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The death of Walter Scott

With a murder charge filed against a South Carolina police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as he fled--according to a now widely circulated video--I wondered what account police initially gave of the shooting before the video surfaced. A story that the Charlleston Post and Courier carried on Saturday, the day of the shooting, provides the answer. Police in North Charleston, S.C., maintained that  the officer fired to protect himself after Walter Scott, 50, grappled with him for his Taser and took control of it. As the paper reported, with careful use of attribution:

Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.

The video discloses much more. It does appear to show a struggle over some object that falls to the ground. Then it shows Scott turning his back on the offer and running away.The officer, Michael Slager, aims his gun and shoots eight times, until Scott falls. Slager then handcuffs Scott, who is face down on the ground. Then he goes back to pick up the object that had fallen to the ground, and appears to return to drop it beside Scott's body, according to The New York Times.

As the mayor of North Charleston told the Charleston Post and Courier, without the video, the events that followed would have gone much differently.  





Selling the Bible in Cinéma Vérité

Flannery O'Connor said of her short story "Good Country People" that Hulga, the "lady Ph.D." whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman, is forced to face not just the physical affliction the object represents but also a spiritual one, namely "her own belief in nothing." Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month and who with his brother David made seminal and semi-notorious documentaries like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, depicts no loss of limb, literal or symbolic, in 1969's cinéma vérité landmark, Salesman. But the door-to-door peddler of Bibles who emerges as the central figure of the film confronts no less significant a crisis of the spirit.

Paul Brennan and the other salesmen of Salesman seem not to have grabbed viewers the way Big Edie and Little Edie Beale or Mick Jagger and the Stones at Altamont have over the years. But since Maysles's death Salesman has received a fair amount of mention and was even recently aired by Turner Classic Movies (it's also part of the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on Hulu). Pay no attention to synopses that make throwaway allusions to Willy Loman; consider Salesman an early prototype for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a similar adrenaline-and-anxiety-fueled mood, with manufactured optimism verging on self-delusion as the salesmen alternately hail and curse a system under which they're free to make money using nothing but their wits.

Of course, the big difference is that Salesman, shot with handheld cameras in black-and-white and ambient sound, isn't scripted drama. That the products being sold are the Bible, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Missal, and other Catholic publications adds a whole other component: The quartet documented by the Maysles seem obligated to place special faith in what they're peddling -- after all, these aren't vacuum cleaners.

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A journalist's sacred duty

When I first heard that NBC's Brian Williams had embellished his Iraq war reminiscences, falsely claiming that a chopper he was in had been hit by rocket fire, I thought instantly of Mike Valentine, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Mike was the subject of a profile I wrote for a daily newspaper in 1999 to mark Veteran's Day, and because he was brutally frank about his disillusionment with that war, it was more of a downer than most. I worked hard to do him justice, and expected he would be pleased with the result.

Instead, Mike was furious, because I had gotten one detail wrong about his war service. It was a minor error, in my view, and in no way embellished his combat role. But Mike feared that someone who was there would read the story and think he had lied. That, to him, would be unbearable. "You don't understand," he kept saying to me, how crucial it is to get everything exactly right about combat, regardless of how insignificant it might seem. Trust is everything for soldiers, he said, even long after the war is over.

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Sullivan's Dish is done

I wasn’t sure I wanted to post on Andrew Sullivan’s announced retirement from blogging until it became clear whether the Daily Dish would go on without him. Today the answer came: It won’t. Sullivan this morning announced that Friday will be the Dish’s last day

There’s been a number of encomia to Sullivan and his blog written since last week. His announcement has also elicited critiques and rehashes of previous critiques on his writing career (going back decades) and his editorial decision-making. It’s ground worth covering but also well-covered and won’t get more coverage in this post – though there may be some who have a thing or two to say.

I came around to regular reading of Sullivan’s blog about the time he was rethinking his position on the war in Iraq. Hard to say exactly what it was that made his site the first one I checked every day, or the one I soon began to check most often. But I do recall finding his site much less shrill (believe it or not) and somewhat more reasoned than those then breaking through on the left-leaning side of the blogosphere. (I’d count Matthew Yglesias as another who at the time was reliably providing a safe place of sensible commentary.) I liked that he posted on a range of serious matters and a number of others that were less so. I liked how he said what he had to say on same-sex marriage, torture, Abu Ghraib, and Dick Cheney, Michael Moore, and the Clintons. I was willing to give him even more leeway on his obsession with the story of Trig Palin’s birth and the woman who could have been vice president. I thought he captured and in some ways reflected what at the time was being characterized as the Obama phenomenon. I was also interested in his public Catholicism, and in his public hashing out of where his pronouncements and positions might put him in opposition to its tenets or most vocal adherents, or in line with them.

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Gentrification is no myth

Slate's recent article “The Myth of Gentrification” is the latest journalistic attempt to argue that gentrification is not really displacing the urban poor from their homes. The claim: “It’s extremely rare and not as bad for the poor as you think.”

You will not actually see poor people quoted in these stories because, well, that's anecdotal. So let's look at the data.

This school of thought relies heavily on work by Lance Freeman of Columbia University, who found  that residents of low-income, gentrifying neighborhoods were statistically less likely to move out than were residents of poor communities that were not gentrifying. It's not surprising because the poor also want to live in neighborhoods that are safe and attractive.

But there is more to Professor Freeman’s work than that. In one talk I attended,  he said he also found that poor households living in gentrifying neighborhoods “had an average rent burden of 62 percent,” which he said was “astronomical.” He added: “The people who were staying were paying exorbitant amounts of their income toward rent.” His work is no remedy for upper-middle-class guilt over gentrification.

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The New Detectives: Dazed or Crazed?

We don't watch TV shows; we watch DVDs of TV shows on TV. As a result, we are working our way belatedly through a mess/mass of mystery/crime shows with detectives that are...that seem either dazed or crazed.

Last night it was "The Bridge," a girl detective in the El Paso police department is definitely dazed and obsessive (aspergers?). Finished with "Homeland" (season 3) where our heroine is crazed (bi-polar). Before that, puzzled over "True Detective's" "hero," an alcoholic with intuitions; more dazed than crazed.

Since our chronology is not "real-time" watching, are the dazed and crazed copy-cat portrayals? Or is this a trend?

UPDATE: Alessandra Stanley has something to say on this subject. See Comment @10:21, 1/22

Should Academics Blog?

As part of the American Historical Association’s convention this year, the American Catholic Historical Association hosted a panel put together by Christopher Bellitto of Kean University. The panel was held January 3rd, in New York. The topic was how church historians can make a contribution through the media. The panel was chaired by David Gibson of Religion News Service, a journalist well known to Commonweal readers. Presentations were given by Rachel Zoll, national religion news reporter for the Associated Press, Enez Paganuzzi television producer at WNBC, Chris Bellitto, and me. The other talks (all excellent) were mostly oriented toward contributing to mainstream media as a source for journalists. Mine (below) was on blogging and writing about specialized topics for a general readership. (Unfortunately I do not have texts of the other presentations.) I welcome further discussion from dotCommonweal's readership.

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A Reality Check on NYC--UPDATE

A lot of ignorant analysis has been written about New York City's mayor, police, and race relations. The New York Times editorial page keeps huffing and puffing at everyone. The Mayor has eulogized the dead while police officers turn their backs. Traffic tickets are down, arrests are down, and alternate-side of the street parking regulations have gone by the boards. The current cold spell ("Arctic clipper" says the weather page) seems to be keeping protestors home, or maybe it's the journalists staying home and not covering them.

Inevitably someone begins to allign the pieces. George Packer at the New Yorker-on-line makes a good beginning. 1. Clearly stating what all the major players have done wrong. 2. Pointing to the effects on the police and the citizenry of class-based housing in New York City. 3. Noting how many newcomers to the city have no idea what the NYC paradise of today once was. 4. How the poor, the marginal, the hanging on by their fingertips depend more than anyone on good policing. 5. Why most New Yorkers don't want to know what the police do.

Sample of point 5: "Few people really want to know what it takes to keep them safe. Policing is the kind of work—like sewage treatment, care of the elderly, legislating, embalming, and combat—that most of us prefer not to think about. It’s both ugly and essential, so essential that it creates a feeling of shame and resentment—and to avoid being disturbed by the thought we push it out of our minds, into the shadows, where the cops who protect us go about the dirty work of using the threat of violence to enforce the law. That’s where we want them to stay, so that we don’t have to think too much about what goes on in our defense, how the job of patrolling streets, questioning suspects, and making arrests rubs everyone raw. It breeds fear and hatred on both sides of the line."  New Yorker.

UPDATE: A retired police lieutenant weighs in on the NYTimes op ed page.

Buffoonery Security Threat UPDATE

The nation's hairs on fire. Sony Pictures cancelled the release of "The Interview" after every movie chain in the country cancelled its opening on Christmas Day (talk about "for chrissake"!).

Hackers said to be North Korean apparatchaks invaded Sony computers and released gossipy e-mails, future movies, new songs, and lunch orders from famous people. They then threatened to blow up any theater showing the movie. The two buffoons who made the movie seem amazed that the assassination of NK's Kim-Jong Un, by blowing off his head, should cause such a stir (it's only a joke); so too are movie critics, pundits, and the president of the United States. Those North Koreans have no sense of humor! Guess not.

I have been waiting for someone to write, "And while I am all for bold creative choices, was it really important that the head being blown up in a comedy about bungling assassins be that of an actual sitting ruler of a sovereign state?" David Carr (NYTimes) finally did along with a long analysis that brings me to conclude that these buffoons along with many other Hollywoodites are as much a national security threat as North Korea. North Korea scares us but the buffoons make us stupid.

UPDATE: "CloudFlare, an Internet company based in San Francisco, confirmed Monday that North Korea’s Internet access was “toast.”  Retaliation? More buffoonery? Battery shortage? Toaster overheated? Story here.

Commonweal & the New Republic

The big news in the world of opinion journalism—where Commonweal swims unobtrusively alongside much bigger fish (or sharks)—is last week’s mass resignations at the New Republic, long the flagship intellectual journal of American liberalism. First the editor, Franklin Foer, and TNR’s longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier, resigned. The next day, in a very impressive act of suttee, most of the senior editorial staff and virtually all of the magazine’s well-known contributing editors threw themselves onto the pyre. I’ve been a journalist for more than thirty years, and that sort of personal and professional loyalty (Commonweal excepted!) is about as common as a typo-free newspaper (or magazine). Or a money-making journal of opinion.  

Foer obviously was a much beloved and respected boss, and Wieseltier, who had edited the back of the book for more than thirty years, was an intimidating figure, a notorious champion of both critical seriousness and critical severity when it came to book reviewing and literary journalism. He is also a terrific writer, and a fierce polemicist, in his own right. I, for one, have always felt compelled to read just about anything he writes, especially if I’m inclined to disagree with him. In recent years he has written scathingly about the shallow and trivial nature of much of the “journalism” found online, and about the dangers the relentless demand for “content” presents to reasoned political debate, literary standards, and our public culture. Amen, I say.    

So it is not much of a surprise to learn that the implosion of the New Republic was caused by a fundamental disagreement over the digital direction in which the magazine’s new owner, multi-millionaire Chris Hughes, was taking the venerable magazine. A little surprising is that the upheaval occurred just a few weeks after TNR celebrated its hundredth birthday with a big gala in Washington, D.C. The principal speaker was Bill Clinton. (He’s no George Mitchell, but still a pretty big deal.) News reports suggest that the antagonism between ownership and editorial staff was barely concealed during the dinner. Ouch. How awkward to announce a divorce right after an anniversary party.

The thirty-one-year-old Hughes, who made his fortune as a college roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, bought the magazine in 2012, and has spent millions upgrading its digital presence and reorienting and redesigning the print magazine. One of his first steps was to do away with editorials, which should have sent a clear signal about the value the new owner placed on the historical weight of the New Republic’s “voice.” More recently, it was announced that the magazine would cut the number of issues from twenty to ten a year, and that TNR was no longer a magazine, but a “vertically integrated digital media company.” At the same time, Hughes hired a more web savvy replacement for Foer. He did not tell Foer he was being ousted. Whatever an integrated digital media company is, it does not appear to be very good at actual communication.

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The New Kid on the Block

When the Boston Globe hired John Allen away from the National Catholic Reporter earlier this year, it didn't make sense.  The Globe had closed its overseas bureaus years ago and—like every other newspaper in the country—had a shrinking newsroom.

With the launch this week of Crux ("Covering All Things Catholic") as the Globe's newest website, hiring the man George Weigel once called "“the best Anglophone Vatican reporter ever" makes sense—not as a newspaper strategy but as an online media strategy.

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'The Rockford Files': Secret to a marriage?

A couple of decades on, my wife and I still find ourselves telling people about our Pre-Cana experience, held at a parish in a Brooklyn neighborhood known then, with implied notoriety, as an Italian-American enclave. The catechist couple spent much of the Saturday session enumerating (in colorful Brooklynese) the ups and downs of their own lengthy marriage, though dropped in among the anecdotes were tips targeted at the mostly very young couples of the community. Girls, admonished the wife, make sure you’ve put on some lipstick and nice clothes when he comes home from work, since the last thing he wants to see after a long subway ride is a tired, washed-out woman at the stove. From the husband: Guys, go easy on your daughter, if you’re blessed with a daughter, because they can’t help but choose losers for boyfriends and they’re going to get into trouble.

Whatever works, we’ve since come to understand. 

If up to my adolescence I was convinced that every argument between my parents augured divorce, I was equally reassured of the marriage's endurance by their weekly viewings together of “The Rockford Files” on Friday nights. I was reminded of this habit of theirs after the actor James Garner died last Saturday. It was the one hour they would set aside for themselves after a week of demanding work for my father and the arguably more demanding job my mother had in overseeing a house overrun by four boys. It might not rise to the level of the “date nights” that some magazines today prescribe for the harried-parent demographic, since it consisted only of a frozen eggplant parmigiana and a decanter of Carlo Rossi burgundy, set out on a dinged-up coffee table in front of the nineteen-inch black-and-white TV, the only one the house. But for the mid-1970s, in a rural town twenty country miles from the single-screen movie theater, it seemed to work.

Probably because they worked to make it happen—my mother feeding us early and hurrying us to bed before the program began, my father making sure to get home in time (and to pour the wine). From my bedroom I could hear the show’s famous ringing-phone opener and the unmistakable instrumental theme, if not very much of the dialogue. Eventually, as we got too old to be forced to bed early, we were grudgingly allowed to watch along with them, as long as we stayed quiet and sat far away from their private table. They loved watching James Garner as Jim Rockford—together—and they weren’t going to let their night be taken away.

It was probably inevitable that I grew to love “Rockford,” too, and some of the other things in which Garner appeared (his turn as the white-turtlenecked Scrounger in The Great Escape is a favorite). He not only famously did his own driving in movies and television; he also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. He did Polaroid commercials. He liked to say he met his wife at an Adlai Stevenson rally, in 1956, and he was still married to her when he died. This last detail stuck out for me, not just because I tend to expect multiple spouses listed in celebrity obituaries. I guess it also seemed sort of appropriate. I've probably long since bored my wife, and more recently my kids, with stories of my parents’ “Rockford” nights; it was a bit of simple modeling on their part, I guess, and even if done unwittingly, has maybe been more valuable than whatever I could have taken from Pre-Cana. In October, they’ll have been married fifty years. Whatever works?

Documentary Revisits the Jayson Blair Scandal

A curious shift occurs towards the end of the new documentary “A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times,” premiering on PBS on Monday, May 5. Up to this point in Samantha Grant’s thorough, thoughtful look back at the notorious newspaper scandal, Blair has come across largely as a troubled sufferer—a victim of mental illness who made a series of egregiously terrible judgment calls while coping with intense workplace pressure. In a major coup, producer and director Grant has managed to wrangle an exclusive interview with Blair, who even provided the filmmakers access to his private email account from the period leading up to his 2003 departure from The New York Times. On camera, Blair is a sober, soft-spoken fellow who gives off an older-but-wiser vibe as he analyzes his past journalistic misdeeds (plagiarism, outright fabrication), accepting culpability while at the same time attributing his behavior in part to the effects of bipolar disorder, aggravated by substance abuse.

But then the documentary reaches the point in the story where Blair, as a disgraced ex-reporter, starts pitching a tell-all to book publishers. The book, “Burning Down My Masters’ House,” was published in 2004. Suddenly, we see him discussing the book with Larry King (“The main reason I wrote the book, Larry…”), Howard Kurtz (“It’s part of the process of healing for me to go through this trial by fire…”), and Chris Matthews (“I think I’m going to write a novel [next]….”). And we see him offer wisdom, supposedly grounded in his own experience, on the speaking circuit. (He currently works as a “certified life coach” in Virginia.) Suddenly, Blair starts to seem like a sociopath—a sociopath who knows the value of spin. And you can’t help but wonder: Was his participation in Grant’s documentary just another creepily devious attempt at spin?

Fortunately, the Blair interview is only one source of material for “A Fragile Trust,” which is airing as part of the PBS series Independent Lens. (The air time is 10:00-11:30 pm ET on May 5; check local listings.) Grant has also interviewed a large group of Blair’s former colleagues, including Howell Raines, who was The New York Times’s Executive Editor during the Blair crisis, and who left the paper in the crisis’s aftermath. Interviewee William Schmidt, who as the paper’s Associate Managing Editor was in charge of personnel issues and disciplinary actions at the time of the scandal, is able to contribute some satisfying tick-tock details about what happened when, as Blair’s journalistic crimes came to light.

Complementing the spoken insights are a rich collection of images, including photographs and video of news events that Blair was assigned to cover; footage from television reports on the 2003 scandal; photos of Blair as a child; and even part of an old recruiting video for the University of Maryland (Blair’s alma mater) that appears to show the cub reporter walking to work in his earliest days at The New York Times. 

Two visual leitmotif intensify the documentary’s somber mood while also underscoring a key theme. Occasionally, bits of simple animation appear (an animated sequence depicts Blair making a phone call during the crisis, for instance), the contour lines scrawled white against a field of black. At other times, we see what appear to be photographic negatives of newspaper articles, the letters and photo shapes bright against a black background. The white-on-black shapes tie into the theme of contrasts and reversals of expectation: Readers of Blair’s articles found lies where they expected to find truth, and deceit where they expected to find integrity.

The black-and-white images in the documentary also echo the racial issues that have seemed, to some, to eddy beneath the surface of the Blair imbroglio: Blair is African-American, and some have wondered whether he was given too much leeway, and too many second chances, at the Gray Lady because the paper was trying to make its staff more diverse. “A Fragile Trust” raises this question, but it also asks another in passing: When reporter Stephen Glass (who is white) was found to have fabricated articles for The New Republic in the 1990s, why didn’t his race become an issue? Does the discrepancy between the way we discuss the two cases say something about our own assumptions and biases?

Ultimately, of course, there are questions that “A Fragile Trust” cannot fully answer: What was really going on in Jayson Blair’s head when he plagiarized and invented reporting? What is going on in his head now? Why—in the final analysis—was he able to get away with so much journalistic wrongdoing? Over a decade after the scandal broke, such questions still exert a tantalizing pull.

Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
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Wear your ashes to work day

The celebrant of the Mass I went to yesterday said that if people asked us afterward if it was Ash Wednesday, we had permission to answer: “No. Why do you ask?”

It was the kind of benign joke meant to fade faster than the smudge on your forehead, but it came back to me last night while watching a local political news show on which one of the regular guests made sure to note the ashes on his forehead and declare it a true sign of what he called “RC” – “real Christianity, baby! Roman Catholicism!” The guest was Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and by now just another more-or-less tolerated presence on the New York media and politics scene. So maybe it was only to be expected that he’d follow this by bending his bicep and proclaiming (here I paraphrase, because the clip isn’t available) that Ash Wednesday is the day “we RCs get to flex our Catholic muscle!”

Another joke, more stupid than benign, but maybe less benign than bellicose. I can imagine many viewers not recognizing it as humor, and maybe others willing to see it as an attempt at such, but also identifying in it something defensive if not hostile (never mind at odds with the gospel message of the day). Plus, he did it on TV.

Sliwa wore his ashes to work on Wednesday, like many other Catholics, as this National Catholic Register story details. Among them was another TV personality, Tony Reali of ESPN sports talk show “Around the Horn.” He’s done it for a number of years, though he notes in the story that he’s struggled “with the publicness” of it, his main worry being that non-Catholics might criticize his decision as an effort to force his faith on others.

Are there degrees of “publicness”? Is walking along the sidewalk different from sitting at your desk or running a large meeting—or going in front of the camera and into people’s living rooms? Forget about workplace policies. When and where does the silent or quiet evangelization become too noisy, the public expression of faith too pushy? Is it only at the point when someone like Sliwa comes in off the street and gets on the air?

That Cadillac ad isn’t about stuff?

If you’ve spent any time in the last ten days or so watching the Olympics you may have caught the ad from Cadillac and thought to yourself: wait -- what? To synopsize: pugnacious, squared-jawed guy speaks directly to camera about why the American way of doing things is so great, as he takes the viewer on a swaggering tour of his holdings: from the vista of his infinity pool, across the natural-lit expanses of his glass-sided home, and ultimately to his serene, manicured driveway, where a shiny new Cadillac ELR awaits the promised imprint of his imperial haunches. The ad is titled “Work Hard,” and on advertising site iSpot it’s summarized like this: “Why do you work hard, foregoing [sic] vacation, family, and personal time? For stuff? No, it’s for a sense of accomplishment.” 

Maybe the explanation is necessary, because the actual words—to say nothing of the accompanying images of male dominion (docile and quietly occupied daughters, winsomely smiling wife, immaculate open-floor layout)—do allow for other possible interpretations:

Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that's why. Those other countries think we're nuts. Whatever. Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul? Ali? Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right. We went up there. You know what we got? Bored. So we left. Got a car up there, left the keys in it. You know why? Because we're the only ones going back up there, that's why.

But I digress. It's pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?

So: Inspiring, or repulsive? That’s the either/or quality of the debate that’s taken shape in the days since the ad first aired, but after repeated viewings I find it to be neither. Or, at any rate, not simply repulsive; plenty of commercials just by dint of their being commercials are repulsive. But the (quite literal) wink that comes with this ad pushes it into a different category. Come on, it wants to assure us, we know we’re being over the top here; we’re really just joking. But like anything that comes with a wink, there’s the other, underlying assurance to those in the know that it’s not a joke. Don’t be fooled by the appropriation of talismans of cool like Les Paul and Muhammad Ali—these are just two more acquisitions for this guy, accumulated cultural “capital” no more familiar to him than the art he’s purchased for his walls (as others have pointed out, doesn’t he realize that Ali forswore his given American name, converted to Islam, refused military conscription, and criticized U.S. policy on race and economics?). Don’t be fooled that he actually unplugs his little reward to himself—how much of an offset to a carbon footprint like his will an electric car provide? And then there’s the snotty French sign-off, which against the backdrop of international athletic competition underscores the current “maker” contempt toward any system not explicitly tuned to maximize personal wealth, American-style.

But it’s just a joke. And it’s not about wealth or stuff, even though the Cadillac ELR is, according to the advertising, “priced from $75,000,” home-charging station not included. 

Are we at ‘peak Pope’?

Maybe it’s not a crisis of continued supply -- just the opposite, in fact -- but the unregulated flow of Francis coverage in the mainstream media suggests some decline in production is inevitable. Doesn’t it?

Andrew Sullivan has been writing with the unrestrained giddiness he’s reserved mainly for Barack Obama -- and now there’s his inaugural “long-form” piece on the pontiff for the Deep Dish spin-off of his daily blog. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (“I am not a Catholic but there's something about this pope...”) is running a multi-part report with reader contributions. This is on top of reports about Francis celebrating his seventy-seventh birthday with four homeless people; the news about his stint as a bouncer at a Buenos Aeries nightclub; and of course his selection by Time as its person of the year, which really should have been the pinnacle but then here came The Advocate to second the honor. Which itself was followed this week by approving stories on changes to the influential Congregation for Bishops and mostly glowing coverage of the pope’s apparent comfort with public breastfeeding—a development meriting both an email blast from my parish priest and a dotCommonweal post from Mollie Wilson O’Reilly. (Then there are posts like the one you’re reading, which in covering the coverage add to the flow without necessarily getting any closer to its subject.)

James Carroll’s feature on Francis in the current New Yorker (its tagline “a radical pope’s first year” blurring the fact that it’s really only been about nine months) is both an example and a partial examination of the phenomenon. (It’s currently sitting atop the most popular list at the magazine’s website.)  Carroll covers some by-now familiar ground (the interviews and off-the-cuff remarks of last summer; Jorge Bergoglio’s actions during Argentina’s dirty war) and wanders down some thoroughly trod paths in an obligatory-feeling section on the sexual abuse scandal. But Carroll also gives proper due to the resonant field-hospital metaphor from the Spadaro interview, and he introduces a new (to me) detail from the Bergoglio biography about his “extraordinary” boss at a Buenos Aires laboratory, a “great woman” to whom Francis has said he owes “a huge amount” and who for helping victims of the junta was later dropped from a helicopter into the sea. “I loved her very much,” Francis is quoted as saying. And through an interview with former president of Ireland Mary McAleese—whom some have said Francis is considering for appointment to the College of Cardinals—Carroll gets, if briefly, into “the prospects for women under the new Pope” and curial reform.

If all of this makes the story seem a typically wide-ranging magazine feature intended for a general readership – well, it is. But then there’s the fact that it appears at all. Why, Carroll asks, has

the response to the Pope been so outsized? Catholic enthusiasm is understandable, but the globe’s? … The press is obsessed with him… . Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving, merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human being longing for transcendence?

The questions aren’t explicitly answered, of course, but a personal anecdote in the first part of Carroll’s long story, about a memorable audience with Pope John XXIII, is suggestive: “Lately,” Carroll writes, “the fact that I once sought transcendence in the presence of a Pope has stopped seeming naïve.”

You can read Carroll’s full article here; you can hear him talk about it on NPR’s Fresh Air here. And to bring this item full circle: Does the New Yorker cover depicting a (cartoon) Francis making a snow angel say anything more about the media response?  

Power to the papal

It’s great reading something like Forbes’s annual power rankings, because you get article teasers like this: “There are nearly 7.2 billion people on the planet. These are the 72 that matter the most” and puffed-chest pronouncements like this, touting the methodology used in compiling the

annual snapshot of the heads of state, financiers, philanthropists and entrepreneurs who truly run the world. The list represents the collective wisdom of top FORBES editors, who consider hundreds of nominees before ranking the planet’s 72 power brokers — one for every 100 million on Earth.

Forbes measures power “along four dimensions”: whether the candidate “has power over lots of people,” the financial resources each candidate controls, whether “the candidate is powerful in multiple spheres,” and whether the candidate “actively uses that power.” By those criteria Vladimir Putin tops this year’s list, with Barack Obama falling to second and Xi Jinping, secretary general of the Communist Party of China, coming in third.

Fourth? Pope Francis, whose title Forbes helpfully lists as “pope.” His “power profile” doesn’t immediately make clear the criteria that helped Francis finish that high. But then here’s another great paragraph, again from the methodology, that sheds some light and includes an interesting juxtaposition:

Pope Francis (No. 4) is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, or about 1/6th of the world’s population. Michael Duke (No. 10), CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, employs 2.1 million people and is the top private employer on the planet.

Thus, Forbes Dimension Number One: power over lots of people (just like Benedict, who made the top ten in previous years). As for Bill Gates, David Cameron, and Benjamin Netanyahu: all comparative weaklings. The evidence is here.

North vs. South in Williamsburg

The New York Times carried a cover story on its Thursday Styles section that explored the cultural divide in the trendy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Northside vs. Southside. It is a startling example of how news organizations glorify gentrification by treating the long-time residents of a neighborhood as an afterthought and wallowing in the  lifestyle of  the newcomers. Here is an excerpt:

Grand Street is more than just the dividing line between streets that are numbered north and those numbered south. The border has become Williamsburg’s equivalent of the Mason-Dixon line, cleaving the neighborhood into two: a sleek, moneyed “North Williamsburg” and a gritty, hyper-authentic “South Williamsburg.”

To the denizens of South Williamsburg, the north is now a glitzy playground of glassy condos for banker types, chain stores and hordes of tourists from Berlin; Tokyo; Paramus, N.J.; and, worst of all, Manhattan. They’ve turned the area, especially around the Wythe Hotel, into Brooklyn’s answer to the meatpacking district.

The South, they argue, has maintained its bohemian D.I.Y. roots, with its indie boutiques, bearded mixologists, artists’ lofts and working-class families: in sum, the “real” Williamsburg.

The problem is that the article dismisses the long-time population of Latinos, Hasidic Jews and Italians in two paragraphs, and gives no real consideration to their impact on the culture of the community. They're nearly invisible. One would never know that Latinos are by far the majority of the Southside. In the 2010 census, the Southside's three census tracts are 53 percent, 65 percent and 72 percent Latino.


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Independent and Catholic: Remembering Robert Hoyt

The Columbia Journalism Review has a nicely done piece on Robert Hoyt, founding editor of National Catholic Reporter, and on that newspaper's origins. I never met Hoyt, but it seems to me that his son, Michael Hoyt,  former editor of the journalism review, has provided a nuanced and well-written portrait of his father in this article. He shows the importance of maintaining an independent Catholic press with outlets such as NCR and Commonweal, for which Robert Hoyt became a senior writer after leaving NCR.

It is good to see Robert Hoyt's life and work placed before the broader journalism community that Columbia Journalism Review reaches. Here is the top of the story:

Here are some of the things and people that my father loved: Gregorian chant, Joe Louis, airplanes, the Detroit Tigers infield of the mid-1930s, Salem cigarettes, Martin Luther King Jr., Latin, and big northern lakes. “That’s not a lake,” he would say, whenever I used the L-word about some muddy little man-made body of water, “that’s a pond.” Once, we drove all night from Missouri to vacation at Torch Lake, in Michigan, where he had experienced some happiness as a boy. I was in the front with him when we arrived, exactly at dawn, the rest of the family slumbering in the back of the wagon, a golden sun fingering across the blue water. He had tears on his face.

Another thing he loved: reporting. He was in awe of how good reporters find things out—interesting and significant things to be shaped into news, analysis, argument. He believed that journalism has a moral center, and that its motor is honest, independent reporting. Doing that reporting—asking questions of strangers—was not his cup of coffee. But he was an editor, and he didn’t have to.

My father’s claim to fame is that, nearly 50 years ago, in the fall of 1964, he and some colleagues set in motion a lively newspaper that covers the Catholic Church and its tidal pull on the world, from an independent and intelligent lay perspective—a paper that changed the rules for covering religion and remains an influential voice.

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