New York Times

BBC leader says race trumps religion

The full-page New York Times advertisement by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was certainly blunt -- starting with its headline telling "liberal" and "nominal" Catholics that "It's Time to Consider Quitting the Catholic Church." Conservative Catholics were outraged and called the newspaper's leaders hypocrites, claiming they would never dare to run such a fierce and offensive ad that targeted believers in other faiths, especially Islam.

Sure enough, a group called Stop Islamization of America immediately produced a full-page advertisement that precisely mirrored the images and rhetoric of the anti-Catholic effort, including a headline telling "moderate" Muslims that "It's Time to Quit Islam."

Conservative Catholics were outraged -- again -- when Times leaders refused to run the anti-Muslim advertisement, claiming that to do so would endanger American troops.

Truth be told, the offended Catholics had little reason to be shocked if members of the Times hierarchy based their decisions on convictions similar to those recently aired by the leader of the British Broadcasting Corporation, another of the world's most influential news organizations.

For BBC director-general Mark Thompson, the key is to understand that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and believers in other minority religions share a "very close identity with ethnic minorities" and, thus, their beliefs deserve to be handled with special care.

Meanwhile, he said it's acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity, because Christianity is a powerful, secure, majority religion -- even in an increasingly secular age.

"I think it is very different to talk about Christianity in the United Kingdom: a very broadly, literally established, but also metaphorically established, part of our kind of culturally built landscape," said Thompson, in an interview recorded for the FreeSpeechDebate.com project produced by St. Antony's College, Oxford.

Christianity, he argued, is a "broad-shouldered religion, compared to religions which in the UK have a very close identity with ethnic minorities, where, you know, it's not as if as it were Islam is randomly spread across the UK population. It's almost entirely a religion practiced by people who may already feel in other ways isolated, prejudiced against, and where they may well regard an attack on their religion as racism by other means."

Thus, Thompson said, it's appropriate for media and government leaders to use a more protective, cautious standard when judging the contents of news and entertainment that could be viewed as threatening to believers whose faith is in some real way tied to their racial identities.

On the other hand, he stressed, "I do not think that it's appropriate that there should be laws inhibiting freedom of speech in the interest of protecting religions. That doesn't mean I think necessarily you should publish or broadcast anything."

Muslims, for example, are more offended by criticism or satire of Muhammad than most Christians are of similar media products about Jesus, said Thompson, who identified himself as a moderate, practicing Catholic.

"For a Muslim, a depiction -- particularly a comical or demeaning depiction of the Prophet Muhammad -- might have the force, the emotional force, of a piece of a grotesque child pornography. One of the mistakes seculars make is, I think, not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief."

Of course, debates on this subject have also been shaped by political and religious realities in an increasingly tense world. It's hard, said Thompson, to hold discussions of sacrilege and blasphemy in England and the western world without mentioning Salman Rushdie and "The Satanic Verses," his 1988 novel that was in part inspired by the life of Muhammad. The book was burned and banned in some parts of the world and, ultimately, led to a fatwa urging all devout Muslims to kill Rushdie -- who continues to live in hiding decades later.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash, who conducted the Oxford interview, said this threat of violence is a "rather nasty ace" that can be played by those who are willing to say, "I feel so strongly about that; if you say it or broadcast it, I will kill you."

Thompson responded: "Well, clearly it's a very notable move in the game, I mean without question. 'I complain in the strongest possible terms' is different from 'I complain in the strongest possible terms and I'm loading my AK47 as I write.' This definitely raises the stakes."

God and The New York Times, once again

When it comes to the daily news, the recently retired editor of The New York Times has decided there is news and then there is news about religion and social issues.

When covering debates on politics, it's crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it's only natural for scribes in the world's most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "We're an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don't give equal time to Creationism."

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: "You may not be in the right state for that."

Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor "Democrats and liberals," he added: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America's hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That's all.

Keller's Austin remarks were the latest in a series of candid comments in which the man who has called himself a "crashed Catholic" has jabbed at his newspaper's critics, especially political conservatives and religious traditionalists.

Shortly before stepping down as editor, he wrote a column insisting that religious believers -- evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, in particular -- should face strict scrutiny when running for higher office. After all, he argued, if a candidate believes "space aliens dwell among us," shouldn't voters know if these kinds of beliefs will shape future policies?

In another recent essay, Keller flashed back to an earlier national debate about the integrity of the Times and its commitment to journalistic balance, fairness and accuracy. It was in 2004 that the newspaper's first "public editor" wrote a column that ran under the headline "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" Then, in his first sentence, Daniel Okrent bluntly stated: "Of course it is."

Discussions of this column continue to this day. The key to that earlier piece, noted Keller, was its admission that the Times' outlook is "steeped in the mores of a big, rambunctious city," which means that it tends to be "skeptical of dogma, secular, cosmopolitan."

This socially liberal worldview does have its weaknesses when it comes to covering news outside zip codes close to Manhattan.

"Okrent rightly scolded us for sometimes seeming to look down our urban noses at the churchgoing, the gun-owning and the unlettered," noted Keller. "Respect is a prerequisite for understanding. But he did not mean that we subscribe to any political doctrine or are foot soldiers in any cause. (Anyone who thinks we go easy on liberals should ask Eliot Spitzer or David Paterson or Charles Rangel or...)."

As for the future, the newspaper's new executive editor has carefully offered her own opinion on the worldview of the newsroom she leads. In an interview with current Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane, Jill Abramson joined Keller in stressing that it's crucial to remain unbiased -- when covering politics.

"I sometimes try not only to remind myself but my colleagues that the way we view an issue in New York is not necessarily the way it is viewed in the rest of America," she said. "I am pretty scrupulous about when we apply our investigative firepower to politicians, that we not do it in a way that favors one way of thinking or one party over the other. I think the mandate is to keep the paper straight."

Bill Keller vs. the religious aliens

Less than a year after 9/11, a New York Times columnist stunned the newspaper's remaining conservative readers by suggesting that both the Vatican and Al Qaeda were on the wrong side in the global war against oppression. "The struggle within the church" in recent decades, he argued, is "interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance)."

After all, he noted: "This is ... the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition."

The symbolism of "Is the Pope Catholic?" increased a year later when the self-proclaimed "collapsed Catholic" who wrote the essay was selected as the new executive editor of the Times.

Now, shortly before stepping down as editor, Bill Keller has ignited another firestorm with a Times column arguing that religious believers -- especially evangelicals and conservative Catholics -- should face stricter scrutiny when seeking higher office.

After all, he noted, if a candidate insists that "space aliens dwell among us," isn't it crucial to know if these beliefs will shape future policies?

Yet Keller also claimed: "I honestly don't care if Mitt Romney wears Mormon undergarments beneath his Gap skinny jeans, or if he believes that the stories of ancient American prophets were engraved on gold tablets and buried in upstate New York, or that Mormonism's founding prophet practiced polygamy (which was disavowed by the church in 1890). Every faith has its baggage. ... I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ."

What gave this manifesto legs online was his decision to draft tough questions for suspicious believers such as Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. After all, he argued, voters need to know "if a candidate is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed."

For starters, he said, journalists should ask these candidates if America is a "Christian nation" and what this would mean in practice. And if elected, would they hesitate before naming a Muslim or atheist as a federal judge? Voters also need to know if candidates hold orthodox Darwinian views on evolution.

Journalist Anthony Sacramone, who blogs at the journal First Things, was one of many conservatives who immediately turned Keller's questions inside out. For example, he thought reporters could ask some candidates: "Do you think that anyone who believes in the supernatural is delusional? If so, do you believe they should be treated medically?" Here's another one: "Do you believe that there is such a thing as life unworthy of life? Explain."

The problem with Keller's essay, argued Amy Sullivan, author of "The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap," is that it settled for aiming tough questions at Republicans, instead of seeking relevant questions sure to probe the beliefs of all candidates.

"If a candidate brings up his faith on the campaign trail," she noted, blogging for Time, "there are two main questions journalists need to ask: (1) Would your religious beliefs have any bearing on the actions you would take in office? And (2) If so, how?"

Another reason Keller's piece created controversy and hostility was that it contained crucial errors, such as grouping Santorum -- an active Catholic -- with GOP candidates "affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity." It didn't help, noted Sullivan, that his piece "read like a parody of an out-of-touch, secular, Manhattan journalist," with its references to evangelicals as "mysterious" and "suspect."

It was also easy to contrast the tone of Keller's broadside with the values he preached in a 2005 letter -- entitled "Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf)" -- that tried to address the concerns of his newspaper's critics, including many who frequent religious sanctuaries.

It is especially important, he concluded, for all members of the Times staff to make a "concerted effort ... to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. … This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in."

Archbishop kicks Gray Lady

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has long enjoyed flaunting her Catholic schoolgirl pedigree like a badge of honor. Still, the Pulitzer Prize winner took her game to another level in a recent column attacking Rome for its investigation of religious orders that shelter sisters who oppose many of the church's teachings.

Wait, is "investigation" the right word?

"The Vatican is now conducting two inquisitions into the 'quality of life' of American nuns, a dwindling group with an average age of about 70, hoping to herd them back into their old-fashioned habits and convents and curb any speck of modernity or independence," she wrote.

Dowd rolled on. Reference to the fact Pope Benedict XVI was once a "conscripted member of the Hitler Youth"? Check. Reference to his Serengeti sunglasses and trademark red loafers? Check. Strategic silence on the fact that many traditionalist orders are growing, while liberal orders are shrinking? Check.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan fired back at Dowd and her editors, going much further than the low-key criticism that mainstream religious leaders usually crank out when they are mad at the press. His "Foul Ball!" essay was as subtle as a whack with a baseball bat.

Anti-Catholicism is alive and well, he argued. Check out the New York Times.

"It is not hyperbole to call prejudice against the Catholic Church a national pastime," wrote Dolan. "Scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. referred to it as 'the deepest bias in the history of the American people.' ... 'The anti-Semitism of the left,' is how Paul Viereck reads it, and Professor Philip Jenkins sub-titles his book on the topic 'the last acceptable prejudice.' "

A clash between the conservative archbishop and the Gray Lady was probably inevitable. After all, the newspaper is currently led by an editor who -- months after 9/11, when he was still a columnist -- accused Rome of fighting on the wrong side of a global struggle between the "forces of tolerance and absolutism."

Calling himself a "collapsed Catholic," well "beyond lapsed," Bill Keller said the liberal spirit of Vatican II died when it "ran smack-dab into the sexual revolution. Probably no institution run by a fraternity of aging celibates was going to reconcile easily with a movement that embraced the equality of women, abortion on demand and gay rights."

The archbishop offered his "Foul Ball!" commentary to the Times editors, who declined to publish it. Dolan then posted the essay on his own website, while also offering it to FoxNews.com -- which promptly ran it.

Dolan was, of course, livid about Dowd's broadside, calling it an "intemperate," "scurrilous ... diatribe that rightly never would have passed muster with the editors had it so criticized an Islamic, Jewish or African-American religious issue."

The archbishop also accused the newspaper of various sins of omission and commission, asking the editors if they were printing stronger attacks on the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church than on other groups -- religious and secular -- that have struggled with sexual abuse. The Times, he claimed, was guilty of "selective outrage."

For example, he noted a recent report on child sexual abuse in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community that, after addressing the facts, "did not demand what it has called for incessantly when addressing the same kind of abuse by a tiny minority of priests: release of names of abusers, rollback of statute of limitations, external investigations, release of all records and total transparency."

Dolan also accused the Times, and other media, of downplaying public reports in 2004 and 2007 that documented the problem of sexual abuse of minors by educators in U.S. public schools. It seems, he said, that major newspapers "only seem to have priests in their crosshairs."

This prickly dialogue is sure to continue. After all, the 59-year-old Dolan was installed as New York's 13th Catholic archbishop last April -- so he isn't going anywhere. And while America's most powerful newspaper faces a stunning array of financial challenges, the New York Times is still the New York Times.

Stay tuned.

"The Catholic Church is not above criticism," stressed Dolan. "We Catholics do a fair amount of it ourselves. We welcome and expect it. All we ask is that such critique be fair, rational and accurate, what we would expect for anybody. The suspicion and bias against the Church is a national pastime that should be 'rained out' for good."

Rosenthal refused to remain silent

During his decades as a New York Times correspondent, the late A.M. Rosenthal saw lots of dead bodies in Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kashmir, India and other troubled lands.

One day in Calcutta he started asking questions: What if some of these people are dying, but not yet dead? Was he supposed to help them? These questions stayed with him when he returned home to become an editor.

"I devoted a great deal of my time and thinking to wondering: When is it a sin to walk past a dying person? What number does God have? Is it one? Is it two?", asked Rosenthal, in a BreakPoint radio interview after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.

What if we know that torture is taking place, but cannot see the evidence with our own eyes or hear it with our own ears? Does God forgive those who don't act? "Is that what God is saying: 'If you can't see them, it's OK to walk away from them?' Or is he saying, 'If you can't hear them?' Suppose you can hear them, but not see them, or they're around the corner. When is apathy a sin?"

Rosenthal kept these questions to himself as his career soared. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter he covered the world and, as editor, he caused a journalistic earthquake when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. For 56 years Abe Rosenthal helped change the New York Times and, thus, helped shape his times.

After leaving the editor's desk in 1986, he began writing his ?On My Mind? op-ed columns in which he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life -- free speech and freedom of conscience. Rosenthal was a secular Jew and an old-fashioned liberal from the Bronx, but many of his old questions about liberty, sin and apathy began to break into the open and affect his work.

"Abe fought to cure our blind spots and it worked," said Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof, speaking at Rosenthal's May 14 funeral at Manhattan's Central Synagogue. "He did indeed teach us to see."

The healing process wasn't painless, especially when Rosenthal latched onto one particular religious issue. Some human-rights activists are convinced that one of the reasons he lost his column and was forced to leave the Times was because he wouldn't stop writing about the persecution of religious minorities around the world.

Rosenthal couldn't understand why so many journalists just didn't "get" that story. I talked to him several times about this issue, in part because Jewish conservative Michael Horowitz sent him a copy of a 1996 column that I wrote about the slaughter of Christians and animists in South Sudan and the rebirth of the slave trade.

Rosenthal said he asked some newsroom colleagues this wasn?t a big news story. No one had a good answer. He ended up writing -- in 1997 alone -- 20 columns about the persecution of Christians, Buddhists, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.

"You don't need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it," he told me, at the end of that year. "Why are journalists missing this? ... I am inclined to believe that they just can't grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people -- especially conservatives -- is simply too strong for them to see what is happening."

With his columns, Rosenthal helped pave the way for the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Now, that hard-to-label coalition that fought for justice in South Sudan is, with a jolt of Hollywood star power, rallying support for the peace process in Darfur, where Islamists are attacking other Muslims.

Rosenthal refused to keep quiet. After his death, a Time editorial underlined the importance of a key Rosenthal statement about the Pentagon Papers: "When something important is going on, silence is a lie."

That's a great quote, one that perfectly explains why Rosenthal was so driven to write about religious persecution.

When believers are dying, silence is a lie.

The New York Times tweaks its credo

NEW YORK -- The New York Times has for generations printed its credo on Page 1 to inspire the faithful: "All the News That's Fit to Print."

But times changed and the high church of journalism was challenged by radio and television news, which was followed by a tsunami of news, rumors, opinions and criticism on 24-7 cable news networks and the Internet. The result has been a subtle change in doctrine at the Times, although the Gray Lady's motto has stayed the same.

Around-the-clock competition has "caused us to shift our emphasis from information as a commodity and play to different strengths -- emphasizing less the breaking facts than the news behind the news, writing more analytically," said executive editor Bill Keller, speaking at last week's National College Media Convention.

"We long ago moved from 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' to 'All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.' "

Keller's address blended confessions about the newspaper industry's sins with a litany of praise for journalistic virtues. Journalists at the Times, he insisted, still practice what they preach, remaining "agnostic as to where a story may lead" and maintaining standards of accuracy and fairness that prevent the "opinions of our writers and editors from leaching into our news pages."

However, he also said he believes that "information is not what people crave. What they crave, and need, is judgment -- someone they can trust to vouch for the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it."

The question is whether critics, especially those in religious sanctuaries, will trust Keller's team to provide an unbiased take on the news and then, as a finale, pass judgment on "what it means," said former New York Daily News reporter William Proctor, author of "The Gospel According to the New York Times."

"This intentional change in the motto -- even if it won't be printed by the newspaper -- suggests to me that editorializing is being placed on an equal footing with straight news," he said. The new motto seems "to be saying, 'We're recognizing that opinion has a larger role than the editorial or op-ed pages. In fact, opinion now has a place in the news itself.' "

Meanwhile, critics may remember Keller -- who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in the Soviet Union -- as the Times columnist who once called himself a "collapsed Catholic" and lashed out at Pope John Paul II and the Vatican for rejecting female priests, gay rights, legalized abortion and the sexual revolution in general.

The struggle within Catholicism, he wrote, is "part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. ... This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition."

However, as executive editor, Keller produced a 2005 manifesto urging his staff to improve religion coverage, avoid the misuse of loaded labels such as "religious fundamentalists" and hire qualified journalists who offer a diversity of "religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class."

Journalists at the Times, he said, must strive to escape "our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. ... This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in."

This candor is refreshing, said Jay Rosen, who leads New York University's journalism program and has written a provocative essay entitled "Journalism is Itself a Religion." The problem is that many journalists want to escape old-fashioned straight news, but they don't know what to call their new product. It's hard to distinguish between news "analysis" and "opinion" writing that reflects the beliefs of the writer.

The New York Times sees red

When it comes to capturing the worldview of New Yorkers, it's hard to top Saul Steinberg's famous cartoon entitled "A View of the World from Fifth Avenue."

It appeared -- where else? -- on the cover of The New Yorker. The city is in the foreground and, beyond the Hudson River, there is a void dotted with mesas, mountains and hints that Chicago, Texas, Nebraska, Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean exist.

There are no steeples anywhere.

This would have been the perfect cover for a new study by the New York Times hierarchy entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust." The in-house panel decreed that the newspaper must do a better job covering "unorthodox views," "contrarian opinions" and the lives of those "more radical and more conservative" than journalists inside the Mecca of American journalism.

"We should," it said, "increase our coverage of religion in America and focus on new ways to give it greater attention. ... We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar)."

It might help, noted the report, if Times editors sought out some "talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths."

This is precisely what the newspaper's "public editor" was describing last year in his column with the infamous headline: "Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?" Daniel Okrent's very first sentence was his answer: "Of course it is."

Many people criticize the Times for many things, he said, but the "flammable stuff" almost always seems to be linked to faith, family and morality and the most ticked-off people are on the cultural right.

"If you're examining the paper's coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn't wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world," wrote Okrent.

The editorial page is thick with "liberal theology" and many think the news is tainted, too, he said. The coverage of gay marriage "approaches cheerleading."

In a recent "On the Media" interview with WNYC, Okrent gracefully tried to retreat a step or two, acknowledging that he gave the "paper's enemies" ammunition they could yank out of context. The Times isn't really liberal, he said, it's merely liberal on "certain issues, social issues. ... It is a product of its place and of its people, and I think it's really important for the paper to recognize that and recognize how it is perceived."

In other words, the New York Times is only liberal on issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, Hollywood, euthanasia, gay rights, public education, cloning and loads of other issues linked to faith and public life.

That's all. But that's enough.

Life does look different from the vantage point of Ninth Avenue, and also from Times Square. The self-study panel noted, for example, the urgent need for the newspaper to be careful when it pins "loaded terms" on believers. For example, there are those "fundamentalists" who would rather be known as "Christian conservatives."

One such religious believer is John McCandlish Phillips, who is known these days as a preacher on Manhattan's upper West Side. But long ago, he was the rare superstar Times reporter with a worn-out Bible next to his newsroom typewriter. Now he is tired of hearing top Times columnists -- stuck in a "values voters" funk after the 2004 election -- saying that America has become an oppressive "theocracy" caught up in a "jihad."

The self-study is a remarkable step forward, especially with its blunt talk about religion and the need for accurate, balanced reporting, said Phillips.

"People at the Times are sensitive, as they should be, to this criticism because they know it is accurate. ... This document seems to be a call back to the standards that made the Times the foremost engine of news gathering and presentation in the history of the world."

Farewell to Ashcroft urban legend

The satirical report on the Democratic Underground website may have seemed bizarre to outsiders, but it was old news to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

According to a fictitious poll by CNN, Time and Cat Fancy Magazine, 52 percent of calico cats surveyed were afraid -- even deathly afraid -- of the attorney general and another 36 percent were "somewhat afraid." Some cats said they believed Ashcroft is, in fact, a sign of the devil.

"There have been reported cases of young kittens actually dying of fear when Ashcroft appears on television," said the fake news story. "Luckily for them, they have nine lives."

Behind the satire was an Internet report that spread as a rumor that became an "urban legend" about the Pentecostal Christian who was the highest of lightning rods during the first administration of President George W. Bush. Ashcroft will soon leave the cabinet, but this episode offers a window into how the religious and secular left viewed his faith and even the faith of his boss.

The rumor? Here is how it was stated by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society (www.snopes.com): "Attorney General John Ashcroft believes calico cats are a sign of the devil." The site says this rumor is "false" and calls it "one of the most bizarre items we've had to tackle in recent memory."

The key to understanding urban legends is that the people who spread them sincerely want to believe they are true, said Barbara Mikkelson, a curator at this urban legends research site. They don't believe they are spreading lies.

"People have a tendency to immediately believe rumors about people that they don't like or that they don't respect," she said. "We tend to spread the stories that, on some level, we agree with. It tells us that we are right.

"So along comes this story that is perfect and it confirms all of those views that we already hold. Of course we want to share it. It's just too perfect."

In the Internet age, legions of people click "forward" and pass the rumor along to friends through email, many of whom do the same or even post it somewhere on the World Wide Web.

Urban legends are especially popular among religious conservatives, millions of whom believe that mainstream media conspire to hide the best and the worst of the news. Thus, digital true believers excitedly circulate reports about NASA confirming biblical miracles, evil activists asking the Federal Communications Commission to zap religious media and a born-again president boldly sharing his faith with troubled teens.

But this particular legend sprang up on the left, beginning with web columnist and Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias. Citing anonymous sources, he wrote that members of Ashcroft's advance team had confirmed that their boss "believes calico cats are signs of the devil" and wants them removed from his path.

When pushed, Tobias declined to be more specific about sources. The tale of the demonic cats leapt into cyberspace and assumed a life of its own, as anyone can learn by typing "Ashcroft," "calico" and "Satan" (or "devil") into a computer search engine.

The attorney general laughed off the rumors -- again and again. Finally, a reporter from The American Enterprise asked if he had any idea how the rumor began.

"Absolutely none. ... In any case, there's no truth to it," said Ashcroft, a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago Law School. "I owned a calico cat on the farm I lived on until I went away to be the state auditor of Missouri."

Still, the urban legend grew. It even reached the New York Times.

The natural tendency, said Mikkelson, is to focus on who starts the rumor. The more important question is this: Who is spreading the urban legend and why are they doing so? The Ashcroft rumor is especially interesting because it was spread by powerful people in the mainstream of politics and media.

"What we have here is a mirror held up to the people who are spreading it," she said. "What it shows us is something about their values and their hopes and their fears about the world around them. ... Even if the story isn't true, they believe that it ought to be true. They want it to be true."

Hitting a nerve: News, religion, class

When it comes to media-bias surveys, God is almost as big a story these days as the president of the United States.

It helps if researchers release their work as journalists prepare for trench warfare in an election year. God is more newsworthy when linked to life's crucial issues, which, in journalism, are always politics, sports, entertainment and then more politics.

Thus, news coverage of a study by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism immediately focused on the fact that 34 percent of national-level journalists described themselves as "liberal," 54 percent as "moderate" and 7 percent as "conservative." The majority of national journalists considered their peers too soft on President George W. Bush. In a 1995 survey, the criticism was that President Bill Clinton was being treated too harshly.

"These political questions always attract attention," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the project. But this time around, the questions that offered the best insights into tensions between journalists and their readers were the "ones we included about religion and social issues. That may be the biggest issue of all."

One of the nation's top reporters on media news quickly connected the dots, jumping from abstract statistics to a hot story -- same-sex marriage.

"The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues," wrote Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. "Nine in 10 say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral (40 percent of the public thinks this way). As might have been inferred from the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts, 88 percent of national journalists say society should accept homosexuality; only about half the public agrees."

There's more. Only 31 percent of national journalists still have confidence in the public's election choices, as compared with 52 percent under Clinton. For Kurtz, the implication was clear that "many media people feel superior to their customers."

Once again, the Pew survey has raised a divisive question about media bias: Is the wide gap between journalists and their readers on social issues the result of (a) politics, (b) social class, (c) religious practice or (d) all of the above?

Rosenstiel said journalists are used to having their political beliefs criticized and most -- on left and right -- believe they can achieve accurate, balanced coverage. But this is where survey questions about religion and morality are important. For most journalists, these highly personal issues may be hidden in the blind spots of their professional training.

"If you are truly trying to be fair, it's probably easier to overcome your most obvious political biases. You're used to thinking about them," he said. "But the cultural and religious values that we hold are much harder to recognize. They are just a part of us. They are part of how we view the world and we may have trouble seeing that."

Nevertheless, Rosenstiel stressed that readers must not be hasty when interpreting the Pew question that asked if "belief in God ... is necessary to be moral." The 91 percent of the national press (and 78 percent of local journalists) who answered "no," may include many religious believers who admire the skills and convictions of their secular colleagues.

It would be unfair, he said, to use this question "as a proxy" for a specific question that asked how many reporters and editors believe in God.

Yes, this survey did hit a nerve in tense newsrooms.

One conservative scribe stressed that if researchers are truly concerned about the future of journalism, they must keep asking these faith-based questions. But some of the most delicate questions are actually linked to culture and class in elite news organizations, according to John Leo, writing in U.S. News & World Report.

"When I was at the New York Times, the leadership was full of people who had gone to the wrong schools and fought their way up with brains and talent," he said. "Two desks away from mine was McCandlish Phillips, a born-again Christian who read the Bible during every break. ... Phillips was a legendary reporter, rightly treated with awe by the staff, but I doubt he would be hired by most news organizations today. He prayed a lot and had no college degree."