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Press: What Notre-Dame taught us about the media

26 April 2019


A statue is removed from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris

A statue is removed from Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris

THE fire at Notre-Dame came too late for last week’s column (News, 18 April). From a media commentary point of view, there are a couple of things worth pointing out.

The first is the way in which YouTube’s attempt to shuffle off political and moral judgements on to algorithms failed again: in the United States, viewers watching the livestream were treated for several hours to an “explanatory” bit underneath showing the Twin Towers on fire after the 9/11 attack. Apparently, the algorithm sorted all large public buildings with huge plumes of smoke pouring out of them into one category. But the human mind looks for perpetrators rather than visual likenesses after every disaster, and so assumed that the videos were pointing to the same people.

The second point, of importance to the press, is how much more important the internet is to the spread of news. It is not just quicker than the print media, but it is more comprehensive than the television news. I learned of the disaster while on a train, but I was still able to watch the fire in real time on a stream from a Paris television station on my phone. This was more vivid and horrifying than almost any of the subsequent descriptions.

The final point, about the expectations of the audience, comes from a background report that the Associated Press put out a couple of days later, which explained that, as the headline put it, “Tourist mecca Notre Dame also revered as a place of worship.”


SEE also the Mail Online’s explainer in captions to its coverage of the suicide attacks in Sri Lanka: “At least 207 people have died in the eight Easter Sunday blasts, including Brits, Americans and Dutch nationals. The bombings targeted hotels such as the Cinnamon Grand which are popular with foreign visitors, as well as St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, also frequented by tourists.”

Here, again, the identity of the victims as tourists was much more important than their identity as Christians. Perhaps this is because the Christian victims were not white; perhaps we should be grateful that the atrocity was not recruited into counter-jihad propaganda by the mainstream.


AS A piece of journalism, there was great enjoyment to be had from Edward Luce’s journey to the megachurch of Joel Osteen, in Houston, Texas. Luce, the Financial Times’s man in Washington, is the epitome of fastidious elite conservatism, which is to say that he is horrified by Donald Trump.

Mingling with the worshippers, he discovers the fresh horror of church coffee: “I met Dustin Rollo one evening in Houston in an airless classroom at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. About 25 men, mostly middle-aged, had gathered for their first session in the church’s Quest for Authentic Manhood night class. Rollo, a 35-year-old warehouse supervisor with a wispy beard and calligraphic tattoos on each hand, was supervising.

“Most of the men were dressed in tracksuits, cargo pants or jeans and T-shirts. There was a faint hint of deracination. The only refreshment to be found was moderately caffeinated hot water in styrofoam cups.”

But Luce also spoke to the megastar preacher himself, and this bit was fascinating.

“Osteen, a youthful 56-year-old, is said to practise his sermon for days until he gets it pitch perfect — when to turn to which camera to deliver the money line; which part of the stage to occupy at any given moment; when to vary his cadence; how to make the most of all the bling. [But] without a script, he seemed painfully shy. There were beads of sweat on his forehead. How did he manage to keep sin and redemption out of a Christian message, I asked. ‘Look, I am a preacher’s son so I’m an optimist,’ Osteen said after a pause. ‘Life already makes us feel guilty every day. If you keep laying shame on people, they get turned off.’

“But how does telling people to downplay their consciences tally with the New Testament? Osteen smiled awkwardly. ‘I preach the gospel but we are non-denominational,’ he replied. ‘It is not my aim to dwell on technicalities. I want to help people sleep at night.’”


EXTINCTION REBELLION, on the other hand, wants to wake people up (News, 18 April). It is one of the more interesting of the new religious movements, even if it has no organisation. But it combines ritual, belonging, and passionate urgency.

The FT (again) had carried a feature on the backgrounds of the activists. One woman, a Cambridge Ph.D., had moved into full-time activism after taking psychoactive drugs in a ceremony on Costa Rica; there was a man who had been working for a pension provider in the City when he decided that his children might, by the time they were 60, need food and shelter more urgently than a share portfolio; and a Cambridge academic psychologist who had given up her job to be an activist.

These are people really moved by the awareness of things unseen. And, like all such people, they meet with ferocious resistance. Life would be so much simpler if this were a guarantee that they were right as well as sincere and good.

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