The Times has no Passion for Christian forgiveness

The New York Times seems set on a Mad Max shoot-out with Mel Gibson over his movie, The Passion, which deals with the last hours in the life of Jesus Christ. I don’t see the newspaper scoring any points from one of its most discreditable performances.

The worldwide controversy about the movie, its echoes registering relatively faintly in Australia, began with an article on March 9 in The Times‘s Sunday magazine. It clawed at Gibson personally and claimed his picture depicted Jews as Christ killers, and would stir up new waves of anti-Semitism.

When The Times piece appeared, not even Gibson knew what would be in the movie, whose editing had scarcely begun. Moreover, the article attempted to portray Gibson as a religious maniac, capable of anything, largely by reference to the radical, fundamentalist beliefs and eccentric public remarks of his father, Hutton Gibson.

Shortly afterwards an American rabbi, Yehiel Poupko, received in the mail an anonymous gift of several pages from an early draft script for The Passion – from which next to nothing could be deduced about a movie still in the making. The rabbi appears to have distributed copies widely. A torrent of ill-informed and hostile comment poured forth. The Times kept the cauldron boiling with copious reporting of the onslaught.

The major studios, including 20th Century Fox which has first refusal on all Gibson’s movies, were scared off distributing The Passion. First round to The Times.

Gibson turned to an independent distributor, Newmarket Films, which had shown muscle by getting the New Zealand movie Whale Rider into 550 cinemas. Newmarket enlisted the support of hundreds of Christian organisations – a regrettably sectarian but possibly live-or-die solution – and has exceeded 2000 bookings for The Passion, more than the count for many big studio pictures.

The Gibson organisation also harvested favourable comment with the uncomplicated strategy of staging previews from which known enemies, such as The New York Times, were rigorously excluded.

The most eminent supporter appears to be Pope John Paul II, who saw the movie on video. On December 16 and 17 several media services, quoting different Vatican sources, reported that the Pope had called the movie “incredible” and in a resonating phrase declared: “It is as it was.”

This caused The Times to become – and I quote the American media blog so as not to be thought a lone character assassin – “unglued”. The paper’s senior arts columnist, Frank Rich, went over the top in an oddly delayed shoot-out column on January 16: “Pope John Paul II, frail with Parkinson’s disease, is rarely able to celebrate Mass. But why should his suffering deter a Hollywood producer from roping him into a publicity campaign to sell a movie?”

Rich conceded he hadn’t seen the movie, but “the marketing of this film remains a masterpiece of ugliness when hucksters wield holier-than-thou piety as a club for their own profit. That a movie star should fan culture wars for dollars is perhaps no surprise.”

Rich also raised doubts about the Pope having praised the movie. Two days later, the Pope’s secretary Archbishop Dziwisz asserted to the Catholic News Service that John Paul II had “told no one his opinion”. Reporting this in its news pages, where some respectability seems still to abide, The Times quoted “a Roman Catholic official close to the Vatican”, who said he had reason to believe the Pope had made the claimed comments but that “there’s some hard feelings at the Vatican about the way they have been used”.

On January 23, The Times reverted to malice and shoot-out. In his “Vatican Journal” column Frank Bruni found a source to speculate that this fumbling would “feed the impression that nobody’s in charge (at the Vatican)”.

The controversy stirred up by The Times has guaranteed a large audience for the movie. I had hoped to squib it as probably harrowing but have been persuaded by the paper’s embargo attempts that I should see The Passion – though certainly not on its ill-chosen opening date, Ash Wednesday, a day sufficiently dense with stress and foreboding.

The manufactured raging against the movie has created worse possibilities of conflict between Christians and Jews than the movie itself, which, given the hair-raising risks, I have no problem accepting as an act of personal devoutness by Gibson.

I was heartened by David Klinghoffer, writing in the Los Angeles Times, who drew upon the Talmud to conclude: “Considering that Gibson’s portrayal coincides closely with traditional Jewish belief, it seems that leaving him alone is the decent as well as the Jewish thing to do.”

The Christian thing to do, I guess, is to forgive The New York Times for perverting journalism and turning it to propaganda. But I need to brood about that for a while.

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Australian, Australia
Jan. 30, 2004 Opinion
Frank Devine

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 2, 2004.
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