Kristof on religion, press: More diversity!

news-printing-press.jpgGetReligion readers may have noticed that Nicholas D. Kristof experienced a fit of journalistic paranoia this week, one inspired, in large part, by a topic close to the concerns of this blog. Basically, he is scared stiff — with just cause, in my opinion — that the American public now views the MSM as a bunch of biased jerks, or worse. Thus the headline: “A Slap in the Face.”

Here is a key passage in his New York Times column, which began with reports about reporters clashing with courts that are not friendly to First Amendment claims.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center, “Trends 2005,” is painful to read. The report says that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago. In this kind of environment, it’s not surprising that journalists are headed for jail. The safety net for American journalism throughout history has been not so much the First Amendment — rather, it’s been public approval of the role of the free press. Public approval is our life-support system, and it is now at risk.

Since 1973, the National Opinion Research Center has measured public confidence in 13 institutions, including the press. All of the other institutions have generally retained a good measure of public respect, but confidence in the press has fallen sharply since 1990.

Many mainstream reporters are going to say that Kristof is off his rocker and needs to calm down. Others simply believe that the media-bias claims are rooted in political, cultural or even religious differences. Right-wingers just hate the news media. So what else is new? In due time, all of those conservative people will grow up and get smart. They probably don’t read newspapers anyway. Right?

The problem, noted Kristof, is that lots of people on the left are mad, too. And some of the people at Pew think this chasm has as much to do with class conflicts as with politics and religion. I wrote on this topic last summer and featured this quote on the subject from conservative scribe James Leo at U.S. News & World Report:

“When I was at the New York Times, the leadership was full of people who had gone to the wrong schools and fought their way up with brains and talent,” he said. “Two desks away from mine was McCandlish Phillips, a born-again Christian who read the Bible during every break. . . . Phillips was a legendary reporter, rightly treated with awe by the staff, but I doubt he would be hired by most news organizations today. He prayed a lot and had no college degree.”

This leads us directly to the most controversial quotation in the Kristof column, one I am sure has people inside the New York Times building questioning his sanity. Clearly, this man’s willingness to talk with religious people and cultural conservatives is getting to him!

In effect, he says the Times needs to find some more people like McCandlish Phillips — that is, if it wants to lay claim to being a national newspaper of record.

More openness, more willingness to run corrections, more ombudsmen, more acknowledgement of our failings — those are the kinds of steps that are already under way and that should be accelerated. It would help if news organizations engaged in more outreach to explain themselves, with anchors or editors walking readers through such minefields as why we choose to call someone a “terrorist,” or how we wield terms like “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”

We also need more diverse newsrooms. When America was struck by race riots in the late 1960′s, major news organizations realized too late that their failure to hire black reporters had impaired their ability to cover America. In the same way, our failure to hire more red-state evangelicals limits our understanding of and ability to cover America today.

You may want to read that again.

That statement sounded wise to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, but he does not have his hopes up. Here is a long clip from his reaction to the Kristof piece, published on the Dallas Morning News editiorial-page blog. Sadly, I cannot link to it directly, because the technical crew that set up this blog seems to have little understanding of how blogs actually work and interact. Anyway, here is Dreher about the Kristof call for diversity:

He’s entirely correct, but that will never happen. Some people are more diverse than others. In 1997, when I worked for another newspaper, I got into a heated conversation with the woman who ran the diversity training program at the paper. She was awfully proud of herself for having worked to put together a newsroom that looked like our readership area. I told her she shouldn’t be so smug, because though they had a good mixture of men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, and on and on, the diversity was largely skin deep. Most everybody in that newsroom was middle class, had gone to the same kinds of universities, held more or less the same general cultural and political outlook. . . .

“There are lots of Pentecostals in this county, lots of them black or Hispanic,” I said. “But you won’t find them in this newsroom, except working as secretaries or janitors. This county is 40 percent registered Republican. How accurately do you think they are represented in this newsroom?” Etc. She had no idea what I was talking about, and dismissed me condescendingly as a Grumpy White Male. Wasn’t going to have her ideological apple cart upset.

“Amen.” But let me add one more thing about this call for ideological diversity. American journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not people who hate journalism. Too many religious and cultural conservatives hate the news media and, truth be told, are more interested in public relations than tough, accurate news stories that try to deal with both sides of controversial issues. How many conservative colleges and universities have solid journalism programs? How many have college newspapers that get to, oh, take notes during trustee meetings? Just asking.

This is a blind spot with two sides, Mr. Kristof. The press does not respect the valid role that religion plays in American life. And many people in the pews do not respect the valid role played by the press. We have to get to work on both sides of that equation.

End of sermon.

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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.

  • ECJ

    Speaking as one of those who would be stereotyped as hating the MSM:

    It’s ironic that you should post about this only a couple of days after you posted about Edward Wasserman’s column in the Miami Herald.

    That column struck me as an argument whose sole purpose was to pre-emptively reject Kristof’s assertion: that ‘impious’ journalists are incapable of adequately covering religion. Because if that proposition is true, then the diversity rules really do engage. But that would mean hiring “those people” and suddenly I am reminded of a bunch of Northeastern WASPs reviewing an application for Club membership by someone named Goldstein.

    Actually I think that ‘impious journalists’ could cover Religion. C-SPAN proves to me that journalists can remove themselves from the coverage. I just don’t think journalists want to. Journalists as a group tend toward a particular world view, and that world view drives their coverage. Serious religion doesn’t fit into the picture. In fact they consider it dangerous to the Republic. Which means they consider me a danger to the Republic. And they aren’t shy about making known that conclusion. If the MSM is my enemy, it is because it has declared itself to be so by word and deed.

    Do I feel contempt for it, and bear it considerable ill-will? Yes. Did I cheer when Eason Jordon’s scalp was stapled to the wall? Absolutely. And (to be honest) not just because he deserved it. I see the MSM as the self-appointed opponent of that is good, right, and true. So for the moment I am forced to conclude that what is bad for the MSM is good for society as a whole. If that means I hate it, then so be it. But the MSM could vitiate all of hostility if only it would openly admit its point of view, and stop treating me like a fool. This would not make a journalist into a political actor. It would simply acknowledge what only journalists now refuse to admit – that journalists are already political actors.

    The MSM doesn’t need hiring quotas for evangelicals. It needs forthright disclosure. But I suspect that hell will freeze before that happens. So we are left with this war of attrition and all of its attendent consequences.


  • Brian Lewis

    The best newspaper I’ve been at for wielding terms like pro-life and pro-choice was the Wichita Eagle. Because they simply didn’t do it.

    People who track these sorts of things might know Wichita as home to the 1991 Summer of Mercy and others, I hear, still call it the Abortion Capital of the World. Or the Late-Term Abortion Capital of the World.

    Are those identified as pro-choice anti-life? They don’t think so. They like to think they support life after birth. Are those identified as pro-life anti-choice? Again, they don’t think so. They clearly so choice before conception.

    But like cliches and labels and so much of our culture today, it’s easy to toss out pro-life and pro-choice because everybody thinks they know what the terms mean.

    And what I’ve found by and large is that some people, meaning some journalists, are up front about their faith and others are more patient and long-suffering but almost every newsroom has a relatively fair reflection of their communities – at least from a religious persepctive.

    There’s just no comparing the beliefs of people in a Kansas newsroom to the beliefs of people in a California newsroom. But compare it to the communities they are in and I think people choose to be where they are at, largely because, they want to be someplace they can call home.

  • Terry Mattingly

    Once again, folks. I have known fine religion reporters who were not believers of any kind. But they were committed to the beat, could read demographics and knew how to keep their files up to date. I also have known many believers who were able to take their own insights into the role that faith played in their lives and then apply that to others. I have known agnostics who could not report their way out of a paper bag and believers in the same boat.

    It’s about journalism, people. Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

    What Kristof is saying is that it is easier to cover America when you have newsrooms that include a wide range of Americans. That is a different issue. Pew is saying that it was good when newsrooms included blue-collar Americans as well as elites, people who learned to write a lead at Stars & Stripes as well as at the alternative paper at Yale.

    Diversity is a complex concept, with many layers. It is not about affirmative action. It’s about covering the lives of your readers and, perhaps, saving the future of the newspaper industry.

  • Larry Anderson

    I personally have been involved in two affairs that were national news. In each case, I was close enough to the action to know exactly what happened. The news reports bore little resemblance to truth. In each case, the reporters tried to play “gotcha” and missed the real story. I no longer watch any TV news and never quite trust what I read.

  • Tom Breen

    I think Leo hits on the real issue in the remarks you quote: It’s not so much religious diversity that’s the problem, it’s what we might call, for lack of a better term, class diversity.

    Journalism used to be a trade rather than a profession. It wasn’t that long ago that college degrees were uncommon in newsrooms. Try going into a newsroom today, particularly a major metro newsroom, and counting the reporters and editors without college degrees.

    Dreher’s right when he says a lot of these people, despite some outward differences, went to the same schools, come from the same class, and often have the same biases. Religion isn’t the only coverage area affected by this.

  • Molly

    “In each case, the reporters tried to play “gotcha” and missed the real story. I no longer watch any TV news and never quite trust what I read.”

    I think this is a result of Woodward and Bernstein and the sexy movie “All the President’s Men”. Watergate may be far enough in the past that current journalism students aren’t looking to make the next BIG STORY and have a hot star play them in the movie, but I think journalism of the 80′s and 90′s certainly always had an eye toward being the next Woodward and Bernstein and that colored their motives bright red. Or blue. Take your pick.

    I would be interested to know how much the WaPo’s role in bringing down a president is talked about in current classes. Is it brought up at all anymore and if so, how?

    How many journalists out there have stars in their eyes when reporting on a national issue hoping that by being sensational and hot they will find their names in the history book? Problem is, the kind of reporting W&B did is a far cry from what is reporting today which is why, I agree with Larry’s comment above.

    Okay, end of my sermon!

  • Meg Lakowski

    I’d put it this way: What major newspaper in America today would hire a young Mike Royko, blue-collar, smoking and drinking, I’m not sure how much (if any) college he had. But boy could he write. I absolutely disagreed with him politically (though we both suffered with the Cubbies), but I knew I could trust whatever came out under his byline.

    Frankly, journalism is more about apprenticeship on the ground than schmancy college courses. A college graduate who goes to his first “real” newspaper job thinking he is totally equipped by having done his coursework and worked on the student newspaper, and perhaps also an internship, is sorely mistaken. The sooner he forgets what he learned in school, latches on to a talented older colleague to criticize and “mentor” him, and decides to love his beat no matter how boring or mundane, the sooner he’ll be a good journalist.

  • Stephen A.

    I think Molly is right on target here. (Although I have to say that I remember saying just about the same thing about the attitudes of reporters a while back and was kind of shouted down.)

    And as to Brian’s point about those nasty labels, they certainly can be misused. One way to misuse them is to call someone “pro-choice” who believes in “choice” in the sense that the woman had a choice not to conceive in the first place – or – to allow someone to be called “pro-life” who believes in life, but only after physical birth nine months later. Both are ideas Brian commends to reporters as alternatives to pesky labelling.

    The problem is that this would be truly Orwellian in its confusion to readers. It’s best to define terms for readers, but only if they deviate from the way they are commonly understood.

    And if readers don’t know how terms are commonly understood, there’s always the sidebar, the graph and the pie chart.