Once more, into the breach …

notebook1This is a strange one and I know that. I wasn’t sure that I was going to post a link to this story — “Who says religion is boring?” — until the link went live at Romenesko’s virtual water cooler and I started hearing from friends, colleagues and even a critic or two.

However, it is an interview that covers all kinds of topics that we discuss all the time here at GetReligion.org, for obvious reasons. It’s an interview with a veteran Godbeat writer that digs into the whole question of why religion news gives mainstream journalists sweaty palms, to a degree that is unique among other pivotal news topics. We would certainly write about this Baltimore Sun interview if it focused on anyone other than, well, you know, me.

So once again, I am in that uncomfortable position of being on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. That raises an interesting question for the mainstream journalists who read this blog: Have you ever been put in this position? What did you learn from the experience?

It was very interesting spending time with Jonathan Pitts, the Sun feature writer who did this. He’s a generalist, but we quickly discovered we have all kinds of things in common when it comes to popular culture (the world is not full of people who know who the great Norman Blake is, let alone know all about this picker’s music) and even sports. He jammed a lot of info into this thing, getting a whole lot more right than the few minor things that he got wrong. I thank him for his efforts.

Some of you will spot some errors and, for me, I wish it had been possible to link the great journalism professor David McHam to his work at Baylor University — he was my mentor and the main reason I went into journalism — instead of to his recent teaching at the University of Houston.

Anyway, here’s the heart of the story and this is what I hope we can discuss in the comments pages. Yes, it’s the “Blind Spot” with two sides argument that means so much to me.

Speaking over burritos at a Mexican chain restaurant — a member of the Eastern Orthodox church, he vets his diet carefully, and the place lets you build your own — he says the media and religion have long been at odds, each viewing the other, at best, with a wary eye.

“Here you have these two powerful forces in American life, each protected by the First Amendment,” he says. “They don’t talk to each other. They don’t respect each other. Sometimes they don’t like each other. I live in both. And that has been my life.”

He’s one of a handful of people to have grown up in both camps, with an equal passion for both. The son of a father who was a Southern Baptist preacher and a mother who taught language arts, Mattingly grew up fascinated by writing, politics and the ways in which faith influences human behavior — including music, sports and the visual arts.

A voracious reader, he always wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

McHamOnce again, I believe it is crucial to realize that the blind spot does have two sides and Pitts got that into the report. The world is not full of traditional religious believers who love journalism and that is a big part of the problem.

Here’s the end of the feature:

… Mattingly sees more to be done. Take that huge, growing Pentecostalist movement in and around New York, largely uncovered in the media, that reflects how immigrants continue to change America. Or that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, sees himself as the “Twelfth Imam” — a fact that has apocalyptic implications, given that nation’s pursuit of the bomb. Or last week’s closing of Catholic High in Towson? “How come The Sun didn’t get into the demographics of that parish?” he asks.

Meanwhile, U2 is coming through Washington this summer, and Mattingly hopes to persuade Bono, with whom he’s still in occasional contact, to sit down and speak about faith with journalism students.

He turns to his computer, clicking on an article about Sunni Islam, a topic he says the media still hasn’t gotten right, even after covering a war it could have helped explain.

“And people say the religion beat is boring?” he says, shaking his head. “Dude, on what planet?”

Well, I am sure that I said that Ahmadinejad MAY believe that he is the Twelfth Imam and I think it would be great if Bono met at the National Press Club with student journalists — locking out the big media, this time around — to talk about a whole range of topics, not just his faith. And I am 99 percent sure that I didn’t use the word “dude” in connection with Shirley MacLaine. I actually don’t find her annoying, especially when it comes to her advocacy of improved religion-news coverage.

But, hey, that’s another story. Let’s talk about the First Amendment and that two-sided blind spot. Please.

Second image: David McHam, journalist.

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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.redletterbelievers.blogspot.com David

    And thus we have the crux of religion and the press. It takes Bono. He of questionable theology and grandiose ego is the one who can bring us all together.


  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    <I think him for his efforts.

    Oh Terry…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, FrGregACCA:

    Oh, Terry …

    What? I was being sincere with the compliment.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA


    “THINK him”????

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Ah come one. Old guys with carpel tunnel should get some grace.

    I’ll fix it.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA


    Grace is not in question. Copy editing is. I LOVE your posts. You’re my fave Getreligionista, fur shure, but the typos, the typos gotta go.

  • http://darleeneisms.la darleene

    Wish there were more reporters around as you, Terry. My husband (who once wanted to get on the religion beat, but ended up on the copy/design desk) and I also think there’s not enough religion coverage. You’d think newsrooms would be packed with journalists curious about these crazy happy people, but they mostly make fun of them. Its a sad time for journalism.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    We have no copy editors. What you see is what we can write in moments of grabbed time while we do other jobs; in my case, two other jobs. We appreciate readers who help us spot typos. We are happy to correct them. Typos happen. That is why mainstream newsrooms have professionals to edit. We do not have that luxury. I think our writing here is very clean, by blogosphere standards.

  • Jerry

    I’m not sure I’d rank bad coverage of religion on the top – bad coverage of science is also alive and very healthy. If someone covers both well, then they’re worthy of most high acclaim.

    I also happen to think that trying to understand what is going on in the world without a considering of religion and spirituality is like trying to study the functioning of the brain by examining the ‘headless horseman’.

    Iran, India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine are three examples that should be, as we used to say, “obvious to the meanest intelligence”.

    And then we have the US which is soaked in religion from it’s very beginning until today. I recently was learning a bit more about Abraham Lincoln, for example including such notable statements of his as the following classic:

    Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

  • Carl

    Doesn’t Ahmadinejad believe that the 12th Imam has been alive for hundreds of years and is being hidden by God until the final battle at the end of time? That means that Ahmadinejad might help bring about the return of the Imam, but I don’t think he could believe himself to be the Imam. The Imam knows who the Imam is. It’s not a reincarnation-type deal, where you wonder if you might be the next Dalai Lama or whatever.

  • Russ R

    I don’t mind a typo here and there, but if we’re going to get picky, what Shakespeare wrote was “Once more unto the breach.”

  • MichaelV

    Jerry, I’ve wished for a long time that someone would start a GetScience.org sort of project. Know of anything?

    I know this is silly but when I first encountered “a member of the Eastern Orthodox church, he vets his diet carefully, and the place lets you build your own” I did a doubletake and wondered if that was supposed to suggest Eastern Orthodox Christians have special dietary restrictions.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Well, the interview took place on a fasting day in the Eastern tradition. Thus, I was looking for a convenient place that would let me go vegetarian or better. The faith’s fasting traditions are a kind of “dietary restriction” for people who practice them.