While the unofficial state funeral of Tim Russert continues, the wall-to-wall media coverage has calmed down a bit. Frankly, I’m still in shock.
The wake drew very restrained coverage, as it should have. I expect major coverage after the private funeral and the public memorial service. The emphasis in recent coverage has been on the diverse nature of the political tributes, with little attention given to faith issues. But Russert was Russert, and Buffalo is still Buffalo. Here’s a piece of the Associated Press report by Stephen Ohlemacher:
(President) Bush, accompanied by the first lady, was one of the first people to enter the closed-casket wake, which was scheduled to last seven hours. The president stayed about 20 minutes while the growing crowd outside waited patiently on a pleasant, sunny day. The crowd was a mix of people in suits and dresses interspersed with a few wearing jeans and shorts — a wake for someone who had touched a wide variety of people. …
Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat whose district includes part of the Buffalo area, said the loss is keenly felt in Russert’s hometown. Slaughter said she was reminded of Russert’s popularity by the wide variety of people in line at the wake.
“There were some from Syracuse, there were nuns from Springfield, Ill., and they all came out and stood in the sun to pay their respects,” Slaughter said. “It was just remarkable.”
As I said, there have been tributes to Russert from the left and the right. People keep talking about the impact of his Buffalo roots. People keep talking about his tough questions and reputation — on both sides of the aisle — for being tough and fair. This is not something that conservatives usually say about journalists whose career began in the office suites of powerful Democrats.
Which brings us to an interesting passage in, yes, a Wall Street Journal op-ed column by former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg. It is, of course, a discussion of media bias based on themes Goldberg has sounded early and often in his books on this subject.
Not many surprises there and certainly few about religion news. That is, until you hit this interesting passage on a theme close to the heart of this here weblog:
Tim was a big proponent of diversity, but he wanted to go further than the usual stuff. “I am for having women in the newsroom and minorities in the newsroom — I’m all for it. It opens up our eyes and gives us different perspectives. But just as well, let’s have people with military experience; let’s have people from all walks of life, people from the top-echelon schools but also people from junior colleges and the so-called middling schools — that’s the pageantry of America. … You need cultural diversity, you need ideological diversity. You need it.”
Tim understood that without that kind of diversity, journalism would be in trouble. He knew it wasn’t good for journalism or America if almost all the people reporting the news lived and worked in the same bubble.
“There’s a potential cultural bias. And I think it’s very real and very important to recognize and to deal with,” he told me. “Because of backgrounds and training you come to issues with a preconceived notion or a preordained view on subjects like abortion, gun control, campaign finance. I think many journalists growing up in the ’60s and the ’70s have to be very careful about attitudes toward government, attitudes toward the military, attitudes toward authority. It doesn’t mean there’s a rightness or a wrongness. It means you have to constantly check yourself.”
“Why the closed-mindedness when the subject comes around to media bias?” I asked him.
“That, to me, is totally contrary to who we’re supposed to be as journalists. … If someone suggested there was an anti-black bias, an anti-gay bias, an anti-American bias, we’d sit up and say, ‘Let’s talk about this, let’s tackle it.’ Well, if there’s a liberal bias or a cultural bias we have to sit up and tackle it and discuss it. We have got to be open to these things.”
And all the journalists said, “Amen.” Maybe.
If those quotes do not work for you, consider these from that soul-searching memo not that long ago by New York Times editor Bill Keller. He was responding to a blue-ribbon self study — entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (text here) — that stressed that the newspaper of record needed to do a better job covering “unorthodox views” and the lives of those “more radical and more conservative” than most journalists.
There was more:
“We should increase our coverage of religion in America and focus on new ways to give it greater attention. … We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).”
The report noted that it might help if Times editors sought out some “talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths.” This echoed similar themes in a major study done by the Pew Forum on the People and the Press that focused on issues of journalism, class and values.
In light of all that, Keller wrote:
Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. …
I also endorse the committee’s recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. 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.
And you know what Russert would say to that: “Amen.”