Yes, we need the MSM shark

19sharkdm_468x591jpgOK, let’s talk about this.

Let’s pull this comment from the Dallas Morning News religion-beat funeral post right out front. It comes from long-time reader Chris and deserves open debate.

Terry, your premise is either that professional reporters only work for MSM publications or that the only religion coverage worth reading comes from MSM publications. Either way, I reject your premise. Feel free to ban me.

We readers are a bit more discerning than you believe us to be. MSM publications are failing for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost it is because they have forgotten to put the customer first.

To which I responded.

… You are right that there are professionals in the “non-mainstream.” But they work FOR the institutions and for advocacy groups, with very few exceptions. They write tons of fine stuff and I read tons of it. Always have always will. So we both know that.

But the mainstream is still about 80 percent of the info that most of the world knows. You don’t want a world in which Stewart yelling at Limbaugh is normal news, or where the only info you have about, oh, the Anglican war comes from the Episcopal News Service and the online Anglican blogosphere. You need Eric Gorski, whether you know it or not.

Professional reporters have salaries and some degree of independence. Laugh at that. But it matters.

I accept much or even most of your attacks on the mainstream. That’s why this blog exists — to criticize the bad and praise the good.

You are, however, losing sight of the basic structural reality of media and info.

Let’s switch subjects. The Illinois legislature. Nice, clean bunch of folks, right?

You think life in Illinois will be better with only 15 full-time, local-beat mainstream reporters covering the legislature, not 150. That’s your argument. That’s what you are saying.

Right? And don’t tell me about the media habits of 5 percent of highly motivated readers, such as yourself. Tell me about PUBLIC DISCOURSE in this nation as a whole. Get real.

We have been through these waters before and, in the current crisis, this debate really matters.

As I said in a post — fitting called “RIP: The religion beat? — last summer:

It takes real money to pay people to report and edit real information. Most of what happens in weblogs — like this one, frankly — is secondary writing and criticism. We are all like those little fish stuck on the flanks of big sharks. Someone has to fund the shark, which does the real hunting.

You may not like the shark. The shark makes me mad, plenty of times. But we need the shark.

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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://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    No we Don’t need the shark as long as it has become a shrill for one side or the other. The problem is that MSM has become 100 parts Stewart and 1 part Limbaugh without the laugh track. The shark can die. Its dead already. My guess is if a newspaper came along that tried, honestly tried, to be objective that it would become successful. People (in flyover country) have become tired of getting preached to. They have decided that if they are going to be preached at, they might as well go listen to a preacher from their own faith(s).

  • http://mikedelongsantafe.blogspot.com/ MDSF

    80%? 5%? 15? 150?

    Are you just pulling numbers out of thin air?

    And what does the Illinois legislature have to do with religion in America? In what way is this comparison apt?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MDSF:

    I am talking about the structure of an industry, in this case using the falling number of bureau reporters covering the Illinois legislature as a quick way to compare the side effects of the rapidly falling number of professionals who are covering hard news on the religion beat.

    Jettboy:

    Your comment about Stewart and Limbaugh is pure straw-man territory. No one is harder on the MSM than this blog and we are get tons of criticism that we are too negative.

    But we know there are PLENTY of fine professionals doing fine journalism today, journalism that is accurate and strives to be balanced in a hard economic time.

    You’re mad. OK. But you don’t want to live in a world without the Associated Press. Trust me. I know that oppressed minorities around the world don’t want to live in that world, a world in which there is no information infrastructure other than their state-run media.

  • Ben

    Time for a getjournalism blog terry.

  • Dave

    This doesn’t address Chris’s primary argument, which is that the MSM has failed to put the customer first.

    My wife and I sup with her mother every Saturday at the latter’s retirement community. A few weeks ago I heard a lady at the table behind us recount how she replied to an offer to subscribe to the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

    “I’m not interested in sports and I’m not in the market for a used car. What would I do with the Plain Dealer?”

    The PD has forgotten how to put the customer first.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    “No one is harder on the MSM than this blog”

    That, actually, is my point. I come here to see where the MSM is wrong or blatantly biased. If they weren’t than this place would have no purpose.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Sorry for the double post here, but I already think that we have a state-run media in the AP and most major United States newspapers. Perhaps I should say an enormously liberal Democrat run newspaper industry who is currently Obama’s propaganda machine. I already live in a world as an oppressed minority. You bet I am mad! Your sorry excuses aren’t going to make me go out and support those who are actively oppressing me and suppressing opinions I hold (or at least trivializing or mocking them if they are mentioned).

    Sorry bud, but the day when the MSM is finally dead is the day I will rejoice and call out “Free at Last!”

  • http://andalsowithyou.blogspot.com mephibosheth

    Terry, it seems like you’re beating a First Amendment drum over a Free-Market corpse. This is not a case of government inhibiting the press regarding religion or any other subject. It’s about economic realities. If you could demonstrate that religion beats are getting axed disproportionately to (a) other beats getting axed or (b) the interests of consumers, then you might have a point. You could quantify the first fairly accurately, not sure how you would measure the second. Or are you arguing that the fact that the Godbeat is getting axed at all is the ultimate case of the press not “getting religion”?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Thank you, Dave, for bringing Terry back to my point.

    Laugh at that. But it matters.

    Who’s laughing, Terry? What in my numerous comments has led you to believe that I am laughing at anyone?

    I accept much or even most of your attacks on the mainstream.

    I thought that I was pointing out that many media businesses have lost sight of basic principles of running a business, such as respect for the customer. Instead, I was launching “attacks”.

    You are, however, losing sight of the basic structural reality of media and info.

    Oh?

    You think life in Illinois will be better with only 15 full-time, local-beat mainstream reporters covering the legislature, not 150. That’s your argument. That’s what you are saying.

    Right?

    Um, what?

    And don’t tell me about the media habits of 5 percent of highly motivated readers, such as yourself. Tell me about PUBLIC DISCOURSE in this nation as a whole. Get real.

    I’m done commenting here, Terry. You can go yell at someone else, now.

  • dalea

    Having lived in Illinois for many years, all I can say is the legislature was covered much better by the amateurs at IVO/IPO/LEAP than by professional journalists.

  • Stoo

    So are people arguing that the MSM needs reforming, or disbanding, or what?

    I think it’s still pretty important even if it gets stuff wrong. Or, what, we rely on blogs and special-interest groups? Or religions reporting on themselves?

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Stoo, what people want is for the MSM to be disbanded so that it can be reformed from the bottom up. It needs to be concerned about REAL people rather than blathering talking heads.

    “we rely on blogs and special-interest groups? Or religions reporting on themselves?”

    I don’t understand the problem with that. This is especially if you can get information from those who are competing with each other to prove their points and report what is happening. From that the reader can decide what opinion or insight can be believed rather than have that already force fed by an all powerful interest group called the MSM. News needs to once again become local and personal. Above all it needs to become interactive and balanced.

  • http://mikedelongsantafe.blogspot.com/ MDSF

    the falling number of bureau reporters covering the Illinois legislature as a quick way to compare the side effects of the rapidly falling number of professionals who are covering hard news on the religion beat.

    Only if the real story is about the job security or lack thereof of newspaper journalists.

    If the Illinois legislature is corrupt then citizens are deprived of rights. If a mainline denomination has a schism then churchgoers just go to different churches. There’s really no comparison here.

    I would be inclined to agree with you if there were a doctrinal heterodoxy beat, or a misuse of funds beat, but there isn’t. There’s so little investigative journalism on the religion beat being done by professionals that on a typical day it’s hard to distinguish it from none whatsoever.

    Whatever happened to the Grassley Six? Are there any megachurches on the verge of bankruptcy, and if so why? When religious radio stations go on about the Fairness Doctrine are they just manufacturing fear, or is the Obama Administration really about to end religious media as we know it?

    These are interesting religion beat stories, and as far as I can tell nobody is doing them justice. I’m not even sure a fairly easy story like whether James Dobson declared the Culture War over and lost was covered sensibly by mainstream media.

  • Stoo

    How is the news not concerned with real people? What’s more real about your real people?

    And how well can “local and personal” services cover major world events? I don’t go pick up a local paper to learn about earthquakes in China.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Sorry Stoo, if you can’t understand what I just said than there isn’t much I can say to clear that up.

    “I don’t go pick up a local paper to learn about earthquakes in China.”

    Too bad. I know there are all kinds of concerns related to this, but it would be nice to pick up a story FROM China written by actual people (notice plural) IN China who were actually involved IN the earthquake. Now that would be great, up-close and personal, and (define how you want) written by REAL people. None of this filtered by a Journalist story, but real contributors.

  • FW Ken

    As it happens, the blogs I read link to professionally produced content much of the time. What happens if that source goes away? That’s an interesting question, but a little beside the point. Why is it going away?

    So are people arguing that the MSM needs reforming, or disbanding, or what?

    For my money (pun intended), let’s see some reform; isn’t that the point of this blog? I have no problem reading advocacy journalism, but the perception among folks like Jettbo and (often) myself, is that the MSM functions like advocacy media.

    The key is competition: I’ve said before (maybe here, maybe elsewhere) that 40 years ago, Dallas and Fort Worth each had two papers. Today, each has one, and they share some resources; in fact, the DMN is making a strong play for business in Fort Worth, the Star-Telegram is shrinking, and I won’t be surprised if we have one newspaper soon enough. As a non-journalist, but an educated (Master’s level) and experienced adult, I do fancy myself able to sort through sources (including purported first-hand accounts) and evaluate what I read. What scares me more than Stewart and Limbaugh yelling at each other is relying on one source of information, and that source dependent on advertising revenue.

    The MSM needs the competition to reform itself. Every source of information should be welcomed.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Jettboy:

    That’s OK. The state media in China will do a great job.

    Chris:

    Sorry to have yelled. Now please listen to the argument.

    You are arguing that we will have better information when we have waves of activist part-timers covering the world of news/religion than having a large pool of professionals.

    Ironically, left and right agree that when religion is covered by trained, veteran reporters, the quality goes way, way up. Is it perfect? No. Is it waaaaaayyyy better than reading only copy from PR flacks and activists? Yes.

    We need diversity, reform and professionalism. Not straw men. That’s my point.

  • Jerry

    We need a fourth estate that is independent to hold others to account. We can live without fluff pieces but without investigative journalism problems will fester and ruin institutions. Without an independent trusted source of news stories we’ll see one side expose things from the other while the other side yells that the first is biased. That happens now with what’s left of the reportorial media, but it will only be worse when we only have far the extremes yelling.

    To narrow it down a bit, there is a serious revolution going on in the religious landscape that cries out for in depth coverage and analysis.

    With newspapers dying and most of the broadcast media putting competition for eyeballs ahead of journalistic excellence, the current sources of good journalism are PBS/NPR, a few blogs and pockets of coverage in remaining papers and an occasional TV show.

    This is not a healthy situation. I don’t have any answers, but I sure see the problem.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    “That’s OK. The state media in China will do a great job.”

    I didn’t say anything about the Chinese government, although you do make my case by bringing them into the mix. I don’t see much of a difference as far as propaganda from them as I do any almost any other news source from the United States. If I did read a newspaper report from the state media in China, I doubt it would be any different than the AP.

  • dalea

    tmatt says:

    Ironically, left and right agree that when religion is covered by trained, veteran reporters, the quality goes way, way up. Is it perfect? No. Is it waaaaaayyyy better than reading only copy from PR flacks and activists? Yes.

    Let me go out on a limb here: as someone on the ‘left’ familiar with coverage by ‘trained, veteran reporters’ I don’t see quality at all. Rather I experience an ideological effort to present religion in America as always conforming to LeaveItToBeaverLand expectations. They do not cover ‘religion’; instead they cover Christianity with rare excursions into exotic Judiaism and Islam. I have never seen an inteligient article on my religion, Wicca, from any of these ‘trained, veteran reporters’. The situation with Buddhism, Hinduism and Shinto is no better. Given that even the Roman Catholics here complain about coverage, it is clear that the ‘trained, veteran reporters’ are not meeting expectations.

    What they usually traffic in is sentimental slop about holidays. There rarely is an article about Orthodox Christians that does not center on egg decoration. Passover coverage is dominated by culinary considerations.

    So, I disagree with tmatt’s statement.

  • John Meunier

    The world will not end when newspapers die, but there will be less of substance to talk about.

    The simple facts are true. Most of the “news” that radio, TV, and the blogosphere chew on and discuss comes from newspaper reporters. It is actually expensive to gather news. It was only sustainable when newspapers had a large and steady supply of advertising to support what was basically a cost-center – a newsroom.

    That is dying and will not come back.

    The world will not implode, but it will have more heat and less light.

  • Dave

    Jettboy wrote:

    If I did read a newspaper report from the state media in China, I doubt it would be any different than the AP.

    Until the state media decided that the Beijing gov’t can’t control the local corruption that made all the schools so shoddily constructed that most of the earthquake victims were children in class, and stopped covering that aspect of the story (as well as going after parents who post on the Web about it). You’d see a real difference between state media and the AP at that point.

  • will47

    When I belonged to Episcopal churches in 2003-2006, my major news source for what was going on in the greater church was probably The Washington Post. Sites like TitusOneNine are great for analysis, and certainly superior for stuff like what goes on day-to-day at a convention, but they can’t replace the wider view from objective reporters. Moreover, you really have to seek that stuff out. There are still over half a million people reading the Post in print, not to mention its web coverage. Even when the MSM is biased in its coverage, it often highlights issues that are better off being raised to the general population.

  • Susan

    My mother was a journalist, so I have a lot of sympathy for the pressures and constraints under which journalists labor.

    However, the argument that we will miss the fine investigative work of journalists when it is gone is a bit of a “straw man.”

    Journalists rarely do carefully researched articles on important topics or even the splashier investigative pieces. Much of the reason has to do with the economics of the news room … no money to pay for time or expertise.

    Equally, there is little appetite for serious reading on the part of most of our citizens. And why should they take the effort? They have been informed that all opinions have value which has been translated to all opinions have equal value. So why go looking for facts; feelings are enough.

  • JRC

    I liked Tmatt’s posting for two reasons. First, I the capacity he has shown for ambivalence therein — sometimes our treatment of the MSM is overly simplistic. He also happens to be correct. While I similarly bemoan the dearth of objective journalism, I have to agree that it is a must that there be a population of professional journalists with the freedom to run around and root out corruption at all times. We do not like the “MSM”, but we need people to do these jobs.

    I dislike the way religion is covered as much as the next reader of this blog, and I’m just as focused on culture war issues if not more so (and to an extent that might be negatively impacting my temperament). But there are problems that we don’t have to deal with and freedoms that we do get to take for granted, which require the existence of a free and active press. Who’s going to break stories about corruption in politics and business if not the folks who are losing their jobs at these papers? This is not a rhetorical question — if anyone else can see how this might work in the absence of paper news or a MSM, I’d be very interested to hear about your theory.

    So while my visceral response to the death of the Boston Globe will be rejoicing — the institution is, among other things, a propaganda tower for my culture war enemies — I will have to grudgingly admit that in its absence more bad people will be getting away with bad things. And that will be bad.

  • ceemac

    I have lived in Dallas for over 15 years.

    I always thought the DMN religion section was pretty good. I miss it along with the tech and science sections.

    But it is intersting that advertisers were not intersted in the religion section. I took that statement to mean that advertisers other than religious groups were not intersted in buying space.

    There must be a story there. Why weren’t companies that were spending big $$ advertising in other sections of the paper in say 1999 (to pick a year when the paer was “healthy”) interested in buying space in the religion section? I would assume that the advertisers were not convinced that the demographics of the religion readership did not work for the folks buying ads.

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana

    RJC:

    Shame on you. If the Globe goes under, hundreds of people will be out of work in major recession, and their families will suffer for it.

    Shame on you too for a being a coward who wants to silence people you disagree with.

    Our job in the MSM is to hold a mirror. Sometimes the reflection is ugly, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it shows people we hate in a good light. Better than that the airbushed hagiography’s that PR departments put out or the demonizing propoganda of culture warrior.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, Jettboy comment deleted for trying to argue that every MSM reporter is stupid, evil and bad at their jobs.

    Yes, all of them.

    He had to be joking, but I deleted it anyway — since that would include me, MZ, Ari, Daniel, you get the picture.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com Joe Perez

    Terry Mattingly,

    You wrote, in part of an ongoing dialogue on the future of the religion beat in the mainstream media:

    Professional reporters have salaries and some degree of independence. Laugh at that. But it matters….You are, however, losing sight of the basic structural reality of media and info.Let’s switch subjects. The Illinois legislature. Nice, clean bunch of folks, right?You think life in Illinois will be better with only 15 full-time, local-beat mainstream reporters covering the legislature, not 150. That’s your argument. That’s what you are saying.Right? And don’t tell me about the media habits of 5 percent of highly motivated readers, such as yourself. Tell me about PUBLIC DISCOURSE in this nation as a whole. Get real.

    Your argument, the main one at least, is that journalism is important and valuable because of its investigation function. Journalists help to uncover government corruption, right? So there should be journalists on the government beat in order to provide a “check and balance” on government, which left on its own is susceptible to corruption, right? I think that’s a very reasonable and powerful argument. But …

    It seems that the logical analog to your point about journalists on the government beat is to argue that journalists on the religion beat are needed to uncover abuses of religious authority (for example, by exposing the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, the shenanigans of televangelists, exploitative cults, or new age gurus who sell snake oil). I think THAT is a very reasonable and powerful argument as well. Too bad you didn’t make it, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

    Laying my own cards on the table, I’m an outsider to journalism, but with the experience of an independent writer who is one of those 5 percent of “highly motivated readers”. It seems quite apparent that the booming of digital media has fatally undermined the business models of all but the healthiest of traditional media, and the newspaper and magazine industry is going to continue to exist as only a ghost of its former strength. It seems we all are coming to an agreement that if journalism is to survive then it’s going to have to rely on new economic models. My guess is that the most likely scenario is nonprofit models supported by a combination of public-private partnerships and wholly private philanthropic foundations. Except for those institutions that will be essentially outreach and PR arms of religious institutions, it seems reasonable to predict that the new institutions will likely focus on investigative stories. With limited resources available, funders are going to want the most bang for their buck. That will probably mean more coverage of scandals and exposes and fewer stories about interdenominational doctrinal differences. I’m not saying that news outlets will ignore breaking news, but certainly they will face pressure to be ever vigilant watchdogs.

    Although varieties of religious journalism of many different kinds will certainly continue to exist, I suspect that if the religion beat survives in paid journalism, it will be at least partially state funded, for better or for worse. I would not be at all surprised to find checkboxes on tax forms asking taxpayers if they want $1 to be deposited into a fund for journalism. That’s a subject worth thinking about deeply, and beginning to work through the possible implications. Furthermore, as the religion beat evolves, its mission will very likely be different from how it looks today. Rather than being agents of disseminating what is tantamount to pro-religion civic discourse (as GetReligion has long advocated), instead it could very well find itself tasked with the mission of being the chief public critic of misuses of religious authority.

    I think these changes are not necessarily for the better or for the worse, but they are definitely worth discussing. My prediction is that the sort of journalism you advocate — long on stories respectful of religious differences but frequently snarky towards the secular, keenly interested in doctrinal matters, eager for long expositions of religionists’ self-reported reasons for their beliefs rather than psychocultural or sociological explanations, etc. — will increasingly be funded by groups with a vested interested in seeing forms of religiosity dependent on such stories to survive (that is, lots of mainstream churches). Those of us who are less interested in boosting up the very religious institutions that we don’t think should be boosted up will be more eager to fund organizations that will provide analysis and investigation from critical angles. Government’s role in funding religious journalism, I think, will be much debated.

  • JRC

    Bob S.,

    You misunderstand me. I don’t want to silence the opposition — I want to be heard! I think conservative thinkers who are come on here to express their frustration with the MSM would be very happy if next to every gushing editorial about how Obama’s latest achievement in foreign affairs there was an editorial singing the praises of the GOP leadership for one of its achievements, while the rest of the paper remained neutral. If the we can speak and they can speak, then all is well. But when I look at the front page of the Globe, I am often reminded that this is not how it is.

    Our job in the MSM is to hold a mirror.

    If the Globe goes out of business, it will be in part because it does this too poorly in the respects that we are discussing. There are, of course, other reasons, some of them related to money matters of which I know little. But this is certainly one of them, and we wouldn’t be reading this blog if it wasn’t.

    When that happens, I will be pleased that a publication that very often excludes my perspective can no longer exercise its powerful (and, as I believe, harmful) influence over its readership, and I will be concerned for the state of a democracy that has less salaried, full-time reporters. I will be, in a word, ambivalent.

    There’s nothing shameful about that.

  • dalea

    Question: did religious beat reporters expose the RC child abuse scandal or was it from another group of journalists? Have religious beat journalists played a major role in uncovering other scams and scandals in religion? I really don’t know and would appreciate information.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    dalea:

    Mainstream reporters have broken many, many such scandels. In religion, I would say most of them.

    By the way, I would say that a WATCHDOG role is a better way of stating the relationship between the press and GOV’T and other huge institutions. But that is only part of what the basic news industry does.

  • Susan

    #31 Dalea, I am not sure where the first reports orginated but the National Catholic Reporter had some of the earliest and best reporting and it continues on. John Allen is known for his reporting on this subject.

  • Susan

    I did a little research and Jason Berry was the first reporter to expose this scandal. He wrote for The Times of Acadiana in Louisiana and his first stories were in the mid-1980s … winning the Catholic Press Award. I am not positive, but I believe that he is or was Catholic, and he continues to write for Catholic publications.

    Oddly enough in 2002, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a study of sexual abuse in the American public school systems and Carol Shakeshaft (Hofstra University) reported that “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”

    Although there is reporting on the occasional individual case of molestation by teachers, I cannot find an investigative report on this topic. There was almost no reaction to the Shakeshaft’s report by journalists.

  • FW Ken

    I can’t find news reports on the web, but back in the 90s, a scandal involving the pastor of the Cathedral was broken by the diocesan paper, then picked up by the Star-Telegram.

    Our job in the MSM is to hold a mirror.

    Absolutely. The discussion is how accurate the reflection might be.

    Valid or not, many of us perceive that the New York Times reflects the viewpoints of a limited segment of society. When it considers other segments, it holds up a mirror shaped (warped) by it’s own way of seeing things. Now, all newspapers, like all persons, do that very thing. Total objectivity is neither possible nor (I think) desirable. Professional integrity, howeverm demands we honestly examine our own preconceptions and prejudices. Of course, some journalists do that well.

  • dalea

    Thanks for the input. I realized that while I knew about the scandals, I did not know just what sort of reporter brought them up. The subject has been covered in the GL press for as long as I can remember, but never made it into more general media.

    One thing about the press coverage that stands out is the statistical illiteracy of the press. There appear to be a large number of RC abuse cases only because we ignore the fact that there are a large number of Roman Catholics. There is a meaningful distinction between absolute number and incidence which I have never seen in any press report.

  • FW Ken

    Thank you, dalea.

    Something between 2% and 4% of Catholics priests who served over the past 50 years have offended. What’s interesting is that we don’t have hard numbers with which to compare that number. It’s said to be to men who work with children in other capacities (probably lower than in the public schools), but how often do you see that reported?


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