Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 30, 2009

From the question of performance-enhancing drugs to antitrust issues in the BCS, government involvement in professional sports is a common occurrence nowadays. Then-President-elect Obama said that he would favor a playoff system for Division I college football and that he would “throw” his weight around a little bit in pursuit of that agenda. Congress recently announced plans to take up the question of antitrust issues with the BCS.

The powerful influence of professional sports on today’s culture raises complex questions about the intersection between business and government, as well as education and moral formation. Perhaps nowhere is this influence more apparent than in the midst of March Madness.

It is timely then that tomorrow the Acton Institute’s Rome office hosts a talk by Fr. Kevin Lixey, LC, head of the Church and Sport Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Fr. Lixey’s talk is titled, “Fighting the good fight: The promise and peril of sports as a training ground for virtue,” and is introduced in this way:

2000 years ago, St. Paul wrote “athletes are disciplined in every way.” But in nearly every country and every popular sport, the news reports as much scandal as inspiration. Can sports still foster human virtues? Or has the desire to win at all costs, please the crowds and increase profits destroyed the nobility of athletic competition? In this year dedicated to St. Paul, would he still use sports as an example for Christians?

So this week’s PowerBlog Ramblings topic takes up Fr. Lixey’s question: “Can sports still foster human virtues?”

The Philadelphia Society’s New Orleans meeting has concluded. This was my first time to be invited. I have some impressions to report about both the society and the town. For this post, I’ll focus on New Orleans.

If I can judge from the French Quarter and the rush hour traffic, New Orleans is back. The downtown area was absolutely hopping and it wasn’t Mardi Gras time. I’ve never seen an American city other than NYC with so much night life.

However, I have to admit I was taken aback by Bourbon Street. On Saturday morning, I visited Cafe du Monde with a fellow academic who’d been a Bush appointee. After eating our beignets, we walked along the sidewalks and were nearly flooded out by a street washing machine that literally poured soapy water all over the streets and walkways. I wondered how often the city conducted that operation. My guess now is every night. By the end of Saturday, I’d seen the Quarter in operation. You run into an awful lot of questionable liquids on the street and sidewalks. Come morning, the wages of overindulgence (and a lot of horse droppings) need to be washed away.

I was stunned by “out there” nature of the sexually-oriented businesses in evidence. That takes a little doing since I live in Houston which is filled with elaborate strip clubs, but there you spin rapidly by them on elevated freeways. In New Orleans, you walk by women in lingerie standing on sidewalks and in doorways to beckon customers inside. I imagine Times Square was like that P.G. (pre-Giuliani).

Having been to 21st century Times Square and seedy Bourbon Street. I’ll take Times Square. One changed for the better. The other stayed the same. Of course, I take into account the admonition of Thomas Aquinas that you can’t use the law to abolish all vice, lest you create a backlash of total rebellion. Still, Rudy G. seems to have done a better job of locating the golden mean than his counterpart Ray N.

It is our pleasure to welcome guest ramblings on the PowerBlog, and we are happy to feature this contribution from Jonathan Petersen, former Sr. Dir. of Corporate & Internet Communications at Zondervan. His 22 years at the international book and Bible publisher included directing public relations, corporate communications, and marketing strategy for general retail stores, direct mail, and the Internet. Prior to Zondervan, he was founding religion news editor and anchor for United Press International Radio Network. A member of the Online News Association, he can be reached at www.JonathanPetersen.com.

Who knew back in 1969 when ARPANET was created by the military as the precursor to the Internet to decentralize communication in the event of war on domestic soil, that it would eventually lead to revolutionizing and toppling entire societal institutions and upending business models that withstood onslaughts for 100 years? Among the hardest hit are traditional print- and broadcast-centric media. They’re now having to reinvent themselves or risk collapse in light of the ever advancing digital tsunami. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age cogently summarizes the current media scenario in his article “Apocalypse Now” (warning: strong language).

The stunning effects on journalism can be traced to 1997 when RSS debuted and 1998 when blogs entered the Web fray, allowing anyone to publish and syndicate any content they wanted for everyone to read anywhere. In 1999, the same year citizen journalism was taking root online, the book The Cluetrain Manifesto succinctly observed, “A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” How true.

For more than a century, journalism operated the same way: a news event occurred, an “official” reporter wrote about it, an editor reshaped it, a headline writer contributed to it, a designer/producer fit the story into a prefabricated and limiting format, and it was all distributed to consumers at a predetermined time for consumption the way the “professionals” proscribed. Today, in only 10 years, that model has been ripped apart: anyone can now manufacture and globally distribute news and we can select what news we want to read however and whenever we want to read it. This is good if you believe in freedom of speech. But it’s not so good if you demand consistently high editorial standards and desire quality reporting. Since the editorial filter is non-existent in citizen journalism, every reader must exercise discernment to know what to accept as fact and what to jettison as fiction.

Print newspapers are closing their doors for lack of sustainability and seasoned reporters are being forced to ply their trade in new digital ways. With all that journalistic professionalism unleashed, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, perhaps “citizen journalism” will become more institutionalized in its own way in the age of new media.

In the midst of declining revenues, increased competition from digital sources of information, and new costs associated with distribution, a number of print magazines have launched in recent months. This is noteworthy, in part because it attests to a disruption in the narrative of digital progress that sees print as an obsolete medium.

The New York Post reported that magazine advertising revenues were down 21.5% in the first quarter of 2009 (compared with Q12008). Here’s a rundown of some notable publications that have launched within the past year or so, right in the thick of this downturn:

  • Bible Study Magazine, published by Logos Research Systems, appears six times per year. The magazine is a complement to Logos’ powerful Libronix software, which is geared toward engagement with biblical, linguistic, and theological resources in digital form. As the magazine’s name indicates, the focus is on providing resources and guidance for engagement with the biblical text. This is a most worthy pursuit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “We must once again get to know the Scriptures as the reformers and our forebears knew them. We must not shy away from the work and the time required for this task.” Bible Study Magazine is a great place to start.
  • We’ve had a guest contribution from an associate editor of a promising publication published by Cardus. As the publication of a non-profit, Comment represents one avenue for the survival of print media, in the sense that it is not dependent solely on breaking even for survival. It is underwritten and subsidized as part of the larger mission of Cardus. The folks behind Comment have done a good job using the power of both print and digital media (including social networking) to promote and disseminate their product.
  • The Purpose Driven Connection is another non-profit print publication that is connected to a larger digital world. Rick Warren’s ministry launched PDC this year in part as a way to connect people to the larger Purpose Driven website. But the magazine itself is full of features, including a mix of new and repurposed content.
  • My own denomination, the CRC, has an office which launched a new web publication called Justice Seekers. The layout mimics a traditional print publication, and the email notice about the magazine also noted that it is available in print, although for a number of reasons it seems clear that digital delivery is the main concern.
  • Townhall.com also recently put out a new print publication, which represents a move from the digital back to print, Townhall magazine.

Each of these projects represents in its own way the possibilities for ongoing usefulness of the print medium, whether as a complement or a secondary alternative to some kind of digital offering. All of the above except for Bible Study Magazine are offered by some kind of non-profit, and this may represent a signal about the future of print media.

Indeed, non-profits still have an option for print delivery that’s unavailable to traditional publishers, and that’s an alternative pricing structure for USPS delivery. This can lead to a significant advantage, as in the past rates have gone up for regular publishers while decreasing for non-profits. The differentiation of rates is one way politically to provide a competitive advantage for non-profit print publications.

I visited Notre Dame last year at this time to meet with a few professors for the purpose of academic networking. My university was hiring and I hoped to hear about Christian doctoral students ready for their first job. As I walked across the snow-covered campus, I was a little in awe of how wonderfully the sacred space had been planned and laid out.

But when I met with one older professor who had been with the university for quite some time, he expressed a great deal of regret for how his student (the current president) was making decisions. Looking around his office, I noticed photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. holding hands with priests protesting the injustice of segregation. I thought to myself, if this man feels something good has been lost at Notre Dame, it must truly be so.

When I heard about Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak and receive an honorary doctorate, I could not believe it. I knew the university had liberalized. I knew many faithful Catholics felt ND had lost its way, but I also knew many fine, Christian scholars populated its offices and classrooms. How could it be that the university many of us point to when we aspire to building a great Christian academic institution would invite a president to speak and receive and honorary doctorate when he could not liberalize abortion laws quickly enough upon taking office?

Has the protection of unborn and newly born life not been a distinctive of the Christian church from the beginning? Did not the Catholic church act convincingly to remind evangelicals and others of their duties to protect life?

All I can think about as I watch this great university rushing to honor a president who considers the question of when life begins to be above his pay grade and yet who acts to liberalize the capacity to extinguish it is that Notre Dame is trading its heritage for the applause of the culture. Friend, Father Jenkins, I pray that you would consider the quality of the culture whose applause you seek.

As Walker Percy, a self-proclaimed bad Catholic who was actually a great one said, there is decline and fall and then there are the options. Choose life instead, sir. I say that to both of these presidents. One, the president of a university, and the other, a president of a nation.

Dear Fr. Jenkins:

You are, no doubt, being inundated with letters, phone calls and emails objecting to the decision of Notre Dame to invite President Obama to give the commencement address this year and to receive an honorary doctorate from your university.

I feel compelled to write to you as a brother priest to express my own dismay at this decision which I see as dangerous for Notre Dame, for the Church, for this country, and frankly Father, for your own soul.

I have had the honor to speak at Notre Dame over the years in my capacity as the president of the Acton Institute. I recall the sparkling discussion and questions from the student body, notably from a number of the Holy Cross Seminarians. I have, in fact, been invited to your campus on a number of occasions and on my last visit I was given a statue of the Lladro Blessed Mother in appreciation of my speech. I was told the statue was blessed by Fr. Hesburgh. It has occupied a special place in our religious community since then.

Father, I have no degree or awards from Notre Dame to return to you to indicate how strongly I feel about this scandalous decision. So here is what I have decided to do:

I am returning this statue to your office because what once evoked a pleasant memory of a venerable Catholic institution now evokes shame and sorrow. The statue is simply too painful a reminder of the damage and scandal Notre Dame has brought to the Church and the cause of human life in this decision.

Moreover, I will encourage the young people from my parish and within our diocese to consider universities other than Notre Dame for their college career and I will further encourage other priests in my diocese to do the same. I will also discourage Notre Dame alumni to make donations to the University.

And you may rest assured that I will make this sentiment known from my pulpit and in other public outlets as the occasions present themselves.

This is not a matter of abortion (I presume we agree on how evil it is); nor is it about free speech (you could have invited the president to a discussion for that). This is about coherence. You no longer know who you are as a Catholic institution.

It pains me to write this letter to you. I ask that you go before the Blessed Sacrament and look into your soul – the soul of priest – and reverse this decision before more scandal is brought to the Church.

You and the students under your pastoral charge will be in my prayers and Lenten sacrifices.

Sincerely in Christ,

Fr. Robert Sirico

Blog author: awilkinson
posted by on Thursday, March 26, 2009

It is our pleasure to welcome guest ramblings on the PowerBlog, and we are happy to feature this contribution from Alissa Wilkinson, who is editor of The Curator, associate editor of Comment, and on staff at International Arts Movement. She is finishing a M.A. in Humanities & Social Thought at New York University. She frequently contributes writing on culture and film to a number of publications, including Paste and Christianity Today.

In response to the question, “What form will journalism take in the age of new media?”, I have to consider two of my nearly-daily activities.

First, I work as an editor on two publications which are enabled by or adapting to the new media age. My work on Comment, an opinion journal published by the North American think tank Cardus, is predicated on both the internet and print. We publish a weekly online edition and a quarterly print journal, and we’ve been experimenting with social media such as Facebook as a way to advertise. My other magazine, The Curator, has no budget at all, which meant we had no choice but to start as an online journal. Our contributors – some quite well-versed in their field – work for free at present, and we publish weekly on the web.

The lesson I’ve learned there is that new media forces journalism to be either hyperlocal or (like my work) broad-based in its appeal, since visitors may be browsing the magazine down the hall or on the other side of the world. And as my friends and I have watched some more well-funded publications like Culture11 go under, we’ve remarked that publishing online with no budget has its benefits; you can’t really go under for lack of funds. And small magazines have never really made any money, have they?

Second, I purchased a Kindle a few weeks ago and have slowly come to believe that this little device may just save journalism completely. According to a recent article in Business Insider, it costs the New York Times about twice as much to print and deliver the newspaper as it would to send each of its subscribers a Kindle. Though it costs about the same to subscribe to magazines on the Kindle as it does in print (The New Yorker is $40 per year for the print edition, and $36 for the Kindle edition), because you’re paying $3 monthly instead of a lump sum, it feels like less. And the overhead for the magazine is obviously much less, since everything is delivered wirelessly.

For sheer efficiency and lack of overhead, the Kindle wins out: for flexibility, online publishing just works.

rl_18_3 The new issue of Religion & Liberty featuring an interview with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is available online, now in its entirety. From the very beginning, Governor Sanford has been a vocal critic of all bailout and stimulus legislation pouring out of Washington, regardless of who is occupying the White House.

For an update on the stimulus debate, and the governor’s role in the new stimulus law, The Wall Street Journal published Governor Sanford’s March 20 column titled, “Why South Carolina Doesn’t Want ‘Stimulus.’” Our interview is also unique in that Governor Sanford also talks about faith in the public square and the virtues related to spending restraint.

We have some excellent cultural analysis in this issue, which includes “Busting a Pop Culture Illusion” by S.T. Karnick. Karnick is the editor of the American Culture website. He calls the Disney “life without limits mindset, one of the main progenitors of modern, statist liberalism.” Bruce Edward Walker of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy offers a piece that uplifts the moral order over ideology. Walker declares:

For Eliot, the moral imagination derived from his Anglo-Catholicism; for Kirk, his Roman Catholicism. Devoid of moral imagination, all systems–political, social, economic, familial and spiritual–are bound to fail. True conservatives, both men believed, place moral considerations ahead of ideology. In fact, both held that true conservatism is the negation of ideology.

Two books are reviewed in this issue, Kevin Schmiesing reviews Philip Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture and I review Spiritual Enterprise: Doing Virtual Business by Theodore Roosevelt Malloch. Schmiesing’s review first appeared on the Powerblog in November.

In this issue we also pay tribute to one of the giants who was pivotal in the destruction of Marxist-Leninism. Alexander Solzhenistyn (1918 – 2008) is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure for this issue. I was about 14 or 15 when my dad gave me a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and in reading his book it was plain for me that the fundamental flaws of the Soviet System were moral in nature. Nobody has written and articulated that case better and more effectively than Solzhenitsyn did. His works offered the first critique of the Soviet system I had come across from a non-Westerner. It’s not the first time we have written about Solzhenitsyn of course, Religion & Liberty’s Executive Editor John Couretas published “Solzhenitsyn and Russia’s Golgotha” in the Spring issue of 2007.

Davos capitalism, managerial capitalism run by a transnational elite, has lost faith in free markets. But these technocrats and politicians still believe that they, and only they, possess the solutions that will “fix” global markets. “We have tried the illusory third way — it is called Davos — and it has failed,” Michael Miller writes.

Read this commentary over at the Acton Website and comment on it here.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In response to the question, “What form will journalism take in the age of new media?”, a quick thought, speculative and devoid of adequate substantiation.

I’ve heard a lot of worrying about what will take the place of newspapers and news magazines as their decline continues. My worrying runs in a different direction. I have complete faith that what the market demands the market will supply. I don’t pretend to know exactly what form it will take, but I’m confident that there will develop profitable ventures in journalism that exhibit or even improve upon the standards set by the newspapers of the last couple centuries.

That is, if there is demand for such information. As I see newspapers failing, I’m concerned not that the press will stop serving its indispensable purpose in a free society; I’m concerned instead about what it might indicate about the American public’s interest in matters of public import such as politics, religion, and economics.

The demise of newspapers would cause me no great concern except for the fact that the trend occurs in the context of reports that our educational system fails to guarantee basic literacy among a disturbingly large portion of our population, that the average number of books Americans read is declining, and that high percentages of us rely on late-night comedy as our primary source of political information.

In sum, I don’t doubt our ability to produce high quality journalism, but I increasingly wonder, who will read it?