By Michael Miner

Sleeping Through the Sermon

The 30 or 40 seconds that the ten o’clock news gives your story can look generous when the alternative is nothing. Last week a conference on news and religion was held at Northwestern University, and participants wanted to know how to get the media to pay their faiths any attention at all.

One case in point was an event two Sundays ago at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel. Four Protestant churches that were confederating held a “Celebration of Full Communion,” and the only journalists who came were a crew from PBS’s Sunday-morning Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. Yet several press releases and news advisories had been sent out, and there’d been follow-up calls to individual religion writers. “We knocked ourselves out,” said the Reverend Eric Shafer, director of communications of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Shafer was telling a panel of journalists at the Northwestern conference that his denomination is the second-largest church group in Chicago–and it’s even based here! But who knows? Panel members–myself included–had more sympathy than advice to offer him.

Besides the Lutherans, the churches celebrating the painstakingly negotiated “formula of agreement” at Rockefeller Chapel were the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America, and United Church of Christ. These denominations represent a total membership of ten and a half million people. Only a dim knowledge of the schisms, heresies, and doctrinal wars that have fouled two millennia of Christian history is needed to appreciate that this was a big day. “We gather to recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is rightly preached,” said the general secretary of the Reformed Church, as leaders of the four denominations gathered around a baptismal font. The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said, “We gather to repent of the ways we have condemned each other, to recognize our mutual baptism.”

If nothing else, said Shafer, the ceremony offered a terrific photo op–representatives of four churches filing in full regalia along four aisles to converge and parade as one body to the front of the crowded chapel. “We have been blinded to our essential unity in the faith, and this has kept us apart,” preached the Reverend James Echols, president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, leading his audience into historical waters perhaps too deep for a brief news story to fathom. “When we look back, we see that the Marburg Colloquy, with its differing interpretations of the sacramental presence of Christ in the holy meal, blinded us to our essential unity.”

Later Shafer told me the press had done pretty well covering the various votes in which the individual churches approved full communion. “But Sunday was the first time the four churches got together for a big celebration and worship service,” he said. “There were 2,000 people in Rockefeller Chapel. It was very colorful and spirited and just a fine event. It would have been perfect television.”

Wire services fed phone interviews with Shafer to radio stations around the country. But the only original local coverage was a note by Tribune religion writer Steve Kloehn the Friday before the service. Kloehn told me by E-mail that he’d written a long, page-one piece on the pending agreements in 1997 and another when an agreement between Lutherans and Episcopalians collapsed. As for the ceremony itself, he said, it was a good event “for photographs or perhaps a tone poem” and without a doubt “deeply important” to thousands of people, yet “this isn’t a story that you can make sense of with one quick item.”

But the power of TV is to convey visually the drama of events it can’t begin to explain, and Shafer seemed to regret more the absence of cameras than of notepads. Mary Ann Ahern, a Channel Five reporter who handles most of that station’s religious coverage, sat on the same panel I was on at Northwestern (the Center for Religion and the News Media sponsored the conference), and she gave Shafer and the rest of our audience the bad news that to the media, Chicago is pretty much a one-religion town.

“Goodness knows, there’s plenty of Protestant leaders in Chicago we should be talking to more often,” Ahern said the other day when I asked her to elaborate. But journalists don’t necessarily enjoy covering plenty of leaders. Life’s simpler when they can turn to one or two old reliables and consider the job done. “I really do come back to Cardinal Bernardin, who turned everything around, having one central figure everyone can turn to,” Ahern told me. “The archdiocese is right downtown, and think about all the press conferences Bernardin would call–not just on church-related issues but on the death penalty, El Salvador, a vote in Congress. It’s a ready-made story, you got a minute-30–what else do you need?

“I now work three days a week. I have three kids under seven,” she said. “If it were a big Catholic story I’d rearrange my schedule to come in. Would I do the same for a big Protestant story? I hate to say, I don’t know. I don’t know those folks as well, and they’d have to do a big sales job as to why we needed to be there.”

In the Company of Men

“He/She” is both the theme of next month’s Chicago Humanities Festival and–to quote from the festival’s rhapsodic publicity material–the “eternal mystery…the paradigm within which we all must live our lives.” One panel convening at the Museum of Contemporary Art will wrestle with the $64 question: “Has Chicago Had a Sex Change?”

Despite delicate restaurants and garden-divided avenues, there are reasons to think Chicago hasn’t. Wynne Delacoma, classical-music critic at the Sun-Times, has already protested to festival headquarters about one of those reasons. Sun-Times critics have been left out of the program, but Tribune critics are part of it, she pointed out. And given what the festival’s about, the Tribune bunch is going to look ridiculous.

“She said what Abigail Adams said a long time ago–‘Remember the ladies,'” says festival president Eileen Mackevich. “I took her point.”

Delacoma had spotted the November 8 panel to be held at Northwestern University’s Thorne Auditorium, “Chicago Tribune Critics Discuss Gender.” According to the thumbnail description of the event, the critics will ponder “how critics consider gender in the arts. Are certain fields in the arts defined as either male or female?” The Tribune staffers wading into these depths are Alan Artner, Phil Vettel, Richard Christiansen, Michael Wilmington, Steve Johnson, Greg Kot, John von Rhein, and Blair Kamin.

“The Tribune and the festival have had, I think, a close association over the years,” says Delacoma. “These things happen. I understand that’s the way of the world. But when I saw the panel was not simply Tribune critics but all male critics–in a festival devoted to gender issues–it seemed doubly egregious, a double whammy. I think a case can be made that the critical establishment is male dominated, but they aren’t the only ones out there, especially in Chicago.”

Out there at the Sun-Times are Delacoma and drama and dance critic Hedy Weiss. Delacoma recognizes that the fact that the Tribune critics are all males–all white males, no less–is more happenstance than evidence of a tradition set in stone. “It’s ironic because once the highest-profile critic in town was a female, and she was a Tribune critic–Claudia Cassidy,” Delacoma reflects. “I don’t think it’s conspiracy-minded, but it does have to strike you.”

Unless the question is preempted by the panelists, you can bet the first thing the audience asks the Tribune critics will be, how come everyone’s a guy?

“I hope they do,” says Delacoma.

“Well, I mean, we’re none of us going to have any sex operations,” Christiansen told me. “We are what we are. I’m a white Protestant male, and I’m more than middle-aged–I can’t help it.” Christiansen reminded me that the Tribune has had front-line women critics before even if it doesn’t now, and that some of today’s second-stringers are women. They’re not on the panel–but then he didn’t put the panel together.

The Tribune is a “major donor” to the humanities festival, contributing between $100,000 and $150,000. But that has nothing to do with inviting the Tribune critics, Mackevich told me. She said she’d admired the recent articles in the Sunday Arts & Entertainment section in which they took turns explaining their work. “I liked the series. It existed, it taught me a lot, and I like criticism. I thought this was a solid thing to do–gender and criticism.”

“All I know is I’ve been told to show up there,” said Christiansen.

News Bites

The Sun-Times front-loaded last Saturday’s lead story on George Ryan and the truckers’ licenses. Headlined “Ryan pal derailed probe–ex-agent,” the piece immediately got to the good stuff: former secretary of state investigator Russell Sonneveld was claiming that he’d wanted to look into whether Ricardo Guzman got his truck driver’s license illegally, but was shooed off by a “top aide and longtime friend” of Ryan. Guzman was the trucker involved in the 1994 accident near Milwaukee in which six children were killed.

The story’s second paragraph identified Ryan’s friend as Dean Bauer, inspector general of the secretary of state’s office. On Sunday the Sun-Times again led with Ryan, now reporting that Sonneveld had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury investigating the license scandal.

The Tribune was more demure. It reported the subpoena on the front page of Saturday’s paper, but Bauer wasn’t named until the fourth-to-last paragraph of the article, back on page 11. Nowhere was he described as Ryan’s friend. The Tribune informed readers of that juicy aspect of the story in Sunday’s short follow-up, “Ryan associate is accused of blocking probe,” which ran in section four.

The Tribune has again condemned the proposed constitutional amendment to protect the American flag from disrespect. “Few Americans would burn their flag or even think of doing so,” reasoned last Saturday’s editorial. “But that is no reason to create a glaring exception to the 1st Amendment.”

Either the Tribune suffers from a weird bipolar disorder that causes a violent mood swing whenever it publishes a political endorsement, or a compromised First Amendment is merely an in-house pet peeve the newspaper deems of no public consequence. The three-page spread on “The choice for governor” in Sunday’s Perspective section offered interviews with both candidates and a close look at “5 Key Issues.” Nowhere in this package did the flag issue appear, though amendment supporter George Ryan has questioned Glenn Poshard’s patriotism because Poshard opposes it.

Of course, a governor’s role in amending the Constitution isn’t nearly as great as a U.S. senator’s. In July a Tribune editorial denouncing the amendment observed that Carol Moseley-Braun’s “GOP opponent, Peter Fitzgerald, has endorsed the amendment and hopes to ride the issue to victory.” Saturday’s Tribune editorial warned that “only a few votes are needed to put the proposal over the top in the Senate–and among the senators who voted no in 1995 are such vulnerable Democratic incumbents as Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois.” On Sunday the Tribune endorsed Fitzgerald. The endorsement dismissed Moseley-Braun as “a reliably liberal vote…from the left wing of her party” with few legislative accomplishments. Her defense of the First Amendment didn’t matter enough to mention.

Movie thrillers aren’t logical anymore, complains New York Times critic Richard Bernstein. In an essay picked up by the Tribune Arts & Entertainment section, Bernstein mourned the debasement of Alfred Hitchcock’s McGuffin, which Bernstein defined as “the element in a movie’s plot that propels the action.” He insisted that “the unfolding of the intrigue must follow logically from the McGuffin, as it always did in Hitchcock. Things made sense.”

The new movie that agitated Bernstein is Ronin, in which various deadly factions pursue the same briefcase. “But a fundamental question remains unanswered,” Berstein argued. “What is in the suitcase? We never find that out.” Alas, “a thriller without a real McGuffin is like a placebo, a pill with no real chemical effect.”

Here’s Roger Ebert on the same movie. “We never learn what is in the briefcase,” he said in his review. “It’s the perfect McGuffin, as defined by Hitchcock (something everyone cares about, although it doesn’t matter what it is). My guess: Inside this briefcase is the briefcase from ‘Pulp Fiction.'” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Erik Shafer photo by Dan Machnik; uncredited church photo.