Religion and changing Times

stairway to heaven 01There are few things that journalists in Washington, D.C., like to talk about more than this subject — journalists in Washington. I am sure that this surprises GetReligion readers, especially those inclined to belief in the utter depravity of man.

So Howard “Howie” Kurtz of the Washington Post was in an interesting position the other day when he wrote a Style section feature about John Solomon, the new executive editor of the Washington Times.

For starters, this piece required him to openly talk about the Times being the conservative paper in town and the Post being the liberal paper, especially since the lede for the story focused on Solomon steering the Times in the direction of a more balanced, nuanced, “American” model of journalism. On top of that, Solomon — an investigative reporter — came to the Times from the Post, where some said he was too conservative. Others said that he was a solid, basic journalist who was even-handed in who he ticked off.

You know that religion is going to come up in this kind of piece, because of the history of the Times and the Unification Church. But Kurtz shows admirable restraint on that issue, knowing that it doesn’t have much to do with the people working in that newsroom these days.

Truth is, the most interesting religious content in the piece about Solomon is in a quote from a Times staffer. Here it is, in context:

In an interview at the paper’s Northeast Washington headquarters, Solomon, 41, conveys a mixture of energy and impatience, spewing out ideas faster than they can be scribbled on a pad.

“If I made one fundamental change,” he says, “it’s to make sure opinion and commentary didn’t bleed onto the news pages.” Toward that end, he issued a memo banning what he says were “archaic” terms used by the paper, such as “homosexual” and “illegal aliens.”

Veteran Times reporter Ralph Hallow says he believes the right-leaning Times balances the left-leaning Post. Solomon’s aim, he says, is to satisfy a conservative audience “without making the newspaper a shill for any of the causes of the right, for the Bible-thumpers — something that is sensitive to them but doesn’t pander to them.”

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, says he hasn’t noticed any change: “The strength of the Times on the news side has always been not any bias, but that it covers different things than The Post does. They cover more things of interest to conservatives.”

Note the tension between these two phrases, between the newspaper being “a shill for any of the causes of the right, for the Bible-thumpers” and it covering “more things of interest to conservatives.” You can see how both of those phrases can be read as referring to coverage of religion news and/or the politics of morality and culture. No sign of the old Libertarian vs. cultural conservative wars, right?

And Bible-thumpers? Nice quote, Howie.

Meanwhile, it is also interesting to note that the massive project to modernize the Times design and web product has led to the creation of a new, twice-a-week column for veteran religion writer Julia Duin (a friend of mine for more than two decades, going back to when we were both reporters in the Scripps Howard chain). This follows the recent creation of her Times “Belief Blog,” which I shamelessly plugged here.

Duin kicked it off with a funny piece talking about the challenges she faced coming up with a name for the feature, running through waves of suggestions she heard from friends and colleagues. One of her top picks was “Encyclicals,” but some people thought that was too Catholic.

The title had to be original, thus I could not steal from the London Times‘ “Articles of Faith,” still the best title out there for a religion column. The title had to be theologically accurate — plus, it had to be something I personally liked.

Surveying a few friends and fellow employees, I came up with some nominees: Faith-o-meter, Holy Cow, God Beat, Between Heaven and Hell, Frozen Chosen, Spirit, Soul and Body, Creed and Commandments, Anathemas, Angels and Demons, Epistles and Thinking Theology.

None of those quite took, so I sent an e-mail to more reporters and editors saying, “Help me.” There were the celestial suggestions: From on High, Eternity in Print, Divine Inspiration, In Spirit or InSpiritation, eTernity, Out of the Silent Planet and Thoughts from Above. Those would be great were I a Delphic oracle or canonized saint.

There were loads of other suggestions.

So what did she end up with? Let’s just say that the art for this post is a rather big hint. Or click here for video.

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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.

    It’s interesting how much the choice of what terms are acceptable reveals about a person’s views. If they’re moving to “undocumented workers” in place of “illegal aliens,” I think that says a lot about what positions are to be considered normative, especially since the latter term is just as accurate as the former.

    I’m a little more bewildered by the banning of “homosexual,” since I would have thought that was about the most neutral descriptor. What is it being replaced with?

  • Michael

    I’m a little more bewildered by the banning of “homosexual,” since I would have thought that was about the most neutral descriptor. What is it being replaced with?

    The Washington Times was the last “major” newspaper to insist on using the clinical term homosexual instead of the AP style of gay or gay and lesbian. It was also the last place outside of the conservative media that insisted on putting “gay marriage” in quotes.

    Terms matter, as we often told when the issue is fundamentalists or evangelicals. Homosexual has taken on a pejorative meaning and there is discouraged.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I was also surprised that homosexual would be considered pejorative.

    I am much more opposed to the use of the term “gay” to describe, well, homosexual people who are either gay or lesbian. I don’t mean to get all feminist here but it seems unfair that the term gay would be an umbrella term.

    In a media advisory about same-sex marriage, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association wrote:

    And what about this word, “gay”? This has become the standard modifier for same-sex issues like “gay adoption” and “gay families.” On its own, however, “gay” generally refers to gay men. So the phrase “gay marriage” leaves out a lot of people.

    To me it seems kind of silly that a word like homosexual — which refers to sexual behavior or attraction between people of the same sex — would be considered pejorative. Clinical, sure. But pejorative?

    How you could argue against homosexual but for something with as much baggage as the word gay (first a slur then proudly linguistically reclaimed) seems odd to me.

    I’m very dry in my use of language and don’t mind phrases like homosexual. I am also in a never-ending linguistic battle with my husband. He thinks language should evolve daily and I’m much more conservative.

    But the idea that, say, we can’t use the phrase “partial-birth abortion” because it is the “propaganda”
    phrase used by advocates for unborn children but we should replace homosexual with gay? It’s just kind of odd, isn’t it?

    I kind of prefer both “homosexual” and “gay and lesbian,” for what it’s worth. Yes, it does require more column inches but I think it’s worth it to include lesbians in these issues. Unless we’re really dealing with only same-sex attraction among men.

  • Dave

    But the idea that, say, we can’t use the phrase “partial-birth abortion” because it is the “propaganda” phrase used by advocates for unborn children but we should replace homosexual with gay? It’s just kind of odd, isn’t it?

    Mollie, it’s not odd at all. “Partial-birth abortion” is indeed a propaganda term — not “propaganda” in scare quotes, but propaganda. As far as I know, “gay and lesbian” is not a propaganda term. “Homosexual” has come to be regarded as pejorative. It is not odd that use of both the propaganda term and the pejorative term have been dropped. (The last comment I made giving examples of pejorative terms, you spiked, so I shan’t offer comparisons.)

    FWIW, “BGLT” or some permutation takes up fewer column inches than “gay and lesbian” or “homosexual.” It’s clumsy to use it as a substitute for “gay” in “gay marriage,” so some other term like “same-sex marriage” might be employed. (I wouldn’t expect my favorite, “marriage equity,” to be used because that would no doubt be seen as “propaganda.”)

  • Chris Bolinger

    Shocked, I am, that journalists in D.C. enjoy staring at their navels. After all, D.C. is the center of the universe, don’t you know?

    this piece required him to openly talk about the Times being the conservative paper in town and the Post being the liberal paper

    No, no, no. The Post is the balanced, objective, centrist, mainstream paper. …

    Solomon’s aim, he says, is to satisfy a conservative audience “without making the newspaper a shill for any of the causes of the right, for the Bible-thumpers — something that is sensitive to them but doesn’t pander to them.”

    That made me laugh out loud. Use the pejorative “Bible-thumpers” and then say how you’ll remain sensitive to them. Right. Reminds me of a lot of comments on this board from people who castigate and belittle various groups but maintain that they represent those group fairly and objectively when they write about them.

    Sounds like D.C. journalists across the political spectrum remain arrogant elitists who don’t have a clue about us knuckledraggers out here in Flyover Country. Guess I’d better get back to thumping my Bible.

  • Michael

    Here is NLGJA’s explanation of the use of “gay.”

    gay: An adjective that has largely replaced “homosexual” in referring to men who are sexually and affectionally attracted to other men. Avoid using as a singular noun. For women, “lesbian” is preferred. To include both, use “gay men and lesbians.” In headlines where space is an issue, “gays” is acceptable to describe both.

    Homosexual is pejorative the same way fundamentalist is pejorative. It is used by opponents–thus, the reason the Washington Times insisted on using it for their conservative readers–in a negative context. NLGJA says “homosexual” is appropriate if “heterosexual” would be used in a parallel context. It has been rejected by gays and lesbians because it is clinical–thus a condition–and therefore suggests there is something pathological about it.

    We generally call people by the terms they prefer and avoid using pejoratives. There was a time “fundamentialist” was embraced, even though people were not technically capital-F “Fundamentalists.” Once the term became a pejorative, it was dropped from common usage because of its negative context.

    While there is obviously a parallel between “gay” and “partial-birth abortion” in terms of propoganda, one is used by advocates while another is used by opponents. Thus the substantive difference.

    I’m also not sure “gay” was ever used as a slur when referring to gays and lesbians. While the term had a ribald meaning before it was applied to gays and lesbians, I’m not sure it could be called a slur.

  • danr

    While there is obviously a parallel between “gay” and “partial-birth abortion” in terms of propoganda, one is used by advocates while another is used by opponents. Thus the substantive difference.

    Whence the substantive difference? Advocacy is advocacy, whether in the positive (usage of terms) or negative (avoidance of terms). It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but call it for what it is. If a journalist agrees with a certain stance, then they’ll find justification for their chosen terminology in the AP stylebook somewhere. Terminology representing another side is then dismissed as mere propaganda – or at least put in quotes, to render it suspect.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Michael wrote:

    While there is obviously a parallel between “gay” and “partial-birth abortion” in terms of propoganda, one is used by advocates while another is used by opponents. Thus the substantive difference.

    I’m sorry but I have no idea what the difference is, much less the substantive difference. Could you explain?

    Separately, I can see that some same-sex activists might prefer the term gay to homosexual but I don’t understand what is derogatory about homosexual. I also wonder whether there is a difference between noun and adjective. I think homosexual as an adjective is definitely fine and for a noun, it might be different?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m reminded of a comment someone made about the use of the phrase “partial-birth abortion” last year:

    # Michael says:
    April 23, 2007, at 11:35 am

    Terms created by neutral medical groups or a profession are different from terms created by politically-motivated interest groups as part of a strategic, political decision. The use of such terms in journalism about the most politically- and socially-charged issue of our day should be avoided at all costs, it would seem.

    While I wasn’t advocating the use of the phrase partial-birth abortion (at least apart from its use in the federal bill that was upheld as constitutional), I was wondering why some mainstream media avoided it so steadfastly.

  • Dave

    Mollie writes (#8):

    I can see that some same-sex activists might prefer the term gay to homosexual but I don’t understand what is derogatory about homosexual.

    I think the problem is that it defines gay and lesbian people strictly according to their sexual activity, in a way that is not applied to straight people. Eg, even in the depth of his problems, newspapers did not refer to “heterosexual Governor Spitzer.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    Interesting. I’ll have to ruminate on that. While I’m ruminating, I’m wondering how do “gay” and “lesbian” not define people strictly according to their sexual activity or attraction?

  • http://vjmorton.wordpress.com Victor Morton

    This terminological taxonomy is based on fanciful at best history.

    (1) “Negro” did not enter English as a scientific/academic term (though “Negroid” did in the 19th century). Rather, it was imported from the Spanish and Portuguese (it is ordinary word for the color — “el gato negro,” say), who were “early” to the African slave trade.

    (2) To say simply that “colored” was “assigned by nonblacks” is a gross oversimplification, as the NAACP or the CME Church would tell you. Also it is not thereby different from “negro,” either in real history (my point 1) or even under you claim that it is scientific/academic (it is still “assigned” and mostly not by blacks).

    (3) “colored” somewhat predates “negro” as the neutral general term (though they obviously existed side-by-side as “black” and “African-American” do today). Note that in these two Wikipedia articles (“colored” and “negro”), the formal usages cited for “colored” date from the mid-19th century, whereas the book titles using “negro” date from the late-19th and early-20th. Other factoids: the Census Bureau used “colored” until 1900, “negro” from 1910 to 1960; the NAACP was founded in 1909 and the CME Church in 1870 (ironically, the AME Church was founded far earlier, 1816), but the United Negro College Fund in 1944, the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, and the Journal of Negro Education in 1932.

    (4) The term “fundamentalist” isn’t scientific/academic. When it became a distinct term in the early-20th-century, it was a self-assigned term (“The Fundamentals”) and while there wasn’t a “Fundamentalist Church,” it was a self-conscious movement within several denominations. Its current popular usage is not scientific either, but rather an other-assigned term based mostly on ignorance and desire to demonize (dating from the historical coincidence of the rise of the Religious Right in the US and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran).

    (5) “Partial-birth abortion” is a scientifically accurate term. It is an abortion, and the foetus is entirely out of the uterus and partially outside the mother’s body (i.e., the process most of us call “birth” is partially complete). It is layman’s lingo and not the medical term, I acknowledge. But since when has THAT been a reason to eschew a term in a general-interest publication (how many medical procedures ARE referred to by the medical terms in general-interest newspapers and magazines) nor the reason for the refusal of some publications to use it (the reason is cultural feminism). After all, if medical accuracy were the god being served, the term “late-term abortion” (which does not even possibly describe a procedure at all) would be avoided far more fastidiously than an undistanced use of “partial-birth abortion.” The former you will sometimes find, regardless of stylebooks (mistakes happen), the latter you never will.

  • http://vjmorton.wordpress.com Victor Morton

    Please delete my #13 comment … it doesn’t make sense except as a response to the old #12.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Victor:

    I took Michael’s comment down for many of the same objections that you made, especially his misuse again — historically — of the word fundamentalist and then applying it to Mollie, a member of a historic non-fundamentalist group.

    Yes, it was a close call. It was my call.

  • Dave

    Mollie asked:

    I’m wondering how do “gay” and “lesbian” not define people strictly according to their sexual activity or attraction?

    Not being gay, I’m not sure what the exact difference is. I imagine it has to do with “homosexual” being the term that was applied when the psychiatric profession classified it as a form of arrested emotional development. But that crackling sound is the thin ice I’m on here.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    While I still don’t see why “homosexual” is pejorative, I definitely think it has a clinical feel to it.

    The thing that has always bothered me about the word is that it mixes Latin and Greek. But that’s kind of silly.

    I also think it’s amazing that we don’t have a better, more neutral word to use.

  • Michael

    then applying it to Mollie, a member of a historic non-fundamentalist group.

    The power of the pejorative, if ever there was one. Terry has actually proven my point about the power of words and their impact.

    If “fundamentalist” is such a powerful term that it can cause a post to be spiked because of misapplication, doesn’t that mean that a term like “homosexual” can also have a powerful negative impact to those for whom it is applied.

    That LCMS were considered “fundamentalists” by those who who applied the term–and trust me, in the ELCA, we often refer to LCMS as “fundamentalists”–and that it would ruffle so many feathers proves why terms like Negro and homosexual can also leave a bad impression.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The key is that newspapers have to use word accurately. That’s No. 1.

    Journalists also have to decide if they are going to let groups use their own terms and then, if that is the decision, that should be applied to groups on both sides.

    For example, neutral is anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights. The movements’ terms are “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” The slams are “pro-abortion” and “anti-choice.”

    Note that Michael’s arguments assumes, again, that there is only one argument on the crucial question, the nature of the origins and moral status of homosexual behavior. The nation is divided on that. Courts are divided on that. The scientists looking at the nature and nurture studies have clashing interpretations of the findings (look at the twins studies). But the argument here is that AP should accept movement language as normative, as opposed to the old scientific language, which the movement on one side now sees as pejorative.

    In my own writing, I let the left use its language. But when referring to the political arguments, science, theology, etc., I use homosexual as a adjective. There are times when it can be used as a noun, when referring to gays and lesbians together in a place where it makes sense to do so, IMHO.

    I am not surprised that many ELCA people do not know the meaning of the word “fundamentalist.” You hear people apply that word to JP II and Benedict, too. That isn’t journalism. Words have meanings.

  • MJBubba

    Terry, Thanks. Words have meaning.

  • Michael

    Note that Michael’s arguments assumes, again, that there is only one argument on the crucial question, the nature of the origins and moral status of homosexual behavior.

    I make no such assumption.

    But the argument here is that AP should accept movement language as normative, as opposed to the old scientific language, which the movement on one side now sees as pejorative.

    No different from the AP accepting movement language when it comes to discouraging the use of small-f fundamentalist because the movement on one side now sees it as a pejorative despite many in that movement once embracing the term.

    Words do have meaning.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    If the word “fundamentalist” applies in its historical meaning, then by all means use it and defend your choice.

    If the word “homosexual” applies, in its historic meaning, then it is not wrong to use it. Of course, it is crucial not to put words in other people’s mouths. So when quoting gay and lesbian leaders, it’s important to quote them accurately.

  • Walter in the other Washington

    Language has historically been used to promote the views of those “controlling” the cultural values (the “privileged” class). As we identify ourselves, we use the “mirror, mirror and the wall, how am I the best of all” self-reflections. For example, in the abortion issue, no one has a negative position; as the language indicates, “my” side is pro-life or pro-choice. (Obviously the other side has a negative stance, being “anti-life” [pro-killing] or “anti-freedom” [pro-oppression].) Thus, “my” label is very important.

    “Homosexual” may be neutral, but it implies some kind of impersonal (uncaring) attitude toward living breathing sensitive people. Of course, anyone on the other side is “homophobic” and obviously has a problem, as the “phobic” suffix clearly insinuates (usually to the subconscious mind). Because homosexuality carries an historical association with deviant behavior, even a “neutral” use of the term implies something unpleasant, just as Negro or “colored” are not commonly used terms any more.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Michael wrote:

    That LCMS were considered “fundamentalists” by those who who applied the term—and trust me, in the ELCA, we often refer to LCMS as “fundamentalists”—and that it would ruffle so many feathers proves why terms like Negro and homosexual can also leave a bad impression.

    That makes no sense at all.

    You are weird. Also, you have just thrown together a series of words — Negro, homosexual, fundamentalist — instead of making, you know, an ARGUMENT.

    Anyway, for people who think the word heterosexual is never used, I thought this headline from today’s Independent was of interest:

    Threat of world Aids pandemic among heterosexuals is over, report admits

    Is there a problem with that word, too? Because I fail to see the problem.

  • Dave

    Mollie:

    I wrote a reply to your #16. Did you spike it? If so, why?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    I didn’t (it’s Terry’s post so I’m just commenting on it like any other reader) but I don’t see it in the Akismet Spam queue either. Perhaps there was a glitch? I had some problems with comments in the past few days — when I hit “submit comment” they would just disappear.

  • Chris Bolinger

    in the ELCA, we often refer to LCMS as “fundamentalists”

    Then it must be a very, very bad word. Having grown up in the ELCA, I can tell you that it would be a tremendous understatement to say that folks in the ELCA are not terribly fond of LCMS folks. When I finally met LCMS folks, I was somewhat surprised that their heads didn’t spin around and their eyes didn’t roll up into their heads. Maybe that only happens at Council meetings though.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Closing the comments on this one.

    The comments are going in circles.

    Use the AP Stylebook, folks.


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