Few athletes in recent years have made football as compelling to watch as Tim Tebow. The guy throws wounded-duck passes for three quarters, and still finds a way to win with overtime heroics, even though his player stats suggest that a victory is impossible.
Of course, proclaiming his Christian faith on and off the field has made Tebow controversial to say the least. Sandra Fish, who teaches journalism at the University of Colorado, asks this supposedly provocative question at the Washington Post website: “Tim Tebow: Would we love him if he were Muslim?”
Fish proceeds to draw a baffling parallel. “The lauding of Tebow’s Christianity has me recollecting another Denver athlete who once flaunted his faith, on the basketball court in the mid-1990s, and paid a price for it.” Fish then goes on to tell the tale of former Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who, following his conversion to Islam, called the American flag “a symbol of oppression and tyranny” and received a one-game suspension for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Abdul-Rauf’s actions didn’t win him any new fans. He was traded to Sacramento and left the league two years later.
“But if a Muslim player thanked Allah after every game, ended every interview with ‘praise Allah,’ would we afford him the same respect we give Tebow? Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf knows the answer.”
You got that, sports fans? You’re religious bigots or something. Never mind that two of the greatest and most revered NBA players in history—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon—were both Muslim. Muhammad Ali made some pretty sharp anti-American critiques, and yet George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Funnily enough, in November, sports columnist Jen Engel asked the same question as Fish and arrived at an entirely different answer:
Imagine for a second, the Denver Broncos quarterback is a devout follower of Islam, sincere and principled in his beliefs and thus bowed toward Mecca to celebrate touchdowns. Now imagine if Detroit Lions players Stephen Tulloch and Tony Scheffler mockingly bowed toward Mecca, too, after tackling him for a loss or scoring a touchdown, just like what happened in October.
I know what would happen. All hell would break loose.
Engel goes on to flesh out the likely scenario of a furious backlash from her fellow sports columnists, the NFL commissioner being forced to apologize, etc. Suffice to say, Engel has it right and Fish has it wrong.
In the meantime, we would invite Fish and Tebow’s detractors to talk to Bailey Knaub. Knaub is a teenage girl from Loveland, Colorado, who has Wegener’s granulomatosis, a disease that leads to prolific tumors. Her 70th surgery was the removal of her left lung. Knaub is a big fan of the Broncos QB, so Bailey’s cousin surreptitiously wrote a letter to Tebow’s foundation.
Tebow was understandably moved, and brought Bailey to the first round of the playoffs, where she watched Tebow throw for 316 yards and deliver a stunning victory on an 80-yard pass in, yes, overtime, against the best passing defense in the league. After the biggest win of his professional career, he told the press: “But the real win, at least I would say today, is being able to comfort a girl who has gone through 73 surgeries before the game and get a chance to go hang out with her now.”
The most frustrating thing for Tebow’s critics is that nothing about his life or career suggests his Christian charity isn’t coming from a place of sincerity or humility, as opposed to being a retrograde expression of narrow-minded tribalism. But the truth is that you don’t have to share Tebow’s faith to be inspired by his victories—on and off the field.
Readers may be surprised to learn that The Scrapbook occasionally listens to National Public Radio while commuting in and out of the nation’s capital. Readers may be less surprised to learn that The Scrapbook is occasionally annoyed by NPR while commuting in and out of the nation’s capital.
Case in point: Harry Belafonte seems to have recently published a memoir—titled, inevitably, My Song—and there was a period last fall when it seemed as if every time The Scrapbook tuned in to our friends at public radio, a fawning interview was being conducted with the singer/activist. To be sure, the 84-year-old Belafonte’s voice is now distinctly raspy, and his answers tended to sound like a monologue by the aged Don Corleone; but for awhile there you couldn’t switch from one NPR station to another without hearing it.
The consensus of the interviewers seemed to be that they were talking to the consummate artist of the 20th century, a man whose career spanned more than half a century of supreme achievement, and whose persistent celebrity—whose mere presence on the planet Earth—has been a gift to humankind since time out of mind.
Alas, The Scrapbook remembers things a little differently. Harry Belafonte sang two chart-topping novelty songs in the mid-1950s—“Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song”—and for a few years thereafter churned out albums and made the occasional TV and film appearance, as good-looking singers will often do. But that’s about it. Harry Belafonte was one of dozens of popular male warblers of the era; and can anyone, offhand, name one of his movies?
The Scrapbook didn’t think so. What The Scrapbook thinks is that Belafonte’s celebrity, such as it is, has been sustained and nurtured over the years by his persistent, and perverse, devotion to left-wing causes. Yes, that’s him standing between Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, and there he is picketing outside the South African embassy in the 1980s. But when The Scrapbook says “left-wing,” it uses the term advisedly. There are plenty of “activists” in show-biz ranks, but Belafonte stands out for his bitter denunciations of the land of his birth, his devotion to the Soviet Union, his admiration for the Castro regime, and his affection for the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Hand in hand in Caracas with the Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, he once declared:
No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world—George W. Bush—says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people support your revolution!
So it should come as little surprise to learn that Belafonte has denounced two secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, in deliberately personal terms as “slaves who lived in the house,” and this past week, criticized none other than Barack Obama himself for lacking a “moral compass,” thereby facing “a splendid opportunity to do more than most presidents would have ever been able to do, and [letting] that opportunity slip away from him.”
It need hardly be mentioned that Powell, Rice, and Obama are, like Belafonte, African Americans, for whom he seems to reserve his most offensive epithets (“house slaves”). Of course, The Scrapbook has its differences with Obama—with Rice and Powell, for that matter—but suspects that there is another reason why Harry Belafonte chooses to insult in such terms: Even the 1950s King of Calypso must realize that these are people of genuine achievement, and that he is not quite the public monument that NPR is pleased to flatter.
Ombudsman, Heal Thyself
Heaven help the journalistic establishment, but it seems to be having a problem with “facts.” We don’t just mean that they’re bad at reporting them, but journalism’s prestige institutions have been reduced to wondering aloud about what exactly facts are and what role they play in how these institutions perform their jobs.
Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times’s public editor, aka ombudsman, earnestly asked last week: “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Brisbane notes that some Times readers are frustrated that the paper doesn’t call out more people for stretching the truth.
The only remarkable thing about that question is that it’s even being asked. Of course newspapers should report the truth, especially when it contradicts someone’s self-interested agenda.
But if Brisbane and Times readers are scratching their heads over what to do here, that’s because they have no idea where their opinions end and the truth begins. Brisbane further clarifies what he’s talking about by citing a Paul Krugman column in which the liberal economist objects to Mitt Romney’s suggestion that President Obama has been “apologizing for America.” The public editor then postulates one possible response for news reporters to give to Romney:
Perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less: “The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”
But it would be inane to criticize Romney like this in a news story, because he’s not actually putting the word “apologize” in the president’s mouth. Does Brisbane seriously not know the difference between a factual assertion and a characterization? It appears he doesn’t. A reporter might be expected to challenge the former, but the issue of refereeing characterizations in the name of fairness is a much more complicated one that goes to the heart of a paper’s credibility. More often than not, it’s not within the purview of news reporters.
The sane response for Brisbane would be to ask why some readers are so incensed by the accurate quotation of Mitt Romney’s rhetoric on the front page they can’t be bothered to turn to the editorial page, where columnists such as Krugman are employed precisely to give voice to their objections.
But if the New York Times has to ask whether it should report the facts and then answers its own question in such a way as to convincingly demonstrate it has no concept of what being objective even means, it truly is doomed.
The Olbermann Deficit
The Scrapbook has fond memories of Keith Olbermann, the volatile cable talking head. In a career distinguished as much by its instability as its substance—in a handful of years he has been variously employed by CNN, Fox, ESPN, MSNBC, and Current TV—we came to enjoy his impassioned, Senator Claghorn-style denunciations of Republicans and, in particular, President George W. Bush. Not because we agreed with anything he had to say—Olbermann is a mindless liberal partisan and, in the words of one former boss, a self-evident “nut”—but because the saying of it was so entertaining. Kind of like watching somebody else’s deep-voiced toddler having a meltdown. Olbermann’s unique combination of left-wing piety, uncontrollable rage, comic pomposity, and manic glossolalia could be found nowhere else in the televised universe.
Unfortunately, The Scrapbook has been Olbermann-deprived for several months now. Last year he had an inevitable falling-out with the “Lean Forward” folks at MSNBC, and settled in at Current TV, a media project of former Vice President Al Gore and one of his rich friends, Joel Hyatt. Never heard of Current TV? Neither had we, and despite The Scrapbook’s residence in the nation’s political capital, we haven’t been able to find it on any of the local cable services, either.
That is, The Scrapbook—and 312.8 million other Americans since, according to the New York Times, Olbermann’s present audience is estimated to be about 200,000 viewers, down from a reported million at MSNBC. But we still love him, and here’s why. The Times informs us that Olbermann and Current TV are furious with one another (he and Gore reportedly don’t speak), and it is probably just a matter of time before Olbermann explodes, yet again, and stalks away from his employer of six months, which is paying him $50 million over the course of a five-year contract. By The Scrapbook’s rough calculation, that’s approximately $50 per viewer, on an annual basis, being drained from the wallets of Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, and wasted on Olbermann.