Islam as part of our national destiny.

ABC television did an overhyped �exclusive� and �investigative� report on Parsley�s views after Mother Jones� David Corn did the same. What was impressive about MoJo was its use of a book and DVD set sold by Parsley�s church. Those are primary sources and more thorough than the sound bites used to panic Obama into fleeing from his former pastor.

Politics reporting continues to show its naivet� when it comes to religion, coded religious messages, and the otherwise well-known reasons people go to church. I leave it to others to divine whether this reflects bicoastal ignorance; our national media are based in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, communities better known as hotbeds of impiety.

Our Constitution 1) allows us to be foolish, stupid and rude and 2) does not, I repeat, does not allow a religious test for any public office. The nonsensical, nasty partisan religious ordeals that Obama and McCain are going through come close to a popular version of that forbidden religious test.

Our Constitution, however, does not prevent candidates from baring their souls and whoring after clerical endorsements that they hope will gird supporters� loins and bring voters on angels� wings to the polls.

If clergy nuttiness really is news, then wait until some poor schmuck in a Christian pulpit tells reporters that Jesus and most, if not all, of the disciples were Jews.

Wait until the national news media learn that normative, orthodox triumphal Christianity does not believe that Judaism and Islam are true paths to God and Jews� and Muslims� only chance of salvation is to abandon their beliefs and to accept Jesus as the Christ, their personal lord and savior.

In short, Judaism and Islam (among others) should liquidate themselves if others fail.

It�s bad enough that Hil, Barack and John parade their religiosity and clergy willing to anoint their politics in hopes of electing a political savior or winning an invitation to bless the inauguration, but reporters are supposed to be savvy, skeptical, cynical, or whatever. We�re supposed to know news from Shinola.

When we fail, editors, whose titles prove they are smarter, savvier, and more cynical and skeptical, especially of their reporters, are supposed to impose reason on this shambles.

Wrong. Doesn�t happen.

And ever since Bush II ran for president, the American news media have shown how silly they can be in the absence of religion reporters.

I don�t care what a candidate or his/her clergy buddies believe when it comes to religion or irreligion. Belief is a personal holding that should not be questioned or challenged.

I care when he/she acts in the name of that religion. Promises, policies and actions are or could be, public policy. Nothing like that is sacred, private or privileged. That�s news.

And now a word about religion from an old religion reporter. Choir, listen up.

Many religions say they represent the sole path to the divine and desired hereafter, whatever it is. Explicitly or implicitly, that means everyone is wrong and misleading its followers. There is no way to paper over that assertion. In their eyes, possession of truth means alternatives are false.

For some, that translates �error has no rights.� In some countries, that religio-public policy is lethal. For others, it means that dissenters may live, but with limited rights and protections.

A candidate of any party is too weak for the Oval Office if he or she cannot live with awkward clergy friends and dismiss the hue and cry of eternally quarreling religious groups with their incompatible truths.

When candidates embrace clergy whose statements force us to choose between raucous laughter and a desire to weep, it�s free theater, whether slapstick or Greek tragedy. That�s why and how it should be reported.

Curmudgeon Notes

�You want scary, try this quote from the White House press secretary Dana Perino about a predecessor�s new, critical memoir: "The book, as reported by the press, has been described to the president.� That�s close enough for The Decider.

� An anniversary of infamy is marked by two columns by former Enquirer reporters. Cameron McWhirter recalls the fiasco of the 1998 Chiquita investigative series to illustrate how state shield laws benefit the public and why we also need a shield law that protects reporters from being forced to identify confidential sources in federal courts. Cam was the second reporter on the Chiquita project and his argument reflects the perspective of a reporter threatened unsuccessfully by prosecutors who wanted his sources. He refused and they backed down. Colleague Mike Gallagher burned his sources despite promises of confidentiality. Cam�s essay is in Columbia Journalism Review for May/June.

Julie Irwin Zimmerman looks at The Enquirer from the top down, interviewing top people at and about the paper. She writes in the June Cincinnati Magazine about The Enquirer after Chiquita and how it might be the trend-setter for the immediate future of newspapers (or 24/7 information setters).

� Two letter writers accuse CityBeat colleague (and my former student) Danny Cross of attributing offensive phony quotes to them in recent "Worst Week Ever!" columns. That�s not misquoting; reporters make mistakes. We mishear. We mistype. We can be careless, as in dropping the word �no� in an otherwise accurate quote.

The allegation is fakery. In many news media, that can be a terminal error, terminal -- that is, in terms of employment. Here, the problem is more instructive: It was satire that some people apparently missed or might miss.

Danny quotes O. Leonard Press, KET�s founder and first executive director, about severe cuts in budget and staff: "We're being cut by $1.8 million. How the fuck are we supposed to pay Big Bird?" Danny made up that quote.

Danny quotes Bonita Brockert as saying of Sheriff Si Leis, her partner in a local charity Dancing for the Stars, "He holds his wife, and he moves from foot to foot ... like a God-fearing heterosexual man should." Danny made up that quote, too.

Satire is best when the ox that�s gored shakes it off and laughs with everyone else. It�s very hard to do, especially when it�s also supposed to be funny.

Press conceded it was funny but said it shouldn�t have been in quotes. Brockert said quote made her look like an �idiot� and that wasn�t funny.

"Worst Week Ever!" often is snarky, so did anyone really believe Press and Brockert uttered those words? That might be the problem. Unless, of course, those letters were satire and I missed it.

� Courts protect satire. Jerry Falwell lost his libel case against Hustler�s parody of the Campari �You�ll never forget your first time� ads. Hustler suggested Falwell�s �first time� involved drunken incest with his mother in an outhouse.

A world away, Weekly Standard often devotes a page to a satire on the news media or bureaucratic memo writer, but lest its earnest readers miss the point, anxious neocon editors label those pages �Parody.�

� Quotes can be iffy apart from error and satire. There are at least three common approaches to quotes. One says, �Don�t put anything inside quote marks that you would not defend as accurate under oath in court.� If they didn�t say it, don�t use quote marks; paraphrase and retain the accuracy of what is said without claiming to be the literal words spoken.

Another approach says a quote is accurate when only the �um,� �I mean� or other filler is deleted. Some reporters do that and insert "..." to indicate deleted words. Similarly, where �he� is unclear, some reporters and editors insert the (name) in parentheses after deleting �he.� That can enhance understanding, retain the accuracy without awkward or unclear literalism.

Finally, some reporters and editors believe it is OK to �clean up� quotes so long as the meaning is not changed. They say scrubbed quotes retain their accuracy without embarrassing a person who says �ain�t� or �don�t� when it should be �isn�t� or �doesn�t.� I don�t buy it. They didn�t say what is quoted and too often this is selective, based on subjective and often class-based biases of the reporter and/or editor; imperfect grammar of a less affluent person might be retained but the slip of a corporate executive is �cleaned up.�

� Ignorance of a scandal involving a finalist for Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent is a world-class cockup. The Enquirer says the meltdown began with a tipster. Didn�t local news media run the five finalists� names through Google or some other search engine? What about the lawyer for CPS? What about board members? I�d bet they�d do that for a daughter�s prom date. And, irony of irony, the former candidate comes from Jackson, Miss., where the local Gannett paper is run by one of The Enquirer�s finest young alumni.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFAMN: letters@citybeat.com



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