In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell criticized modern writers for all manners of sins, not the least of which were a lack of detail and specificity. He cited a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong …” Then he translated it in modern English: “Objective consideration of temporary phenomena compels the conclusion …”
Though written more than 60 years ago, Orwell’s passage is still relevant today. Take the major print coverage of Barack Obama’s faith-based announcement yesterday.
Most of the stories focused on the right topic: the program’s hiring and firing provisions. But their descriptions were almost as general and opaque as Orwell’s second passage.
The New York Times, as Daniel noted, gave readers the most information about Obama’s plan. Yet reporters Jeff Zeleny and Michael Luo described the controversial provision in only the haziest of terms:
Mr. Obama’s plan pointedly departed from the Bush administration’s stance on one fundamental issue: whether religious organizations that get federal money for social services can take faith into account in their hiring. Mr. Bush has said yes. Mr. Obama said no.
“If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion,” Mr. Obama said. “Federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”
So, too, did Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press:
Obama’s support for letting religious charities that receive federal funding consider religion in employment decisions was likely to invite a storm of protest from those who view such faith requirements as discrimination.
Only Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post filled readers in on the details, if partially:
Those aides said an Obama administration would get tough on groups that discriminate in hiring practices and doling out assistance. The groups would have to abide by federal hiring laws that reject discrimination based on race, sex and religion. Obama said he supports federal legislation that would extend those protections to gay people as well, a flash point with some religious organizations that say hiring or assisting gays would run counter to their beliefs.
Except for Weisman’s passage, those of the NYTimes and AP, as well as The Politico, were vague. An otherwise informed reader would wonder what’s the fuss all about. Little would the reader know that Obama’s plan is a big deal: An orthodox Jewish group would have to consider hiring gay Catholics, while a liberal Lutheran organization would need to consider bringing on board conservative Muslims.
In other words, while religious groups can receive federal funds to help the needy, they cannot do so to pick their own co-religionists. Was this not the policy in place before President Bush? If so, the reporters mischaracterized Obama’s plan as an expansion of Bush’s program. In fact, Obama’s plan would all but rescind it.
Another major deficiency in the coverage is a lack of specificity about how Obama would prevent religious groups from discriminating against employees. Does he propose adding an office to the Justice Department?
These stories suggest that God is indeed in the details. They also suggest that You Know What exists in their absence.