The Times tweaks its credo

BillKeller 01This is one of those rare weeks when I think that GetReligion readers may want to read my “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

In a way, it is a sequel to an earlier column about the New York Times and its internal theological debates about journalism and religion. This column also blends in a reference to executive editor Bill Keller’s must-read memo entitled “Assuring Our Credibility,” which was the subject of a classic GetReligion post by the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc that ran with the spiffy headline “The creeping menace of diverse voices.” That post includes some pretty important links, for those of you who want to dig deeper. I will include a few links in the body of the following column, as well.

Special thanks to Bill Keller himself, who sent me the full text of the speech that I heard him deliver at the National College Media Convention. I had good notes, but it is always better to have the full text. I will watch to see if the text goes online anywhere.

NEW YORK – The New York Times has for generations printed its credo on Page 1 to inspire the faithful: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

But times changed and the high church of journalism was challenged by radio and television news, which was followed by a tsunami of news, rumors, opinions and criticism on 24-7 cable news networks and the Internet. The result has been a subtle change in doctrine at the Times, although the Gray Lady’s motto has stayed the same.

Around-the-clock competition has “caused us to shift our emphasis from information as a commodity and play to different strengths — emphasizing less the breaking facts than the news behind the news, writing more analytically,” said executive editor Bill Keller, speaking at last week’s National College Media Convention.

“We long ago moved from ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’ to ‘All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.’”

Keller’s address blended confessions about the newspaper industry’s sins with a litany of praise for journalistic virtues. Journalists at the Times, he insisted, still practice what they preach, remaining “agnostic as to where a story may lead” and maintaining standards of accuracy and fairness that prevent the “opinions of our writers and editors from leaching into our news pages.”

However, he also said he believes that “information is not what people crave. What they crave, and need, is judgment — someone they can trust to vouch for the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it.”

The question is whether critics, especially those in religious sanctuaries, will trust Keller’s team to provide an unbiased take on the news and then, as a finale, pass judgment on “what it means,” said former New York Daily News reporter William Proctor, author of “The Gospel According to the New York Times.”

“This intentional change in the motto — even if it won’t be printed by the newspaper — suggests to me that editorializing is being placed on an equal footing with straight news,” he said. The new motto seems “to be saying, ‘We’re recognizing that opinion has a larger role than the editorial or op-ed pages. In fact, opinion now has a place in the news itself.’”

200px The new york times building in new york cityMeanwhile, critics may remember Keller — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in the Soviet Union — as the Times columnist who once called himself a “collapsed Catholic” and lashed out at Pope John Paul II and the Vatican for rejecting female priests, gay rights, legalized abortion and the sexual revolution in general.

The struggle within Catholicism, he wrote, is “part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. … This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.”

However, as executive editor, Keller produced a 2005 manifesto (PDF) urging his staff to improve religion coverage, avoid the misuse of loaded labels such as “religious fundamentalists” and hire qualified journalists who offer a diversity of “religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.”

Journalists at the Times, he said, must strive to escape “our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. … This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.”

This candor is refreshing, said Jay Rosen, who leads New York University’s journalism program and has written a provocative essay entitled “Journalism is Itself a Religion.” The problem is that many journalists want to escape old-fashioned straight news, but they don’t know what to call their new product. It’s hard to distinguish between news “analysis” and “opinion” writing that reflects the beliefs of the writer.

“If I gave you a passage from the Bible and said, ‘Analyze this,’ you’re not going to know what to do with that unless you have a perspective from which you can do your interpretation,” he said.

Keller’s reference to his newspaper’s “urban, culturally liberal orientation” is a candid first step toward “identifying a worldview,” Rosen added. “But when he says that the Times needs to tell us what the news means, does that mean that it’s going to tell us what the news means from that particular perspective — that view of the world — or from some other perspective?”

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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.

  • http://www.urbanangel.net andy chamberlain

    I’m trying to stir a little bit of reflection and conversation here, so bare with me!

    I was thinking about this entry: “The Times tweaks its credo” and the subsequent “Lying and Stealing”.

    There is no doubt that plagiarism is wrong; but it seems to me that whilst journalists generally get very animated about this particular sin, they should get even more animiated about the issues raised in this blog. As a consumer of the media I am not as interested in who has copied who as I am in getting clear facts, a fair analysis, and the kind of presepective that I think Keller is talking about here.

    This is just my opinion; if journalists want to raise their professional integrity then some of them need to be more concerned about presenting information fairly rather than distorting the truth to entertain or titilate the consumers.


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