It’s Sunday morning: Do you know where your readers are?

textA friend of this blog, columnist Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, has quietly raised an important issue over at the paper’s editorial page blog.

By the way, in this photo we have a rare glimpse of Dreher being on the left and Garry Wills on the right. (cue: rim shot)

That’s a joke, you see. Dreher is well-known as a “conservative” Catholic and Wills used to be known as a “conservative” Catholic, only now he is a “progressive” Catholic, or some other word to that effect. We could also talk about whether Dreher is a “conservative” journalist and Wills a “liberal” journalist, or whether Wills is a “journalist” or a “scholar,” for that matter. Or are these guys “public intellectuals,” or something? What do you think David Brooks would say?

Oh well, whatever, never mind. Here is what Dreher posted. Be careful, this is a blog within a blog thing:

A reader, presumably a conservative, sends this to me:

Awhile back, y’all were discussing on the blog how liberal-leaning the Letters to the Editors and those who write into the blog seem to be, despite the overall conservative makeup of the area. I think I could offer up a reason for what you see: many of your conservative readers have simply tuned out the editorial section. I know that I did — I’d read nearly every section of the paper, but I’d avoid the editorials, because I knew they wouldn’t share my views or at least present balanced arguments against my views. I didn’t start looking at it again until you came to the paper, and that was just because I knew you by reputation, and your beliefs.

I hear this all the time, conservatives saying they only read the paper for the news and sports. Yet I also hear liberals I meet talking about how &*%$# right-wing this editorial page is. This is all very interesting and mysterious to me. I wish the paper would do some research to find out how the editorial page is perceived by the community.

Or how about the rest of the newspaper? I bring this up because of some recent emails from GetReligion readers wanted to know how I was using terms such as “conservative,” “traditional,” “liberal” or “progressive.” This is linked, in my mind, to Dreher’s post for a simple reason. In large parts of Red America — Dallas leaps to mind — these kinds of words are just as likely to be used with religious and moral overtones as with political overtones. This is especially true in an era in which many of our hottest domestic political issues are directly linked to moral, cultural and, yes, religious issues. Try to cover abortion, Hollywood, sexuality, science education, welfare and race without getting caught up in religious themes and language.

So you can have people on the moral left and the political right. Think Andrew Sullivan. And there are a few people out there on the moral right who can honestly be put on the political left. The late Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania leaps to mind. And what do you do with Nat Hentoff?

For journalists this is a mindfield. I do not pretend to have any easy answers, except that reporters really should try to avoid simplistic “liberal” and “conservative” labels, unless people apply them to themselves. This is even more true for that albatross word — “fundamentalist.”

Yet, Dreher has a point. I often wonder how many newspaper executives — in this focus-group crazy age — have any hard data in their offices on how readers view their newspapers in terms of ideology. How many editors could describe the religious and cultural make-up of their regions? Their readers?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jill

    Speaking of the Dallas Morning News . . . we cancelled our subscription after the first of the year mostly because of its liberal bias. Once upon a time, when there was a competitor in town (the Dallas Times Herald) the Morning News was the more conservative, or in my opinion, the more “fair-minded” journalistically, of the two. Toward the end of 2003 the DMN started running announcements and photos of homosexual “unions” in the same section as weddings and engagements. For us that was the straw that broke the camel’s back! (Or maybe the rust that finally corroded the buckle off the Bible Belt?)

  • Ken

    The DMN, in it’s religion section, is the sort of newspaper that considers Richard McBrien the authority on all things Catholic, Bp. Spong or Marty Marty to be the voice of protestantism, and the Jesus Seminar to have the last word on the Bible. I should note they have recently done some decent things, such as a panel discussion on The Passion of the Christ that was balanced and fair. The traditional Catholic complained later about editing that supposedly distorted his remarks, but the initial presentation treated all viewpoints with respect. That is not the heritage of the DMN religion section. My favorite was the Christmas special on how visitors to churches don’t feel welcomed. Yeah. And, again being fair, they have actually done a little critical review of matters Jewish and Islamic.

    As to having Rod Dreher on staff, what can you say about a Catholic who constantly harps on “you can’t trust the bishops” , “you can’t trust the pope.” It may be true, but the bile and bilge with which he says it is revolting. What do you say about a Catholic who rants and raves about the transfer of a priest in the diocese basically because he, Rod Dreher, knows better than the bishop. You know, Dreher’s actually made me feel sorry for Bp. Grahmann, and that’s saying something! No, I’d say he’s just about the right Catholic to have at the News.

  • Victor Morton

    Rod said on the DMN blog that same day that he is the only pro-life member of that editorial board. One pro-lifer among about 10. In Dallas. Unless Rod is flat-out lying … which I have no reason even to contemplate, as he’d have been called on it (and it’s certainly consistent with what some others say about that subject and my impressions of the rest) … unless he’s a bald-faced liar, that’s the only fact you need to know about the Dallas Morning News editorial staff and its bias.

    But why does he get the other people complaining about “how &*%$# right-wing this editorial page is”? Partly, I’d say, because he’s Rod. In other words, he’s the lightning bolt and the person standing in front of the complainer — the embodier of evil, as it were. But also, and this is something I’d generally say is true of most ordinary people’s complaints of media bias — people simply don’t see their own views or biases AS views or biases. There’s selective cognition going on here. The first newspaper I worked at was in SW Georgia, and I was told (and my 2 years experience there bore it out) that the two most common complaints you’re gonna get are “too many blacks in the paper” and “not enough blacks in the paper.” Obviously both those things can’t be a problem, but there it is. To go back to Rod, a liberal reading a DMN column from one of his colleagues complaining about, say, Halliburton contracts in Iraq doesn’t register that column as a liberal, because it’s just true. In other words, I don’t have bias, I just see things the way they are. So then the next day’s Dreher column registers as an affront. All the affronts of course come from the right and so the liberal reader convinces himself “how &*%$# right-wing this editorial page is.”

    We’re talking about an ordinary universal process of cognition (“the fish not noticing the water”), so obviously conservatives could in principle be doing the same thing. But the hard data on attitudes and voting patterns of print and TV journalists tells you that that is, in this time and place, an impossible thought process for a conservative newspaper journalist to have.

  • Rod Dreher

    Funny, but just two days ago, my boss and I were meeting with the head of product research in our organization. We’re planning to launch a new Sunday opinion section in a couple of months, which I’m going to run (Jill, I hope you’ll come back to the paper, at least on Sunday; I promise you’ll find true balance in my section). We were discussing with the research head the sort of things we need to do to get ready for the testing before launch. He was telling us about a questionnaire they’ll send out to the test group about a prototype of our new section, and said if there were any questions we wanted to put on there about how people perceive the editorial pages, that could be done. I said, “It’d be interesting to know how readers perceive our ideological slant.” And it would. Within the paper, our page is seen as archconservative. I can only imagine that I’m viewed as Torquemada-meets-Attila. Mind you, my social views are entirely mainstream here in Dallas.

    One thing about Dallas: people here, at least older ones, seem to hate controversy, and to find sharp opinions state publicly distasteful and vulgar. I think some of that accounts for Ken’s comments above.

  • Ken

    “sharp opinions state publicly distasteful and vulgar”

    Easier than considering their validity, isn’t it, Rod. You remain as destructive a force in the Church as any child-raping priest or rapist-enabling bishop. They attack Christ in their way and you in yours.

  • Ken

    And by the way, I don’t live in Dallas, and you have me confused with my parent’s generation with respect to controversy. I love it. What I dislike is “bile and bilge” posing as thought.

    Congratulations on your new position. I can’t imagine a more appropriate person to write editorials in Dallas – the city of hate.

  • Rod Dreher

    Tsk. What a sad little man. Well, onward and upward!

  • Christian

    “any hard data in their offices on how readers view their newspapers in terms of ideology.”

    Maybe the balance of the paper could be indirectly assessed by the comments of people who cancel their subscriptions by writing a letter, e.g., if most people who cancel complain of consrvative bias, then the paper probably has that bias relative to its readership.

  • Jeff Sharlet/The Revealer

    I find this fight over “bias” to be perhaps the most dismaying trend in journalism.

    The DMN’s religion coverage is good enough to transcend this pissing fight of conservative v. liberal. The best work in its religion section engages with story, which is to say, character and complexity. That is at odds with a feature that “tells” us what’s right and what’s wrong in a given situation.

    As to cancelling a paper for its politics — I just can’t see that as a literate response. Like most people I know who are interested in religion and politics, I read a range of perspectives with the understanding that fine writing in vigorous thinking trump position papers every time. So what if a paper is “biased,” one way or the other? That shouldn’t threaten readers with critical thinking skills.

    Take today’s violence in Iraq. Nearly every American media outlet neglected the Sunni-Shia catalyst of today’s “uprising,” and most “covered” the causes of the violence by reporting Paul Bremer’s analysis instead of looking at the statements of the rebels. This is ignorant, lazy, and indicative of a pro-American bias. I happen to share that bias, but that doesn’t make it any less of one. So should I cancel my subscriptions to every pro-American paper? Should I disregard their reporting on Bremer because they fail to report on Sadr? Of course not. Readers need to look at religious and political coverage with more sophistication than they bring to the sports pages.

  • Ken

    Mr. Sharlett,

    You make some interesting points, but aren’t arguments over bias in newspapers inevitable today?

    Jill referenced the old Dallas Times Herald and accurately noted the relative bias’ of the two papers. Similar situations obtained in Houston, Detroit, and probably most cities. That’s great! In my family, we took both papers and you knew what you were getting. Ok, truth: it was partly to get all the comic we kids liked, but my parents liked the debate and I would be thrilled to have those options today. Instead, people in Dallas get the Morning News. In Fort Worth, we can buy the News or the Star-Telegram. Editorially, I can’t tell that much difference between them and if forced to a political label, would probably call them “populist”. But that’s debatable.

    The point is that bias is an inevitable feature of news reporting, editorial writing, and features such as religion and what I ask is respect for divergent viewpoints and presentation of those viewpoints by equal representatives of those viewpoints. As I said below, I don’t think the DMN religion section has done that in the past, but they are getting better. What I really want, of course, is alternatives (the Star-Telegram doesn’t have a real religion section, by the way).

    All of this raises a host of questions: with no real alternatives, how do I pick what to read? I don’t subscribe to either paper, so realistically, it’s a crap shoot. Something grabs my eye on the front page, or I know something will be reported in the metro (local news) sections, or Miss Manners will be in the DMN today.

    I tend to think of myself as typical in most things. Do most people pick their paper this way? Or are they tied into a subscription? Let me say that I have boycotted both local papers at times when they did something particularly outrageous; but given the limitations of both papers, I got off my high horse and went back to the crap shoot. Obviously, I have no “loyalty” to either paper, but it’s not directly politically motivated.

    It all seems so much more complicated than simple political, or even religious, bias.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Someone with better knowledge of journalism history than me ought to jump in here. My recollection is that the one paper, one town situation is the result of some Nixonian deregulation. Of course, that’s been vastly accelerated by media consolidation in the last decade (and lest anyone accuse me of bashing Republicans, it ought to be added that the Clinton administration was even more instrumental in opening the door to monopolies).

    But religion journalism isn’t going to be served by having a “left” and “right” newspaper — just look at the UK, where a healthier newspapering tradition thrives and religion journalism for the most part is worse than it is here.

    All good religion journalism requires is an editor smart enough to understand that belief is real, regardless of whether one agrees with it or not. In which case, a “left” editor can assign great coverage of “right” movements within a religious group, and vice versa. The DMN seems to have that. The New York Times, with its absurd “conservative beat,” does not, and nor, for that matter, does WSJ, with its one note culture war coverage, denouncing beliefs it finds politically unpalatable (such as liberation theology) as somehow incorrect.

    One doesn’t need to be a relativist to know that for a journalist, “true” and “false” are inadequate terms with which to report on the spectrum of belief.

  • Wooderson

    Good discussion, minus Ken’s comparison of Rod to child-abusing priests. Might wanna cut down on the caffiene.

    Because religion reporting is often the reporting of ideas and then the affect that those ideas have on individuals and groups – with some exceptions – it seems to me that religion reporters must take special care to (a) understand the ideas, and (b) convey those ideas carefully. Parsing the differences between Lutheran and Catholic Eucharists, for instance, would require not only a familiarity with Eucharistic theology generally but an understanding of the history of the relationship between those two churches and the various discussions that have occurred since then. It would also require a certain degree of empathy with both groups.

    I exaggerate a bit, but my point is that if what occurs in religion is often a question of nuance, then religion reporters must take care to “get” those nuances right. Otherwise religion reporting is clumsy, ham-fisted and inaccurate, and that is why I’ve stopped reading my local “award-winning” religion reporter, who has trouble distinguishing between the local Evangelical Anglicans opposed to gay bishops and the Baptist Fundamentalists out on route 41 who carry the ‘God hates fags’ signs. And if you don’t see any difference between the two then that’s part of the problem. Nuance, see?

    The alternatives are to cover religion as straight news (‘Local Baptist Church Tries Out Votive Candles, Accidentally Burns Down Sanctuary’), or as a sociological phenomena like Barbie doll collecting or model train clubs. The former will ensure that the “why” – which is of immense importance to the subjects – is inadequately addressed, and the latter will ensure that the “why” is basically dismissed from the outset.

    Of course, every time a religion reporter files a story he/she shouldn’t have to provide a “Dummy’s Guide to (this week’s) Sect”, either. And that’s why religion reporters need to be the cleverest writers around…

  • Tom Morris

    “religion journalism for the most part is worse than it is here”

    Have you seen the new “Face to Faith” section in the Guardian? But, also, we have the BBC who provide a lot of religious journalism, TV programming and such.

    As for ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, it would be nice if we could have people to stop using them, because the way that the words have been used in the United States have left them with no meaning at all. Same with left and right, traditional and progressive. There are more than two ideologies out there – but the current usage leaves us with all the word’s subtle meanings gone (contrary to popular beliefs, you can be a conservative without being a religious fundamentalist, and you can be a liberal without being a socialist – that is why we have different words for them, rather than misused umbrella terms). It reminds me of school playground behaviour rather than any serious attempt at adult political discussion.