Christian niche news bad for The Nation?

I thought some GetReligion readers might find the following Dallas Morning News report interesting (even though I show up in it as a source).

In some ways, this feature by reporter Colleen McCain Nelson is old news. Conservative Christians have been turned off by mainstream news for a long time, which helped fuel the rise of the televangelists long ago and clearly sparked some of the talk-radio blitz, too. Now we are seeing another rise in the power of niche market cable television and web news on the right. Here is Nelson’s summary:

(Many) Christians are seeking out alternative sources of news, and not just for information on religious topics. With the number of Christian television networks, radio stations, Web sites and magazines on the upswing, they have plenty to choose from.

The number of religious radio stations grew by 14 percent in the last five years, from 1,769 to 2,014, according to Arbitron. And a recent report by The Barna Group found that more people use Christian media than attend church. Technological advances, a polarized electorate and the increasing prominence of evangelicals have spurred the growth in Christian news.

On one level, more media is always a good thing. But at some point you have to wonder if anyone in the culture is going to be coming into contact with points of view other than their own. As a journalism educator, I really worry about things like that. What comes after that? Googlezon?

Take, for example, this recent irony.

This same basic topic — alternative forms of Christian news — got grilled big time recently in the Columbia Journalism Review in a lengthy cover article titled “Stations of the Cross: How evangelical Christians are creating an alternative universe of faith-based news.”

As you might expect, reporter Mariah Blake had lots of bad things to say about this trend, many of them valid. However, I did find it kind of ironic to read such a long attack on highly partisan, ideologically defined, agenda-driven, biased niche news in the hallowed pages of CJR — especially one that ended with the following credit line:

Mariah Blake is an assistant editor at CJR. The magazine gratefully acknowledges support for her research from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.

Say what? This strong warning about the dangers of advocacy journalism was funded by The Nation? Isn’t that sort of like Focus on the Family funding a documentary on the life of Elton John? Or a Rush Limbaugh newsletter expose on Hillary Clinton?

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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.

  • Tim J.

    I think that last bit is what really cuts to the heart of it. As far as I’m concerned, most of the mainstream news is advocacy journalism. It’s just all for the same side, and isn’t usually even aware of it. At least now I can read news sources which are up-front about their loyalties. Even if they’re still attacking my worldview, at least they aren’t also insulting my intelligence by claiming to be the Unbiased Truth. I’ll take Kevin Drum writing about how evangelicals want to destroy the environment over a similar article in the NYT any day.

  • ceemac

    TMatt described the CJR article as a:

    “fierce attack on advocacy journalism”

    Sorry but the article I just read didn’t seem like a fierce attack.

    Seemed to me like a fairly level descriptive article.

    TMatt, What did I miss?

  • tmatt


    I hear you. I softened the wording.

    But I doubt any supporter of conservative news alternatives would consider the CJR piece, well, fair and balanced.

  • ECJ

    “Evangelical news looks and sounds much like its secular counterpart, but it homes in on issues of concern to believers and filters events through a conservative lens. In some cases this simply means giving greater weight to the conservative side of the ledger than most media do. In other instances, it amounts to disguising a partisan agenda as news. Likewise, most guests on Christian political talk shows are drawn from a fixed pool of culture warriors and Republican politicians. Even those shows that focus on non-political topics — such as finance, health, or family issues — often weave in political messages. – CJR”

    The problem isn’t that evangelical outlets do these things. The problem is that the CJR thinks the New York Times doesn’t do these things. They just can’t see it. Their mantra: “It is news if we say it is news. It is true if we say it is true. Don’t listen to those preternders over there. They have an agenda to deceive you. But we are the Sacred Keepers of the Objective News. Listen to us!” It’s almost Randian.

    I stopped listening about 1984, and have never regretted it.


  • ceemac


    I don’t see that you softened the wording much.

    I reread the article. I don’t see it as strong warning either.

    It’s just a basic informational article. Lays out some history as well as key players along with some of their comments and actions.

    To borrow a phrase CJR reported and I’ll decide. I may even go explore some more about some of these characters. Especially the one that claimed that Schiavo was sitting up and talking.

    Help me out here. I am really trying to get this. What is unfair about the article?

  • Christopher Rake

    Forgive me if you have already noted this in a different context, because it’s late at night and I don’t have the patience to search…. but blogger David M recently broke news by discovering that The Nation publisher and editorial director Victor Navasky is now running CJR. Not that there’s anything good about that.

    I’m beginning to wonder if some allegedly objective institutions are shifting toward giving up on the pose.

    Here’s an E&P story on it.

  • Tim (Random Observations)

    “But at some point you have to wonder if anyone in the culture is going to be coming into contact with points of view other than their own. As a journalism educator, I really worry about things like that.”

    I spent my first 20+ years listening to the MSM, absolutely unaware of potential bias. A huge amount of what I absorbed then had to be slowly unlearned: that Vietnam vets were unstable psychotics, or that we lost Vietnam on the battlefield, that the domino theory was all wrong, that Jimmy Carter was a nuclear physicist (I just discovered otherwise this year), that gun control reduced crime, that eating grains was good for losing weight, that tax cuts always hurt the poor, that Nicaragua was a paradise, that affirmative action really helped people, that the Rosenburgs were falsely accused, that McCarthy was a liar, that Reagan’s policies were someone else’s ideas, etc.

    I sure didn’t hear any hand-wringing over only hearing one side of those stories, and countless others, for two or more decades. For years, NPR/APR had the only news I could get on the FM dial. Did I hear anguish over this? Did the journalists on NBC have a different ideological outlook than those on CBS? Or ABC? Did NPR ever spin story in a way Phil Donohue would have hated?

    How would it be so much worse if I (hypothetically) went another twenty-plus years only listening only to the “other” viewpoint?

    Most alternative content is a reaction to the MSM narrative. If you tune into conservative talk radio, you’ll find almost all hosts have liberal guest after liberal guest. (I’d wager Thomas Frank made as much or more money from conservative talk shows as liberal ones.)

    Shouldn’t we be just as worried that people only read the NY Times and listen to NPR, without ever reading, say The Weekly Standard and listening to guys like Dennis Prager and Hugh Hewitt? Shouldn’t we be clucking sadly over the political monoculture in NYC?

  • Kathy Shaidle

    Nice one Tim. A lot of people don’t know that actor Paul Newman bailed out The Nation about 10 years ago and is a co-owner of the mag. It wouldn’t exist except for his patronage. So much for the “leading left mag in the US”.

  • Dan Berger

    Point of information, Tim. I think the comment about Jimmy Carter was gratuitous.

    Your issue is with some English/Communications major who never saw the point in their general-education science courses, and therefore can’t tell a nuclear power engineer from a nuclear physicist. That’s not liberal bias; I know a lot of folks on the right who can’t tell biological evolution from philosophical reductionism. Or, for that matter, nuclear physics from atomic power plant engineering.

    Carter never claimed to be a physicist. He was an engineering graduate of Annapolis, and one of Hyman Rickover’s proteges in the Navy’s nuclear power program.

    And I think you missed the major NPR report a couple of years back about the Rosenbergs. For “balance” it allowed about 5 minutes of airtime to those who are still capable of ignoring the evidence, but the thrust of the report was “we were wrong, the Rosenbergs did spy for the USSR.”

    That doesn’t detract too much from your last line, which I agree with.

  • Dan Berger

    Oops. It was PBS, not NPR.

  • Christina Martin

    I think the most important thing is not whether or not a news source is an “advocacy” source, but whether they can make the mainstream media be held responsible for their reporting. We all saw what happened with the Dan Rather scandal; I’m almost thankful that it happened. It was time for Toto to pull the concealing curtain away from the Wizard.

    Perhaps now that most Americans can’t find the gumption to pretend any longer that the mainstream media are without fraud, they may demand reform. Competition from advocacy sources may well help to spur that change.

  • Molly

    The arguement pre-supposes an evil intent on the part of MSM. I think they just got lazy. As we did.

  • Michael D. Harmon

    Never mind all that blather about words. The photo that is at the top of the page is worth about a million votes to whoever runs against Hillary in 2008!

  • Christina Martin

    Molly, I don’t think it presupposes evil intent on the part of all of the MSM, but certainly there are some newssellers who are willing to toy with the truth to impart a bias. And even laziness needs to be corrected, when it reaches the point of many news outlets being too lazy to find the truth before spreading a story. Competition forces those who wish to be considered mainstream to work harder at deserving the reputations they assume.

    Michael, I couldn’t agree with you more!

  • Gordon

    Here’s another perspective…..

    Poll: Minority groups favor ethnic media

    Nearly half the country’s Hispanics, Asian Americans and other minorities prefer ethnic newspapers, television and radio to mainstream media, according to a poll released Tuesday. Outlets from Korean-language dailies to Spanish-broadcasting powerhouse Univision Communications Inc. attract 45 percent of adults in major minority groups, or about 29 million people nationwide, at least several times a week over their mainstream counterparts, a poll commissioned by the nonprofit New California Media shows. Overall, ethnic media reach approximately 80 percent the groups studied – about 51 million people, or a quarter of the U.S. adult population.

    Source: Jeremiah Marquez, Associated Press via Guardian,1280,-5058090,00.html

  • mrsizer

    Gordon: I think it may be the same perspective: People like news/media they are comfortable with. It parallels tmatt’s concern about non-communication across the boundaries.

    On the other hand, this is more of a return to the “good old days” than anything else. The era of media monoculture was relatively short. America somehow managed to muddle through about 175 years without it.