Where does the L.A. editor worship?

I am not a big Huffington Post reader, but I do pay attention to the blogging of a friend of mine named Mark Joseph, one of those journalism students who went to the dark side and works in Hollywood. MJ just shot off an interesting critique of some of the early U.S. Supreme Court coverage — especially the stories focusing on the religious beliefs of nominee John Roberts and his wife, Jane.

What is unique is that MJ starts far from the court. He begins with the recent leadership transition at the top of the most powerful media institution on the Left Coast — the Los Angeles Times. What does that have to do with the court wars? Here is a major chunk of MJ’s provocative little post:

Reading stories in the L.A. Times on the paper’s new editor Dean Baquet and Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, I noticed something about the coverage: The paper is telling me a lot more about Roberts than Baquet.

Apparently it’s newsworthy that Roberts’ wife was president of the anti-abortion group Feminists For Life. But the reporter profiling the new editor gives me no such insights into Baquet’s wife’s activities. To what groups does she belong to? The ACLU? The Sierra Club? A pro-life group? You can tell a lot about a man by the groups his wife belongs to.

The Times tells me that Roberts is a conservative, but I read nothing about Baquet’s ideological orientation. I read that Roberts is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, but I read nothing of the groups to which Baquet has belonged to.

Reporters dig up memos at the Reagan Library written by Roberts in the early ’80′s to help me understand his thought processes and political views, but I read nothing of comparable memos written by Mr. Baquet.

MJ admits that a Supreme Court justice has a much greater national impact than one newspaper editor. But it is true that, as a rule, newspapers do not do a very good job of sharing even small amounts of information about the views of the institutions and the people who run them. Does your newspaper union support abortion rights with chunks of your dues? Mine did.

The Times story about its new editor does give us some interesting personal information, but nothing about his beliefs. Some forms of diversity are more equal than others, it seems.

. . . Baquet was reared in a working-class section of New Orleans by parents who owned a neighborhood Creole restaurant. His promotion will make him the first African American to run a top-level American newspaper.

Baquet attended Columbia University in New York City but never graduated, having been swept up in the excitement of the news business after an internship at the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item. He made his journalistic name in 1988 at the Chicago Tribune as part of a three-person team that won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting with stories about corruption in the Chicago City Council.

The Washington Post likewise sticks to the journalistic details. This is not surprising. Journalists are supposed to be able to do their jobs and be fair to people on both sides of hot issues — such as the legality of abortion on demand. Do we need to dig into their religious beliefs?

Howard Kurtz at the Post did offer this interesting note about John Carroll, the departing editor in Los Angeles. Back in 2003,

Carroll . . . made news that year with a leaked memo that criticized the “apparent bias” of one of his reporters on an abortion story, writing that he wanted to challenge “the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, ‘politically correct’ newspaper.” Like most big-city editors, he has struggled with declining circulation, which dipped 6.5 percent earlier this year, to 908,000.

Well, that’s interesting. It sounds like it might have been good to ask the new L.A. editor a few questions about moral and cultural issues.

So, should there be a religious test for journalists? Should there be a religious test for justices?

You probably know where I am going to come down on this — the more information the better. Let’s look for ideological diversity and ask lots of questions, on both sides of these cultural divides.

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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.

  • Tom Breen

    Comparing judges to journalists is kind of ridiculous. Judges are public employees paid with tax dollars to interpret the law as written by elected representatives. Journalists are employees of private companies, paid with ad revenue and subscription money to plug in what’s inelegantly referred to as “the news hole.” There’s no basis for comparison whatsoever.

    Furthermore, I don’t know how “the more information the better” should apply to journalists. Should it just require the disclosure of political and religious information about editors-in-chief, or should the layout desk, photographers, cameramen, producers, and sports writers also submit their religious and political affiliation?

    This seems dangerously close to saying that a journalist’s reporting is going to be determined by whatever ideological standpoint they adhere to. That shouldn’t be the case at all.

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    Except perhaps that both judges and reporters (though in this case not just a reported, but a news paper editor and not just the editor of any newspaper) should ideally be unbiased adn that perhaps if we should be aware of the bias a judge might (or might not) hold then perhaps we should also be aware of what bias an editor might (or might not) hold because in most cases as the editor goes so goes the paper. So you see there is a basis for comparison.

  • Michael

    No editor controls the future of my rights as a citizen. No editorial can mean the literal difference between life and death for someone on death row. No news story can change the direction of property law, contract law, or tax policy.

  • webwalker

    This is an issue that makes me want to pull my hair out: the idea that ‘unbiased’ exists. My family is chock-a-block full of journalists going back three generations; I’m the first one that jumped the rails.

    Everyone is biased. Every story is biased. Reporting the “facts” without slant is a fiction itself. A dream? A fantasy? Yes. Reality? Never has been.

    Modernity tells me that objectivity is possible. Deconstruction says “silly rabbit! Post-structuralism states that there is no unbiased anything, and all the biases are about power.”

    The solution my wife and I came up with to solve this dilemma is what I have cheekily called “transparent moderating post-structuralism.” It works like this: when it is my job to report facts, I do so with the up front acknowledgement of my personal philosophy. That process allows the reader to fore-arm themselves for reading or hearing my work and allows the to be better able to filter my comments in advance, knowing what my prejudices and preferences are, ingredients that are certain to color my work.

    Or said more tersely, when they know the reporter’s phiosophy, and this is spelled out, the audience can filter the work for themselves, rather than trying to grapple with some fiction that facts, uncolored and unvarnished, are being presented.

    I think tmatt’s proposal that we are at least aware of the personal biases of the staff of our news sources makes a lot more sense than blindly perpetuating the fantasy that they don’t have biases or have mastered them better than the average bear.

    RMW

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    Then Michael I would say that you take a dim view of the power of the press. I agree though in spirit with what you are saying. In that sense there is no comparison, but in light of what RMW says since there can be no unbiased person (which is why I said “ideally”) at least we can be aware of where the biases of influential people lie and be thus forewarned and perhaps forearmed.

  • http://cinecon.blogspot.com Victor Morton

    The question of the amount of power (yes, judges do have more than journalists, certainly direct power) is completely and totally irrelevant to the question of how, whether and to what extent bias affects or colors the way people use whatever power they have.

  • Michael

    As both a lawyer and a journalist, I can say that the potential biases of a judge impact my life a lot more than the potential biases of my editor or publisher.

    I also believe that just like journalists, judges are capable of putting biases aside and reaching decisions that run contrary to their personal beliefs. That’s the essence of judging (and journalism). So it is probably that I have more “faith” in both judges and the press than most people.

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    Of course Michael, people are capable of all manner of good and bad things. But I’m thinking that if they are going to go to such great lengths to dig into the judges past, why not go to the same lengths for their new editor. No reason not to and every reason to.

  • Michael

    Except one is a public servant, and one isn’t.

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    Actually they both serve the public.

  • Michael

    But only one is on the public payroll.

  • http://www.wrandomwramblings.blogspot.com Scott Roche

    So editors have no accountability to their audience?

  • Michael

    They have accountability, but they aren’t subject to having their personal lives dissected. They are not running for office or about to get a life-time appointment to a court, they are paid by a large company to manage a media enterprise.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Actually, I am not fond of “objectivity” language either. But I do think it is possible for talented and committed journalists to produce coverage of controversial issues that is fair and accurate, while striving to air a variety of viewpoints.

    Thus, I think diversity in newsrooms is crucial. I wish that newsroom managers were more honest about forms of diversity other than gender, skin color and more obvious social traits.

    This was a major issue in the Pew research on the press. Here is a column that veers in that direction.

    I want to see a vital, healthy news market. That means covering a wide variety of people and their viewpoints with respect. It would not hurt if newsroom managers discussed some of these social and moral issues with greater candor.

    So, yes, I would like to see some digging into the worldviews of some high-tier news leaders. As the post said, both MJ and I know that judges are judges and journalists are journalists. That was a given.

    But I would like to know. Why is it fair to have a religious test — no devout Catholics allowed, using “devout” as defined by the pope rather than Maureen Dowd — for judges? Would the media treat an Orthodox Jew the same?

    Actually, they probably would….

  • Tom R

    I’d put Rupert Murdoch or Wm. Randolph Hearst up against a district-court judge any day.

    I thought you people on the Left were so over the whole Lockean public/private distinction?

  • Tom Breen

    I’m against religious tests for judges, too, for the same reason I don’t think discussing the “biases” of an editor makes sense: I think a good judge will rule based on the principle that the law applies to all people equally, rather than ruling to suit his own particular group or affiliation. That’s the ideal of course; it’s not always realized, and in fact it may never be completely realized (like journalistic objectivity), but striving for it makes for better law than cynically expecting the opposite.

    But I don’t know who’s saying “no devout Catholics allowed” – Scalia and Thomas are already on the court (although one can certainly question how devout Scalia is on certain issues), and no one is seriously doubting whether Roberts will also be confirmed.

    In the Roberts case, discussing his religious views might be the equivalent of reading tea leaves, but when the man essentially refuses to discuss what he believes, the press is at a disadvantage. If he doesn’t have much of a track record as a judge and won’t discuss his judicial philosophy, how can the press write informative stories about him?

  • Michael

    In an era when Catholic officials are strong-arming Catholic politicians and threatening to withold communion based on political beliefs, I am not sure why this line of questioning is surprising.

    I concur with Tom that this “no devout Catholics allowed” meme isn’t really supported by the facts. It plays well in the “religious conservatives are the new oppressed class” story, but I don’t think there’s much there there.

  • tmatt

    Michael:

    Come on, take the issues more seriously than that. The Communion issue was linked to people’s actual public acts in violations of clear directives and doctrine from the highest levels of the church. The issue was not what politicians did, but what supposedly practicing CATHOLICS did. Yes, the church has struggled not to single public officials out to a degree greater than ordinary citizens. That is an issue for the church to wrestle with and be more consistent.

    But Catholics who follow the teachings of their church — including their acts in the public square, as doctrine directs — are in trouble right now.

    I will blog on part of this later in the day. We really are seeing a two-tier Catholic situation develop here and it is both fascinating and terrifying. Catholics who live like Episcopalians are fine. Catholics who embrace the teachings and live of traditional Catholicism are not.

  • Michael

    Catholics who live like Episcopalians are fine. Catholics who embrace the teachings and live of traditional Catholicism are not.

    I am curious to see your discussion of this, because my sense it is more bluster than reality. Roberts describes himself as a devout Catholic, his wife describes herself as a devout Catholic. They use these depictions to bolster their conservative bona fides. Are you suggesting that it is wrong to pursue exactly what that means and what implication that has on judicial decisionmaking?

  • tmatt

    It is not bluster. You need to familiarize yourself with the actual Vatican statements. Basically, we ARE in the same territory as the Kerry case.

    Then again, we are also in an area in which no Church law exists if the AMERICAN bishops do not enforce it. That is a quilt, of course.

    But for serious Catholics it is a question of conscience. Do they want to violate what they KNOW is the Church’s clear teaching — unbroken teachings for 2000 years in the case of abortion.

    Can they act in the public square in a way that promotes a policy that is forbidden by the Church?

    While we are at it: Is abortion now officially the highest value of the Democratic Party? Is there any value higher than this?

    Here is a glimpse into the reality:

    http://tmatt.gospelcom.net/column/2002/11/13/

  • http://cinecon.blogspot.com Victor Morton

    Is abortion now officially the highest value of the Democratic Party?

    Yes, because it is the one subject on which an orthodox stance is enforced in all but the reddest of states/districts, and on which all candidates with blue/purple or any national ambitions must toe the line. (Though seeing Lieberman during Convention Week 2000 makes me think racialism comes close.)

  • Maureen

    I thought that knowing what church you attend and what political party you’re in is basic biographical data, stuff that should be included in any profile of a person. But I’m from flyover country, so maybe I’m behind the times there.

    Maybe we don’t have to know it; but it’s interesting. It’s a lot more interesting than journalistic credentials, actually. I can’t look up somebody’s story from X many years ago without paying annoying fees, but I can say, “He’s Episcopalian, huh? Interesting.”

  • Tom Breen

    Tmatt:

    I have no idea where a lot of this is coming from.

    “Catholics who embrace the teachings and live of traditional Catholicism are not” fine? Roberts has been nominated for a seat on the SUPREME COURT, and his confirmation is a shoe-in. If that isn’t doing “fine,” I don’t know what is.

    Furthermore, you seem to assume that pro-abortion Catholics are a specifically Democratic species. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins seem to suggest the contrary (not to mention the pro-abortion Orthodox Sen. Olympia Snowe). Or, while we’re at it, what about pro-abortion Republicans like Giuliani, Pataki, and Schwarzenneger?

    Of course, these folks never get the kind of attention that Kerry, Kennedy, etc. get, because the focus on pro-abortion Catholic politicians is a political tactic used to benefit the Republican Party.

    And while we’re at it, what about the Title XIX and Title X laws, which require tax dollars being used to fund abortion? Anyone care to see how Catholic Republicans voted on the HHS appropriations bills that contain those provisions?

    I’ll start taking talk about denying pro-abortion politicians seriously when it becomes clear that it’s going to be applied across the board. As it is, the Catholic Republicans are out to make Jesus a cheap ward heeler, which I find completely despicable.

  • tmatt

    Actually, the traditional Catholics who were upset about Kerry tend to be just as upset or more so about the Republican backers of abortion rights. They would cheer if the press went after the GOPers in that camp.That would be a very timely story, in fact. Go for it.

    The GOP strategists would not be happy to see such a story in a major MSM outlet. The traditional Catholics would. Those camps are not the same, as you know.

    And this website also notes, quite frequently, that about 40 percent of the nation’s Democrats still call themselves “pro-life” and favor severe restrictions or a ban on abortion. So the Democrats are not on one side of this issue either, except at the level of party leadership — which is like 98 percent pro-abortion rights.

  • Tom Breen

    I’m neither Dem nor Republican, but I am a Catholic opposed to abortion. And while antiabortion Catholics are not the same as Republican strategists, the self-proclaimed leadership of such Catholics skews heavily Republican. Recall that when Deal Hudson was asked whether the Communion fight should include issues like artificial contraception, he not only insisted it should only be about abortion – he insisted it should only apply to John Kerry, not even any other pro-abortion Catholics! Deal was all about being “on message.”

    Let’s face it; the people pushing the Communion issue in the press are more likely to be sympathetic to Republicans, which means they are more likely to overlook Republican support for abortion. Connecticut’s Republican governor signed a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions into law, Schwarzenegger pumps up public funding for fetal stem cell research, Collins collects thousands in donations from pro-abortion rights groups, but we still only hear about Kerry, Kennedy, Durbin, etc.

    As someone who considers both major parties to be effectively pro-abortion, I’m not particularly happy about the idea that the Body and Blood of Christ should be dispensed as a reward for voting the right way, which is my problem with the entire debate; its only long-term effect is to further degrade the idea of the Eucharist in the minds of most Americans, which are already confused enough about Communion.


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